Road Trip! Destination: Charlotte, N.C.
Many a traveler moves through Charlotte; fewer stick around. For some, it's just a busy hub airport, visited occasionally while taking advantage of often reasonable fares to other places. We know it as an important financial capital; we know it's not Charleston, S.C., or Asheville, or any other popular destination located within striking distance.
Why stick around and get to know the Queen City? Out of plenty of reasons, here are good ones to get you started. For more information on visiting Charlotte, check out www.charlottesgotalot.com.
George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.
Bank on some culture
Yes, it's a banking capital, but Charlotte has an attractive creative side. One of the city's oldest cultural institutions is the Mint Museum, a two-campus set-up known for both an impressive art collection and a popular craft-and-design museum. The original Randolph campus is housed in a historic building that used to be the U.S. Mint — hence the name. The central campus of the Mint is part of the city center's Levine Center for the Arts, a cultural district containing the impressive little Bechtler Museum of Modern Art and a handful of other worthwhile stops (levinecenterarts.org). For some art at street level, head up Davidson Street to Charlotte's artsy NoDa neighborhood. Here, a twice-monthly art crawl — on the first and third Friday of every month, starting at 6 p.m. — takes place in and around some of the city's finest galleries. Soak up the vibe at Dolce Vita, a low-key wine bar and neighborhood gathering spot (3205 N. Davidson St.).
Got a need for speed? You probably already know all about Charlotte, home to the historic Charlotte Motor Speedway and the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And while the lion's share of visitors to the city are content to remain spectators to one of the South's favorite pastimes, bolder visitors — and those who don't mind shelling out a few bucks — can sign up for the Richard Petty Driving Experience, which offers a range of experiences, from an affordable ride-along ($99 for three laps) to a knuckle-whitening drive, starting at $449 for 8 laps (drivepetty.com). Afterwards, repair to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Whisky River, a popular bar and restaurant back in town for a drink and some snacks off the sports-fan-friendly menu (210 E. Trade St.).
From the gentle flow of the city's beautiful Freedom Park to the top of rugged Crowders Mountain just a short drive west of the city skyline, Charlotte is one of those all-too-rare cities with plenty of room for nature to flourish; driving its many tree-lined streets, it can sometimes feel as if you're not in a city at all. For a true walk in the woods, disappear into the 737-acre Reedy Creek Nature Preserve, offering plenty of solitude along 10 miles of hiking trails (charmeck.org). Cool neighborhoods
Food trucks, farmers markets, cool cafes, galleries — all bases are pretty much covered in the city's historic South End neighborhood, a popular spot for the young and hip to live and play. Your best bet is to come down here for the monthly gallery crawl — on the first Friday of each month — or for the neighborhood's lively Saturday morning market at the Atherton Mill complex. While you're there, grab a tasty, carefully sourced breakfast from the Roots Farm Food truck (southendclt.com).
Riding the rapids, safely
The U.S. National Whitewater Center offers all of the thrills associated with whitewater rafting with none of the pesky threat of dying after being dashed on the rocks — or whatever else can go wrong when you hit actual rapids. An official Olympic Training Site, the center doesn't mess around — they'll whip you into good shape and have you rafting like a champ. They can do more than that, of course — instruction in more relaxed arts, such as stand-up paddle boarding, will have you ready for your next trip to Waikiki. Like to stay on dry land? The center's miles of mountain biking trails make for a terrific day adventure, too (usnwc.org).
It's in bloom
The 10-acre botanical garden at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte is a real sight to see, from the indoor worlds at the McMillan Greenhouse complex to beautiful outdoor gardens showcasing landscapes both local and exotic, you can easily spend a beautiful morning here — and it's free (gardens.uncc.edu). For a garden that's a little more secret, head over to Wing Haven, a private walled paradise built by environmentalist Elizabeth Clarkson and her husband, Edwin, back in the 1920s. It's a gorgeous three-acre escape that doubles as a bird sanctuary (winghavengardens.com).
Scenic mountains nearby
Charlotte's fun, but if this is your first visit to the region, you shouldn't be allowed to leave without taking at least a day trip up to the Blue Ridge Mountains. From the unforgettable summit of Mt. Mitchell — the highest peak east of the Rockies at 6,684 feet — to a leisurely afternoon on the winding, historic Blue Ridge Parkway, to the food scene in Asheville — it's must after must up here. There's more, there's tons more, but this is a start. And, bonus: this is all roughly two hours or so from town. Get in the car and go.