Hello, 2020! A decade of Explore Up Close, in review

As this year comes to a close, we're reflecting on our favorite memories from 2019 . . . and from the past decade.  It's been a big year for our small family company, and we couldn't be more excited as we look ahead to 2020!

Here's 2019, by the numbers . . .

10 countries visited:
Austria, Canada, Chile, Denmark, France, Ireland, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland, Spain
11 states explored:
Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Maine, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia
25 small group trips
183 curious travelers 

Over the past decade . . .

In 2009, Explore Up Close was celebrating 5 years in business. Our small team was even smaller - founder Chumley Cope ran every aspect of the company - and led each and every trip - by himself!  Over the past 10 years, we are proud to have grown to a team of three full-time employees. And, we've been very fortunate to work with a host of incredible guides and great minds along the way.
We've also widened our travel repertoire since 2009.  Today, in addition to our small group tours, we proudly organize and guide trips for family and friend groups, churches, special interest groups, and more. For the friends who dream of hiking through the Scottish Borders, for a family's summer adventure to the Pacific Northwest, or for a church choir group discovering the Reformation and music history in Germany . . . organizing custom group travel has become one of our favorite ventures yet.
Most of all, we're grateful to have the opportunity to do what we love! To each person who has opened our emails, shared our name with a friend, or joined us for a small group adventure over these past 10 years: thank you for sharing this journey with us. Here's to the special places and stories waiting in 2020!

Posted on December 31st in Small Group

The Explorer's Holiday Gift Guide 2020

They say that the best presents don't have bows or wrappings . . . and we couldn't agree more.  Why not give the gift of a one-of-a-kind travel experience this holiday season? It's a gift that will create shared memories together for years to come.
How to choose? Well, we've got something for everyone . . . all featuring our signature small group size, boutique lodging, and thoughtful exploration of beautiful places that stray from the beaten path.
Happy travels!
The Explorer's 2020 Holiday Gift Guide
For the Foodie:
Savor the flavors of modern Southern and Gullah cuisine; or sample world-class local wines, cheeses, and Mediterranean specialties from truffles to tapenades in France and Italy. 
For the Artist’s Soul:
Whether you're drawn to the masterful storytelling of Southern authors like Flannery O'Connor and Pat Conroy, or to avant-garde painters like Gustav Klimt or Vincent van Gogh . . . discover the places that inspired some of the world's greatest creators. 
For the Outdoors Adventurer:
Choose your own adventure: springtime in the nearby Appalachians, small group exploration of America's National Parks, or safari in stunning Southern Africa . . . 
For the History Buff:
Fascinating stories and special site visits, on location: 
For the Sun-Seeker:
Where the hospitality is even warmer than the climate: 
For the Ends-of-the-Earth Voyager:
Our favorite far-flung places, for the ultimate small group adventure: 

Posted on December 21st in Small Group

The Small Joys of Travel: Bielefeld, Germany

Finding home in Germany, through the sharp eyes of Explore Up Close intern, Olivia Reichwald!

Bielefeld, Germany is a second home for me; I have spent entire summers there with my family and have watched little things in the city change over the years - things that only a local would notice. Bielefeld is one of the largest cities in Germany, despite its relative anonymity, but seems small due to its lack of skyscrapers. In fact, there is even a conspiracy theory that Bielefeld does not exist, once alluded to by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel! 

One of the fun things about returning to the same home-away-from-home so frequently is that I am able to revisit to my favorite spots while also discovering new hidden gems. Every time I visit, I make sure to go to the nearby Tierpark (zoo) and spend a few hours meandering through the wooded landscape watching bears, reindeer, and an enormous collection of birds. All of the animals are meant to represent local species, and visitors can interact with the habitats: you can hand-feed deer, walk on a bridge over the wolves, and even enter into the goats’ enclosure (my personal favorite). Memories of playing with the goats are some of the best memories I have of going to Germany as a young child, and the goats are always a source of comfort for me: I know that they will always be there when I return. 


Not far from the Tierpark is the Sparrenburg—an old castle-turned-fortress, dating back to the medieval period. As a child, I visited this site for a Renaissance festival, during which the locals celebrated the history of their town and its origins. Over the years, I’ve seen several new excavations expand the site and enhance its history. I learn more about the fortress each time, while enjoying panoramic views of Bielefeld just below.  


