Thursday, December 6, 2018

Be Merry! 11 Solid Holiday Activities

So you want to get out of the house and do Holiday Things. Here are some of our tried and true annual favorites:

Visit the singing bears: You're never too old for holiday tunes sung by the animatronic Leanoard Bearstein symphony orchestra at Founders Hall uptown (100 N. Tryon St., Charlotte, NC 28202). Dare you not to hum along. . .

Marvel at the Ritz-Carlton gingerbread house: Just across the street from Founders Hall is the Ritz-Carlton Charlotte (201 E. Trade St., Charlotte, NC 20202), where you'll be amazed by a giant edible gingerbread house and trendy holiday decorations. Grab a sweet treat at Bar Cocoa while you're there.

Lace up some ice skates: Even if it's been a while (or never) since you've been on skates, this is such a quintessential wintery thing to do. This miniature pop-up skating rink is located on the Nascar Hall of Fame plaza (400 E. MLK Jr. Blvd., Charlotte, NC 20202). Who cares if you're hugging the wall the whole time. You're making memories. Besides, it's just fun to be out on the town -- especially with the bright lights strung overhead at night.

Go see The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: If you go to just one live performance a year, make it this one at Children's Theatre of Charlotte (300 E. 7th St., Charlotte, NC 20202). The young actors' talent is jaw-dropping. This musical is clever, funny and poignant. This is a whole-family outing; kids as young as three will be enthralled.

Visit the Charlotte Christmas Village: The aromas alone make this a worthy destination. This quaint market offers food and other vendors, plus activities, performances and special events throughout the season. Located at the corner of 7th St. and N. Tryon.

See the lights at McAdenville: And may I recommend you do it by foot; click here to learn how. It's worth the 30 minute drive to experience Christmastown USA .

Stroll through more lights at DSBG: Dubbed "A mile of a million lights," this display at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden (6500 South New Hope Rd., Belmont, NC 28012) is impressive and fun for the whole family. This will get you in a twinkly spirit.

Pick out an ornament at Blackhawk Hardware: It's our annual tradition to have the kids select one ornament that represents something important to them that year. Here, you'll find the best, most exhaustive (hands down) collection to choose from. Located at Park Road Shopping Center (4101 Park Rd., Charlotte, NC 28209). Bonus: Free popcorn!

Enjoy the Hillside light balls: While you're in the Park Rd. area, swing by this neighborhood display of lighted balls hanging from the highest branches of old growth trees on Hillside Ave. It really is magical and breathtaking. No surprise, I recommend you walk. Park at the Mellow Mushroom on Selwyn (2820 Selwyn Ave., Charlotte, NC 28209) for dinner and take a stroll when you're done. Bring a non-perishable food item to donate in the Loaves & Fishes bin.

If you're into neighborhood light displays, here's some suggestions of others around town.

Check out Gingerbread Lane: Peruse rows of homemade gingerbread houses and, for a $1 donation, vote for your favorite at the Ballantyne Hotel (10000 Ballantyne Commons Parkway, Charlotte, NC 28277). Some are stunning, some are whimsical, and all make for an entertaining outing.

Decorate cookies for Santa: For the inevitable day you can't get out to play, you can't go wrong with decorating sugar cookies. Here's our favorite recipe:

  • 3/4 cup shortening
  • 3/4 cup unsalted butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 4 large eggs
  • 5 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons salt

Beat the shortening, butter, sugar, vanilla and almond extract. Beat in the eggs.

Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a separate bowl. Add to the butter mixture and mix well.

Wrap the dough cling wrap (I usually make 3 or 4 balls) and refrigerate for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Flour a work surface (consider covering it with cling wrap first for easy clean up) and roll the dough to 1/4 inch thick. Cut with cookie cutters. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Bake 4 to 5 minutes or until the cookies are slightly golden (don't let the edges get brown). Cool on baking sheet 5 minutes before removing to a rack to cool completely.

