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Charlotte, NC
by Carol Holmes & Anna Collins
photos by Anna Collins

Get ready to explore Charlotte, North Carolina, part small town and part big city. With its gracious colonial homes and stunning skyscrapers, Charlotte provides a wide range of opportunities for shopping, dining and sightseeing.

Before you visit a new place, isn't it good to know a little bit about its history? We think so. Charlotte was settled by a group of Scot-Irish immigrants who picked the location due to its proximity to two American Indian trading posts. Nicknamed the Queen City, it was named by a group of German settlers after German-born Queen Charlotte of England. It's also called The City of Trees due to its willow oaks, which are native to the city. Charlotte is the county seat of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, and the second largest financial center in this country.

We've finally arrived in Charlotte after two plane rides and a long taxi ride, but that's a whole other story! We are just thrilled to be at the hotel, Hilton Garden Inn at Charlotte North. Never mind that this type of Hilton is one of my favorite hotels to stay at . No, it isn't fancy or expensive. It's just comfortable and the front desk personnel are always friendly. This 112 room hotel has just what we need and none of what we don't! Who needs a mini-bar? Hilton Garden Inn has what you really need - a large work desk, a hair dryer, iron and ironing board. For more information on Hilton Garden Inn Charlotte North, log onto www.charlottenorth.gardeninn.com.

It's late, and we're dead tired, but not so tired that we can tune out our neighbor next door watching I Love Lucy at full volume. We're not in the mood for this. We call down to the front desk and they graciously move us to another (quieter) room. Ahh....we can finally relax. We have a big day planned tomorrow.

Charlotte
Day 1
By Carol Coloyan

Our first full day in Charlotte! We have so much planned and so much we want to see! A quick breakfast is the way to go, so we decide to eat at the hotel. For $4.95 per person, you can get fresh fruit, bagels, coffee cake, muffins and cereal. For $6.95, you can get eggs any way, pancakes, hash browns and toast. What the heck! We're not paying so we decide to splurge on the more extravagant eats.

As we eat our omelets and hash browns, we strike up a conversation with Isa, our waitress. She wants to know what we're doing in Charlotte, and when we tell her, she gives us all kinds of insider tips on seeing the city. Pretty soon, the cook comes out too. We thank him for our tasty amulets and he throws in some tips of his own. We're starting to draw a crowd, and breakfast is nearly over, so we decide to head out. Right before we leave, the chef asks us if we've had trouble finding our way around. We tell him that we just got in last night. He says, "Driving around Charlotte isn't easy. But remember it's set up just like a wagon wheel." Those famous words will come back to haunt us our entire trip!

First stop (or so we think): Peppermint Forest Christmas Shop. We have our maps, we know where we're going, so how come we can't find it? We feel as if we're in some kind of a Twilight Zone movie where we're driving in circles. We call the store and speak to Anna. Even when we give her some landmarks, she isn't 't sure where we are either! We finally find the store, but it's the wrong one! Did I mention that they have two locations? We are smack dab in front of the seasonal shop which isn't open yet. We call the store again and get directions, since now we're in a location they have heard of. We're on our way again, but it still feel like we're lost. It's that "wagon wheel" syndrome again!

The only good thing about being lost is that we find a most unusual antique store. The appropriately named Treasure House has been owned by Mary Collie, a native of Malta, for the past 8 1/2 years. Mary and her assistant, Jason, run this thriving business out of a 94 year old, two story house on Monroe Road in Charlotte. Mary specializes in hand carved mahogany, and there are plenty of beautiful (and reasonably priced!) pieces to be found. We admire a mahogany birdcage for $549.50, a set of mahogany bar stools ($249.95 each) and a mahogany chaise lounge for $794.00. But that's not all that Mary has! You'll want to take time to browse through each room of the house, where you'll find jewelry, pictures, glassware, quilts, hats, pillows, hutches, and nesting tables. Looking for an unusual gift? How about a real stuffed monkey for $149.00? Mary purchased him at an estate sale where the story goes that he was someone's pet who was loved so much that the owner stuffed him after the monkey died. Looking for something a little more routine? Well, Mary can help there too. She'll take your name and number and put it on a wish list. When the item comes in, as it often does, she'll call you. You don't even have to live in Charlotte. Mary will ship anywhere. She even accepts layaway with a minimum $50.00 deposit. Treasure House is located at 5300 Monroe Road, Charlotte, NC 28205. 704-532-1613. Open Tue-Sat 10:00-6:00.

We're still searching for Peppermint Forest. Hallelujah! We finally find the shopping center that it's in, but we're too hungry to shop! (Imagine that!) Breakfast seems like days ago. It's more like many, many miles ago!

Midtown Sundries Restaurant & Bar looks promising from the outside. The inside is quite dark and a little depressing. Being a sportsbar, most of the action seemed to be occurring around the bar area. But it's cool and quiet on this Saturday afternoon, and we are starving! Service is slow and our waitress seems disinterested, so we entertain ourselves by playing trivia games on the playmaker. (If you've never used a playmaker, it's an interactive trivia game player where you play against other people in the restaurant, as well as other people in other restaurants all over the country.) My traveling companion orders a grilled chicken breast salad ($6.95) but substitutes catfish for the chicken. I order the turkey wrap sandwich($5.95). Lunch takes a looong time to appear, and then our waitress disappears. The salad is good, but could have used a little less iceberg and a lot more catfish. The wrap is tasty, but I like it better without the feta cheese. (We think feta is a weird addition to a turkey sandwich.) More time passes and our waitress still doesn't appear. We finally see her and flag her down. No "How was the food?" or "Would you like anything else?" We decide to order Midtown's famous cobbler, but we're telling her what we'd like as she's walking away. She does return in a few minutes, but then informs us that on this quiet Saturday afternoon, they're out of cobbler. We need something sweet, so we order the hot fudge sundae($4.50), which turns out to be excellent. We decide that our waitress must have a headache because although we aren't treated rudely, the lack of interest in serving us is curious. Our bill never comes and we are anxious to get to Peppermint Forest. We finally leave the table because our bill never comes! We pay at the counter on the way out, only to overhear our waitress tell the hostess that she has a terrible headache. We're glad we left a sympathy tip. Midtown Sundries has five locations in the Charlotte area. We dined at the Pineville-Matthews Highway location in Carmel Commons Shopping Center.

On to shopping nirvana, Peppermint Forest Christmas Shop, where you'll find "8,000 square feet of year 'round Christmas magic." For us, there's nothing like Christmastime. We love the decorations, the hustle and bustle and all those cute little Santa figurines and reindeer ornaments. But this store isn't like that little area of Christmas supplies tucked away in the corner of your local discount store. Peppermint Forest has just about anything you can imagine to celebrate the holidays. You'll find 80 realistic trees, fifty of which are in a natural forest setting. Our phone friend, Anna Napier, who has worked at the store for two years, fills us in a little bit about the history of the store. It seems that Peppermint Forest has been around for about 20 years, but has only been in its current location for the last three years. The location we found earlier in the day is only open October - January. (The rest of the year, it's a pool store.) As one would expect, the busiest time is the period from Thanksgiving until two weeks after Christmas. Christmas in July is also a pretty popular event. Many of their clients come from as far away as South Carolina. As Anna busies herself with other customers, my travel companion and I explore this amazing store. Want Yankee candles, baskets and candle stick holders? They've got them! Wreaths, nativity sets and nutcrackers? Covered! Windchimes, wrapping paper and Christmas cards? Ditto! If you want to decorate your tree a little differently, why not try a feather boa or a garland of plastic fish? For us, the highlight of the store is their huge assortment of handblown ornaments made by Christopher Radko, Polonaise and Old World Christmas. These aren't your run of the mill glass K-mart ornaments. These are treasures that you would want to pass down in your family for years to come. If you don't celebrate Christmas, they do have a small selection of Hanukah gifts and decorations, as well as some other non-Christmas gift items. We dare you to walk out of this store without buying something! We don't think it can be done! Peppermint Forest is located year round in the Carmel Commons Shopping Center at 7601 Pineville-Matthews Rd. (Hwy 51) in Charlotte. The seasonal shop is open October-January at 4312 Monroe Rd at Oasis Pools. For more information on Peppermint Forest Christmas Shop, check out their website at www.peppermintforest.com.

