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South Carolina piedmont

Interstates 77 and 85 fan out across the Palmetto State to quickly get you to rolling hills dotted with quaint towns and vibrant cities.

COLUMBIA

Up for a visit to a Carolina capital with a noteworthy state museum and a major university?

From Charlotte, Columbia is almost twice as close as Raleigh: a straight 90-minute shot down Interstate 77.

It was one of the country's first planned cities (1780s): downtown streets are wide; blocks are square.

The Civil War may have started in Charleston, but Columbia took the hit: Its core was destroyed by fire during Sherman's March in early 1865.

A taste of old times remains.

• The S.C. State House is the only state capitol used as target practice by the U.S. Army. The west-facing exterior is studded with six bronze stars, each covering a hole punched by Sherman's artillery. Guided tours of the capitol are free (www.scstatehouse.net; click "Student's Page").

• Monuments to the Civil War and other conflicts dot the grounds; less well-known is the evocative African American History Monument.

• Not far away: The S.C. Confederate Relic Room & Museum's a sizable collection of Civil War flags. $4; free for kids.

• Got kids? Make a beeline for the S.C. State Museum. It occupies an enormous 1880s textile plant big enough to accommodate a reconstructed one-room school as well as a complete antique gas station.

There's room for permanent displays plus a half-dozen traveling exhibitions at any one time.

• Science and technology get their due via exhibits at a planetarium, observatory and Imax theater.

Natural history biggies include reproductions of an extinct 43-foot shark and a life-size mastodon ($5, $3 for kids).

• Close by: The University of South Carolina campus.

• Also downtown: The Columbia Museum of Art ($5, $2 for kids, free admission Saturdays).

A-Ten... Shun!

Columbia is home to Fort Jackson, an Army facility so big (52,000 acres) it has two I-77 exits. Each year, 41,000 incoming soldiers pass through here for basic training. It's the largest such facility in the country.

One hundred ranges and training sites, 1,160 buildings, two golf courses, a waterpark ... it's all here.

Military retirees from across the Carolinas come for medical and dental care, PX shopping, etc. Some attractions/activities open to the general public.

Details: www.jackson.army.mil

GREENVILLE

If the state of Main Street is a benchmark of a town's prosperity, the outlook often is bleak: empty storefronts and empty sidewalks.

That's why urban planners as well as tourists need to visit Greenville, the prospering gem of the S.C. Upcountry.

Over the past decade, this county seat and aging mill burg reinvented its downtown as a funky mini-Asheville.

Thursday through Friday evenings, spring through fall, locals and visitors throng the four-block core of Main Street. Remarkably cosmopolitan restaurants and lounges -- perhaps 50 in all -- are busy; bands play out in the plaza. And on nice-weather mornings, people ritually flock to outdoor seating at coffee shops and cafes. The condo market? Hot.

On the revived Reedy River is Falls Park, where a 355-foot pedestrian bridge offers a picturesque look at the swirling river five stories down.

Any warm weekend is prime for Greenville's ambiance. An amphitheater in Falls Park hosts the free Upstate Shakespeare Festival (three-play repertoire, May-October; www.upstateshakespearefestival.org); the free Chautauqua festival of lectures and performances is June 13-19. (www.greenvillechautauqua.org)

History's Hits

The "Shoeless Joe" Jackson Museum opens June 22 in Greenville, honoring the famous left-fielder and slugging sensation of pro baseball in the early 1900s. Joseph Jefferson Jackson got his start with a minor-league team here (he's buried in Woodlawn Memorial Park). Jackson, with the Chicago White Sox in 1919, was caught up in the infamous Block Sox Scandal that concerned gamblers fixing the World Series, and was banned from the major leagues.

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