Vibrant Charlotte: Always on the Move
And Coming Soon: NASCAR Hall of Fame
By Kathy M. Newbern
Charlotte has always been a go-getter.
In the 1700s and 1800s, the city gained fame as a major cotton production center. In the 1900s it evolved into a textile giant.
Named for Britain's Queen Charlotte (shown in the portrait at right*), a great-great-great grandmother to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Charlotte now reigns as the nation’s second largest financial center.
Charlotte's sparkling "uptown" (known as "downtown" in most other cities) streaks toward the clouds. Skyscrapers in this Center City area are emblazoned with such illustrious names as Wachovia, SunTrust and Bank of America, to name a few.
A Can-Do Attitude That's Good for Tourism
When it comes right down to it, Charlotte has always been a city that believes it can do just about anything.
When naysayers said it simply couldn't be done, the city landed an NBA team in the 1980s.
The Charlotte Hornets played here from 1988-2002 before becoming the New Orleans Hornets. The city's current NBA team is the Charlotte Bobcats.
In addition, the city corraled its own NFL Team in the 1990s -- the Carolina Panthers; the team play in the stadium above.*
Other major sports action is provided by the WNBA Charlotte Sting, plus hockey’s ECHL Charlotte Checkers, and soccer’s AW Charlotte Eagles.
What's new on the sports side? Center City will soon be home to a new $34 million, AAA baseball stadium for the Charlotte Knights, minor league team of the Chicago White Sox, moving here from Fort Mill, SC.
Last year, the Charlotte area welcomed the U.S. National Whitewater Center (704-391-3900
or www.usnwc.org), located just 15 minutes west of Charlotte.
The center is the largest whitewater training facility in the world and also offers kayaking options. It's a training ground for the U.S. Olympic team.
Editor's Note: This is a fantastic new facility. Check out our full-bodied feature about the U.S. National Whitewater Center written by outdoor adventure writer Jack Horan; one of his many photos of rafters running the river are viewable in this piece.
A Place for Reflection
Not to be outdone, this spring the Queen City hosted three former Presidents and a renowned evangelist when George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter helped
dedicate the new, $27 million Billy Graham Library (877-247-2426, 704-401-2432 or www.billygraham.org/BGLibrary_Index.asp).
Four years in the planning, the new attraction (shown above*) is expected to draw 200,000 visitors a year. The 40,000-square-foot complex traces Graham's rise from farm boy to famous minister. The library itself features a 40-foot-tall glass entryway that's shaped like a cross.
Visitors may take a 90-minute self-guided tour to view 350 photographs depicting Graham's life and religious work. In addition, visitors may peruse multi-media exhibits and view film footage. The 63-acre site also includes the Graham Family Homeplace, a replica of Graham's childhood home made with materials from the original house.
Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Admission is free. For more details, check Graham's Web site at www.billygraham.org/BGLibrary_Index.asp.
Built Here, Belongs Here
And yet to come in the Queen City? Charlotte, with its bid slogan “Racing Was Built Here; Racing Belongs Here," duked it out this year with Daytona Beach and Atlanta to land the new $160-million NASCAR Hall of Fame. The Queen City won.
The center will open in 2010 and should attract another 400,000 visitors annually.
Local tourism officials say the NASCAR attraction could become the most widely attended sports shrine in the country.
With good reason: NASCAR is America’s largest spectator sport, drawing 10 million fans annually -- about 40 percent of them women, incidentally.
The new hall of fame is the circular low-rise building in the forefront of the downtown drawing shown above. An artist's perspective of the NASCAR facility's interior is shown at left.*
The Hall of Fame is being built near the Charlotte Convention Center with an adjoining 19-story, 390,000-square-foot tower housing NASCAR-related companies.
Racing has strong roots in North Carolina. North Carolina raised a host of stock-car racing favorite sons, dating to Richard Petty, his dad Lee Petty and even earlier racing stars.
In fact, Lowe’s Motor Speedway (704-455-3200 or www.lowesmotorspeedway.com) is just 25 miles from Charlotte in Concord.
The track is home to the Coca-Cola 600 At 600 miles, the race is the longest, regularly-scheduled, oval-track race in the world. Last Memorial Day’s 47th running attracted 180,000 fans. (a recent race day crowd is shown above.*)
Also a local racing attraction is the Richard Petty Driving Experience (800-BE-PETTY or www.1800bepetty.com. It offers a chance to take a three-lap, ride-along in a race car. Actor Will Ferrell did while in town filming “Talledega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.”
The cost for ride along varies but is generally in the $99 per person range. Participants must be at least 14 years old. For an actual driving experience, where you take the wheel, you'll pay from $399 to $2,999 per person, depending on the experience selected.
A Mecca for Film Making
While Wilmington, NC, is perhaps a bit better known nationally as a movie-making capital, Charlotte has its own Hollywood-of-the-South reputation.