Even seemingly mundane places take on a new shine when they are so deeply rooted in memories. For example, visiting the grocery store is another must-do when I visit Bielefeld. The chocolate aisle - or should I say aisles - has some of the best chocolate (if you believe that Germany chocolate is the best, like I do) for much cheaper prices than in any other country. Consequently, we stock up for the next year. The meat and cheese sections are also beyond ordinary. Germans eat Abendbrot most days, which translates to “evening bread.” They eat their warm, heavy meal at midday and have a light meal in the evening - Abendbrot. Typically, there will be assortments of breads, meats, cheeses, and vegetables for people to create their own open-faced sandwiches. Therefore, Germans care deeply about good quality cheeses and meats…and also bread. Some of my favorite memories in Germany are at the dinner table enjoying Abendbrot together with my German family. 

Downtown Bielefeld is the backdrop to many of my childhood afternoons in Germany. It’s just a short walk away from where my family stays, and I can begin to smell the sweet scents of breads and pastry (mixed with a hint of cigarette smoke) as soon as I enter onto the cobblestone streets. The downtown is divided into two sections: the newer section which contains popular clothing stores, department stores, and other major brand-name shops; and the “Altstadt” (old city) which houses boutiques, the best gelaterias, and old buildings that have been standing for generations. After a day of visiting our favorite stores, my sister and I always find our way to one particular gelateria and walk back with a fresh cone of gelato in our hands. If there’s anything that I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that the small joys are always the most memorable.    




Text and photos by Olivia Reichwald


Posted on August 1st in International Travel

Summer Adventure in the Bavarian Alps

A glimpse into summer in the Bavarian Alps, through the sharp eyes of Explore Up Close intern, Olivia Reichwald!


The Alps host some of the most scenic views in all of Europe and are known for their towering snow-covered peaks. Although the Alps are most commonly accessed through Switzerland or Austria, I had the pleasure of enjoying the Alps from a quaint town in Bavaria, the southernmost region of Germany. The town of Jachenau is a prime tourist destination during ski season due to its proximity to the Alps, but it offers a unique look into the day-to-day German lifestyle during the summer months.



Upon arriving in Jachenau, I was immediately captivated by the rolling hills of green pastures and farms, and the crisp air was certainly a nice break from the humidity of South Carolina. The house where we stayed was situated in a small neighborhood backed by sheep pastures, in which we were able to watch farmers herd the sheep every morning and evening. The town itself has only one grocery store and one restaurant, allowing us to truly immerse ourselves in Bavarian village culture.


On our first full day in Jachenau, we went on an eight-mile hike up one of the nearby mountains. Although the locals rated the hike as “super easy,” it proved to be quite strenuous as we hiked continuously uphill until we reached the peak. However, the challenge was worth the view. As we began to near the top, we turned around and saw an incredible panoramic scene of crystal clear lakes nestled between majestic alpine hills. From the top, the Alps would have been visible had it not been a foggy day, but the view of the surrounding lakes was absolutely breathtaking. The Walchensee, the alpine lake situated next to Jachenau, has a turquoise hue that rivals the waters of the Caribbean and is surrounded by snowy hills and forests. AHgFSRPYaD0eVrZyvELBTd9G2calUwJzDjuCHj5O


My father, who was on the trip with us and was born and raised in northern Germany, reminisced on his boyhood years of camping with his family by the Walchensee; these anecdotes made the experience especially meaningful for us. The view, however, was only one of the most rewarding parts of the hike. Just below the peak of the mountain sat a small restaurant frequented only by hikers or nearby loggers. The restaurant seemed to be the dining room of a woman’s house as it only held two large tables and lots of outdoor seating. The limited menu held only variations of meat and cheese boards and soup, but it was warm and homemade, which is exactly what we needed after the steep climb.




After a couple days of exploring Jachenau, we spent a day in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a popular destination for skiers from around the world. At the edge of town sits the Zugspitze, the tallest alpine mountain in Germany. It can be hiked up, or viewed by ascending in a cable car. Still sore from the hike the day before, we opted for the cable car. Once we boarded the suspended metal lift, we launched toward the mountain in our ascent. During the five-minute trip, the landscape around us quickly transformed from lush forest into beautiful contrasts of alpine rock and glistening snow. We could see the Austrian Alps in the distance, and the Zugspitze was magnificently situated in the forefront. 



The next day, we drove north through Germany to visit family in Bielefeld, near Hamburg, and I was amazed by the variety of scenery that we saw, as we left behind the quiet alpine landscapes for the lush rolling hills of central Germany.


Text and photos by Olivia Reichwald


Posted on July 23rd in Active and Adventure Travel | International Travel

Celebrating Black History in South Carolina

In honor of Black History Month, we thought we'd share some stories uncovered during our travels about the inspirational African-Americans who are part of the fabric of our local history in the South Carolina Upstate.

