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Suburbs in the Spotlight

You might not think a suburban destination would offer motor speedway races, hands-on biblical herb classes or world-renowned national parks. But some suburbs dispel preconceived notions of sleepy towns with thriving communities, intriguing attractions and vibrant cultures.

These bustling suburbs allow faith-based groups to save money on major cities’ downtown hotels while preventing the thumb-twiddling boredom that is sometimes associated with the ’burbs. Many church groups will also enjoy the family atmospheres of these five suburban destinations that replace city nightlife with historic downtowns and outdoor parks.

Create your next hub-and-spoke tour around one of these suburban locations for both their proximity to major city attractions and the impressive entertainment available right next door.

Gahanna, Ohio

Travelers can enjoy the heavenly scents of lavender, rosemary and hyssop while learning about these herbs’ spiritual roots in a Sacred Herbs of the Bible class in Gahanna, Ohio. Deemed the “Herb Capital of Ohio” by the state Legislature in 1972, the town offers both sweet-smelling gardens and access to the busyness of Columbus.

Gahanna has embraced its herbal identity with the 2012 creation of the Herbal Trail, which showcases the town’s herbal shopping venues, herb gardens, eco-learning options and wellness points of interest.

“The Herbal Trail has 40 different businesses, attractions and gardens we can pull from and create itineraries specific to a group’s needs,” said Mary Szymkowiak, communications and tourism manager for the Gahanna Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Not only are you not paying for parking here, but we also have hotel partners that really understand groups and their needs.”

Hotels can organize complimentary gift bags of local herbal products for groups as well as shuttle service to many of the Herbal Trail stops. Many attractions in the area are walkable, such as the city’s Creekside District, which features trails past waterfalls and herb gardens.

The Ohio Herb Education Center connects visitors with the history of herbs with workshops that inform; they also provide a hands-on project that participants can take home. Groups can choose from class topics such as biblical herbs, cooking with herbs and brewing herbal teas.

The Gahanna CVB will also orchestrate a visit with a local farm, such as Shepherd’s Corner Farm. This 160-acre ecological mission run by the Dominican Sisters of the Peace welcomes tours of the farm’s sustainable produce, animals, a meditation trail and a labyrinth.

Cabarrus County, North Carolina

Fans can grab the wheel of a 600-horsepower NASCAR racecar for an adrenaline rush they will always remember at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Cabarrus County. The track’s driving experiences allow participants to zoom around the legendary speedway with a professional driver at speeds of up to 165 miles per hour.

The excitement doesn’t end there in Cabarrus County, which lives up to its tagline of “Where Racing Lives.” Just minutes from Charlotte, the North Carolina suburb thrives on its racing heritage as well as its other attractions.

“We like to say that we have small-town charm with big-city adventure,” said Julie Hinson, communications manager for the Cabarrus County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There is definitely an energy to Cabarrus County. Even outside of motor sports, there is a lot to see and do that still keeps that energy up.”

Whether diehard NASCAR fans or not, most visitors stop by the 1960 Charlotte Motor Speedway for a driving school experience, a racing event or a behind-the-scenes tour of the 140,000-seat facility.

Within a 50-mile radius of Charlotte Motor Speedway, groups can tour almost every driver’s racing shop, since Race Shop Tours allows groups to get up close to the everyday lives of the racing community. Sport enthusiasts also enjoy visiting Dale Earnhardt’s hometown of Kannapolis, which features the Dale Trail and Dale Earnhardt Plaza.

However, one of the most popular visitor attractions in the state that lies in Cabarrus County has little to do with cars. The Concord Mills Mall features more than 200 stores, among them retail outlets, restaurants and interactive stores like Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and the Sea Life Aquarium.