More than 100 films and TV shows have been shot here including NASCAR and World Wide Wrestling events. (yes, Charlotte is home to “Nature Boy” Ric
Among films shot here? They include: The Dale Earnhardt Story; The Color Purple; Days of Thunder, Nell, and Shallow Hal.
The latest movie buzz centers around the George Clooney football film Leatherheads, also starring Renée Zellweger, due out in December.
A Focus on the Arts
If you head for Charlotte, you'll find friendly folks and a plethora of tourist diversions, including an vibrant arts and museum culture. Queen Charlotte likely would have been happy, as she was reportedly a staunch supporter of the arts.
Slated for completion in 2008, the Wachovia 1st Street Project (www.artsandscience.org), will boast high-level condominiums, retail spots and an office complex. For art and culture lovers, though., it will also have many draws -- most noticeably a new Mint Museum, the Bechtler Museum, a new Afro-American Cultural Center and 1200-seat theater that will be home to the North Carolina Dance Theatre.
The Mint Museum of Art (704-337-2000 or www.mintmuseum.org) will remain at 2730 Randolph Rd. while the Mint Museum of Craft + Design (704-337-2000) will move to the Wachovia 1st Street Project, just a block from the new convention center.
Current admission to the Mint Museums ranges from $6 for adults to $5 for college students and $3 for those 6-17; children 5 and younger are admitted free.
What else may art, culture and science lovers see and do in Charlotte right now?
Discovery Place and The Charlotte Observer IMAX Dome Theatre (704-372-6261 or www.discoveryplace.org), 301 N. Tryon St., features permanent and temporary exhibits and, of course, IMAX movies.
Through Oct. 28, Discover Place is showing the much-talked-about exhibit, Gunther von Hagens' "BODY WORLDS: The
Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies."
Discovery Place has a broad range of ticket options that include just the exhibits, special exhibits, the Imax and more. Visit www.discoveryplace.org for ticket combination options.
If you want to understand post-Civil War southern history, head for the Levine Museum of the New South (704-333-1887 or www.museumofthenewsouth.org), 200 E. Seventh St. The museum's permanent exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers," is a visitor favorite. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for those 6-18 and kids under six are admitted free.
Those with children in tow, might check out performances and workshops at ImaginOn: The Joe & Joan Martin Center (704-973-2780 or www.imaginon.org), 300 E. Seventh St. This facility combines a children’s library and theater with innovative education, learning and the arts.
Couples seeking an evening out on the town might check the latest schedule for the Charlotte Symphony (704-972-2000 or www.charlottesymphony.org),
This world-class orchestra offers a full range of performances -- both indoors at a convert venue and outdoors at Symphony Park.
Another option for arts lovers is the North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center (704-372-1000 or www.blumenthalcenter.org), 130 N. Tryon St.
Family Theme Park Fun
Seeking family fun? The Charlotte area's theme park is Carowinds (800-888-4386 or www.carowinds.com).
This theme and water park is located just off I-77 at SC Exit 90 -- right at the North Carolina and South Carolina border.
Carowinds is known for a variety of thrilling coasters (see Top Gun at left*), family fun and water attractions. Prices vary depending on the type of ticket you choose - general admission, two-day pass, or three-day advance purchase for example.
Check the Web site at www.carowinds.com for all the offers and the park says its best prices are available online.
Carowinds is transformed into horror central for 16 nights in October during its eighth maddening season of Scarowinds.
This largest Halloween event in the Carolinas covers 60 acres and features six horrific haunted mazes. For visitors who love ghoulish scares and ghastly sights, Scarowinds will offer new haunted attractions as well as three times as many monsters (nearly 300) as before. They'll lurk around every dark & gloomy corner.
And as always, visitors can head for the "twisted and terrifying" rides but, with a twist; you climb onboard in darkness. Scarowind dates are Sept. 27 and 29; Oct. 5, 6, 12, 13, 19-21 and 25-31.
Yes, if you want to be scared out of your socks, head for www.scarowinds.com for all the latest scary fun.
Lodging and Cuisine
Upscale travelers will soon have more high-end accommodation choices with the Queen City. In 2009, a new Ritz-Carlton (www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/charlotte) will open with 120 rooms and 30 suites on 17 floors; it will be cocooned within the 32-floor Bank of America Corporate Center.
One of the Ritz-Carlton's focal points will be a spectacular "winter garden" that will also double as special events space for weddings or corporate meetings.
Tech-savvy Twelve Hotel (www.twelvehotels.com) with apartment-style digs also plans to open in Center City. Accommodations for the new property will include kitchens and living areas. The ground breaking date has not yet been announced.
Another new lodging choice, “aloft” from the creators of W Hotels (www.starwoodhotels.com/alofthotels), is also on the horizon. This new 12-story hotel will feature 176 rooms with nine-foot ceilings, oversized windows and walk-in showers.
Aloft and its Bliss Spa both will open next year above the new EpiCenter (704-366-7459 or www.theghazicompany.com), a retail/entertainment complex with high-rise residential development, is under construction at College and Trade, site of the old convention center.