Did you know that Spartanburg was the training ground for the first American soldiers who served in World War I?  In 1917, the 15th New York Infantry, an all-black regiment under the command of primarily white officers, was sent to Jim Crow-era Spartanburg for training at Camp Wadsworth. The men were greeted with fierce racial tension in the local community, which ultimately led to them being shipped out of Spartanburg after just two short weeks of training. As the first American soldiers to arrive in a devastated Europe in early 1918, they were a beacon of hope, warmly welcomed as heroes by the French. They also brought something else with them that uplifted and delighted the war-weary Europeans: jazz.

Nicknamed the "Harlem Hellfighters," and reorganized as the 396th Infantry, these men were the longest serving American troops on the front lines and saw some of the war's bloodiest battles. Due to institutional racism, they served not as part of the American forces, but were integrated into French and British units that desperately needed more men in the trenches. Some of these soldiers would choose to stay in France after the war, where they experienced far less discrimination than at home. The jazz that they brought across the Atlantic would take off in 1920s Paris as an integral part of les Années Folles.

Another World War I African-American hero is South Carolinian Freddie Stowers. Born and raised in Anderson County, Stowers enlisted in 1917, and fought in the famous Meuse-Argonne campaign in the fall of 1918.  On September 28th, his company led an assault on a heavily defended German-held hill. The Germans appeared to surrender, and then, as Stowers' company approached, they re-opened fire. His commanding officer was killed, along with over half of the original platoon. Though all hope seemed lost, Stowers rallied the remaining men, and they managed to take the first line of German trenches under heavy fire. Mortally wounded, Stowers continued to lead his men until he could not go on, galvanizing them to push forward and successfully capture the hill.

Just 22 years old at the time of his death, Freddie Stowers was posthumously recommended for a Medal of Honor for his "conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism, and supreme devotion to his men" - the first African-American to receive this highest honor during World War I. His family would not receive his award until 73 years later, in 1991. His Medal of Honor is now on display in the South Carolina Military Museum.

Freddie Stowers gravesite

Freddie’s grave in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery


Uncover more moving World War I stories with Explore Up Close in October 2019 during our All Quiet on the Western Front trip.



For further reading about the Harlem Hellfighters:




For further reading about Freddie Stowers:





Posted on February 18th in History and Culture

Gone North for the Summer: Quebec's Eastern Townships

Our adventure into Quebec's Cantons-de-l'Est, or Eastern Townships region, began in North Hatley at the stunning Manoir Hovey. This lovely, upscale inn is the former lakeside estate of Harry Atkinson, founder of Georgia Power - just one of the many surprising stories that we uncovered during this trip.

One of the most memorable aspects of our trip were the meals. Decadent breakfasts of blueberry pancakes and pecan-encrusted French toast, fresh cheeses and breads, and the unforgettable multi-course dinner that was beautifully presented to us on our first night - it was immediately clear that we were in the heart of Quebec’s farming region. 

We enjoyed lovely scenic drives through the pastoral countryside, stopping often to admire beautifully preserved Anglican churches, covered bridges, and charming towns. We sampled lavender lemonade at the Blue Lavande lavender farm, and enjoyed an evening boat ride on Lake Massawippi. While it was too chilly for these Southerners to swim, some of our group tested the water for us when our boat hit a wave! 

We also spotted a few of the traditional round barns in this area. This style of barn was once common in the Eastern Townships, and now only a handful remain. We were admiring one rather weathered round barn from the road, when the farmer approached our vehicle and invited us to come and see it up close – by driving our van into his barn! Thanks to some expert driving by Chumley, we made it up the steep ramp into the barn and circled the interior, led by the smiling farmer. He told us that his great-grandfather built the barn in the 1800s, and that his family has farmed on the land ever since. This style of barn was imported from New England, and was once believed to prevent the devil or ghosts from entering and hiding in the corners. We loved spotting these unique structures throughout our trip.

En route to Lac Megantic, we drove through the town of Stanstead – a place that nearly straddles the border of Canada and Vermont. Memorably, one street was lined with cars bearing Vermont license plates and American flags on one side, while the other side of the street had Canadian plates and flags. In the Lac Megantic region, we enjoyed exploring tiny lakeside towns, pretty churches, and the area’s dark skies. Just across the lake is Mont Megantic, an International Dark Sky Preserve, and home to an observatory and the largest telescope on the east coast. We visited the remote observatory, and pondered some existential questions about our place in the universe.

Finally, we spent our last few days in the idyllic area surrounding Lac-Brome. One highlight in this area is the lovely Abbaye de Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, with its striking geometric interior. We listened to the Gregorian chant, and sampled cider and cheeses produced by the monks. Delightful dining, beautiful drives, and our stay in a 19th century manor home turned bed-and-breakfast made it hard to say au revoir to this lovely region of Quebec. A la prochaine...


