The Big Fun Guide to Tar Heel Country

| March 27, 2012

Whether you are a Chapel Hill native, long-time resident, recent transplant, UNC student or just planning on visiting our wonderful town, this is the most comprehensive and easy-to-use resource guide for fun things to do in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area.


The Big Fun Guide to Tar Heel Country, written by Erin Donoghue Baldwin, is a practical guide book that summarizes over 135 family-friendly activities and festivals in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Hillsborough, and Pittsboro, and even a few in nearby Durham, Raleigh, Burlington, Asheboro and Greensboro, NC. Although searching the Internet remains the most popular first step in finding information about visiting a place with which you are already familiar, how do you Google something if you do not know it even exists? And once you do Google it, chances are the web site will not mention if the place is stroller-friendly, picnic-friendly, what the ground cover on the playground is, or give helpful reviews from a local mother’s perspective. The Big Fun Guide does all of this and much more!

I grew up in Chapel Hill, went to undergrad at UNC and now live in Carrboro, NC, but there were still places in this book that I had not yet visited. Often we do not appreciate what is right in our own backyard, yet when we travel to distant lands for vacation, we visit every tourist attraction there is to see. Chapel Hillians are extremely fortunate to have a plethora of sights and entertainment close by, and once you read this book, I guarantee you will want to have a “staycation” instead.

The Big Fun Guide is organized into four parts: Mostly Indoors, Mostly Outdoors, Definitely Outdoors and Road Trips. Each part is then divided into categories like Museums, Parks & Playgrounds or Animals, steering readers to exactly the type of activity they are interesting in doing. Also included are four short appendices that are particularly handy: Places Closed Weekly, Good Choices in Bad Weather (Too Hot, Too Cold, or Too Wet), Festivals and Events by Month, and Activity by Location. There is also an alphabetized index listing in the back that makes it easy to find places you have previously visited and would like to visit again.

What is most impressive about this guide is that it is both comprehensive and concise. Each site is summarized in just a few paragraphs, and includes only pertinent information about what there is to see and do at each location. Baldwin and various members of her family and friends personally visited all 135+ locations, so her descriptions are not only accurate, but also insightful, focusing on keen details such as how to avoid poison ivy on nature trails, interesting historical tidbits and the best place to park. Her writing is thoughtful, entertaining and intuitive, knowing just what to include to make your visit fun and interesting. Below each description are listed the hours of operation, contact information (phone, website and address), and whether or not there are bathrooms on site, if it is stroller-friendly (which also translates to wheel chair-friendly), picnic-friendly, if there is food nearby, the recommended ages and the entrance fee. Everything about this guide is logically organized, making it easy to use. It is even fun to read this guide cover-to-cover, as it is full of interesting facts, historical tidbits and practical motherly advice.

I have consulted this book countless times when hosting out-of-town guests or searching for an outing with my toddler, and Baldwin’s recommendations are always spot-on. But don’t let the “Activities for Families” subtitle inhibit you from visiting these places with teenagers, grandparents, friends and loved ones of all ages. From newborn to ninety, there is plenty of year-round fun to be had, and it is all nearby!

The arguably most popular feature of The Big Fun Guide is its small size, which was beautifully designed by Jeffrey Duckworth. About half the size of an iPad, this book is definitely travel-friendly. It fits perfectly in the glove compartment and can easily be tossed in a diaper bag or purse. I personally keep a copy by my nightstand table and have another in my car, which makes it easy to plan our next adventure the night before, or even last-minute when we are already in the car driving around town. Having this book out and visible at home also serves as a helpful reminder for me to leave the house and go explore our many local offerings, instead of sticking to our same old playground routine.

What is truly wonderful about this book, however, is that it is being used to raise money for our community. DRT Press gives 5% of all profits to charities that help children and families in need. Woods Charter School has also used The Big Fun Guide to Tar Heel Country to raise funds for the outdoor spaces at its new building. Half of all the money they raised by selling the book went towards their playgrounds and other activity centers around their school. Other schools that have used The Big Fun Guide in this way include Pittsboro Elementary School, Pinewoods Montessori, and Scroggs Elementary School. Additionally, Baldwin herself has donated her book for PTA Thrift Shop auctions and gift baskets, and for Carrboro Elementary and Ephesus Elementary school fund-raisers.

I would highly recommend The Big Fun Guide to anyone who currently lives in or is visiting Tar Heel country. It is a valuable resource for residents, UNC students and tourists alike, and it also makes the perfect gift for a baby shower or to welcome a new neighbor to town (along with the homemade pie, of course.) You will be amazed at all the wonderful activities our area has to offer, and this guide will not only get you there, but will make it easy and even more enjoyable.

Erin Donoghue Baldwin at Wilson Park, March 2012


When Adrienne Ehlert Bashista of DRT Press of Pittsboro, NC had the idea to create a guidebook about all of the fun things to do in the Chapel Hill area, she enlisted her fellow writing group member Erin Donoghue Baldwin to author it, as she was the obvious best choice for this project. Baldwin is a skilled and entertaining writer who grew up in Chapel Hill, attended UNC-Chapel Hill as an undergraduate, taught high school and middle school in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Public School System, and is currently raising three children in Carrboro, NC. I have known Erin Baldwin since we attended Culbreth Junior High School together back in 1982, and I can attest to the fact that she is one of our community’s biggest cheerleaders.

Baldwin was excited to write The Big Fun Guide mostly because she would have loved to have had a resource like this to use when her own children were little. Baldwin jokes about the limited scope of activities her own family participated in around town. “We just went to the places we knew. Back then, if a park didn’t go through our living room, we wouldn’t have known about it.” She is also proud of her hometown of Chapel Hill, loves living in Carrboro and wanted to help promote the many enjoyable activities this part of the world has to offer its residents and visitors. “It seemed like a good idea,” Baldwin reflected, “because there are so many things to do here. It’s such a cool town and place to be a parent. There are lots of things you could do with a middle-schooler or teenagers, too.”

Nevertheless, there were many challenges Baldwin faced when tackling this project. The biggest one being the limited 10-month time-frame she was given to complete the guide. “There were some very easy things on the list, but then I had just ten months to cover the other 135 things. There are only 52 weekends in a year. How was I going to fit all this in? And then go see every single thing. I had just missed the Revolutionary War Day in Hillsborough, so some other events had already happened. For those, I had to do a lot more research and interview people, visit web sites and talk to other parents. Then I started knocking them off the list. Like, ‘Today I’m going hit every public park in Chapel Hill.’ I learned what a really great park system Chapel Hill and Carrboro have. They both have great web sites. Chatham County was still building theirs. Alamance County has Cedarock Park, which is gorgeous and big and has really cool trails, but it does not have a huge web presence, so it’s hard to find. San-Lee Park is ridiculously hard to find. So I first went to the web site, and kind of had to dig to find the location of some places.”

The second challenge for Baldwin was in the writing — trying to find different ways to describe similar things like playgrounds and nature, over and over again. “When you’re just writing about how things are all the time, it’s tough. How many times can you describe a beautiful place? All the Eno River parcels are beautiful, but in their own way. When I wrote about Cedarock Park, for example, and my notes said, ‘It is big. It has trails,’ I thought, ‘I need to jazz this up. I need stronger verbs.’ Around the same time I started reading Henry David Thoreau. I don’t know why that somehow tied in, but he is all in his head and writing every day about limestone and nature, so Thoreau helped me to describe things in an active, positive way. It was such a good challenge.”

Another difficult task was in the editing. One of Baldwin’s main objectives was to make the The Big Fun Guide user-friendly by listing the essential information in a clear and concise manner, while also including enough details in the descriptions so that readers would be excited about visiting the place. “Editing things down was hard. I was trying to bring the places and events to life in just a few words. Like the Paperhand Puppet Intervention Show — it was tough getting all of that across. Or Old Salem! Oh my gosh, try to get that down to one page!”

Baldwin had a lot of fun while writing the Big Fun Guide, too. “It was great getting out of the house every weekend with the kids for those ten months. I made my children play at Cedarock Park in the snow. They’re like, ‘Mom, the slide is frozen!’ So I told them, ‘Come on! We’re outside, have fun! You need to test the slides. I’ve got to write about the slides!’ That was fun.” Baldwin also enjoyed adding in her own point of view where she could. “I wanted it be mom-to-mom. Like, ‘You don’t want to use the bathroom there!’ I wanted it to read like someone giving advice in a conversational tone, with an insider’s view. Not just a list and hours like what you would get off a web site.”

What are some of Baldwin’s favorite places to visit, now that the book has been published? “Well, I do love The North Carolina Botanical Garden, which is across the highway from where I grew up. It’s great for toddlers and great for teens. My kids are now 13, 10, and 8, and I love going there with my t thirteen-year-old, because either riding in the car or walking side by side, are the best ways to get teenagers to talk to you. And when we’re outside, feeling the wind, and smelling the leaves, she’ll talk to me. Also, Burlington City Park is awesome. I totally recommend it. But in all honesty, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting every place in the book.”

It is Baldwin’s hope that not only will The Big Fun Guide to Tar Heel Country be a helpful local travel guide, but also help bring our community closer. “The other thing my book should do is keep people in touch with what’s right at home. It’s so easy to go to a chain or go to a theme park. The more you go out and see your neighbors and participate in your community, the richer everyone is for it. It’s a Wendell Berry principle that I really believe in. That’s what I would love for my book to do, to get people to know their home better. And then go there, and see someone that you saw somewhere else, and make links to that person you see every day. Get out there and not just entertain yourself for an afternoon, but also dig a little place for yourself in this whole web of characters — ones you know because they’re characters, and ones that are cool because they’re just here. That would be the most grandiose, best thing my book could do.”

The Big Fun Guide to Tar Heel Country by Erin Donoghue Baldwin is available at local establishments around town, including The Red Hen, Glee Kids, Kidzu Children’s Museum, Flyleaf Books, the Orange County Museum gift shop, Cameron’s Craft Gallery, from the DRT Press web site and at Barnes & Noble and

Congratulations to Shelagh, our winner in the Big Fun Guide giveaway! Thank you to everyone who participated, and please check back for more giveaways in the near future!

Category: Arts & Entertainment

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