9 great summer-saver side trips

A treehouse can be luxurious and offer great vistas at Primland, two hours north of Charlotte.
A treehouse can be luxurious and offer great vistas at Primland, two hours north of Charlotte. Primland

We saw your car in the driveway this weekend – again – and came to the conclusion your summer vacation planning hasn’t been as hot as the temperatures.

But there’s hope: You have a couple of weeks to pull off a great road trip that’s out of the blue and not far away.

Here are some easy, fun and maybe surprising options you didn’t know were just a few hours from Charlotte. Or even closer.

‘The Patriot’ with ‘The Notebook’ meets ‘Swamp Thing’

1 Cypress Gardens – three hours south of Charlotte and just north of Charleston – includes 80 acres of swamps, and you can tour them on a guided or self-guided boat tour. Better yet are the 3 miles of walking paths and nature trails that take you around to a wildlife garden, bog garden, camellia garden, wildflower meadow and inland rice field and to the iconic wedding gazebo on a lagoon island.

If deja vu bubbles up, it could be from seeing Cypress Gardens in more than a dozen movies and TV shows, including “The Patriot,” “Cold Mountain” and “North and South.” Romantics may recognize scenery from “The Notebook.” Not romantic? Parts of “The Swamp Thing” were shot here.

It also features a bird exhibit, the Heritage Museum & Heirloom Garden, a gator display, the Swamparium (displaying fish, reptiles and amphibians) and a butterfly house.

It’s owned by Berkeley County – which keeps admission low; when available for self-guided tours, boats are free to use.

Cypress Gardens is at 3030 Cypress Gardens Road, Moncks Corner, S.C. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission: $5-$10; $5 for guided boat ride (reservation required).

Foam sweet foam

2 The Wildwater outfitter company has five locations in the Southeast offering raft/canoe/kayak trips and instruction, camping trips and rope/canopy tours. Its flagship adventure center is in Oconee County, S.C., in the rugged northwest corner of the state. You’ll find it west of Walhalla, off U.S. 76, about 21/2 hours from Charlotte – and occupies the grounds of an academy that closed in 1975. The “wild” here refers to its being in Sumter National Forest; “water” is from creeks that feed into the nearby Chatooga, a federally protected Wild and Scenic River. The film “Deliverance” was shot on this free-flowing waterway.

Water levels are high in spring; the Chatooga is a lower and slower river this time of year – and more suitable for families. The Section III Mini Trip package, offered through Oct. 15, includes a guided four-hour rafting trip suitable for those 8 and older; the rapids are spaced and the scenery is stunning. (Note: It’s a quarter-mile hike to the riverside from the outpost; guests are expected to help carry equipment.)

Weekdays, the adventure costs less than $100 per person (including a snack on the river).

High-end hideaway

3 Got the beans for a luxury mountain resort? Primland is so close you can see the Winston-Salem skyline from one of its airy decks. The compound, just over the Virginia-North Carolina border, is atop a finger of the Blue Ridge at close to 3,000 feet above sea level.

What began as a 12,000-acre spring/fall hunting retreat was fleshed out with mountain-vista golf at the Highland Course (designed by Donald Steel). It’s owned by a family of French-Swiss tycoons whose interests are reflected in Primland’s other offerings. There are cabins, cottages, luxury tree houses, a lodge that boasts a high-tech astronomical observatory and a spa. On the grounds, there’s a bow and air-rifle range, an area for shooting clays, tennis courts; guided fly-fishing is offered on a stretch of the Dan River.

There are trails and roads for biking and mountain biking. On them or off the road, there are guided ATV excursions.

Depending on day of the week, double-occupancy prices start at $560 or $689.

Primland is near Meadows of Dan, Va., off I-77 and just over two hours north of Charlotte.

Where the past looms large

4 Cooleemee, an hour north of Charlotte, between Statesville and Lexington, is a small town that has chosen to respect and preserve its textile roots. The mill literally owned everything, and when it closed in the 1960s its extensive holdings were sold off.

Residents had the option of buying their row houses, and roughly 240 remain. One on Church Street is now the Mill House Museum; the four-room residence is decorated to match the year 1930. Nearby, the former residence of mill boss Zachary Holt is now the Textile Heritage Museum. Go there for background and perspective.

