Sunday, November 29, 2015

My new pal...Charlotte

So, there I was, soaking up the stillness in my quiet house, relishing the brief period of solitude that is awarded to me once or twice a year...when I recognized the stirrings of a familiar, undeniable urge beginning to overtake me. That's right, the Travel Bug was whispering in my ear, "It's time to get the heck out of Dodge. C'mon, you know you want to...just gooooo!" Well, who am I to ignore such a clear and compelling mandate, really?

And that's how I found myself throwing together a little overnight jaunt to Charlotte, a heretofore unexplored (by us, anyway) city about 2 hours down Route 85 to our southwest. Armed with a list of potentially interesting sites that might be worth checking out, and having secured a ridiculously-sale-priced hotel room--presumably due to holiday vacancies they were trying to fill--I packed a bag and got underway.

My first destination was the Latta Plantation, which actually lay in a town called Huntersville, in the northern part of Mecklenberg County. They were re-enacting "One Hundred Years of Christmas", with the focus on the Colonial, Regency, and Victorian eras (1768-1868, to be specific. Thank goodness for informative brochures). Many of the buildings--the main house, separate kitchen structure, slave quarters, and mercantile cabin--were decked out in historically-appropriate festive fashion. All over the grounds, volunteers in authentic period costume answered questions and gave demonstrations, such as roasting a whole chicken on a spit over a fire (very smoky), playing yuletide tunes on homemade instruments (surprisingly melodic), chopping wood using an ax (exhausting, I'd wager), weaving a rug on an old-fashioned loom (incredibly impressive and complicated), and loading Civil War rifles (um...dangerous and scary). There was even a suitably jolly Saint Nick wandering around, to the delight of the hordes of young visitors.

As you can imagine, that was all super-gratifying to a history nerd like myself. Once I'd had my fill of the farm, as it were, I headed for my next stop, a compound dedicated to President James K. Polk. When I arrived, however, I found it closed, with no explanation provided. (Everyone's gone shopping on Black Friday? Who knows...) Eh, it wasn't like he was one of the more significant past leaders of our country, right? No great loss--scratch that one off and move on to the next option: checking in to my home for the evening. While I don't need to bore anyone with every tiny detail, it was definitely among the nicest hotels rooms I've ever rented. Glass shower, wet bar (sans alcohol, but swanky nonetheless), sectional sofa...suffice it to say that I felt quite pleased...and spoiled...during my short stay.

As an unexpected bonus, it was situated very near one of the main avenues into downtown, making my subsequent activity an easy choice. One thing that I noticed very quickly that's pretty cool about Charlotte is that it has a high-profile skyline, due to some soaring skyscrapers clustered in the heart of the business district. Therefore, approaching it from either a highway or a through-street, as I was, you have an extremely visible landmark towards which to point yourself. On the other hand, despite the tall buildings and urban bustle, it somehow gives the impression of being a small-ish, pedestrian-friendly place. In fact, I parked my car (in the Bank of America Tower...60 stories and the loftiest one of the bunch) and left it as I wandered around the entire central area on foot.

I had a grand old time peering into shops, admiring the twinkling lights that were already installed for the upcoming season, (and speaking of which) watching a crew assemble a large artificial Christmas tree in the retail district...photographing interesting architecture. (Hey, I'm just a regular tourist with a camera when I go on a field trip, what can I tell ya?) I even managed to meander into a couple of the picturesque older neighborhoods--such as Dilworth and the 4th Ward--to ogle the charming 19th-century homes and peaceful sidewalks lined with stately, mature trees. The most fascinating thing about these was that if you just lifted your eyes a fraction toward those treetops, your gaze crashed right into the aforementioned modern-day edifices, looming hugely in the background, mere steps away. I found the juxtaposition of classic and ultra-newfangled to be an appealing quirk of Charlotte's personality.

Finally, the setting sun clued me in to the fact that I needed to get moving toward my final engagement of the evening: the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, which supposedly offered a fancy light display in honor of the imminent season o'celebrating. I programmed my GPS to get me there, and started the trek...but after a while, I couldn't help feeling that I was going....out into the Middle of Nowhere? The kind of place where, you know, you can dump a body...and no one would ever find it? (Not from experience, mind you, just as a METAPHOR. Sheesh, people...) I just pictured pulling up to this rinky-dink, sketchy little outpost...being the only one there...and panicking, turning around and fleeing for my life. So it was with no small amount of trepidation that I--at long last, it seemed--approached the entrance....and breathed a huge sigh of relief. The path leading in beckoned with sparkling tree-shaped light fixtures. The parking lot, far from the deserted scene I'd been dreading, overflowed into an adjacent field, where extra rows had been cordoned off to accommodate, apparently, the enormous amount of guests they were expecting.

And the line? Let's just say it was reminiscent of, maybe, Disneyworld, wrapping around the front of the Visitor's Center, winding through several lanes of rope. (Oddly enough, I didn't mind, as this appeared to indicate that the whole thing would be worth it when I made it in there. I did hear several folks joking about needing a Fast Pass. Alas, there was no such we waited....) Once you gained was sooooo awesome. Everything was constructed of lights--palm trees and a grape arbor and flowers and...lots of other stuff. All of the permanent features, like the pond and several bridges, were also adorned with an array of dazzling lights and colors. Everywhere you turned, there was something beautiful for your eyes to feast on, while you oohed and aahed in wonder (Yep, "big kids" too).

At the end of a very full and satisfying day, the oasis--um "hotel"--was calling my name. I'd earned some rest, before tackling one more item on the Charlotte To-Do List. So the next morning, after tanking up on free coffee at the Hyatt's breakfast bar, I navigated back into the south end of the city to Freedom Park, an alcove of nature nestled into the outskirts of the metropolis. According to my research, it's 98 acres; from my own walk-through I can report that it encompasses a bubbling stream, a small lake ringed by all kinds of foliage (some of it surprisingly-still-green for almost-December), baseball and soccer fields, tennis and basketball and even beach volleyball courts, playgrounds, picnic tables and shelters, and of course the path I was busy enjoying (along with quite a few other walkers, joggers, and bikers). It was an absolute treasure in-and-of-itself, no doubt, but it also looked to be plopped in the midst of some stunning communities filled with majestic red-brick homes and manicured lawns that were an added delight to behold. All in all, a very scenic end to my Charlotte excursion.

Of course, I posted several of my "here's what I'm doing" photos to Instagram...where my children both follow me...and thus got myself in a weeeee bit of hot water for going off and having fun without them. Derek, in fact, made uncharacteristically snarky comments to let me know just how grumpy he was with me. But I assured them that I certainly didn't exhaust the fun-to-be-had in Charlotte, by any means, and that we'll all go back one day soon TOGETHER. I was just, you know "scouting it out" for them, doing some valuable "recon"....or what have you. Anyway, it was a blast, time to go home...and rest up for Monday. See ya, Char...thanks for the memories!

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