36 Hours in the Research Triangle

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

In planning my frequent travels, I’ve come to rely on a variety of resources.

Most importantly, are people — either those who have visited the places that I’m heading, or better yet, live there. After speaking with them, there are the more traditional targets: TripAdvisor for hotel reviews; Kayak for airfares; Lonely Planet for destinations and sights. One of my most frequently referenced guides though is the New York Times, which I’d argue has the best daily paper travel section in the country.

Every week, the Times puts out a recurring feature, “36 Hours” in which it offers up a weekend-long itinerary of a destination around the globe. You can imagine my excitement then when earlier this summer, it focused it sights right here in the Research Triangle. Would its reporter be able to dig up neighborhood Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill spots and point visitors in the right direction?

Over a 36 hour period, appropriately enough, we set out to investigate.

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What they said: Anyone who has visited the Met or the Getty might scoff at the relatively succinct collection at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh; 919-839-6262). But the lack of tour bus crowds means unfettered access to the Old Masters and contemporary heavyweights like Anselm Kiefer. The real treat is the adjacent Museum Park, more than 164 acres of open fields and woodlands punctuated by environmental art like Cloud Chamber, a stone hut that acts as a camera obscura, with a small hole in the roof projecting inverted, otherworldly images of slowly swaying trees on the floor and walls.

What we thought: Although not scheduled to close until September for a scheduled expansion, the museum currently looks like a construction site. The Museum Park had some interesting pieces — although the Carolina Heat didn’t allow us to enjoy it as much as we would have liked. The aforementioned Cloud Chamber was damp and spooky; not nearly as introspective as we had anticipated. Regardless, we would recommend a visit once the museum reopens next spring.

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What they said: There’s no pigeonholing the eclectic wares in this four-story indie minimall collectively known as Father & Son Antiques (107 West Hargett Street, Raleigh; 919-832-3030), and including Southern Swank and 2nd Floor Vintage. The organizing principle, if there is one, might be high design meets kitschy Americana, as the intermingling of vintage disco dresses ($18), Mexican wrestling masks ($20) and Eames aluminum group chairs ($250 to $500) attests.

What we thought: Located in the downtown Raleigh wasteland, this store had a couple of interesting finds mixed in with heaps of junk. For every cool retro floor lamp, there were old typewriters and busted hair dryers. We didn’t go looking for anything in particular — nor did we walk out with anything. Might be worth checking out. But wouldn’t be a big deal if you didn’t.

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What they said: Memorable meals are easy to come by in the Triangle owing to its high concentration of accomplished, produce-fondling chefs like Ashley Christensen. She left one of the area’s top kitchens to open Poole’s Downtown Diner (426 South McDowell Street, Raleigh; 919-832-4477) in a space that began as a 1940s pie shop. Diners sitting in the bright-red booths dig into Christensen’s low-pretense, high-flavor dishes, like a starter of lovably sloppy fried green tomatoes crowned with local pork smoked over cherry wood ($11), and the Royale ($13), an almost spherical hunk of ground-in-house chuck roll seared in duck fat, topped with cheese and perched on a slice of grilled brioche.

What we thought: The location, on a busy street near the Interstate and across from the prison, wasn’t great. But we escaped into this cool, converted space. The focus here is on made-to-order meals; the menu — up on a large chalkboard which we had to walk over to read — changes daily. Our roasted chicken was moist although the portions were a bit meager for the $18 price tag. Poole’s is an informal spot worth grabbing a meal at if you happen to be in Carolina’s capital city and are in search of something a little bit different.

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What they said: For most bars, a popular politician’s visit would be a game-changing boon. But the Raleigh Times Bar (14 East Hargett Street, Raleigh; 919-833-0999) was packed well before Barack Obama showed up the day of the state’s Democratic primary. The owner, Greg Hatem, painstakingly restored the century-old building that once housed its namesake newspaper and decorated the walls with old newspaper clippings, paperboy bags and other artifacts from the defunct daily. Mr. Obama bought a $2 Pabst Blue Ribbon (and left an $18 tip), but anyone not campaigning might choose one of the more than 100 other beers ($1 to $68), including esoteric Belgians and local brews you won’t find elsewhere.

What we thought: This was a hopping spot on our visit — tables were bustling with activity and the crowd spilled over onto the sidewalk. As former journalists, we were suckers for the décor. The Big Boss Seasonal Ales were $6 bucks a piece and well worth it.

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What they said: One of the Triangle’s charms is that its urban trappings are so easy to escape. A 10-mile drive from downtown Durham brings you to Eno River State Park (6101 Cole Mill Road, Durham; 919-383-1686). Its trails pass through swaying pines and follow the river past patches of delicate purple-and-yellow wildflowers and turtles sunning themselves on low branches in the water.

What we thought: Although we do a fair amount of hiking, we never would have heard about this park otherwise. It was largely empty when we arrived to summit Cox Mountain. The walk, about 4 miles round trip, crossed the Eno River on a suspension foot bridge and continued gradually up a hill that climbed 270 feet in elevation. No great views from the top but a great workout.

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What they said: But for a morning meal on the go that’s equally unforgettable, roll up to the drive-through-only Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen (1305 East Franklin Street; 919-933-1324), where the iced tea is tooth-achingly sweet and the main course is fluffy, buttery and filled with salty country ham ($2.02) or crisp fried chicken ($3.40).

What we thought: We’ve driven by this place for the last year so were excited to finally have an excuse to stop there. Our crisp chicken biscuit was certainly tasty (how could it not be?) but we weren’t sure it competed with that offered at Time Out. And for just biscuits, we think the award goes to Weathervane, the café at Southern Season.

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What they said: Anyone not on a hunt for serious Mexican food might drive past Taqueria La Vaquita (2700 Chapel Hill Road, Durham; 919-402-0209), an unassuming freestanding structure with a plastic cow on its roof, just five minutes from Duke’s campus. But if you did, you’d miss tacos ($2.19) made with house-made corn tortillas, uncommonly delicate discs topped with exceptional barbacoa de res (slow-cooked beef) or carnitas (braised-then-fried pork) that you eat at one of the picnic tables out front.

What we thought: Looks can be deceiving at this roadside food stand. But the tacos were absolutely perfect. Authentic Mexican food is difficult to come by in this area. There are just so many lousy places — Los Potrillos, La Hacienda, to name a few. It was so welcome to find this little gem with fresh and spicy flavors.

All in all, I’ve got to give the Times credit. Not all of its recommendations were the greatest. But many were. Which means that I’ll keep checking out “36 Hours” each Sunday morning for inspiration and travel advice. Whether that’s halfway around the globe or right outside my door.

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