We head back to the hotel, tired and disappointed that we hadn't been able to accomplish more today. After a brief rest, we vow to find a great local restaurant to offset our disappointing lunch. With a little help from the desk clerk, we find ourselves at Harris Grille, a newly opened restaurant virtually right across the street from the hotel. It is a class act from beginning to end. From the minute we step in the door, we like the feel of this restaurant. With its dark wood bar, open floor plan and unfinished ceiling, it's friendly and inviting. The fountain near the hostess stand is another nice touch. There is a short wait, after which we are seated in the nonsmoking section. We are seated slightly above the bar area where the smoke from a nearby table wafts in our direction. We've already ordered our drinks, and we can tell that our waiter is efficient and friendly, but we know we have to move. We tell our waiter, Jim Cone, that we're not comfortable where we are. We plan to approach the hostess, but even though Jim is busy with the tables, he gets us resettled quickly without an ounce of attitude. We love him already! I order the lobster ravioli ($17.95) and my traveling companion orders Madeira chicken ($13.95), which consists of chicken breasts sautéed with Madeira wine and portobello mushrooms. Not only is the presentation fabulous but the food is fabulous too! We end our meal with a delicious creme brulee. Now this is our kind of restaurant! Imagine our surprise when we're told that Harris Grille is owned by the same company that owns Midtown Sundries! Price aside, they're not even in the same league! Harris Grille is located at 9010 Harris Corners Parkway in Charlotte.

Day 2
by Anna Collins

Ah, day two of this Charlottian adventure. We started the day with a hearty breakfast at Mom's Country Store and Restaurant. Mom's looks a lot like a Cracker Barrel and there's good reason for that—Cracker Barrel fashioned themselves after the design of Mom's. This is the last Mom's restaurant anywhere.

I ordered pecan pancakes, 2 eggs, and hash browns ($4.29). Everything I ordered was great. The pancakes were full of pecans and the eggs fresh; the hashbrowns browned to perfection. Carol ordered a hamburger with fries ($5.99)and the waitress told her she could only get it cooked one way—well done. It came looking a tad hockey-puckish and tasted similarly. Apparently, the reason you can only get it cooked this way is because, according to FDA guidelines, it kills the bacteria . (And the taste.) Alongside the restaurant is the gift shop. It's a quaint country atmosphere with lots of crafts and collectibles for sale. You can find some nice souvenirs here. Mom's is worth the visit. Mom's, Exit 28, Cornelius, NC, Tel: 704/892-5730.

What next? How about some watery recreation? The popular recreational lake in the area is Lake Norman, a favorite spot for boating and all kinds of water sports including fishing, parasailing, jetskiing and more. A man-made lake, Lake Norman was constructed primarily for energy production and flood control of the Catawba River Valley. Lake Norman is located just north of Charlotte and remains the largest of seven lakes built for the energy program. Lake Norman was named for Norman Atwater Cocke, a retired president of Duke Power and has been dubbed "Our Inland Sea" by area residents. You can get information on boat rentals and other sports rentals as well as area restaurants and bars by logging on to www.lakenorman.org.

Well, since we didn't have a boat or water skis, we decided to visit some of the historical sites in Charlotte. Our first stop was The Charlotte Museum of History. The museum is very modern looking 36,000 sq. ft. multi-million dollar educational and research center. The inside houses the Queen Charlotte Rotunda that has a 35-foot atrium. Extending from the atrium are two exhibition corridors, five exhibition halls along with two smaller rotundas and three learning centers.

The main focus of the museum in on the two Carolinas and includes a core exhibit that spans the Pre-colonial Period to the 20th Century. You'll also find changing exhibits of American history, a research library and reading room and archives that display historic maps, photos and valuable documents. There's also a gift shops that sells crafts and books related to the focus of the museum.

Behind the museum is the Hezekiah Alexander Homesite. This historic dwelling that dates back to the Revolutionary War Era is on its original site and can be toured by docents (guides) that are dressed in 18th Century costumes.

Hezekiah Alexander was one of the original 27 signers of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and co-framed the North Carolina State Constitution and Bill of Rights. He was one of North Carolina's most respected citizens. Interestingly, James Polk, who became the 11th U.S. president, was Alexander's grandson.

We toured the house and found that the inside was displayed pretty much the was its former residents lived in it: sparse wooden furnishings, fireplaces for cooking and heat and two floors connected by a narrow wooden staircase. The winters here must have been quite uncomfortable by today's standards; no fancy heaters or electrical systems; just the fire place a or a hot coal pan placed underneath the bedclothes.

On the same property is the American Freedom Bell. The bell was a gift from the Belk Foundation to the people of America. It symbolizes the patriotic heritage of all the people of Charlotte and the two Carolinas who dedicated their life to the cause of American freedom. All three sites were located at 3500 Shamrock Drive, Charlotte, NC, Tel: 704/568-1774.

Later that day, we visited Concord Mills, a shopping and entertainment plaza. Here you'll find over 200 stores which include brand-name outlets and specialty stores. There's also an AMC 24-screen theater, theme restaurants and a food court. The center of Concord Mills is accented by an oval racetrack layout and giant video screens. This is a fantastic shopping experience. Don't miss it when you're in the area. Concord Mills, 8111 Concord Mills, Blvd., Concord, NC. 1-877-NCMILLS. or visit www.concordmills.com.

