Here in Charlotte, N.C., you can't go down to Front Street and watch the ships come in, since you're 180 miles from the coast. (The mountains are about half that distance away.) Nor is there a Central Park right downtown where you can sit and people-watch, although the first two blocks of South Tryon Street make a good place for that.
As you might gather from this, Charlotte's setting among the rolling hills of western North Carolina does not qualify as dramatic -- except perhaps in spring when the hills are abloom with azaleas. However, you can -- with a little effort -- find enough in this city of 350,000-plus to occupy a few hours, several times over.
Charlotte is a modern, New South city 240 miles north of Atlanta that depends heavily on banking and distribution. It is growing rapidly as a regional headquarters for national corporations whose people fan out over the nation from Monday to Friday. And if you question that, drop by the airport on a Sunday afternoon or Monday morning and try to get a seat out of town.
It is a place of agreeable contrasts where historians boast loudly of a significant document that's never been found. You will find opera and stock car racing, drama and rasslin'. Sometimes you wonder if the banks measure success by the height of their buildings rather than the amount of their deposits. But these steel-and-glass towers are set in counterpoint to broad sidewalks lined by leafy trees. (In fact, the city has its own arborist, and he and his crew have catalogued nearly every tree in town.)
Charlotte was settled in 1748 by a handful of Scotch-Irish colonists who named it after England's Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. That's the same George who a quarter of a century later was the least likely of candidates for any more such honors in the rebellious American colonies.
On May 20, 1775, a group of local patriots purportedly signed the Mecklenburg (County) Declaration of Independence. To this day, you'll find fervent believers who contend the Meck Dec, as it is called, predates some similar paper signed in Philadelphia a year later. The believers are not dismayed by the fact that the Meck Dec has not shown up; they know it will be found one of these days.
Cornwallis, the British commander, attempted to invade Charlotte during the Revolutionary War but was forced into retreat, calling the place a "hornet's nest's," a label it has worn with pride ever since.
In 1799, gold was discovered here in such quantities that a branch of the U.S. Mint was built downtown. It stills stands -- in a new incarnation -- and there are abandoned gold mines under the downtown streets to this day.
Today, Charlotte fans out from The Square, which is the junction of Trade and Tryon streets, right at the center of downtown. The Square determines whether crossing streets become north, south, east or west.
Touring by stagecoach may be the most unique way to get a feel for the city, although hot-air balloons vie for the position, but you can also choose bus or van, surrey or Amish carriage. To my mind, however, the best way to see Charlotte is on foot.
Tryon Street from First to Seventh streets has become an interesting thoroughfare, with broad, tree-lined sidewalks set off by benches and bus shelters. Stroll north past the square and you will come to two of Charlotte's oldest churches -- St. Peter's Catholic and St. Peter's Episcopal -- as well as small shops juxtaposed against gleaming high rises, the public library and two stops that are absolute musts: Spirit Square and Discovery Place.
Discovery Place has been called one of the country's Top 10 science museums. Such is the fascination of the place that you can turn the crankiest kids loose here and not hear a peep out of them for a whole afternoon. Spirit Square is a downtown center for the visual arts and features classes and workshops for both children and adults. It also hosts cultural performances. (In fact, Charlotte is heavily into attractions for children, and another -- one of the oldest and best -- is the Nature Museum, south of the downtown area on Sterling Road. Kids are inevitably engrossed for hours by its collection of small mammals, reptiles, aquatic life and geologic exhibits.)
A bit further north on Tryon, at Eighth or Ninth street, take a left for two blocks and you'll find yourself in Charlotte's restored historic area, Fourth Ward. In this primarily residential area -- although there are occasional shops scattered here and there -- Victorian houses have been restored to a condition that in some cases is probably better than new. Even the newly built condos have been carefully planned to blend in tastefully. The area has become a popular and somewhat trendy neighborhood for hundreds of young professionals who work uptown.
The arts have seen a resurgence in Charlotte in the last few years. The anchor of the resurgence is the Mint Museum. (Now you know what happened to the old federal Mint. It was moved to the Eastover section of town, southeast of downtown, and transformed into an excellent art museum, with collections of European and American art from the Renaissance to today. There are also pottery, pre-Columbian and African exhibits and period costumes.) In addition, a number of galleries have recently opened in the three or four blocks of Tryon Street just north of The Square.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, which recently returned from a two-week European tour, has a 41-week season of classical, educational and pops concerts. And Opera Carolina, the largest professional opera company between Washington and Miami, presents four productions a year. The Oratorio Singers of Charlotte comprises more than 150 members, and they will join the Charlotte Symphony for performances during the coming season.
Among dramatic groups that take to the boards in cooler weather are the Little Theatre of Charlotte, ACE-Repertory Theatre, a professional Equity group; the Golden Circle Theatre; and the Tarradiddle Players. Central Piedmont Community College also has an active theater group.
For true escapism, there are two low-key spots that consistently draw visitors:
Wing Haven, a three-acre garden in residential Myers Park, south of the city, was begun by Elizabeth and Edwin Clarkson in their back yard in 1927. It became widely known not only for its beauty as a garden, but also as a sanctuary for more than 130 species of birds. The Clarksons have given the garden to a foundation, which opened it to the public not long ago. Tall hedges divide different gardens, creating a sense of privacy, and gravel paths wind among them.
The botanical gardens on the campus of the University of North Carolina's Charlotte branch -- eight miles northeast of downtown -- are also a haven from noise, hustle and bustle. These are some of the Southeast's best-known rhododendron gardens, and they include a greenhouse that has, among other things, an outstanding orchid collection. The gardens are open daily, the greenhouse on request.
For those who find gardens too static and opera too dull, there is professional wrestling at the Charlotte Coliseum "about every other weekend," a spokeswoman says. And another draw for those who like their action occasionally violent is the Charlotte Motor Speedway, about 15 miles north of town on U.S. Rte. 29. Rabid stock-car fans have been known to take a cab out just to look at the track even when nothing was doing.
Finally, if you can spare an extra day or two in Charlotte, there is a wide selection of accommodations beyond the major chains and hotel groups, some attractively offbeat.
In the restored Fourth Ward section of downtown, there's the Fourth Ward Bed and Breakfast, an 1890s Victorian home that takes you back in time and is within walking distance of everything. Another newly restored old-timer is the Homeplace, which dates back to 1902. It's on the edge of southeast Charlotte and you'll need a cab or car, but it's in a beautiful part of town. Not far from it is the Inn on Providence, which has a pool and is furnished in antiques.
But to really put on the dog, as they say, Hampton Manor, also nearby on Carmel Road, might be the place. It is pretty nifty digs, with tennis court, Jacuzzi and pool. And -- to start you off right -- its Rolls-Royce will pick you up at the airport.
Jim Dumbell is a travel writer for The Charlotte Observer.