The museums are open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Mill House admission: $4; 12 and younger, free.

Mountain tune-in

5 Just over the Virginia line on the Blue Ridge Parkway, off I-77 and two hours from Charlotte, are the hills and hollows where old-time Appalachian music – the ancestor of bluegrass – was born and shaped. At Milepost 213 you’ll find the Blue Ridge Music Center, where Americana music is honored and practiced. At the National Park Service’s modern museum, you can learn how mountain music came to pass, see antique instruments and hear archived recordings and oral histories. Admission is free, and musicians play from noon to 4 p.m. daily through October.

The site also holds an amphitheater where – most Saturday nights, May through October – there are great concerts ($10-$20) by area, regional and national old-time, folk and bluegrass artists. On Aug. 29, the famous Steep Canyon Rangers headline.

The center is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Oct. 31.

A different dip

6 A cement-lined pool will only get you so far, and it’s a long haul to a saltwater beach. Try Cane Creek Park, in Waxhaw. It’s centered on a 350-acre trophy-bass lake (one of only a few in North Carolina – so bring your rod/reel and fishing license) and has a nice, family-friendly beach.

Bring your canoe or john boat (or rent one for $5 per hour). The 1,050-acre park, less than an hour from Charlotte, also has picnic areas and playgrounds, a mini-golf course and hiking/running/horseback trails. Got an RV? There’s a campground here, too.

Cane Creek Park is at 5213 Harkey Road, Waxhaw. Day-use hours: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. daily; day admission: $4 per vehicle. (type “Cane Creek Park” in the search window).

Welcome to the fur farm

7 Alpacas – members of the camel family native to the Andes Mountains of South America – are raised for their silky fleece, which is sheared each spring and spun into yarn. Even in Union County. That’s where Valerie Hietala and her husband, Kaarlo, tend the herd at their Happy Hills Alpaca Farm.

On a tour of their eight unusual acres, you’ll learn about the gentle critters and how they’re cared for. They currently have eight alpacas – two babies due in November – plus a trio of heritage-breed sheep and a llama.

On the two-hour tours, you meet the animals out in the field and feed them hay – “It’s like candy to them,” Val said. Later, in the fiber studio, she demonstrates how she spins the shearings into yarn and weaves or knits that into into shawls and scarves, hand-felted slippers, puppets and jewelry, etc.

The farm – 45 minutes from uptown Charlotte – is at 708 Winding Brook Road, Monroe. Tours ($10; $7 for 12 and younger) by appointment: 802-683-7433. The “Picnics the Pacas” outings are lunches catered by Monroe’s Stone Table restaurant; call for prices/details.

Garden after garden after garden

8 Sure, you can try 30 golf courses in the Sandhills area. But there are more great green areas in Pinehurst than you’d expect.

Sandhills Community College has a landscape gardening program, and the school’s horticultural gardens were designed and created by students. Those 32 acres include 11 gardens – and a native wetland trail through a bird sanctuary – all free to see. And just two hours east of Charlotte.

The 3-acre Margaret Ambrose Japanese Garden includes a meditation garden. The Atkins Woodside Garden sports waterfalls, pools and a butterfly garden.

The showstopper is the 1.5-acre Sir Walter Raleigh Garden – a formal, Tudor-style affair that includes courtyards, a sunken garden, herb garden and holly maze.

The gardens are at 3395 Airport Road, Pinehurst. Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

A serving of dramatic history

9 The International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro is quite moving, literally built on history – and just 90 minutes from Charlotte.

Segregation was the law when four black college students sat down to order coffee in February 1960 at the Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro. They were not served. They returned every day. The integration of the whites-only lunch counter a half-year later was an early and key incident in the civil rights struggle.

The museum is in the old dime-store building. The pink and green counter and its stools are still there, roped off, in a starkly unadorned chamber for a tech-savvy, ringside view of a troubled past. In other galleries, artifacts include a drinking fountain for African-Americans (painted black) and a restroom door with “Colored Women” painted on it.

The museum is at 134 S. Elm St., Greensboro (the historic Woolworth signage is still outside). Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. through Sept. 30. Admission: $8-$12.