Decorate using store-bought frosting and sprinkles or toppings OR dip the top side of the cookies in a homemade frosting glaze you can make by adding a spoonful or two of milk and a drop or two of food coloring to several cups of powdered sugar. Mix well until the glaze is no longer runny (add sugar or milk as needed to achieve the right consistency). Dry the cookies on a cooling rack. Enjoy!

Happy holidays!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

A Queen City Treasure Hunt

Over the summer, I decided we should try geocaching. It seemed right up our ally: An outdoor scavenger hunt for hidden treasures. Seemed like a fun way to get some fresh air and challenge our problem-solving and orienteering skills.

We gave it a good run, but it proved more frustrating than enjoyable. The thrill of the hunt turned quickly to frustration and disenchantment the more caches we failed to find (which far outnumbered the one we actually did manage to locate!).

So, at least we tried, but it turns out geocaching is not for us.

Then, not long ago, I read about Charlotte's Treasure Trees and was intrigued. What a neat concept: Years ago, more than 100 of our more impressive trees were tagged by the Charlotte city arborist to foster interest in some of our greatest natural assets. The official Treasure Tree program, as it was known, ended in the early 2000s, but a renewed effort is underway to resurrect the original mission to invigorate locals' respect for trees.

This past weekend, we set out to do some "tree-o-caching," as our oldest dubbed it. And found it to be quite fun and rewarding. It's super easy, and there's a lot to be said for wandering around some of Charlotte's oldest neighborhoods in search of these treasures hidden very much in plain sight.

I so often take the city's canopy for granted. Turns out there's a lot of pretty cool history hovering over us throughout town.

To see 10 Treasure Trees over the course of a 2 mile excursion close to the heart of uptown, check out this Myers Park Treasure Tree Tour via Google Maps. Click on the location icon for a brief description of each of the featured trees. This Charlotte Five article gives you descriptions and locations in narrative form if that's easier for you to navigate.

This route is great for walking (strollers, too) or riding bikes. Kids will especially enjoy the scavenger hunt aspect of the outing.

If you want to abbreviate the tour, start at Queens University (the Gingko at 1830 Queens Rd.) and hit the next four trees (through the Japanese Zelkova at 2735 Briarcliff Place). Round trip back to Queens University, this is just under two miles.

If you're looking for an excuse to get outside and are eager for a bit of a challenge, this Queen City treasure hunt is for you.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Stewart Creek and Irwin Creek Greenways

I love the Charlotte skyline. I get excited every time I catch an unfettered glimpse of our beautiful uptown. If you're up for an urban hike with a view of the skyscrapers peeking over the horizon, check out Stewart Creek Greenway and Irwin Creek Greenway.

Combined, these wide, paved trails (a little over 2 miles long, one way) wind through gorgeous, historic neighborhoods toward uptown with several notable stops along the way. (See trail map.)

Stewart Creek Greenway starts in the Seversville neighborhood, just off State St. Parking is available a couple blocks south at Bruns Ave., where you'll also find Seversville Neighborhood Park (with fun playground equipment and a StoryWalk book) and the Wallace Pruitt Recreation Center. Continue south through the beautiful Wesley Heights Neighborhood along a beautiful tree-lined path.

This route will take you under I-77. At the intersection after the bridge, take a left to follow Irwin Creek Greenway through Frazier Park (parking, fields and playground equipment here) and on to the greenway terminus at Ray's Splash Planet and Irwin Ave. Elementary School.

These greenways are perfect for bikes, skates, scooters, strollers and shoes. And a pretty nice skyline view.

How to get there:
Parking for the Stewart Creek Greenway is available at Bruns Ave. Elementary School, located at 501 S. Bruns Ave., Charlotte, NC, 28208; and at Ray's Splash Planet, located at 215 N. Sycamore St., Charlotte, NC, 28202. Here's a trail map if you're not familiar with the area.

