Driving down Interstate 77 toward Charlotte, it can be easy to dismiss the four towns along Lake Norman as generic suburbs fueled by the Queen City’s growth.
The freeway exits are dotted with the chain restaurants and hotels of Anytown, U.S.A. There’s little sign of the unique attractions that await a few miles off the highway.
The shimmering waters of the lake, coupled with easy access to Charlotte, have caused these towns to boom; Huntersville’s population has ballooned from just 3,000 residents in 1990 to more than 50,000 today. Much like western Wake County, it’s a once-rural area that has seen drastic change.
Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson and Mooresville now boast hundreds of new subdivisions, and Lake Norman recreation and NASCAR racing facilities are big draws for visitors.
We’ll leave those aside to check out the region’s lesser-known gems.
Huntersville’s rural outskirts are home to two historic farm properties, Latta Plantation and Rural Hill. Latta hosts owls, hawks and bald eagles at the Carolina Raptor Center.
A few miles north, Mooresville and Davidson both have bustling historic downtowns with local shops and restaurants. They’ve managed to keep their small-town charm even as Charlotte’s growth creeps northward.
And while Cornelius is more suburban, it’s the epicenter of northern Mecklenburg County’s rapidly growing craft beer scene. Four breweries now make their homes within a few miles of each other, each with their own specialities.
Our series appears online and in print each Monday through Labor Day, when we’ll recap all the places we’ve visited this summer.
Historic Rural Hill
Start the morning in the country with a stroll around Rural Hill, a 265-acre historic farm and nature preserve about five miles outside the Interstate 485 loop. Pick up a map from the former kitchen house, which also has a two-room museum detailing the farm’s history and the early Scottish settlers in the area. Then check out the historic structures scattered around the site, including two one-room schoolhouses, and wind through the woods and fields on the nature trail. The original plantation house burned down in 1886, but its columns and other ruins remain. The site is also a working farm that replicates what agriculture looked like in the 19th century, and oddly wooly Scottish highland cows graze in the fields. A corn maze opens for fall fun in September and October. 4431 Neck Road, Huntersville. Guided tours are available from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays for a $6 fee; donations are encouraged for other visits. The site is also open Saturday but hours vary. 704-875-3113, ruralhill.net
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Carolina Raptor Center
Get up close and personal with owls, vultures, hawks and bald eagles at this sanctuary for birds. The Raptor Medical Center next door treats about 1,000 injured and orphaned birds a year, and the ones that can’t be safely returned to the wild find a home in one of the big cages along the center’s Raptor Trail. On summer weekend afternoons, the staff presents “flight shows” where the birds star in dramas like “The Case of the Feathered Felon.” 6000 Sample Road, Huntersville. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and teachers and $6 for students. 704-875-6521, carolinaraptorcenter.org
Why not eat breakfast for lunch? It’s an option at Cafe 100, a cozy house-turned-restaurant at the center of Huntersville. Sure, they serve standard lunch fare, too – sandwiches, wraps and burgers – but it’s hard to pass up the build-your-own breakfast burritos, which can include anything from chorizo sausage to goat cheese. And if the weather’s nice, Cafe 100 has a covered patio overlooking what passes for a downtown in this suburban boomtown. 100 Huntersville-Concord Road, Huntersville. Open 7 a.m. to 2:30 pm weekdays, 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekends and from 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner Wednesday-Saturday. 704-274-5932, thecafe100.com
Mooresville Ice Cream Company
Mooresville’s ice cream factory opened in 1924 with the help of $50,000 from local investors. It’s been one of Iredell County’s most popular spots ever since. Sold under the DeLuxe and Front Porch brands, the flavors are as Southern as they can get: banana pudding, fried apple pie, blackberry crumble and an array of more traditional flavors. Peek in the windows of the factory to get a glimpse of the ice cream production process, then stop in the old-style ice cream parlor next door for a taste. But be careful: The servings are generous, and the small cup is practically a meal. And with about 40 flavors available, ordering could be the hardest decision you’ll make all day. 186 N. Broad St., Mooresville. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. 704-664-5456, deluxe1924.com
Lost N Found Vintage Mall
Downtown Mooresville is home to several antiques stores, but there’s a reason this one doesn’t have “antiques” in its name. Its wares are quirky enough to attract shoppers and gawkers of all ages. Among the oddball items on sale recently: vintage bowling pins, a TV dinner tray from the movie “E.T.,” and a newspaper sales rack from the days when the price was 15 cents. Ask owners Alex and Sharon Yonchuk for their strangest items, and they’ll pull out bottles of century-old snake oil and embalming fluid from behind the counter. The couple wants to shake the stigma of stuffy antique shops that attract only senior citizens. “It’s anything to invite every walk of life in here,” Alex Yonchuk says of the selection. “A lot of people collect stuff from the ‘80s and ‘90s.” 101 S. Broad St., Mooresville. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. 704-664-1977, lostnfoundvintagemall.com
Ass Clown Brewing Company
To find Ass Clown Brewing, you’ll have to drive around a nondescript office park in Cornelius until you see a terrifying clown face above a door. Inside the small tap room is a chalkboard with more than a dozen unique beers to try: Chai tea hefeweizen, orange mint IPA, peach fig pale ale and smoked maple bacon black ale among them. The hard-to-forget name stems from a lighthearted insult the brewers used to throw at each other. Still thirsty? Ass Clown anchors a cluster of breweries that have become the Charlotte beer scene’s main outpost. D9 Brewing, Bayne Brewing and Primal Brewery are all within a few miles. And if you need some food to soak up the beer, nearby Davidson’s downtown has a surprisingly strong restaurant scene for a small college town. 10620 Bailey Rd, Cornelius. Open 3 to 9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, noon to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday and Monday. 704-995-7767, assclownbrewing.com
Coming next Monday: