Family fun in Charlotte includes whitewater, virtual nature and barbecue

The Shelby family was smiling and their clothes were dry as they set out in a raft at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.
The Shelby family was smiling and their clothes were dry as they set out in a raft at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In 1799, the discovery of a 17-pound nugget of gold triggered what became America's first gold rush. It didn't last long, but the city named for an 18th-century English queen has lately become a draw for people seeking another kind of fortune.

Financial services is one of the industries whose growth has fueled the new additions to the Queen City's skyline and propelled it to number eight on Forbes' most recent list of the country's fastest-growing cities.

More interesting to out-of-towners like me, however, is what does it offer for families coming here to see relatives. On a recent visit, my children and I learned that Charlotte offers plenty to do, both indoors and out.

Here are a few highlights:

Over the river and through the woods: The U.S. National Whitewater Center is a 500-acre spread along the Catawba River that includes woods and water courses for visitors to test themselves against Mother Nature. If you're not the least bit outdoorsy, I can't recommend the place, though if you are, or aspire to be, the Whitewater Center would be worth the trip to Charlotte all by itself. (I consider myself the least bit outdoorsy.)

I've never whitewater rafted, so I struggle to find the right words and tone to prepare my sons (10-year-old triplets) for the experience since whatever I say conveys contradictory messages: "Be careful or somebody could die. Now let's have some fun."

The latter, I know, is far more likely than the former, though there were at least four references to death on the Assumption of Risk, Release, and Indemnity Agreement I had to sign four copies of before entering.

The Whitewater Center staff takes safety very seriously, checking our life vests and helmets and tightening as needed. On the Family Rafting course, our guide is a 20-something fellow who seems alternately amused and frustrated by our collective cluelessness.

We can't seem to all paddle at once, the triplets are all yelling woo-hoo! as we plow into waves. I keep hollering at them to sit down, move over, paddle, no, don't hold the oar that way. When one of my sons gets out of position, we hit a wave and, to his delight and my terror, he shoots into the air, landing, thankfully, back in the raft.

This whitewater isn't a natural body of water, but a closed manmade course designed with eddies and troughs and curves. It's not a calm ride, particularly on the last curve as zipliners are sliding around over our heads. Plus, I keep wondering, if this is all water, why is it so bumpy?

Perhaps I should have done more homework in advance of coming here, read all (or any) of the center's seven (seven!) FAQs on its website. I confess I lose interest in a vacation site that requires me to prep as if for an oral exam. My own Q's about any given destination just aren't that FA'd.

I figure there'll be signs explaining everything, but the Whitewater Center is a little light on expository signage, particularly for what's known as the Canopy Tour. Here, visitors gear up in helmet and harness and walk across what appears to be a series of tightropes and airborne walkways that are disconcertingly reminiscent of the climactic scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Though unlike Indy, these adventurers are attached to an overhead cable so it only looks like they'll fall to their doom with one misstep.

I decline, but my children took off on one of these and disappear into the airborne bush. I wish them well and wait, wondering what they're seeing and doing until they zipline back. One child's description of the experience: "Terrifying and awesome."

Virtual nature: If you're visiting Charlotte with preteens, it's worth considering a stay at the local Great Wolf Lodge, located in nearby Concord, practically in the shadow of the Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Imagine a hunting lodge morphed into something that's part hotel, part Disneyland. Giant fake pine trees flank a faux log cabin in the lobby. Children gather here day and night to listen to musical performances by animatronic woodland creatures. The steps beside the cabin lead down to an enormous indoor-outdoor waterpark.

There is something deeply surreal about coming here after a day at the Whitewater Center. Both establishments frame their appeal through the lens of guests interacting with some incarnation of nature.

The Whitewater Center essentially offers guests nature as a sort of tamed wild animal, the forest and waterways tamed in their own natural habitats. Great Wolf Lodge, on the other hand, presents a controlled replication of the outdoors that is to actual nature what an android is to a human being.

My sons and seemingly every child in the hotel clamor to play MagiQuest, a game involving treasure, points, magical creatures, talking trees and treasure chests, and most important to them — wands. They use these to activate interactive video and other displays.

The kids' assessment of the game: "A little confusing, but really fun." Mine: baffling in that way I find any modern game more complicated than Pac-Man, but it keeps them running all over the hotel in search of some form of magic.

Barbecue that's good inside and out: Mac's Speed Shop has won various barbecue awards, been featured in the Washington Post and on a Travel Channel program called All You Can Meat.

We discover why on a football Sunday afternoon. The indoor portion of the restaurant on South Boulevard is thick with patrons watching various NFL games on various screens. Showing multiple games at once is important here. Sure, there's the hometown Panthers, but Charlotte's rapid growth (more than 200,000 people added to the estimated city's population since 2000) means people have moved here from all over and brought their Steelers, Patriots, and Vikings jerseys with them.

Though I'm intrigued by menu items with names like The Switchback Salad or a whole section called Mexicue, we order the combo platter with the size designation "Whole Lot."

It proves a worthwhile investment of time, money and calories as we alternately join in praising the food and arguing over which item is better, the Beer Can Chicken or the St. Louis Ribs? The Texas Beef Sausage or the Hand Pulled Pork? I go for the latter, especially since I can slather it with the joint's own Carolina-style barbecue sauce.

I've brought home a few bottles of the sauce. I dread the day it runs out. For me, that's Charlotte gold.