Don't forget to pack:

  • Comfy shoes or your preferred riding toy (with helmets!)
  • Hats, sunscreen and sunglasses: The greenways are only partially shaded.
  • Water and snacks: You can spend several hours on the greenway and adjacent parks, so prepare to refuel as needed.
  • Here's a trail map if you're not familiar with the area.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Buffalo Creek Nature Preserve

Want to mix up your hiking game? Head for Buffalo Creek Nature Preserve in Mt. Pleasant, N.C., just under 45 minutes northeast of Uptown Charlotte. Owned and managed by the Catawba Lands Conservancy, this nature preserve offers an easy, 2.1-mile (one way) natural surface trail (part of the Carolina Thread Trail) covering an interesting mix of terrains.

You'll find the trailhead in a small gravel parking lot with an information kiosk with a map and preserve information. From there, you'll head into the Piedmont Oak Savannah section of the trail. This landscape of open grassland, home to a number of ground-nesting birds and prairie species, was common in the southeastern U.S. until English settlers displaced the Native Americans who maintained the savannahs through intentional burning.

The Native Americans used to preserve the open space to make travel easier and facilitate the growth of herbs and berry-producing plants that were important for both food and medicines. To walk through the tall grasses under the open sky offers a peace unlike what you'll find on a typical hike in the woods.

Following the savannah, you'll pass the fields of an active working farm. The Catawba Lands Conservancy has leased the 130-acre farmland to a local farmer, who has implemented best-management practices to support both farming and wildlife. This farm grows hay and grains used to feed the local cattle.

After the farm, you'll turn into a stretch of oak forest that runs along Adams Creek and Buffalo Creek. At the 1.7-mile mark, you'll be rewarded with a trip across a suspension bridge over the water.

The trail ends at a neighborhood development; retrace your steps to return to the parking lot.

There are no restroom facilities at the nature preserve. Bikes are allowed, but only if it hasn't rained recently (if your tires make a track in the dirt, it's too wet to ride!).

Bonus: Hit the iconic Sundae Shop in Midland on the way home for a burger or milkshake!

How to get there:
The Buffalo Creek Nature Preserve parking lot and trailhead are located at 7911 Malibu Rd, Mt Pleasant, N.C. 28124.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: You'll need them on a clear day in the savannah portion of the trail.
  • Bugspray: Ward off mosquitoes and ticks.
  • Comfy shoes: The terrain is mostly flat.
  • Water and snacks: To refuel.
  • Bikes and helmets: Riders are welcome on the trail as long as it hasn't rained recently.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Our Favorite Pumpkin Patch

If you want a pumpkin, there are hundreds of options around town. If you want a pumpkin-picking experience, there are dozens of choices nearby. But here's our favorite patch for picking our own gourds and having some fall fun at the same time.

Riverbend Farm, located in Midland, NC, is just 30 minutes east of Uptown Charlotte. And, while they've got an abundance of pumpkins for the choosing, it's the other simple attractions that make it a magical experience.

Our favorite part: The slides. Riverbend offers a pretty amazing play area with a collection of impressive slides, some two stories and higher. They've built these around actual silos and other wooden treehouse-like structures. Kids could easily spend the majority of your visit in this area.

But there's more to see and do!

Take a stroll across the covered bridge that runs over one of a couple of bucolic ponds on the property. Take pictures with giant farm animal replicas. Visit the live farm animals in the barn, including a pony, turkeys and (when we were there) a baby pig. Or peruse the goods in the old country store (they have ice cream!).

And, of course, pick a pumpkin. Bonus: You get to take a giant, tractor-pulled wagon to get to the field, so no paying extra for a hayride around the grounds. The pumpkins have been cut from the vine, but remain scattered like Easter eggs in the field, which adds an element of authenticity to the experience.

The people who run Riverbend are kind and helpful. They make the visit all the more enjoyable.

The farm hours are 3:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. weekdays, 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Saturdays, and 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Sundays. If you can swing it, I highly recommend going on a weekday afternoon. Weekends can get pretty crowded.

Admission is $5:50 per person. Pumpkins are $0.40 per pound (which makes them some of the less expensive among pick-your-own farms).

There are outhouse bathrooms on the farm (well kept and clean!) and picnic tables if you want to bring snacks or lunch.

If you're really looking to make a day of it, consider a short, 0.9 mile (one way) hike along the Riverbend Farm Trail, part of the Carolina Thread Trail.

How to get there:
Riverbend farm is located at 12150 McManus Road, Midland, NC 28107.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Money: For admission and your pumpkin. They take both cash and credit cards.
  • Comfy shoes: It's a great place to stroll and play. After a heavy rain, consider boots.
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: There's very little shade on the farm, especially in the pumpkin fields.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Schiele Museum of Natural History

Have you been to the Schiele Museum of Natural History? Located in Gastonia, 25 miles west of Uptown Charlotte, the Schiele offers a bunch of compelling reasons to visit. Here are my top 5:

1.) Outdoor trails and exhibits: In addition to all the cool stuff you’ll find INSIDE the museum, my favorite part of the campus is probably everything outside. That includes a 0.7 mile Nature Trail, complete with a beautiful pond; a playscape, which features structures and natural play “equipment;” gardens; the Catawba Indian Village (open seasonally), which offers an interpretation of Catawba Indian culture; and an 18th century backcountry farm (also open seasonally), which provides a glimpse into the ways of life for early settlers. (Call 704-866-6908 to verify that seasonal exhibits are open.)

2.) The Dinosaurs: Featuring scaled models of inhabitants of the Mesozoic Era, this exhibit is both entertaining and educational. There are at least a dozen different dinosaurs on display, along with actual fossils and casts.

3.) The Pirate Ship: This one is for the younger visitors. By far our kids’ favorite part of the museum, the Pirate Ship is a place for kids to climb and slide and hide and play. Tucked in one room, this play space also offers some educational opportunities. Learn about pirate flags and the scallywags who created them.

4.) The Planetarium: Take a high-def journey into space and other natural wonders through the SciDome XD system. Educational programs take visitors not only into the night sky, but also places like the human circulatory system. Shows run approximately 35 minutes. Admission to the Planetarium is an additional $5/person.

5.) Free Tuesdays: Who doesn’t enjoy a deal? Duke Energy has teamed up with the Schiele Museum to sponsor Free Tuesdays, granting free general admission to everyone from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month.

Regular admission is $7/adult and $6/children 3-17 years old. Museum hours are Monday – Saturday, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday, 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Of course there’s way more to the Schiele Museum than my top five, namely, the halls of North Carolina and North American natural habitats, wildlife and history. In these permanent exhibits, you’ll find dioramas and some live animals. And the Henry Hall of the American Indian offers an impressive collection of artifacts, weapons, ornaments, and tools from the culture of the North American Native Americans.

How to get there:
The Schiele Museum is located at 1500 E. Garrison Blvd., Gastonia, NC 28054. Parking is free.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfy shoes: Be prepared to explore, both indoors and out.
  • Bug spray and sunscreen: If you plan to spend time on the playscape or nature trail.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Hidden Park: Pearl Street Park

There are a number of compelling reasons to visit Pearl Street Park, hidden in plain sight on the edge of Uptown Charlotte. Reason number one is to acquaint yourself with a remarkable piece of Charlotte history.

Pearl Street Park, located across Kenilworth Ave. from the Metropolitan Shopping Center (the Trader Joe’s end), is easy to miss, but well worth a stop. A little bigger than eight acres, the park offers short walking trails, a full basketball court and open field space.

Within walking distance of the skyscrapers, it would be an excellent destination for a lunch-break stroll. And the paved paths that loop the park make for the perfect place for young ones to practice skating, scooting and bike-riding.
Whatever activities you decide to do there, the real draw for me is the opportunity to step into and appreciate the area’s rich historical significance.

