Come and Meet Charlotte in Sweet Carolina
By Chris Drew
With loads to see and do, you'll fall for Charlotte, just like the President. Barack Obama has a hot date with Charlotte... and you can hardly blame him for falling for her charms.
Hip, chic Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, is easy on the eye and hard to leave. She has also demonstrated her pulling power by attracting the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Come September, 30,000 delegates will gather there to rubber-stamp Obama’s nomination as their candidate for the US presidential election. Obama’s made a shrewd move hitching up with the city, which is shrugging off the economic doom and gloom to become the fastest-growing in the US.
An easy way to see the attraction for yourself is by bike. From the airport (barely a 10-minute taxi ride out), the skyline of towering office blocks has the appearance of a baby New York... but without the traffic. As we freewheeled through parks and along roads and sidewalks, Tremaine Tyson, our guide with Charlotte NC Tours (£20), gave us a potted history of a place with a knack for reinvention.
One minute Charlotte’s founding fathers were currying favour with Britain by naming the city after King George III’s bride. The next they were severing all ties, getting in on the act before the American Declaration of Independence. In 1799, Charlotte also saw the first gold rush after Conrad Reed, 12, found a 17lb rock on his family’s farm. They used it as a doorstop until, taken for suckers they sold it for $3.50. It was worth 1,000 times that.
Today the tree-lined streets have the spick-and-span look of a city that’s just been built, with squares full of quirky sculptures, from giant bobbins to an 18ft firebird of tiny mirrors. The Fourth Ward of reclaimed 18th Century mansions is another delight – like finding a leafy suburb off London’s Oxford Street.
The Harvest Moon Grille in Charlotte
Our tour over, it was time to eat and, once again, Charlotte was a revelation. Restaurants are going green, using only food grown within a 100-mile radius. Cassie Parsons at the Harvest Moon Grille says her pork is the best in the universe (I can’t disagree). Chicken roasted over a wood fire at Rooster’s Uptown was so good my wife Angi and I went there twice, while the Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar sounds an odd mix but works. Even if you really go to town you shouldn’t pay more than £25 a head.
To escape the city, the Lazy Five Ranch (£5) is a 45-minute drive away. Donny, an ex-rodeo rider and part-time sporran-maker, took us on a three-mile ride in a horse-drawn wagon, stopping to feed everything from goats to giraffes and marvel at the length of a bison’s tongue.
If that sounds tame there’s the largest man-made white water river in the world, a 15-minute drive from the city centre. For £35 you can spend all day zip-wiring, rock climbing and mountain climbing on the 14-mile site. The real must-do is the white water rafting. We got soaked but stayed afloat, steered by our ripped, sun-tanned guide, whose nickname Tubbs proved Americans CAN do irony.
There's plenty to do for thrill-seekers
There’s more to North Carolina than Charlotte. Three hours drive away is Wilmington – nicknamed Hollywood East– where Robert Downey Jr is filming Iron Man 3. You can take a Hollywood walk (£7.50) with Spielen Steveberg (I hope he was joking), see the location of Blue Velvet and learn that the late Edward Woodward had trouble spelling “beautiful”. But the settings for One Tree Hill and Dawson’s Creek seemed of most interest to the awe-struck teenagers in our group.
North Carolina has miles of beautiful beaches
A horse-drawn carriage (£8 for a 45-minute tour) takes you to the historic downtown and the Cape Fear River, passing the ornate houses of 18th-century ship captains and cotton merchants. A wooden boardwalk runs for more than a mile beside the river. But it’s a struggle to walk by the Pilot House without stopping to dine over the water on crab and lobster for as little as £6. Minutes from Wilmington are 35 miles of sandy beaches and we watched the sun going down on a cruise off Wrightsville Beach. Binoculars in one hand, a beer in the other, we scanned the horizon as naturalist Joe Abbate pointed out oystercatchers, skimmers, pelicans and terns.
Heading north, you eventually reach the Outer Banks, a 130-mile string of barrier islands connected to the mainland by ferries and some impressive bridges. Most Carolinians go misty-eyed at their very mention. And the Outer Banks tick all the boxes whatever your taste, from all-action Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head to miles of wild, unspoilt sand dunes leading south to Cape Hatteras.
Cape Hatteras lighthouse
At Kill Devil Hills, named after a particularly lethal cargo of washed-up rum, you can see marker stones showing the progress of the first flights by the Wright brothers (£2.50) and a replica of their plane. Green mileposts act as useful markers on the Outer Banks and just past Mile Post 61 you will find Cape Hatteras lighthouse. At 207ft it is the tallest in the US and for about £5 you can climb the 248 iron stairs to the top. The view will take your breath away... as will the fact that in 1999 it was moved intact half a mile inland.
It’s a six-hour drive back to Charlotte, which gives you the perfect excuse to break the journey in Chapel Hill, site of the first public university in the States, which opened in 1795. Missy Julian-Fox was our charming campus guide, pointing out the Morehead Planetarium where astronauts came to learn celestial navigation, as well as two gargoyles that used to be on the Tower of London.
The place to eat is Scott Maitland’s Top of the Hill Brewpub, which does a great slow-roasted pork sandwich with fries for around £5. Scott, one of those can-do Americans you can’t help but like is now moving into distilling and his white whiskey is surprisingly smooth. The elegant Carolina Inn, on the edge of the campus, was only built in 1924 but it is probably the classiest, most historic hotel in North Carolina. Time it right and you can get a double room for around £80.
With colonial pillars, an imposing facade and summertime tea dances on the lawn on Fridays it is a taste of the Old South. It could be the set for Gone With The Wind... but then the whole of North Carolina will blow you away.