59 year old Mary Stuart-Miller weaves a web around Charlotte, North Carolina
257 years before Meghan Markle married Prince Harry a 17 year old German princess named Charlotte married British `mad’ King George III and became the first mixed-race royal to enter the British Royal Family, via direct lineage to a black branch of the Portuguese royal family.
Today her image stands amid the parking lots at Charlotte Douglas Airport; 20’ high, cast in bronze, bent double as if blown by the airport’s mighty jet engines.
The city of Charlotte in North Carolina was inaugurated as `Charlotte Town’ by British settlers in 1768 to honour the reigning King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte. And it is here that her memory resonates, rather than in the country where she was British Queen consort for over 50 years. Despite being great great great great grandmother to the reigning Queen Elizabeth II, being mentioned on www.100blackbritons.com (alongside Sir Trevor MacDonald, Shirley Bassey and Naomi Campbell) and being portrayed by Helen Mirren in the film The Madness of King George, she is best remembered in her namesake city of Charlotte, U.S.A.
In fact the city’s residents are so proud of their Royal heritage the initials `QC’ and references to Queen Charlotte can be found everywhere, on menus, shirts, social organisations, in street names, hotels, squares and monuments.
Leaving her forever bending double in the airport parking lot the 10-minute drive to Charlotte in the hired Mustang Cabriolet is a pleasure, and not simply because of the car. The shimmering high-rise skyline grows on approach and includes the towering 871ft (265m) high Bank of America Corporate Center, flanked by The Vue, 51 floors of apartments and residences, The Duke Energy Centre, the One Wells Fargo Centre and the Hearst Tower, by office blocks and hotels. A snapshot that resembles a mini New York, immersed in green.
It’s a new face to an old city and one that has transformed itself in just 30 years, with a surge in population of around 1 million residents from 2004 to 2014, when it was America’s fastest growing metropolis.
Charlotte still retains the feel of a large village. The streets and squares are tranquil and calm, visitors and residents whizz by on `pay as you go’ scooters and well-dressed office workers pass by clutching vats of take away coffee.
The Westin Hotel, Charlotte, adds its carved gleaming steel and glass Lego-brick form to the skyline of the `Uptown’ financial district. But here too are little touches to remind you that you’re still in a very new city with the values of a village. The staff all wear badges not only telling their name and job title, but also their interests – Receptionist Sheila loves ‘travel and writing’ and Vietnamese waitress Hak-Kim ‘loves dogs’. And Westin bees make honey in hives outside the gym (Westin Workout), for use in drinks and dishes in the JP Westin bar and restaurant.
The ambience is luxurious, the welcome friendly and very human, with chatty and smiling staff to meet and greet, take the car off your hands and the luggage in their hands. It’s a luxury home from home with rooms and suites right up to the 25th floor, to give a spectacular bird’s eye view of the city below. And a convenient base from which to walk to the museum of art, or any one of Charlotte’s other 18 museums, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, the 10,200 seat BB&T baseball Ballpark and a short walk (or scoot) to the shops, restaurants and bars of Downtown Charlotte.
Sitting on the terrace just above street level, the breeze in the trees providing a cooling relief from the sub-tropical heat, the energetic waitress, Hak-Kim, brings weighty breakfast plates of green avocado, creamy tofu, flavoursome red tomatoes and piles of orange-pink smoked salmon, with fresh vegetable smoothies. Conversation is sparked by her `Loves dogs’ badge and with sparkling eyes, she tells us about her dogs, her daughter and her campaigns to end animal suffering. The Westin Charlotte is a lovely hotel with a human heart which makes the most travel weary traveller feels at home.
The best way to avoid the humid heat of high summer is to stand aka Queen Charlotte in front of a huge fan, shaped like a jet engine. It provided at least some respite from the heat reflecting off the concrete and tarmac of Charlotte Motor Speedway, to the north east of the city in Concord, Cabarrus County, in the hospitality suite on the southernmost corner of the 1.5-mile (2.4km) circuit.
The noise was as all invading as the heat, with multi-coloured cars racing towards us in a crescendo of powerful motors and a haze of heat. Flanking the curved banks, the volume drops a few decibels as soon as they pass, but adrenalin levels remain high. The circuit draws thousands throughout the year to regular racing events and is an important part of Charlotte and Concord’s motor racing heritage.
Thanks in part to the bootleggers of the early 20th century, who souped up their cars to escape police pursuit, Charlotte has developed into America’s major motor racing venue, with the U.S.’s only Formula 1 team, Haas F1, also having its base in the neighbouring city of Kannapolis.
