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Situated in the heart of North Carolina, the progressive city of Charlotte is an impressive combination of skyscrapers, shopping venues, parks and art galleries. Aptly known as the 'Queen City', Charlotte has managed to retain its old world charm while simultaneously earning a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking cities in the south.
Charlotte is well known for its flourishing art scene and has a number of outstanding museums and galleries that are enjoyed by visitors and residents alike. The Mint Museum of Art has the distinction of being the oldest of its kind in North Carolina, and it exhibits a comprehensive selection of European, African and American art, a collection of historical costumes and gold coins, and an exquisite assortment of porcelain and pottery. Forming part of the museum, and responsible for its name, is the original branch of the US Mint.
Independence Square, located among gleaming skyscrapers and guarded by four enormous statues, is downtown Charlotte's busiest thoroughfare. The square is an excellent place to enjoy a meal before heading off to peruse the multitude of shops, boutiques and galleries surrounding it. It is also a central hub of the city's nightlife, with a wide range of bars, restaurants and cafés in the vicinity.
Also in downtown Charlotte is Discovery Place, a state-of-the-art development which brings together technology and environment under one roof. With its interactive science museum, aquarium, indoor rainforest, IMAX theatre and planetarium, it's a fun and educational excursion for the whole family.
Being the largest retail centre in the Carolinas, Charlotte offers shopping of the highest quality, and its numerous malls and department stores in the city centre can keep avid spenders busy for days. The outlying suburbs and villages offer many unique specialities and antiques which make perfect souvenirs and gifts.
For travellers who tire of skyscrapers, spending and sightseeing, Charlotte has approximately 14,000 acres of parks that provide the perfect refuge from the hum of the city. Of these, the Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary, founded in 1927, is particularly special. It has a variety of different garden ecosystems designed to attract a plethora of bird species that use the park as a rest stop during their annual migration.
There are plenty of attractions surrounding Charlotte that are easily accessible by car. Lying 16kms outside the city is Paramount's Carowinds, an amusement and water park that offers non-stop entertainment. It features rafting, a Ferris wheel, six rollercoasters and an enormous ski tower, as well as regular music concerts and special events.
The Golf Village, another nearby attraction, is an entertainment complex featuring golf, billiards, wide screen televisions and a large selection of delectable, well-priced cuisines. The North Carolina Zoological Park, 120kms from the city, is rated among the top five of its kind in the US. It houses a wide selection of exotic animals from Africa and closer to home within a well-maintained, attractive environment.
Just 19kms northeast of Charlotte is the Historic Latta Plantation, the largest plantation in the US at 2,500 acres, and the last one still open to the public. Its massive grounds include scenic nature trails for walking or horseback riding, historic old buildings containing various exhibits, and the Carolina Raptor Centre, a popular and fascinating sanctuary for birds of prey.
McDowell Park and Nature Preserve, 20kms south of Charlotte, is a magical retreat situated on the white sand shores of Lake Wylie. This is a perfect place to spend a few nights camping in the wild. You can enjoy the serene beauty of the lake from a paddleboat, or simply relax on its banks with a fishing rod in hand. There are also over 10kms of lovely nature trails in the area surrounding the lake.
Charlotte-Douglas International Airport serves all major domestic and most international routes, including those directly to and from the UK. It is situated west of the city off I-85.Transport into the city is available in the form of airport shuttle buses, charging about US$8, and taxis, slightly more expensive at about US$15. However, most major hotels provide complimentary transport from the airport in private minibuses.
The US road network is both well-connected and well-maintained, and its high quality and efficiency make driving a pleasure. Charlotte sees the confluence of several major highways, with I-77 coming in from Columbia, South Carolina, and intersecting with I-40 as it continues north to Virginia.
I-85 enters Charlotte from the southwesterly direction of Greenville, South Carolina, then heads northeast, crossing the I-40 between Winston-Salem and 'the Triangle' - the area around Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. I-277 leads directly into Charlotte.
Trains are a good travel option, being reasonably priced and less cramped than buses. Amtrak offers a daily service to Charlotte from Washington DC, Atlanta and destinations beyond. There is also a daily service to and from Raleigh and Durham.
The US bus system is affordable, reliable and extensive, with Greyhound and other services operating between most major centres in the country. The only drawback is the relative discomfort, especially over long distances.