We decided to eat dinner at Chilis. It was difficult to find restaurants that weren't chains in the area, so that's why we decided on Chilis. We had the frajitas, which true to Chilis form, were excellent. You can find a Chilis wherever your travel destination may be by going to www.chilis.com.

Day 3

We're just steps away from a Bob Evans Restaurant, so that seems like a good plan for breakfast this morning. It's nothing fancy, but it's a good country-style restaurant. It's made up mostly of booths and is decorated with checked curtains and baskets on the walls. My travel companion orders the sweet cream Belgian waffle ($3.99) and a breakfast fruit cup ($2.89). Both are good but she prefers her waffle to be a little more well done. I order the garden harvest omelet ($5.89), which seems like a healthy breakfast until you read the list of ingredients. I order it without the cheese and the hollandaise sauce. And even though they're healthy, I can't eat carrots in an omelet. I ask the waitress to hold those too. The omelet is good if you don't count the canned mushrooms ( a pet peeve of mine) and the one lone slice of tomato. (Shouldn't tomatoes be chopped up in an omelet?) After breakfast, we take a quick peek at the small gift area near the cash register. Here we find toys, cards, a giant checkers game, candy, and a whole line of Bob Evans food. Nothing of too much interest so we're on our way. If you would like more information on Bob Evans Restaurants, log onto www.bobevans.com.

It's time to go home today, and we don't even mind traveling through a crowded airport. Traveling through the Charlotte Airport is almost a pleasurable experience. Why is that? Well, it could be the atrium with trees and rocking chairs. Or it could be the open bar with its own piano. (If you time it right, you can sit in a rocking chair and enjoy some great music). Or it could be the interesting array of shops and restaurants. If you're looking for a major chain restaurant, you have your choice of Chili's (albeit with a limited menu) or Cheers, a sports bar that features hamburgers, wings and lots of smoke. If you want something quick, try one of the restaurants in the mini-food court. You have a choice of Miami Subs Grill, Hot Dog City, Manchu Wok, Pizza Hut, or Burger King for your entree. If you need a quick snack or dessert, look for Starbucks, Candy Express, Mrs. Field's Cookies, TCBY, Cinnabon and Pretzel Mania.

When you're done eating, there are plenty of places to shop. Need a last minute gift? Stop into Travelers Treasures. Here, you'll find Lladro figurines, crystal, windchimes, gem stone globes, dolls, decorative shoes, candles and frames. Other stores include The Disney Store (for clothing, stuffed animals, and toys) and The Body Shop (for soaps, perfumes, bath beads and makeup). Need new luggage, or just a carry on for all that stuff you bought on vacation? Then stop into one of the two Wilson luggage stores. Forgot to buy your nephew a gift? Then check out Mindworks, where you can pick up toys, t-shirts, handheld games, and board games. Remember the Magic 8 Ball? Well, they have those too. I ended up buying two little boxes of Mexican jumping beans. They always amaze me! How do those little worms actually get into those beans?

Our vote for most interesting store at the Charlotte Airport goes to Time To Write. It's right near the food court, and it's easy to walk right by....but don't! This little store is amazing! They carry pens, watches, Swiss Army Knives, calligraphy kits, and more. The manager, Dominic Passine was born and raised in Charlotte, and has spent two years at Time To Write. And boy does he know his pens! This nifty little store sells pens priced from $3.98 to $2800.00! Yes, $2800.00 for a pen! So, what kind of pen can I get for $2800.00, you ask. Well, it's one of only 388 Shakespeare pens by Krone. This bottle fill pen has a piece of the Mulberry tree from Stratford on Avon. Think no one would buy it? Well, it's their most popular collectible pen, and they've already sold five! If the Shakespeare pen seems a little out of your price range, maybe you should consider the Harry Houdini pen for $975. The box it comes in is an actual magic trick, and the metal key it comes with was made from keys that belonged to Houdini that have been melted down. Still a little too much money for a pen that your coworker is likely to walk away with? Dominic recommends the Jorghysek pens from Switzerland. He says they're the smoothest writing fountain pens they carry. And they're a bargain at $495.00 for the black lacquer and $595.00 for a pen with a carbon filter. Seriously, they have some very useful pens too. They even carry a pen for $45.00 for people with arthritis.

Finally, it's time to say good-bye to Charlotte. "Good-bye, Charlotte, you were quite an experience."

Anna Collins is a freelance writer and author. Carol Holmes is a freelance writer and mother of two.

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