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The reigning family in tiny Belmont, N.C., 15 miles west of Charlotte, are the Stowes. Jasper Stowe opened the county's first cotton mill in 1863, and after the turn of the century, his family and others opened additional mills, helping develop the town as a textile center nicknamed "City of Diversified Textiles."

Then the textile industry moved overseas, and most of the mills in the area were torn down or converted. So Daniel J. Stowe, a retired textile executive, decided to craft a very different kind of legacy in his quaint Southern town. He reserved 380 acres of rolling meadows and woodlands abutting Lake Wylie for a first-class botanical complex, and since 1999, the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden has become an enticing destination for visitors. It's only a 25-minute drive from Charlotte's bustling airport, but with its year-round variety of special exhibits, events, classes, and programming, it feels a world away.

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My sister and I spent some of our formative years in Belmont, and our 85-year-old father grew up there, working in the cotton mill for which my grandfather was head electrician most of his adult life. So a trip to the Garden was a homecoming of sorts. For us, the big draw was the Orchid Conservatory, the Carolinas' only glasshouse dedicated to the display of orchids. Five stories high, the Conservatory's 8,000 square feet are packed with lush foliage and brilliant blooms. Ever-changing exhibits showcase a collection of roughly 5,000 orchids in an eye-popping array of sizes, shapes, and colors. Even the mini-orchids can stop you in your tracks, exuding the most delectable scents reminiscent of vanilla, cinnamon, and ginger.

Lavish displays also incorporate a wide variety of exotic succulents, bromeliads, and air plants, which sprout improbably from trellises and archways. A relatively short, manageable pathway leads visitors around a central courtyard gazebo with a cascading fountain wall and wishing well, complete with fish swimming and lizards scurrying along stone borders. Throughout, colorful paintings adorn walls and sculptures peek out amid the greenery. For the physically compromised, the Conservatory alone is well worth the visit; Dad's bum hip was a concern, but he was so enthralled he didn't mention it once.

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Outside, we left him contentedly parked on a bench to explore on our own. The Conservatory opens onto 10 acres of distinctive, beautifully manicured garden oases with flora for every season as well as sculptures, pools, and fountains. The Four Seasons Garden produces colorful blooms and foliage throughout the year. The Cottage Garden showcases heirloom plants popular over a century ago. The Canal Garden features fountains at each end, while the Allee Garden has a tunnel fountain that's especially popular with kids. Other gardens specialize in azaleas or white flowers or conifers, and the Serpentine Garden includes a long meandering walk around circular pools rimmed with color-themed plantings. If you have the time and energy, you also can take advantage of more than three miles of hiking trails that loop around two ponds and alongside Lake Wylie.

Last October, the Garden opened a brand new garden and play area especially for children called Lost Hollow. Centered around a sunken pond, the area is designed to represent a long lost land inviting exploration and discovery. Kids can happily cavort along stone and wood paths, up to a medieval-inspired iron-railed "Balconette" and down to the "Fireplace Cave." Kids can explore the "Moon Keep," complete with flying buttresses and a moat, and play inside an "Aviary" that was once in Stowe's estate garden and is now ringed by plantings designed to attract birds. Over time, Lost Hollow will incorporate more specially chosen flora and additional structures to enhance the Garden's educational mission.

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The Visitor Pavilion, with its vaulting stained glass atrium, is not just where visitors begin their tour, but also an ideal spot to end a visit. The Garden Store inside is well worth a look, offering everything from handmade crafts to live plants. (I couldn't pass up a tillansia to take home on the plane.) If you want to find a quiet spot in one of the gardens for a picnic, the store also sells light snacks and drinks. But if you're lucky, you can grab one of the white rockers on the veranda overlooking the gardens and while away the time Southern-style, rocking gently with an iced tea, a glass of wine, or a sparkling mimosa. Indeed, a world away.


Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.