Pearl Street Park was purchased by the City of Charlotte in 1943 and became the city’s first and only public recreation space for African American children and families. The land is in Charlotte’s Second Ward, which was home to the Brooklyn Neighborhood, Charlotte’s largest African American neighborhood – the center of black civic life – until the neighborhood was demolished in the 1960s in the name of urban renewal.

One of the park’s first uses was as a Victory Garden in World War II. During the war, the government rationed most food products and relied on citizens to provide their own fruits and vegetables, which were hard to harvest and deliver due to labor and transportation shortages.

Following the war and until the eventual (and slow!) park desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s, Pearl Street Park was an important social gathering space for African American families. It served as the athletic fields for the football and baseball teams at nearby Second Ward High School. At one time, in addition to playground equipment, trails and fields, there was a swimming pool on the grounds.

In 2005, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Black Heritage Committee dedicated Pearl Street Park as the first African American Park in Mecklenburg County, marked with a monument to memorialize its rich cultural heritage. Beside the monument is an audio history station where visitors can listen to and learn more about the park’s historical significance. To stand in the park space and realize what it represents is profoundly moving.

There are currently plans in the works to renovate Pearl Street Park as part of a larger redevelopment project on adjacent land.
Of note, Baxter Street Park is adjacent to Pearl Street Park and also offers walking trails and a community garden.

There are no restroom facilities at Pearl Street Park, though there is a porta-potty at one end of the soccer field.

Pearl Street Park is easy to miss, but I encourage you to be intentional about seeking it out for a visit. If for no other reason than to appreciate a piece of Charlotte history.

How to get there:
Pearl Street Park is located at 1200 Baxter St., Charlotte, NC, 28202. Parking is available on Baxter St. across from the Charlottetown Terrace apartment building. There is also a small lot off Kenilworth Ave.

Don’t forget to pack:
  • Comfy shoes: Take a stroll around the paved walking trail.
  • Soccer ball, basketball, bikes or skates: This is a great place to play or ride.
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: The park is partially shaded, but the recreation field is wide open.
  • Water: Bring as much as you think you’ll need; there are no restroom facilities to refill.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Stuck Inside!

I really like the concept of a cozy, rainy day at home. But, the truth is, I get antsy a couple hours in when we’re truly stuck. Those times when everything’s closed and the weather insists that we’re not going anywhere any time soon.

Here are some of the ways we make the most of a weekend like this.

Be glad, and share your blessings. As much as I hate feeling stuck inside, I’m well aware that we’re fortunate to have a safe, comfortable place to be when bad weather hits. And, with bonus time on our hands, this can be a good opportunity to consciously think about others and do something meaningful for them. Bake cookies to give to the power crew or fire fighters or a neighbor. Make and freeze a meal for the men’s shelter. Make a donation to the Red Cross. Check in on someone who may be feeling even more stuck than you, just to let them know you’re thinking of them.

Make something. We love to bake, so, as long as we have power, we’ll be churning out cakes and cookies and whatever else we have enough ingredients for. But it doesn’t have to be food. Here’s a great play dough recipe. Or, you can’t go wrong with arts and crafts. Color a picture. Paint a rock. Do origami. Make an “experiment” with things from the cupboard.

Take a weather walk. If it’s safe, getting outside can be a wonderful thing. Put on rain boots and a rain coat and grab an umbrella. Or not! Fresh air can be a game-changer. And getting wet doesn’t hurt, either.

Play something. Board games are the obvious rainy day go-to. But when interest or patience runs out, switch to indoor hide and seek. Or pretend play. Have everyone dress up as something and become characters in a narrative. Host a princess tea party. Build a hideout. Hold a parade.

Switch it up. If you’ve been playing together all morning, maybe everyone needs some alone time. Or maybe it’s time to gather everyone up for a group activity. If you’ve been sedentary, move around. If energy is low, pick up a book. Or, maybe you just need some random variety in the day. Nothing wrong with taking a bath before noon!