Posted on July 31st in International Travel | Small Group

The Virginia Presidential Tour

What better way to celebrate America’s birthday than with our Virginia Presidential Tour? Virginia can claim the most presidents of any state - 8 of our former commanders-in-chief were native Virginians. We visited the homes of five during our Virginia Presidential Tour, in partnership with Wofford College’s Lifelong Learning Institute. Read on to discover who they were!


Departing just a few days after the Fourth of July, this trip was the perfect way to immerse ourselves in early American history. Our small group departed the Greenville / Spartanburg area and made our way north, passing through downtown Greensboro for a leisurely lunch, before stopping for the night at the lovely Berry Hill Estate near South Boston, Virginia.


Built by James and Eliza Bruce in the early 1820s, the estate was built in the Greek Revival style and modeled after the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia. The couple shared a love for Greek art and architecture, which they believed echoed the republican values of young America. We enjoyed touring and exploring the house and grounds, which today serve as a hotel and conference center. One unique feature of Berry Hill is its remarkably intact stone slave cabins, which serve as a witness of the enslaved people who lived and worked on the plantation.



We then continued our touring at Red Hill, home of Patrick Henry, near Brookneal, VA. We enjoyed learning more about his life, both personal and public, and his legacy. After a relaxing lunch in Farmville and a drive through the idyllic Hampden-Sydney campus, we arrived in our home for the next two nights: the iconic Williamsburg Lodge in Williamsburg.


For our third day, we explored the James River plantations of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, our 9th and 10th presidents, respectively. At Berkeley Plantation, we walked through the main hall, where Washington himself danced, and learned about Thomas Jefferson’s role in reshaping the house’s architecture. We then paid a visit to Sherwood Forest, just down the road - the plantation home of William Henry Harrison’s cousin, neighbor, and Vice President, John Tyler. Tyler gave his estate this name in response to Henry Clay’s public jab at him as a political “outlaw” at the end of his presidency. Tyler's Sherwood Forest is the longest frame house in the United States, stretching the length of a football field. The president’s grandson and his family still reside in the house today (yes, we got the full family history on location).



Later that afternoon, we stepped back in time in the streets of colonial Williamsburg - as restored by John D. Rockefeller in the 1920s.



Thursday brought us into the Charlottesville area, where we visited Highland, James Monroe’s estate. His home neighbored that of his close friend and fellow Francophile, Thomas Jefferson. We enjoyed an enormous Southern spread of a lunch at the Mitchie Tavern, before spending the afternoon exploring Jefferson's iconic Monticello.


On the last day of our tour, we paid a visit to our fourth president: James Madison. His estate, Montpelier, is located in Orange County, Virginia. We enjoyed learning more about Madison’s presidency and life with Dolley, before visiting the Barboursville Winery. While not home to a former president, the winery is on the site of the ruins of the estate home of Governor James Barbour, which was designed in 1814 by - who else? - Thomas Jefferson.


Thanks to all who traveled with us on this special adventure uncovering the lives and legacies of Virginia's presidents!






Posted on July 20th in History and Culture | Small Group

Historic Charleston's Festival of Houses & Gardens

Our Lowcountry adventure began with lunch in tiny Santee (a "one stoplight town" kind of place), and led us down meandering roads until we reached the Biggins Church ruins of Moncks Corner. Thought the ruins are hauntingly lovely at any time of year, this site becomes a natural garden in the spring. Surrounded by old oaks festooned in Spanish moss, azaleas in every shade of pink, and draped in wisteria, it's a photographer's dream. The church structure dates to 1761, and suffered three fires before reaching its present state of happy abandon.  


Just down the road is Mepkin Abbey, with a rich history of its own. Once the plantation home of Henry Laurens, the estate was gifted to a group of Trappist monks in 1949 by Clare Boothe Luce and her husband, Henry Luce. Today, you can visit the abbey and lovely botanical gardens with beautiful views of the Cooper River. For history lovers (and avid Hamilton fans!) you can visit the graves of Henry Laurens and his son John.

Our next stop was a special visit to Pompion Hill Chapel - a 1763 chapel of ease that is now privately owned and has been beautifully preserved. Situated beside the Cooper River, the churchyard's gravestones are weathered but still legible after centuries of close contact with the water, and provide a fascinating glimpse into early South Carolina life.


After our drive along the Cooper River, we crossed the Ravenel Bridge and arrived in Charleston. After a wine and cheese reception at our pink plastered hotel, the Meeting Street Inn, our group enjoyed a delicious dinner together at Anson's Restaurant. We're still thinking about that pecan pie...


Monday dawned pearly gray, with the promised rain holding off to a short shower. We began our day with a driving tour around downtown Charleston, which looped us around the Battery and up through the Citadel grounds...where we found ourselves briefly trapped on campus during a class change, as cadets kept up an endless file in front of our van. After we made our escape, our attention turned to learning more about Charleston's previous inhabitants. We met Virginia Ellison, Director of Archives and Research, and her colleagues for a special tour of the South Carolina Historical Society's archives. They treated us to a look at special items from their collection, including a lithograph of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession, and a Union soldier’s Civil War letters. Following this thread of Civil War era history, we drove to James Island to see the community formerly - and rebelliously - named Secessionville, and uncovered the site where the first shots were fired on Fort Moultrie (now Sumter).

After a leisurely lunch, it was time to begin our touring of the Meeting Street homes with the Festival of Houses & Gardens. A few favorites were Two Meeting Street Inn, now a lovely bed and breakfast, and the Dependency of Brandford-Horry House - formerly a carriage house, now a stunning private home with an Italianate interior.



Tuesday morning saw us off to explore Johns Island and Wadmalaw Island. At the Charleston Tea Plantation, we enjoyed a trolley tour of the grounds, and even waved to the founder, Bill Hall, who was at work out in the fields. We sampled just about every type of tea imaginable, then visited the lovely, well-hidden village of Rockville and the iconic Angel Oak. After a tasty lunch at the Stono Market and Tomato Shed Cafe (the locals recommend the chocolate zucchini bread), it was time to head home. We’ll be back, Charleston.


Posted on March 20th in History and Culture | Small Group

Exploring Abbeville with OLLI at Furman

Explore Up Close and a group of OLLI at Furman members recently spent the day exploring Abbeville, South Carolina. This day trip included sunny backroads drives through South Carolina farmland, stories about Abbeville's French Huguenot roots and local history, and exploring some of Abbeville's beautifully preserved buildings.


Our first stop: a driving tour of significant colonial and Civil War sites with local guide, Fred Lewis. We learned about blockhouses built during the colonial period, which were fortified log buildings meant to withstand attacks from Native Americans on the frontier.  We also visited Secession Hill, where Abbeville became the first South Carolina district to secede from the United States - a month before the state of South Carolina officially seceded in December 1860. Fittingly, Abbeville was also the place where Jefferson Davis would come at the end of the Civil War to meet for the last time with his cabinet before conceding the Confederacy's defeat.

We enjoyed walking around Abbeville's downtown square, surrounded by colorfully painted historic shops and buildings, including the Abbeville County Courthouse (designed by South Carolina's Robert Mills), Opera House, and the Belmont Inn. Abbeville’s lovely rose-hued Trinity Episcopal Church is another highlight, built in the Gothic Revival style in 1860.


After a leisurely lunch, which featured several decadent Southern pies for dessert, we made our way to the Burt-Stark Mansion for a house tour. This historic home was built in the 1830s, designed after a home that the first owner’s wife fell in love with in the Hudson River Valley. Most interestingly, the house's architect was one of the family slaves, Cubic, who was sent to the Hudson River Valley to draw plans for the construction of this house. His role in the design and building of the house is especially remarkable, since laws were passed in 1831 that outlawed slave literacy and travel. The Burt-Stark house was also the site where Jefferson Davis stopped as he fled south after Lee's surrender at Appomatox, where his generals finally convinced him to accept defeat. Inside, we enjoyed looking at the architecture, period furniture and antiques, including a collection of early 20th century dresses owned by the Stark family daughters.


Thanks to OLLI at Furman for joining us on this South Carolina Trip of Discovery!  

Posted on March 7th in History and Culture

Christmas Tour of Homes 2018

This Southeastern Trip of Discovery took us through the scenic backroads of South Carolina's Old 96 District, with a stop in Edgefield, South Carolina, before crossing the Savannah River into the Georgia Piedmont. We then visited the beautifully decorated private homes and historic buildings of Washington, Georgia, as part of the town's annual Christmas Tour. Holiday fun at its finest!

The Thomson, Georgia home of Thomas Watson - prominent Southern Populist politician and lawyer.

Our group enjoyed a private tour of the impressive Edgefield County Archives, which contains some of South Carolina's rarest historical documents and best preserved records.

The stately Chantilly at Brookhill, a former cotton plantation and dairy farm.


Keeping warm with some hot cider. 

Does anyone else love vintage Christmas decorations like we do? 

Posted on December 15th in Small Group