With motoring still on the mind, ten minutes from Charlotte Motor Speedway is the amazing Mustang Owners Museum, run by volunteers and with an ever-changing display of ‘loan’ Mustangs provided by enthusiastic owners. Rather than being a hangar full of old cars, the stories told by curator Steve bring the venue to life.
Favourite tales include the chocolate brown Mustang with tooled leather interior and roof, typically 1970s, which never made it past the one-off prototype and was bought by its designer. It now sits among other gleaming legends, including one of the first cars off the production line on the first day in the story of Mustang, presented in a vintage garage setting. There are Mustangs of all colour, age and power, from police vehicles to another legend whose owner, an elderly lawyer, drove it for over 150,000 miles before parting company to a new owner who stripped it down and found signatures from the production line workers on the beneath the carpet.
Swapping the city centre for the leafy outskirts we swept into the circular entry to The Ballantyne, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Charlotte in the rural Ballantyne district of Charlotte, south west of the city, to be met by a uniformed valet.
While he parked the Mustang, we strolled into the vast impressive entrance hall of The Ballantyne, which resembles a palatial, modern Scottish baronial mansion. Comfortable over-sized sofas flank an open fire, curving staircases sweep graciously and long panelled corridors (with tartan carpet) lead to gold lined lifts and to spacious and plush suites and rooms with views over the golf course and the park-like setting, while huge, high beds, are perfectly made for sleeping.
The hotel pays homage to the royal Queen Charlotte through its Britishness, its numerous Scottish undertones and the regal feel to the many public areas, and the beautiful formal rose garden beneath the terrace of the splendid Gallery restaurant.
Yet even the talented and charismatic beauticians within the Spa at Ballantyne may have struggled to revitalise the looks of the famously ugly queen, despite an awesome array of treatments for lips, eyes, skin, body and soul, including the tasty sounding Marshmallow hydrating Whip. My practitioner explained how the natural fruit acids of the Arctic Berry Peel, a ‘powerhouse peel comprising natural fruit acids’ would lead to a ‘brighter, hydrated, smooth and firm skin’. She then allayed my fear of being left looking like the victim of an acid attack, or Queen Charlotte, and after 50 minutes (and $160) of massaging, peeling and probing she was right. The berries did their very best and the treatment was as innocuous as eating an orange and far more relaxing.
The second most scary moment of the trip happened on the golf course, an immaculate green swathe directly flanking the rear of the hotel when enthusiastic golf Pro Aaran suggested he would video my swing. Much hilarity, missed shots, turf shots, helpful suggestions and heat fatigue later and he seemed to have forgotten, or abandoned the idea. The course is more used to seasoned golfers, golf professionals, championships and the occasional celebrity player, but an hour’s lesson with Aaron in the Golf School was time well spent, if only for the spectacular views down the course back to the hotel.
Talking of caddies… time for a right royal afternoon tea, British style, back in the spectacular setting of the hotel’s tearoom before returning to the parking lot at Charlotte Douglas Airport for the final time.
While Queen Charlotte may have introduced the Christmas tree into Britain, helped found Kew Gardens, and be a direct descendent of the reigning British Royal Family, it is in America’s Deep South that Britain’s first mixed race queen is best remembered.
Perhaps there is still time for a British city to be renamed Meghan, in honour of one of the newest `mixed race’ member of the British Royal Family?
More facts about Charlotte
Charlotte has the U.S.’s largest banking assets, after New York.
In the 10 years to 2014 the city was American’s fastest growing metropolitan area.
American Evangelist Billy Graham was born in Charlotte.
It has 18 museums and 13 performing arts venues.
In the early 1800 the discovery of a 17lb rock of solid gold in nearby Cabarrus County sparked the U.S.’s first Gold Rush.
The city was named after Queen Charlotte, queen consort to British King George III.
Workers found gold while building Charlotte’s Bank of America Corporate Center.
The city is home to America’s motor racing industry.
The Ballantyne Hotel & Spa
A night’s stay at The Ballantyne, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Charlotte, costs from $259 for a double room. Visit www.theballantynehotel.com or call +1 888-627-8048.
A night’s stay at Westin Charlotte costs from $229 for a double room. Visit www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/cltcw-the-westin-charlotte or call +1 704-375-2600
Cabarrus County Visitor Center
Visit www.visitcabarrus.com or call +1 800-848-3740.