Plans call for a running stream, cobblestone walks, rooftop plaza, plus eateries. Artwork of EpiCenter is shown at right and below.*
Another new enclave of urban development is the North Carolina Music Factory (704-987-0612 or www.ncmusicfactory.com) modeled after New York’s SoHo and Atlanta’s
Buckhead. Look for 50 restaurants, galleries and music/art businesses in Uptown Village, the centerpiece within Center City.
It will be easy to reach as a stop on the new South Corridor Light Rail Line, a 9.6-mile commuter train system being built in stages starting this year.
On the renovations side, John Q. Hammons Hotels plans to spend $25-$30 million more to expand the new 308-room Embassy Suites Hotel Charlotte-Concord Golf Resort and Spa and Concord Convention Center (704) 455-8200 or www.embassysuitesconcord.com), 5400 John Q. Hammons Drive NW
That's interesting because the hotel (shown above right.*) is actually new -- opening in January 2007. It overlooks the city-owned Rocky River Golf Club.
Now, John Q. Hammons plans to add as many as 150 rooms and additional meeting space. Construction on the expansion is slated to start in spring 2008 with completion in 2009.
The Hilton Charlotte Center City (704-377-1500 or www.charlottecentercity.hilton.com) recently completed a $25 million renovation. The hotel's 400-plus guest room now feature 42" plasma television equipped with wireless Bluetooth technology.
Other perks include marble tiled showers and Hilton’s Serenity Bed. The hotel boasts a newly redecorated 30,000 square foot conference and banquet space and new restaurant concept
While on our fact-finding mission to Charlotte, we stayed at Hampton Inn & Suites Southpark at Phillips Place (704-319-5700 or www.hamptonsouthpark.com). Many movie stars also use this hotel as a base while making movie magic in the Queen City.
All 124 rooms feature free local phone calls, two dual-line phones, voice mail & data ports, high-speed Internet access, a coffee maker, hairdryer, iron and ironing board, HBO and extended cable.
Guests select from several room types. A standard king or double queen room includes a recliner chair and large desk with ergonomic chair. King study rooms include a sofa, coffee table, large desk with two chairs, stereo, microwave and mini refrigerator. You might also select a king "whirlpool" room or a king or double queen suite with kitchenette. A deluxe king whirlpool suite has all the bells and whistles including a fireplace.
The hotel provides a complimentary hot breakfast, complimentary USA Today newspaper on weekdays, self-laundry service, Nintendo, shuttle service within a five-mile radius, outdoor pool and hot tub, 24-hour shop, high-speed Internet access, 24-hour business center and full fitness center.
Rates vary by arrival date, so visit www.hamptonsouthpark.com and plug in your arrival dates for pricing; don't overlook the site's "special pricing and packages" page for value-added offers.
The Hampton is located near Charlotte’s upscale Southpark Mall (704-364-4411 or www.simon.com/mall), 4400 Sharon Rd. The mall has such high-end retail outlets as Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Coach, Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Hermes and more.
If you stay at the Hampton, you might head next door to the The Palm Restaurant of steak fame (704-552-7256 or www.thepalm.com).
A savory nearby seafood choice is McCormick & Schmick’s (704-377-0201 or www.mccormickandschmicks.com), located at Southpark (it also has a second locale at 200 S. Tryon).
Seeking moredown-home eats? Consider the following:
- Reid’s Fine Foods (704-377-1312 or www.reids.com, 225 E. Sixth St. with complimentary valet parking;
- Mac’s Speed Shop (704-522-MACS or www.macspeedshop.com), a former transmission shop turned BBQ heaven, 2511 South Blvd.;
- Mert’s Heart & Soul (704-342-4222 or www.mertsuptown.com), 214 North College, featuring Southern/Low Country/Gullah cuisine. Mert's has affordable dishes with one meat, two sides and cornbread from $5.95 to $7.25
And if you want more shopping, head for the region's largest mall, Concord Mills (www.concordmills.com). It's about a 15 minute drive from Charlotte's uptown. Each year more than 15 million visitors amble over to this shopping enclave of 200 retailers, outlets, and restaurants.
Among the favorites are Sun & Ski Sports, which boasts a rock-climbing wall and deck for ski and snowboard instruction; Off 5th Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet; and the Build-A-Bear Workshop. Covering more than 150,000 square feet, you'll need a map to navigate your way through Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World with its 23,000-gallon aquarium, waterfall and trout stream.
More than six million people live within a two hour drive of Charlotte, which is located off Interstate 75.
About 55 percent of the nation is also only two hours away by air.
Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, (704-359-4013 or www.charmeck.org/Departments/Airport), 5501 Josh Birmingham Pkwy., is a major US Airways hub; it averages more than 500 flights a day.
For More Information
Travel writer and romance novelist Kathy M. Newbern lives in Raleigh, NC, where she and her writer husband, J.S. Fletcher, operate www.yournovel.com. She formerly worked for The Charlotte Observer as head of the Concord and Hickory news bureaus.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Jack Horan and local Charlotte area tourism entities. All rights reserved. Do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.