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N.C.'s Queen City provides a change of pace

I heard the Sheryl Crow song "A Change (Would Do You Good)" on the radio the other day, and it resonated with me. With hectic schedules, endless gift lists and out-of-control mall traffic, sometimes a change of scenery is the perfect thing to refresh us from the holiday madness.

A quick escape to Charlotte, N.C. is great for a weekend getaway, whether you're a sports fan or you're in the mood for some out-of-town holiday shopping and entertainment.

Just a three-hour drive up Interstate 85, North Carolina's well-kept secret has suddenly become the Southeast's next best thing. It shouldn't come as a surprise to those who have been working hard behind the scenes to make Charlotte a major player in the region.

Charlotte seems to be on a roll these days, especially when it comes to sports. The city recently beat out several locations - including Atlanta - to win the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which will open in 2009. The Queen City proved to the NASCAR bigwigs that Charlotte is at the apex of stock car racing. That love is evident at the Lowe's Motor Speedway, where legions of NASCAR fans pack the venue on race days.

The 72,500-seat Bank of America Stadium is an impressive building that is home to the NFL's Carolina Panthers. Located in Charlotte's Center City area, the Bank of America Stadium is a well-maintained, user-friendly structure.

Not too far from the stadium, the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats and WNBA's Charlotte Sting wow crowds respectively in the Charlotte Bobcats Arena.

Charlotte can be second home for the holidays

If you've already caught a local version of "The Nutcracker" and have exhausted your holiday gift search at the Mall of Georgia, try spending a December weekend in Charlotte.

"Charlotte is a dynamic place to visit during the holidays," said Delilah Counts, a public relations account executive with the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. "There is a wonderful momentum taking place because of all the recent and upcoming developments."

From catching "The Singing Christmas Tree" choir show at the city's Ovens Auditorium to the "Holiday Lights at the Garden" display at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, visitors can keep busy.

The Charlotte Symphony Pops performs its "Magic of Christmas" show from Dec. 8-10 at the city's Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Later in the month, the orchestra will present its rendition of "Messiah" as well as an evening with former "American Idol" runner-up and Carolina favorite Clay Aiken.

Shop 'till you drop

If you visit Charlotte during December, you'll find that the shopping choices are endless. SouthPark Mall, a popular shopping hotspot, offers conventional yet a bit upscale stores, including Neiman Marcus, Macy's and Crate and Barrel. If you're looking for great bargains, visit the Concord Mills Mall.

The North Davidson arts district - also known as NoDa - is located north of the Center City area and is a great place for eclectic shopping and art galleries.

All that shopping can make you hungry. Just like our metro area, Charlotte boasts the usual suspects, including the Cheesecake Factory and P.F. Chang's China Bistro, located near shopping centers.

To get away from chain cuisine, stop in at a local eatery along Charlotte's trolley tracks. The Mimosa Grill features global delicacies with a Southern interpretation. Contemporary seafood is served up daily at Aquavina, and more Southern fare can be found at Mert's Heart and Soul.

'Overnighting it'

in the Queen City

If you've found driving back home after a long day in Charlotte to be daunting, stay overnight. From hotels to bed-and-breakfasts, Charlotte is home to some of the country's classiest accommodations.

Comfort, charm and history can be found at The Dunhill Hotel. One of Charlotte's first luxury establishments, the Dunhill takes on a European flair with an American sense of service. For a touch of some Southern hospitality, look into The Morehead Inn, located in the historic Dilworth community. Each room is appointed in period furnishings and luxurious private baths.

The recently-renovated VanLandingham Estate Inn and Conference Center features spectacular guest room decor and gardens that are in bloom year round. Charlotte's City Center also boasts The Westin Charlotte, a 700-room convention-style hotel.

More info

•Visit Charlotte

www.visitcharlotte.org

•Charlotte Symphony

www.charlottesymphony.org

Did you know?

•Charlotte is the No. 2 banking center in the United States.

•The first branch of the U.S. Mint was opened in Charlotte in 1837.

•The Rev. Billy Graham was born and raised in Charlotte. A major road was named after him.

•Reed Gold Mine in Charlotte is the site of America's first gold rush.

•With its Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775, Charlotte was the first town and county in the nation to declare itself a free and independent people.

Source: Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority