A busy schedule in an unfamiliar town: This convention is truly a business trip. Get a flavor of Charlotte quickly — and relax away from the convention at these emblematic places.
• Money walk. There’s a recession going on, but you can still get a whiff of the Big Money any business day in uptown Charlotte’s banking district: North Tryon Street is traditionally the turf of Charlotte-based Bank of America; South Tryon is in the orbit of Wells Fargo; other lenders are worked into the mix.
Start your stroll in new Urban Garden atrium in 1 Bank of American Center at Fifth and College streets; cross the skybridge to Founder’s Hall, the two-story dining/shopping concourse that adjoins the BoA Corporate Center — at 60 stories, the tallest building in the Carolinas. In the Deco-inspired lobby; check the ceiling frescos by noted Carolinas muralist Ben Long.
On the upper floor of Founder’s Hall, follow the Overstreet Mall south. The retail walkway that darts through or into seven blocks over five streets. Uptown Charlotte turned up its nose on its streets in the ’80s, hollowed out the second stories of skyscrapers for shops and cafes, and linked them with skywalks.
Overstreet maze is a hive of activity during business hours (dormant nights/weekends) and great for people-watching.
Caution: Fast-walking bankers! You’ll eventually reach the Wells Fargo’s side of uptown. Take an escalator to street level.
• Sample NASCAR. Professional car-racing put the Charlotte on the leisure-sport map, and uptown’s NASCAR Hall of Fame is a three-story shrine to stock cars. Check out the displays and interactive bells-and-whistles. Inside the Racing Simulator, get a white-knuckle feel of what race day is like for a professional driver. There’s more nerve-rattling at the 64-foot projection screen in the High Octane Theatre.
Got more time and interest? Head out to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, in exurban Concord (800-455-3267; www.charlottemotorspeedway.com/tours). Both the $9 and $17 tours include a lap around the famous track.
Too long a haul? Opt for Michael Waltrip Racing (20310 Chartwell Center Dr., Cornelius; 704-655-9550; www.michaelwaltripracing.com; click MWR HQ) at the working automotive compound of the famed NASCAR driver and team owner. An on-site theater explains the hoopla to the un-tracked mind. This operation is known as one of the most fan-friendly of the many racing shops just north of Charlotte. $10.
• Museum of the New South. Charlotte embraces its past (translation: Its rise to prominence ) at the Levine Museum of the New South in uptown. It’s a compact but nifty look at the town’s economic, social and cultural growth after the Civil War. The permanent Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers is the city’s sum-it-up walk-through.
• National Whitewater Center. Need of active relaxation? Try the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Northwest of the airport, on the Catawba River, is what’s billed as the world’s largest artificial river. The course for adventure paddlers has 0.75-mile loop of Class II to Class IV rapids. Trip for beginners is $49. Lessons, equipment rentals, packages available. Need to soar? Try the center’s zip lines. At the Climb 2 Zip, ascend the 32-foot tour and glide the 100-foot length. Or try the Mega Zip course, whose 1,123-foot line dangles you over the whitewater rapids. (Use included in rafting package; $15 per zip otherwise).
More of a spectator? Grab for a table and menu (American contemporary fare) at its River’s Edge Bar & Grill, which overlooks the competition channel. $5 parking.
• Carowinds. Charlotte’s Carowinds amusement park straddles the North Carolina/South Carolina state line right off I-77 and is a sister operation to Ohio’s famous Cedar Point. The Carolina Cobra, a three-inversion coaster with a 12-story vertical drop, debuted in 2009; the more recent Intimidator is a tip of the cowboy hat to NASCAR legend Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt and is touted as the “tallest, fastest, longest” coaster in the Southeast. Don’t miss riding Thunder Road, inspired by Carolina moonshine runners: a long, fast, hilly straightaway that literally crosses state lines twice.
• Central Avenue eateries & shops. Need an alternative to conventionburgers? Eating too well on someone else’s nickel? Sample Charlotte’s increasingly international culture on funky Central Avenue, which some term the “International District.” From uptown east to around Sharon Amity Road, you’ll find blocks of eateries that cater to the city’s more recent immigrants — food from China, Vietnam (stop in at Saigon Square strip mall), Latin America, Central America, Lebanon, Serbia and elsewhere.
None of the places is all that expensive, and wedged in among them are a host of ethnic stores and groceries.
• Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden. Sniff the flowers at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, just west of Charlotte in exurban Belmont. The 450-acre nature park is less than 20 years old but growing like a weed. It now features more than eight main/themed gardens and an orchid conservatory.
• Latta Plantation. More fresh air and elbow room? This park complex along Lake Norman should do the trick. It holds the Carolina Raptor Center, a home for injured and recovered owls, hawks, falcons and other feathered meat-eaters you can see up close. History buffs can visit a the circa 1800 plantation home and living history farm. Get your exercise: There are 16 miles of horseback and hiking trails. Latta’s nature preserve is home to 97 species of birds, 17 of mammals, 14 of reptiles, and 9 of amphibians.
• NC Music Factory. The convention site is close to the EpiCentre entertainment complex. Put some distance between you and other conventioneers at this youth-oriented tunes/food/drink compound on the other (west) side of uptown. DJs spin tunes at uber-hip Butter; there’s live music at the Saloon and Filmore; drinks at Wet Willie’s, a Comedy Zone, and restaurants — from a Lowcountry-esque fine dining at Bask to the indoor/out VBGB beer garden to Mattie’s Diner (open 24/7).
John Bordsen is the travel editor of The Charlotte Observer