No doubt about it: Getting to the Outer Banks is a good six hours for Charlotte motorists.
So if your idea of a great getaway involves inland pleasures, keep in mind that Atlanta is an easy weekend -- and an easy, all-interstate drive (four hours; about 245 miles).
Go for a Braves game at Turner Field (www.braves.mlb.com); spend a very full day at downtown's Centennial Park at the fabulous Georgia Aquarium (www.georgiaaquarium.org) -- billed as the world's largest aquarium, with a mega-tank holding beluga whales -- and the new World of Coke (www.woccatlanta.com) next door. The World of Coke, which opened last year, is twice the size of the one near the Atlanta Underground that it replaced. Close by: The CNN Center, where you can take a tour of the network's studios (www.cnn.com/StudioTour).
Shop and dine in the sleek Buckhead area north of downtown. A quick MARTA train ride (www.itsmarta.com) will get you there from downtown.
Take the kids to Atlanta Zoo (www.zooatlanta.org), long known for its collection of primates (including great apes), and best-known now for its rare trio of pandas (mom Lun Lun, dad Yang Yang and little Mei Lan). Another pleaser for all ages: The Fernbank Museum of Natural History (www.fernbankmuseum.org).
Area info: www.atlanta.net
Bison for dinner
For a meal truly out of the ordinary -- and less than a block from CNN Center and the Georgia Aquarium -- head to Ted's Montana Grill at Luckie and Spring streets. It's the flagship eatery of the chain co-owned by Atlanta-based media tycoon Ted Turner and reflects his passion for burgers made from bison -- American buffalo -- raised on one of his ranches. Wash it down with Turner's favorite beverage: an Arnold Palmer (half lemonade, half unsweetened ice tea). www.tedsmontanagrill.comVirginia
You can cover a lot of ground in the Old Dominion: Virginia is as close as two hours (just over the N.C. border at I-77) and as distant as the northwest burbs of Washington (five hours from Charlotte) or the tidelands of the Eastern Shore (seven).
Great news for the time-pressed: Many of the attractions are within minutes of interstate ramps.
Shenandoah Valley (I-64/81): Veer off I-77 North about 40 minutes into Virginia and follow I-64/81 northeast -- and up this famous valley wedged between the Appalachians to the west and the Blue Ridge to the east. You're in cave country, and walk-in natural attractions abound. Picturesque Strasburg is famous for its antiques stores -- and a museum dedicated to famous 20th-century psychic Jean Dixon.
The whole route has spectacular scenery. Valley info: www.virginia.org.
Richmond (I-85/95): Lotsa history, to be sure (capital of the Confederacy was the site of heavy 1862-65 fighting), but be aware that downtown's old Shockoe Slip and Shockoe Bottoms areas brim with great dining and nightlife. Here's something different: You can raft and kayak right downtown on the James River. Richmond info: www.discoverrichmond.com.
CHARLOTTESVILLE/VIRGINIA NECK (I-64):
I-64 slices from the Shenandoah Valley at Staunton southeast to Richmond, and then to the coast at Virginia Beach.
Between Staunton and Richmond is Charlottesville, home of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate (www.monticello.org). East of Richmond, I-64 runs down the Virginia Neck, site of Colonial Williamsburg (www.history.org) as well as Busch Gardens Williamsburg (www.buschgardens.com).
You have to leave I-85 or I-95 and put up with U.S. 58 East to reach Norfolk -- but it's worth it. See the amazing Nauticus: The National Maritime Center (www.nauticus.org) and Battleship Wisconsin.
It's 6 1/2 hours to the Outer Banks; for the same-length drive, by interstate, you could also be in northeast Florida. What's to see on the way?
Follow I-77 to Columbia, then I-26 East to I-95 -- close to Lake Marion and the birds of the
Santee National Wildlife Refuge (www.fws.gov/refuges).
Take I-95 South across the Savannah River and into Georgia. You're within easy sidetracking of Savannah and its cosmopolitan heart, which doubles as the Historic District and is easily one of the most beautiful downtowns in the South (www.savannahvisit.com). The town hums with tourists year-round, especially for its St. Patrick's Day festivities (they hold the second-largest such event in the United States) and the 18-day Savannah Music Festival, held around the same time.
I-95 then parallels Georgia's Sea Islands -- Cumberland Island, long owned by the Carnegie family, is now largely owned by the National Park Service (www.nps.gov/cuis). Take a ferry to reach a national seashore, herds of wild horses, and the still private -- and quite ritzy -- Greyfield Inn ($475 and up; www.greyfieldinn.com).
Cross into Florida and you're near luxurious Amelia Island and the cool Victorian downtown of Fernandina Beach (www.ameliaisland.org).
Continue south on I-95 to quaint/historic -- founded in 1565 -- St. Augustine (www.getaway4florida.com) and Daytona Beach (www.daytonabeach.com), famed for motorsports racing (www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com) and gatherings (Bike Week in March).
Bring your clubs? This is a prime golf area: St. Augustine, for instance, has World Golf Village (www.wgv.com), site of the PGA Golf Tour Academy, a pair of par-72 championship courses, and the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Farther south? Cape Canaveral (90 minutes) and Miami (four hours). Down I-4? Orlando and its theme parks (an hour) and Tampa (2 1/2 hours).
Southwest of Jacksonville, in Florida's Marion County, you'll find Silver River State Park, home of deer, turkey, fox and gators -- and wild monkeys. It is perhaps the only spot in North America where rhesus monkeys live completely wild. They're not natives -- they were placed on an island there by a boat captain who thought they'd stay put: He didn't know the little guys are decent swimmers. Rangers advise you to keep your distance, though: Rhesus are shy but aggressive primates that bite. ($4 per vehicle; www.floridastateparks.org/silverriver)
It takes about five hours to reach Pamlico Sound on the N.C. coast. If mountains are more to your liking, a similar-length drive up I-77 takes you through Virginia and West Virginia. You'd reach mountain terrain just shy of the Virginia line, then pass near or through these cool places:
Galax, Va.,on the Blue Ridge Parkway, is home of the impressive Blue Ridge Music Center (www.blueridgemusiccenter.com), which offers free and small-fee music and dance workshops and events throughout the year (www.visitgalax.com).
Grayson Highlands State Park, about 40 minutes west of I-77 in Volney, Va. Great mountain terrain makes for exciting hiking. New River State Park holds a 57-mile trail that starts in downtown Galax that's great for mountain biking, hiking or horseback riding. You're along the ancient New River for more than half the distance. (Va. park info: www.dcr.virginia.gov)
A quarter-hour west of I-77 from Bluefield, W.Va., is Bramwell, well-preserved from the days when coal millionaires lived there (www.mccvb.com). Bluefield is one end of the state's Coal Heritage Trail, 56 miles through small mountain towns and mine country; Beckley's on the other (www.coalheritage.org).
Beckley's Exhibition Coal Mine ($20, $12 for kids; www.beckleymine.com) gives a feel for what miners endured. Guides who take you underground are retired miners.
Dart east from Beckley on I-64 to reach a prime slice of the New River around Hinton, W.Va. Enjoy a state park and Class I-V whitewater action (www.nps.gov/neri). The New River Gorge Bridge at Fayetteville, has drama for your camera.
Prefer your entertainment and sports sitting down in West Virginia? The Avampato Discovery Museum is a splendid kid-friendly, hands-on science center with an IMAX/planetarium facility (www.avampatodiscoverymuseum.org). Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center (www.tristateracetrack.com) has year-round greyhound racing and a casino.
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