Down south: how to do the Charleston
In a country where heritage is often measured in decades, the Carolinas are steeped in traditions that stretch back past the Civil War, with the town of Charleston a crucible of living history
Just outside North Carolina’s triangle of college cities – Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill – lies Fearrington Village: a white-fenced hamlet that evolved from a 200-year-old farmstead into one of the most celebrated food destinations in the US.
In 1974, RB and Jenny Fitch began developing this country idyll into a tightly knit community buoyed by the warmest hospitality you may ever encounter. That Fearrington Village now houses 2,000 residents from 40 states and beyond says something of the urge to settle down permanently. Bordered by cows grazing in the shade of a silo and deer nibbling at apple trees, the village includes a 32-suite inn, a fine-dining restaurant that has won just about every accolade going, a spa and gardens, a cafe with coffee roasted on-site, a wedding-planning boutique and McIntyre’s Books, a literary oasis with passionate attention to detail and a packed schedule of readings.
Two hours southwest, the gleaming skyline of Charlotte stands in sharp contrast to Charleston. As one of the fastest-growing cities in the US, this banking hub has long fancied itself as a cosmopolitan emblem of the “New South”. Though it has yet to catch up to its own growth in terms of urban dwelling and retail development, ascendency is a recurring motif: downtown is named uptown and, rather than marking the new year by ceremoniously dropping a ball on the stroke of midnight, a lighted crown is raised 25ft in the air to toast the Queen City. For years it was joked that you couldn’t buy a Snickers bar in Charlotte after 5pm and, as a centre for commerce, it can still grow quiet on weeknights and weekends. Perhaps that’s why sporting events are treated as social outings. The NFL and NBA launched franchises here in the 1990s and today the spectacle of a Carolina Panthers football game, from an outsider’s perspective at least, seems to be absorbed mostly by splurging on fast food, and cheering for the chance to win a T-shirt.
The US National Whitewater Centre, about 25 minutes’ drive from Charlotte, doubles as an Olympic training site and a theme park for outdoor sports such as kayaking, zip-lining and rock climbing. Its centrepiece, the world’s largest recirculating artificial river, allows for a more controlled and laid back rafting experience than wilder waters found elsewhere – though the ability to choose a rafting level will not spare you from a thorough soaking. On the cultural side, a swathe of museums – from the Mint Museum of Art to the 14,000sq/m Nascar Hall of Fame – has sprung up in recent years. Most prominent among them is the Levine Museum of the New South and its award-winning permanent exhibition, Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers.
The story of the South can be a difficult one to tell but the oral history and interactive displays gathered here carefully balance a fraught past with optimistic reinvention. Stepping through that time line makes not only for an immersive introduction to the region but also a smart way to experience one of the few parts of the US where the past doesn’t feel so distant.
Cian Traynor travelled as a guest of American Airlines