X Marks The Spot

I knew when I chose a travel theme for the A to Z Challenge that ‘X’ would be a tough one. There are plenty of Asian destinations that begin with X, but to tell the truth: I’ve never been remotely interested in visiting Asia. So those are all out.

This challenge has been a lot of fun, not only because it’s forced me to do some real research on the places that I’ve always wanted to visit, but also because there are other bloggers out there who’ve chosen similar themes. That means they’ve done the research for me, and my list has grown!

If I were to create a map of my top travel destinations at this very moment, it might look like this:

I know it’s hard to make it out exactly, but my intentions with those X’s were:

This list might be different if you were to ask me again in a week, or even ten minutes. (I’m actually really surprised that Rome isn’t on there…) But for now, this is what I’m thinking! Does it seem realistic to accomplish within the next two years? Five years? Six months? (I wish!)

To anybody else: What’s on your list right this moment?

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Universal Orlando: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Today’s A to Z post brings us to the letter U. I’ve been looking forward to this one for the whole alphabet.

Um, duh! Universal Orlando: the real most magical place on earth!!

Seriously…whoever designed this theme park was a GENIUS. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is every bookworm’s dream come true. All the reviews say that it’s the best recreation of the books out there.

Where else could I possibly see the magical inside of Hogwarts and stroll the streets of Hogsmeade? I could buy chocolate frogs in Honeydukes, some school robes in Dervish and Banges, try out wands at Ollivanders, and then send a letter from The Owl Post and finish off by drinking some butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks…

All while being surrounded by other awesome Harry Potter fans? When can I visit??

I’m nerding out. I want to go to Florida! (But only as my pathway to England…)

Has anyone been to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Was it freaking awesome?

Purchasing My First Home

You know what? I’ve decided to switch up my approach to the A to Z Challenge. I initially chose a travel theme, and was excited to write a post a day about the many wonderful places I’d like to visit sometime during my life.

But then I got bored with it. And I realized that if I don’t even look forward to writing those posts each day, it’s no surprise that no one else has been reading them. I decided to participate in this challenge because I wanted to expand my readership (and by that, I mean that I wanted at least one human being who isn’t me to read one of my posts each day). To some extent, I’ve been successful. But according to my site stats, the first week of this challenge (when everyone was excited and was visiting other blogs and leaving comments) was by far my best-ever week for traffic. But it’s dropped off significantly since then.

I’ve written a handful of non-travel-related posts since the A to Z Challenge began, and I like those better, because they’re truer to what I want my blog to be about. (I’m still new to this whole blogging thing, but I don’t aspire only to write about travel, as travel isn’t the only thing I do.)

So I’ve decided to try something different. I don’t know what I’ll be posting about for the remaining 10 days of the challenge, and that’s okay with me right now. (As far as I can tell, there’s no rule about changing your theme. The point is just to write every day, right?)

For today, however, I’m writing about purchasing my first house. Having my own house has been my #1 life goal since I was, oh…about 5 years old? I wanted to be an architect from the time I could draw. I used to dream about houses and wake up and draw the floorplans and sketch the elevations before they vanished from my mind. I was the kid who watched This Old House, TLC’s Trading Spaces, and HGTV in favor of cartoons or MTV. HGTV is still my go-to network. As I grew up, my focus changed from architecture to interior design, and not majoring in one of the two is one of my biggest regrets.

Since graduating from college and grad school, my biggest focus has been on paying down my student loan debt and ferreting away all the money I can save for a down payment. I check the local MLS for new listings daily, and I’ve kept a finger on the pulse of the market for years. (My mom and grandma were both Realtors, so looking at and talking about houses has been part of my life forever.)

I started talking with a Realtor and a few lenders last summer, and got an idea of what I would be pre-approved for. That helped make my searching more realistic. A year later, the money I’ve saved for my down payment has more than doubled and interest rates have continued to be low, and as a result I can now afford a house that’s nearly $100,000 more expensive.

I looked at a few houses last summer, and I’ve gone to look at a few here and there through the last 6 months or so. But I finally feel like I’m really ready (financially and emotionally) to step it up and buy one. So I’m going to look at two houses today!

I look forward to being able to blog about the home-buying process more during the upcoming months! (It’s something I wanted my blog to be about from the very beginning, anyway…)

Oslo

The A to Z Challenge is more than halfway over and I didn’t even notice!

I’d really like to visit a Nordic country (or several). I guess that’s obvious, since I already posted about Iceland. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway or Sweden…I wouldn’t turn down a free trip to any of them! But since today’s letter is O, Oslo comes out on top.

Oslo is Norway’s capital city. It has been called the most environmentally-friendly international city. (In 2007 Reader’s Digest ranked Oslo as number two on a list of the world’s greenest, most liveable cities.) It’s also one of the world’s most expensive cities. Hm…

Their language is super bizarre, but awesome-looking. I don’t know what anything means, and I wouldn’t be able to read any signs or find my way around. (That’s kind of what it was like in Athens, although at least I knew the Greek alphabet, which helped.)

I don’t know anything about Nordic history or culture. I’d like to do some research before embarking on this trip.