Accept and anticipate. The house is likely to get messy. Everyone in it will take at least one turn getting grumpy. Moods will swing. The fun will wear off. But, like the storm outside, this will pass.

We all stay so busy all the time that a “stuck inside” day can be a real gift. And quite enjoyable if you take a minute to think of ways to make the most of it.

Stay safe!

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Rock Hill's Riverwalk

If you haven’t been to Riverwalk, part of the Carolina Thread Trail, in Rock Hill, pick a pretty day and grab your sneakers or throw your bike in the car for this excursion, less than 30 minutes from Uptown.
Riverwalk (officially the Piedmont Medical Center Trail) is a smooth, paved three-mile (one way) trail that meanders along the banks of the Catawba River. It is mostly flat, but includes some undulating stretches that keep it interesting. And some bridges, including one canopy-covered, add to the appeal.

This is a popular destination, but the 10-foot-wide paths easily accommodate both foot and wheel traffic (a perfect place for strollers, skates, scooters and bikes. Note: bicycle speed limit is 10 mph.).
The trail begins in a large gravel parking lot tucked behind the Riverwalk Community and next to the iconic Pump House restaurant (grab a rooftop lunch or dinner when you’re done exploring!). This parking lot has porta-potties, but no restroom facilities.
The trail ends at River Park, which is a lovely place to play and explore (consider starting your excursion from that end of the trail if you’d like!).
Both ends of the trail offer kayak and canoe launch spots. And along the trail you’ll find benches, garbage cans, and pet stations. The trail is lush, but only partially shaded, so don’t expect a tree-bathing venture. You can, however, expect a peaceful escape into nature.
Keep in mind, the trail is located in a flood plain and is subject to flooding, so keep the recent or forecast storms in mind when planning your visit.
How to get there:
The Riverwalk parking lot and trailhead are located at 575 Herrons Ferry Road, Rock Hill, SC 29730. 
Don’t forget to pack:
  • Water: Stay hydrated and pack plenty for during and after your excursion; there are no water fountains for refill.
  • Snacks: Bring a granola bar or two to keep your energy up.
  • Comfortable shoes: Sneakers will do.
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: The trail is only partially shaded.
  • Bikes, scooters, skates, strollers, etc.: This is a perfect trail for both feet and wheels. Don't forget your helmet!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Seven Oaks Preserve Trail

One of our favorite nearby trails is in Catawba Lands Conservancy's Seven Oaks Preserve in Belmont, just over 30 minutes west of Uptown Charlotte.

Good for both hiking and trail riding, the Seven Oaks Preserve Trail, part of the Carolina Thread Trail, is 2.8 miles (one way).
The flat, natural surface, out-and-back trail hugs the banks of Lake Wylie, winding through hardwood forests and wildflower fields. It offers plenty of shade and opportunities to spot wildlife.

The biggest obstacles along the trail are roots and rocks. The trail also sports a handful of wooden footbridges. It's perfect for a hike and a pleasant place to ride for beginners and experienced bikers alike.

Two spur trails off Seven Oaks Preserve lead to the adjacent Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden (bikes are not allowed on these trails) if you want to include a destination in your outing.

This quiet trail is popular among locals, but never overly crowded. A good place to be in nature whether you're on foot or two wheels.

Bonus tip: The Cotton Candy Factory is a short drive from the Seven Oaks Preserve trailhead parking lot. Grab a sweet treat after your hike or ride. The shop is located in downtown Belmont, which also offers some restaurants if you want to grab a bite to eat.

Note: Bikes are not permitted on the trail after rain. If your bike leaves wheel prints, the trail is too wet to ride.

How to get there:
The Seven Oaks Preserve trailhead parking lot is located at 6900 S New Hope Rd, Belmont, NC 28012. The gravel lot has about a dozen parking spots and an information kiosk.

Don't forget to take:
  • Shoes: Comfortable hiking shoes will do.
  • Bikes and helmets: This is a great beginner trail.
  • Bug spray: Keep the mosquitoes, gnats and ticks at bay.