My trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, April 2012: Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, The Latta Plantation, The Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, and great southern food
In April 2012 I was invited to participate as a voting delegate at the AFS National Volunteer Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina. Most of the weekend was spent at the Courtyard Marriott but I was determined to make the most of a free trip so I took a night flight out of Seattle and arrived at 6:00 AM the day before.
I had done a little research of what I could see in the surrounding area beforehand, so I freshened up in the airport restroom and headed out of the city in a rental car.
The first stop was Belmont, NC. I stopped into a small diner in Belmont and had some eggs, biscuits, and grits served by a waitress who called me “honey.” It was early on a Thursday morning and my fellow dining companions all appeared to be old war vets meeting up for their morning breakfast social hour. The grits were fairly bland, but the breakfast bill came to a whopping $3.50. After breakfast, I got back in my rental car and drove to the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens.
It was 8:00 and the gardens didn’t open until 9:00, so I took a much needed power nap in my car in the parking lot. When they opened, I bought my ticket and had the place all to myself. It was a beautiful sunny morning and the gardens were lovely.
Just as I was leaving it started raining, so my timing couldn’t have been better.
Next, I drove to The Latta Plantation in Huntersville, NC.
The Latta Plantation is an historic cotton plantation owned by the Latta family in the 1800’s. It has been renovated and preserved and offers educational tours daily. The tour was interesting and very informative of plantation life in the 1800’s, including lives of plantation slaves and their working/living conditions.
After the plantation tour, I headed back to the airport to drop off the rental car and take the bus into downtown Charlotte.
The Courtyard Marriott was very nice and very centrally located. At this point I was very interested in a nap.
That evening, I was still alone until the next morning when my co-volunteers arrived. I freshened up and ventured out to see some of downtown Charlotte.
The thing I realized about Charlotte, was that most of the people in Charlotte live in the suburbs and commute to and from downtown for work. The city has been recently built up and many of the hotels, restaurants, and museums are fairly new. Charlotte is a major financial center in the United States, and home of the Bank of America and Wells Fargo headquarters. With so many of it’s jobs based in banks and so few people actually living downtown, this pretty much amounted to downtown being a cultural desert. Everything seemed shiny and new, with little history and little nightlife.
Another baffling thing about downtown Charlotte is it’s lack of convenience stores. I suppose with a lack of downtown apartments there isn’t much convenience store business to be had, but I was appalled at how much effort it took to find a bottle of wine near my hotel. (The hotel tried to sell me a bottle of Beringer white zinfandel for $12.00 in their gift shop….Normally a $4.99 bottom shelf buy anywhere else). I finally found some decently priced mid range wine for sale at the drug store down the street.
Having done my research and with tips from the Carolina AFS team, I had a dinner destination in mind and it did not disappoint. Halcyon is an upscale modern take on southern cuisine, and should definitely be on your travel checklist if you happen to be visiting Charlotte. Being alone, I sat at the bar and talked to the very friendly bartender as she worked. I had the duck breast served with sweet potato hush puppies and a sort of spring fruit and vegetable slaw (sorry, I can’t remember what was in the slaw, I just remember that it was fantastic).
The cocktail selection was mind-blowing, and I found myself deliberating between a squid ink martini served with a squid tentacle and a traditional mint julep. They were pricey, so I could only afford one. I went with the mint julep since I was in the south. I still wonder about that squid ink martini though…..I kind of wish I’d gone for both.
For desert, I had a chocolate pot d’ creme with mini doughnuts in raspberry sauce. It was heavenly.
The next morning, my co-volunteers arrived and we had one more day to be tourists before the NVA program got in full swing. I grabbed some breakfast from Bo Jangles Chicken and Biscuits around the corner and a latte from the hotel coffee shop and met up with my co-volunteers to explore a little of downtown.
Unless you’re a NASCAR fan, there’s not a whole lot to see in downtown Charlotte. I did really enjoy the sculpture garden we found off the main street across from the art museum, however. It is worth a visit.
We decided to check out the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art. It was nice, but pretty small and didn’t hold a candle to the Seattle Art Museum back home. They had a Warhol and a Lichtenstein, and some other interesting works.
For lunch, we were all salivating for some good southern soul food. We went to Mert’s Heart & Soul and it was fabulous. Fried chicken, shrimp and grits, red beans and rice, okra, collard greens, fried green tomatoes–they had it all and they did it right.
The rest of the weekend we were pretty much confined to the hotel with catering, but Saturday night we had a dinner celebration at the Levine Museum of the New South, which is definitely worth a visit. My big regret is that I thought I would have more time to tour the museum after dinner, but the program was so full that I only got to see part of it. If I ever end up back in Charlotte, it will be my main priority (along with dinner at Halcyon again).
I don’t know what company did the catering, but it was delicious. A full southern Carolina BBQ buffet:
Overall, I wouldn’t make Charlotte a destination city. There are lots of other great cities in the south with a lot more culture and history. If you are stuck there or passing through for one reason or another, however, there are some interesting things to see and some great food.