Everyone knows the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. If you were to make a geographic parallel of the childhood fable with Southern cities, you might say that Atlanta was too fast and frantic. But on the flip side, places like Birmingham, Alabama, and Columbia, South Carolina, could be considered much too sleepy. And then there’s Charlotte, a place well positioned between the mundane and the manic that somehow feels just right.
Another major draw to North Carolina’s biggest metropolis is an autumn calendar filled with festivals, football and ideal fall temperatures. We recently road tripped to the Queen City and were royally impressed by all that we found. And if you’re looking for a similar experience, we know just the right things you’ll need to create your own storybook weekend in Charlotte.
The Right Vehicle
It doesn’t much matter if you’re traveling from Charleston (a three-hour drive), Atlanta (four hours) or Richmond (4.5 hours), the ride to Charlotte won’t be a stress. Even if you’re coming from a bit farther out, like, say, Nashville, the 6.5 hours you’ll trek along I-40 and I-85 aren’t terrible — especially if you’re riding in the 2018 Lincoln Navigator.
If you drove a Navigator in its ’90s heyday (or even sat in iterations of the iconic SUV as late as 2012), you know that it moved sluggishly at times and had a bit of a gas-drinking problem.
Thankfully, those issues have largely been resolved. The latest edition runs on 23 highway miles per gallon. The Navigator also boasts a 10-speed automatic transmission and adaptive shocks, meaning most bumps are an afterthought.
But even if someone does have a complaint, the vehicle is about the size of an Upper East Side flat — no, really, Lincoln claims to offer the best-in-class legroom with this behemoth beauty — so you won’t be able to hear the person in the almost-too-comfortable third row anyway.
The craftsmanship of the Navigator may be even more impressive, and this rings exceptionally clear when you consider the high-end Black Label trims. You’ll spot elements of luxury on the exterior (illuminated running boards, signature grille) and be blown away by all the intricate details (30-way seat configuration, Venetian leather seats) and technological touches (wireless charging pad, a dozen power outlets) inside the cabin. All that’s missing is a little robot vacuum to scoop on the kids’ gas station snack crumbs.
Lincoln has seemingly thought of everything else. Even if you get lost on your way to Charlotte, the Lincoln’s navigational system is powered by the popular crowd-sourcing Waze app to steer you in the right direction.
The Right Hotel
No matter how comfortable the ride, though, by the time you get to Charlotte, you’ll want to stretch out some more. You can do plenty of that from your polished perch for the weekend — The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte, a Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star property resting right in the heart of Uptown. The LEED Gold-certified hotel prides itself on doing things a little differently than many affluent addresses. It’s a forward-thinking hotel that walks the line between formal and fun without fumbling too much into either.
The 146 rooms command respect. Every unit includes feather beds, floor-to-ceiling windows and bathrooms adorned with mounted mini TVs and glass-enclosed showers. Of course, the suites up the wow factor even more. We especially like the Executive Suite, a 1,000-square-foot space filled with two 65-inch TVs, a powder room and a separate living area.
But where the accommodations tend to be more traditional, The Ritz-Carlton, Charlotte’s food and beverage team is a playful bunch. During the reservation process, for instance, we hinted that a six-year-old in our party adored Disney characters; the thoughtful pastry team surprised us with a cookie shaped like Mickey Mouse. (It all starts to make sense once you consider that the hotel is home to one of the sweetest amenities in town, Cocoa Lab, a place where dessert lovers can take cooking classes in a state-of-the-art kitchen.)
Even before you get to the final course, however, you realize that the Forbes Travel Guide Recommended BLT Steak does amazing things with a hanger steak and chimichurri sauce, while the speakeasy-style Punch Room stirs some of the city’s finest drinks with local herbs and honey collected from the rooftop hives.
The Right Itinerary
Uptown, Charlotte’s ever-evolving city center, is a popular area for tourists. Bank of America Stadium (home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers) and the Spectrum Center (where the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets play) are both less than a five-minute Navigator ride from your hotel room. But even if you’re not a sports fan, you’ll want The Ritz-Carlton’s 24-hour concierge desk to check on other fall happenings at these venues and the availability of tables at buzzy neighboring eateries like Ink N Ivy or Fahrenheit.
When you want to expand your radius, there are a number of options in the city — it just depends on your mood. NoDa (North Davidson) is an artsy corner filled with murals and fun dining establishments. Plaza Midwood has a cool vibe and popular restaurants like Midwood Smokehouse. And the South End is catching up with young energy and a bubbling beer scene.
Whichever way you go, don’t tire yourself out before you’ve had a chance to peruse the city’s almost-overwhelming festival calendar. It doesn’t matter if you’re into fruit (Lincoln County Apple Festival, September 15) or flicks (Charlotte Film Festival, September 26 to 30), crafts (Festival in the Park, September 21 to 23) or chardonnay (South End Wine Fest, October 20), there’s something on the revolving docket to draw you in.
Another event, the Lost Hollow Music Fest, is coming to the beautiful Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden on October 13 and 14. Any other year this celebration of Americana music would have been the fall highlight of this 400-acre attraction just outside the city, but with the recent opening of DSBG’s Beer Garden (which has a hefty live-music roster on its own), the bluegrass bonanza may take a back seat to an afternoon of responsible small-batch brew sipping in the formal gardens.
We emphasize “responsible” in that last sentence because, no matter how good a time you have in Charlotte, you do eventually have to drive home.