Pick-Your-Own Staycation

Remember when we all made big travel plans at the beginning of 2020, only to cancel them a few months later? After a vaccine was created, a glimmer of hope had many of us packing our bags and renewing our passports, only to be met with widespread variations of the virus that put our nerves on edge and our plans on hold (again). Scheduling vacations hasn’t been easy, but the rise of staycations — a vacation spent at home or nearby — has been a lifesaver for those who are unable or unwilling to travel far.

Whether you enjoy living in the lap of luxury with a hot, buttered croissant or exploring the great outdoors, here are some local spots for a much-needed getaway — minus the gas money and expensive plane ticket.

For the Lover of Luxury

“From the moment they arrive on the property, we hope that guests are transported to another time and place,” said owner Sarah Shepherd.

Heights House, a boutique hotel in the historic Boylan Heights neighborhood in downtown Raleigh, is described on their website as “a historic landmark, resurrected.” Originally called Montfort Hall, the Italianate-style mansion was commissioned in 1858 by William Montfort Boylan under the guidance of British architect William Percival. Completed in 1860, the house has seen its fair share of change over the years — even housing a Baptist congregation in the 1950s — until 2018, when Sarah and Jeff Shepherd acquired the property and transformed it into what we see today.

“Maurer Architecture helped us to preserve this incredible home, and we collaborated on the interior design with Bryan Costello, a brilliant designer who really helped us bring our vintage-meets-modern vision to life,” said Sarah Shepherd. “From the architecture and design to food and interior furnishings, we’ve made it a mission to seek out the exceptional local creatives who are right here in North Carolina.”

Heights House Hotel, an Italianate-style mansion in Raleigh, offers boutique accommodations for those who enjoy the finer things but aren’t willing to travel far. The library is a cherished spot to enjoy coffee or wine and cheese in the afternoons.

Heights House is meant to be enjoyed as if it is your own home, Shepherd says. Surrounded by elegant rooms, fabrics and finishes, guests are free to mill around the gracious floor plan and enjoy complimentary bikes for perusing the neighborhood.

“We offer breakfast every morning, and our coffee program is available all day, so the dining room is a lovely place to sip a cup and read or work or talk with friends. The library is a cherished spot for enjoying coffee or wine and cheese in the afternoons, and the drawing room or living room is a grander room and located next to the parlor, or bar area, which lends well to hosting larger groups of friends. We also have two front porches where guests spend time throughout the day, as well as at the fire pit on our front lawn.”

Completed in 1860 in Raleigh’s historic Boylan Heights, Heights House Hotel is a local landmark that was renovated in 2018 to bring a “vintage-meets modern vision to life.”

For those who enjoy the finer things, but aren’t willing to travel far, Heights House is a great option. Rates start at $299 and include a delicious, locally sourced breakfast.

“Because this is such a transporting setting, you will really feel like you’ve traveled, even if it’s only 5 minutes from your home,” said Shepherd. “Reserve a horse-drawn carriage to travel to your dinner reservation after having cocktail hour in the parlor, or ride bikes downtown to take full advantage of your staycation!”


For The Outdoor Enthusiast

A lakeside yurt? Yes, please! Guests are encouraged to BYOB (bring-your-own-boat) or use the ones provided.

Located just 20 minutes from downtown Raleigh, Lakeside Retreats is everything nature lovers never knew they needed and never knew was there. The brainchild of Tom Williamson and his son, Stephen Williamson, this ultimate glamping location sits on about 350 acres of family land — historically part of a much larger farm owned by the Williamson family since 1775.

Following his retirement, Tom Williamson started slowly transforming the property — which used to be nothing but a swamp — into Lakeside Retreats, complete with a picturesque lake, walking/biking trails, yurts, a tiny house, primitive camping sites, a gazebo, a sauna and more. The land sits right next to the 405-acre Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve, originally a piece of the family farm, now owned by the Triangle Land Conservancy.

For those looking for more of a glamping experience, Lakeside Retreats’ yurts are comfortable and roomy. Stephen Williamson sits in their largest (30-foot) yurt, perfect for meetings, parties and other group activities. The yurts are heated and air-conditioned, and come equipped with beds and a mini kitchenette. Anyone staying at one of the seven yurts has access to showers and toilets in a VIP-style bathroom trailer.

There are currently seven different-sized yurts, each with heating and air conditioning, a mini kitchenette, a fire pit, a picnic table, a charcoal grill and sleeping arrangements for at least two people. Sheets and towels are included with each rental. The largest yurt is 30 feet, perfect for large meetings or parties. Although there is no inside plumbing, everyone who stays in a yurt has access to showers and toilets via what Stephen Williamson, who works in the concert industry, calls a “VIP-style bathroom trailer.” For tent campers, bathroom access is limited to portable toilets. Although the tiny house does have a real bathroom and a full kitchen, it is actually smaller than a yurt at only 200 square feet.

Tom (right) and son Stephen Williamson (left), transformed their 350-acre family property into a glamping paradise, complete with a man made lake.

“We were starting to get more and more families, so we started to give families more options,” said Tom Williamson. “With the exception of the 24-foot yurt, which has a king-sized bed, all the other 20-foot yurts have queen-sized beds and some of them have bunk beds. If the kids want to camp in a tent, they can just pop up a tent right next to the yurt at no extra cost.”

Yurts book for $125/night, and 10% of all profits support local and international causes. It’s clear that the Williamsons have a big heart — they support everything from animal therapy to the fight against bullying to dismantling structural racism and mass incarceration across North Carolina. A list of all the non-profits supported in 2020-2021 can be found on their website.

A 20-foot yurt comes equipped with view of the lake and access to a private dock. Visitors and hiking trails, play disc golf, canoe or kayak, or just relax in a sauna.

Visitors are encouraged to explore the walking trails, go swimming or fishing, canoe and kayak, hike or bike on the neighboring preserve, read a book in the lakeside gazebo or relax in the sauna. You can bring your own boat or use one of the ones provided.

“Just enjoy it and feel closer to whoever you came with,” suggests Stephen Williamson. “That’s why we use the word retreat in it — it’s a chance to pull out a little bit from your regular routine.”


For the DIY-ers — A Private Oasis at Home

Jennifer Devlin Waller often escapes to her restored vintage trailer, which is parked in her driveway. She turned the 1972 Shasta Compact into the colorfully whimsical Peacock Mansion.

Peacock Mansion is a lovingly restored vintage camper, graced with luxury linens, crystal sconces, a mini fridge, heated blankets, wild colors, a flower wall and (of course) plenty of peacock decor.

“Everything that I couldn’t do in my house, I did in the camper,” said owner Jennifer Devlin Waller. “The decorations were labor intensive, but nothing was expensive. It’s like the magical mystery bus.”

The 1972 Shasta Compact, graced with wings, was originally rented out on Airbnb as part of a glamping experience in Waller’s backyard, complete with an outdoor claw-foot tub and other whimsical additions. Waller’s self-described “boho eclectic glam” did the trick — before she knew it, photographers were paying to use her space for photoshoots.

Once the pandemic hit, everything changed.

Waller enjoys a morning getaway in the camper she and her husband renovated. In addition to heated blankets and peacock décor, a mini fridge comes complete with a “Press for champagne” button.

“When the shutdown happened, it wasn’t really worth the money for me. We didn’t really know what was happening back then, so I didn’t want to take any chances of someone coming here and getting sick,” said Waller. “My little camper sat there and nobody used her. Nobody appreciated her. So my husband and I decided to sell it — and we decided to make it as eccentric as humanly possibly because I knew it would sell.”

Waller and her husband were in that camper every weekend throughout quarantine, watching hours of YouTube videos on how to paint, decoupage, sew, build a flower wall, cut tile and more. By the end of a long summer, the Peacock Mansion was born. It now sits in Waller’s driveway to be enjoyed by friends and family.

“We thought, why are we going to sell this? This is really amazing! So we moved it from the back of our property to the driveway and said let’s just start staying here,” said Waller. “It was really convenient because we didn’t have to find a place for the dogs. We didn’t have to worry about somebody getting the mail. It got to be a lot of fun because I would dress up and make little menus about what we were going to serve in the camper.”

Waller credits Pinterest, “YouTube University” and a healthy amount of thrifting for her eclectic decor.

Shortly after the Peacock Mansion’s debut, friends started asking Waller to bring the party to their driveways, champagne in tow. It was perfect — Waller didn’t have to drive home after a night of drinking and she could fall asleep in her own camper. It soon became a tourist destination for everyone, says Waller, with her friends opting to sit in her camper rather than her house.

While socializing with the Shasta is certainly a perk, the Peacock Mansion also provides some much-needed solitude. Each morning Waller grabs her morning tea, walks the dogs, and sits in her camper for 20 minutes or two hours, depending on what she’s working on.

“I can just sit in there and be undisturbed, which is something we don’t really do anymore. It’s very cathartic,” she said.

Although it was a lot of work, Waller encourages others to think outside of the box and create a private oasis of their own. Travel is about a feeling, and you can recreate that feeling anywhere, she says. If you love Paris, bring Paris to your space. If you like the beach, create a tropical-themed room, shed, camper, basement, you name it.

“Think about your favorite place and why it is your favorite place and recreate it. The ambiance has a lot to do with your feelings,” said Waller. “One day you can look around and think, wow, I really love being at home.”

“Your space should bring you joy, no matter what it looks like. We travel to try and escape our daily life, but if you can do that right here, it’s just an added bonus.”

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