Highlights of Oslo:

  • island hopping in the Oslo Fjord
  • the Norwegian Nobel Institute and the Nobel Peace Center
  • the Oslo Opera House
  • the Botanisk Hage, a botanical garden (with a Scent Garden designed especially for the blind, mentally handicapped and wheelchair-bound — so cool!)
  • Vigelandsparken, a sculpture park that contains the life work of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland (1869-1943) with more than 200 sculptures in bronze, granite and cast iron
  • Vikingskipshuset, the Viking Ship Museum
  • + lots of other museums

Best time to visit: March to August, according to Google

Current cost of a plane ticket from Charlottesville (CHO) to Oslo (OSL): $945.66 with taxes

For those of you who have visited, what are the highlights of Oslo? Any must-sees? Any tips on learning the language? Recommendations on hotels, restaurants, museums, events? (Or do you prefer a different location that begins with O?)

Nashville

You know what? I changed my mind. I wasn’t going to write an A to Z post for the letter N after the bombings at the Boston Marathon yesterday. But the thought of starting this challenge and not finishing it nagged at me.

Let’s go to Music City!

I don’t know what it is about Nashville that appeals to me (I don’t usually like stereotypically “Southern” things, and I’m not the world’s biggest fan of country music), but the thought of this huge, bustling Southern city draws me in.

Highlights:

Best time to visit: April to October, according to Google

Current cost of a plane ticket from Charlottesville (CHO) to Nashville (BNA): $483.10 with taxes (or I could make it an 8-hour road trip!)

For those of you who have visited, what were the highlights of Nashville? Any must-sees? Where’s the best place to hear some live music? Recommendations on hotels, restaurants, museums, events? (Or do you prefer a different location that begins with N?)

London

I’ve now made it to the second Saturday of the A to Z Challenge! Two weeks down; two and a third to go!

[Side note: I’ve set this post to publish at 8am, at which time I’ll be in Richmond gearing up for the Ukrop’s 10k! My wave starts at 9:20, and I’ll be back later this weekend with a recap. (Hopefully with photos, this year!)]

Without any futher ado, today’s destination is jolly ol’ London!

I studied abroad in Riva San Vitale, Switzerland, and both my arrival and departure flights were through Heathrow. Unfortunately, the airport is all I’ve seen of London or England.

London is probably my current #1 choice for international travel destinations. I’d love to see the rest of the country as well, but even if I only made it to England’s capital city, I think I’d be just fine! (I work on a team with three British blokes, so I’ve been brushing up on my accent. If nothing else, at least I can understand it! Also: it now occurs to me that those guys are probably the reason that London is so often on my mind.)

England, of course, is the home of two very important cultural phenomena: Harry Potter and the Spice Girls. As a product of the 90’s, each had significant impacts on my personal development. And each is awesome. I’d love to pose at Platform 9-3/4 at King’s Cross Station, as well as take a ride on one of the iconic red double-decker tour buses that I remember seeing all over the city in SpiceWorld.

Aside from those things, my London itinerary also includes:

  • Big Ben
  • the Tower Bridge
  • London Bridge
  • the London Eye
  • Westminster Abbey
  • Buckingham Palace
  • the Globe Theater (or should I say ‘Theatre’?) (to my fellow English majors: holla!)
  • the houses of Parliament
  • the London Zoo
  • Baker Street (home of Sherlock Holmes), Abbey Road (made famous by The Beatles), Fleet Street (home of Sweeney Todd), Cheapside (home of William Thatcher, in A Knight’s Tale)
  • spotting a royal family member

Current cost of a plane ticket from Charlottesville (CHO) to London Heathrow (LHR): $932.68 with taxes.

I’m pretty sure I’m going to start planning NOW.

For those of you who have been, what were the highlights of London? Any recommendations on attractions, hotels, restaurants, museums, events? (Or do you prefer a different destination that begins with L?)

Georgia Aquarium

I’m kicking off week 2 of the A to Z Challenge with a location that’s actually on my travel to-do list in the next few months!

The Georgia Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the world. Period. At least once a week for several months now, I’ve been asking P “when are we going to Atlanta?!” I’ve set up alerts with Airfare Watchdog for flight alerts from Charlottesville to Atlanta, as well as Richmond to Atlanta. We’re going to get there… and soon! (Until then, you can find me Google-image-searching “Georgia Aquarium” and staring giddily at all the pictures.)

The Georgia Aquarium houses approximately 120,000 animals in over 8 million gallons of water. It’s the only non-Asian aquarium in the world with whale sharks. (The aquarium was designed around the 6.3-million gallon Ocean Voyager whale shark exhibit!)

I’m prepared to arrive when they open and stay until close. I could sit there and stare at the animals for days.

Other exhibits include:

  • the Georgia-Pacific Cold Water Quest, with Beluga whales, penguins, southern sea otters, and touch pools
  • the Southern Company River Scout, with Piranha, Asian small-clawed otters and American alligators
  • Tropical Diver presented by Southwest, with living corals, thousands of colorful reef fish, and beautiful jellyfish
  • SunTrust Georgia Explorer, which features the loggerhead sea turtle, lionfish, and several touchpools–all residents of the state of Georgia
  • AT&T Dolphin Tales, which is a dolphin performance (as were most children in the mid-90’s, I was obsessed with dolphins through most of elementary school, and wanted nothing more than to be a dolphin trainer when I grew up.)

In searching around on their website, I also discovered that the aquarium offers adult sleepovers… This just keeps getting better and better!

Has anyone been to the Georgia Aquarium? Any other superfans of marine life out there?