Greenville, South Carolina, was boarded up and left for dead when the textile mills skipped town in the Sixties. In light of several dark decades that followed, the "Yeah, that Greenville!" slogan splashed across coffee cups and T-shirts by VisitGreenvilleSC seems like an appropriate rallying cry for the city. Over the past 20 years, "G-Vegas" has become a mecca for outdoor sports, thanks to its fortuitous location between rolling Piedmont hills and burly Blue Ridge Mountains that straddle the Carolinas' common border. Once-blighted downtown Greenville is now an attraction unto itself.
Getting to know the town isn't difficult: Walk down oak tree–lined Main Street, taking in the major hotels – the gently aging Westin Poinsett with its 89-year-old lobby and the modern Hyatt – and plunge into the booming shopping district. The homespun Mast General Store, opened in 1883, mixes sensible outdoor wear with vintage candy (think licorice whips and sour balls). The Michelin on Main store sells Michelin sportswear you won't find anywhere else in the United States and serves as a reminder that the current prosperity has everything to do with the arrival of Michelin and BMW factories. If you're more interested in Americana than European corporate expansion, head down Main Street to Fluor Field, a newish baseball park made with bricks from the old mills where the Greenville Drive, a Red Sox affiliate, play Class-A ball.
The biggest sport in town, though, is wining and dining. Begin your evening at Sip which has remade its perch on the second floor of a Main Street commercial building into sort of an indoor-outdoor casbah with white deck sofas and tents. Studying the ambitious wine list and enjoying the view of the Reedy River will likely take longer than draining a bottle. For dinner, you can go hard-core foodie at American Grocery, where chef Joe Clark mines local producers for his farm-to-table cuisine (horseradish gnocci, ragout of root vegetables, fall squash risotto). Or you can enjoy meat loaf – really good meat loaf – at The Green Room a small spot teeming with locals. After dinner, take your constitutional and follow the river walkway to the pedestrian suspension bridge that spans Reedy River Falls. Finding a lookout this beautiful in a neighborhood that used to be pockmarked by collapsed factories is like finding vintage hardwood planks under a dirty shag rug.
Art and Nature have their place in Greenville as well. A world away from Main Street, off a commercial throughway packed with Wal-Mart and Waffle House acolytes, is Bob Jones University, a deeply, controversially conservative Baptist school that claims the largest collection of religious art outside the Vatican. The Bob Jones Museum & Gallery's collection is European master-heavy and includes important works by Rubens and Van Dyck among countless others that make this seem like a zealous hoarder's stash.
God's handiwork is also on display at Jones Gap State Park, a 30-minute drive north from town. The trail follows the Middle Saluda River through a dense forest of oak and sweetgum, before switchbacking up the spine of the Blue Ridge Escarpment until you reach a 100-foot rock-face waterfall, Rainbow Falls. My guide, Mike Ray, who works out of Sunrift Adventures in the nearby burg of Travelers Rest, described the Greenville where he grew up.
"It was nothing but whorehouses and adult movie theaters when I was a kid," he said. The woods are the only thing that haven't changed.