With each visit to North Carolina’s greater Charlotte area, we discover new activities such as museums, restaurants, hotels and parks. On this trip, the reasonably priced, new U.S. National Whitewater Center was just plain fun, and made for some great memories. Fortunately, I didn’t fall into the water as our raft worked its way up the scale of difficulty to the Class VI rapids! Many others were not as fortunate: our crew had to pull four rafters out of the rapid waters as they rushed towards us, their life vests keeping them afloat.
My next adventure in Charlotte found me suiting up in a jumpsuit and helmet at Lowe’s Speedway for the Richard Petty Driving Experience. While waiting in the long line, I had no idea of the challenge that lay ahead: entering the racecar through the side window. Once in, my driver asked me to let him know if he was going too fast on the "hot laps." I didn’t fear the speed as much as how I was going to get my legs out of the window to exit the vehicle (an even bigger challenge than entering it). Well, I managed to pull it off, and have the story to prove it.
On my excursion to the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, I discovered that it is truly a "garden for all seasons" with equal emphasis placed on the natural surroundings as to the planned gardens.
At the Levine Museum of the New South, I found an exceptionally well-displayed history of the post-segregation era; and the fascinating Schiele Museum of Natural History & Planetarium even featured an outdoor Indian village.
We saved the best for last, as Charlotte is home to Johnson & Wales, the Culinary Division of The Art Institute of Charlotte, as well as Piedmont Junior College’s Culinary Program. These institutions are turning out fine-food professionals who complement the numerous fine chefs already working there.
At the top of my dining list was my friend Mark Hibbs’ new restaurant, Ratcliffe on the Green set in an historic space on South Tyron Street in Charlotte’s commercial center that was occupied by Ratcliffe Flowers for 75 years. Appropriately, Chef/Owner Hibbs’ menu features locally grown organic produce from sustainable resources year-round. As expected, dinner at Ratcliffe was exceptional. It is easy to taste why he cooked at the James Beard House in November of last year.
Visiting the Carolinas without barbeque would be missing a key part of its culture. I enjoyed two forms of Carolina barbeque, first at Hillbilly’s in Gastonia, and later at Mac’s on South Boulevard in Charlotte. An all-time favorite is Bill Spoon’s Barbeque where they boast that they "cook the whole pig" on their sign out front. Naturally, I had to stop in at Mert’s Heart and Soul for his wonderful cornbread and salmon cakes. Tony’s Ice Cream is old-standard parlor that has stood the test of time.
Topping off my final evening was a visit to the Ballantyne Village shopping area in South Charlotte to dine at Table Restaurant & Bar. Award-winning Executive Chef Gene Briggs has created a superb menu for this elegant art deco fine-dining establishment. The area and all of its restaurants were bustling with activity, and a long line of folks were queuing up for its art theatre.
Tasting a range of Charlotte’s wonderful food from gourmet to soul made for a delightful and memorably high-caloric adventure, after which I was pleased to rest my weary body at the recently renovated Charlotte Center City Hilton, now on par with other outstanding properties in the area. The Uptown area (sometimes called, "Downtown") is now a convention and meeting destination offering many hotels with plenty of sleeping rooms, meeting rooms and, best of all, outside activities.
With such full days, I only wished that I had more time to discover all of the exciting activities and types of cuisine that Charlotte now offers its visitors. It has become a first-class destination abounding in history, charm and diversity.
Visit Charlotte: www.visitcharlotte.com
U.S. National Whitewater Center: www.usnwc.org
Richard Petty Driving Experience: www.1800bepetty.com
Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens: www.dsbg.org
Levine Museum of the New South: www.museumofthenewsouth.org
Schiele Museum of Natural History & Planetarium: www.schielemuseum.org
Table Restaurant: www.bluerestaurantandbar.com
Hilton Charlotte Center City: www.charlottecentercity.hilton.com