Traveler: "Where in North Carolina are you going?"
N.C. native: "Raleigh."
Traveler: "Oh, Raleigh-Durham."
N.C. native, sighing: "Well, not exactly."
Raleigh, N.C. -- Let's get this straight right now: Despite the name of the airport -- Raleigh-Durham -- Raleigh and Durham are two separate and distinct cities. And Chapel Hill is a third place altogether.
The confusion about the name comes from the 10 million people who pass through RDU airport annually since American Airlines opened a hub here in 1987 and the airport went international.
About a third of those who use the airport don't need to know about the surrounding towns; they're just changing planes. But those who do stay over will find this a surprisingly diverse region. Rural beauty and urban sophistication come together happily here in this corner of North Carolina's rolling Piedmont.
Many visitors are of the quick-hit variety, doing business at the 6,800-acre Research Triangle Park, home of IBM, Northern Telecom, Burroughs Wellcome and the National Humanities Center, as well as 50-odd other research- or service-oriented operations.
Some travelers may be headed for North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina or Duke University, three of the nine sizable colleges in the area. Others may be checking into Duke's medical center, famed for its cancer center, or maybe just heading down to Pinehurst for a few days of golf.
Whatever the reason, it's worth taking extra time to enjoy the tradition and charm that persists despite the area's 40 percent ,, growth in the last decade.
Though Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill have distinct characters, the towns known collectively as the Triangle share a certain attitude. Strangers say hello on the sidewalk, fellow drivers wait for one another to enter traffic instead of intentionally cutting each other off, and people routinely reply "Yes, sir," and "Yes, ma'am."
In the morning, one can hear birds chirping in nearby woods and neighbors calling across the hedge. The towns are dotted with pretty places to wander or simply sit: parks and college campuses covered with fescue grass, dogwoods and Carolina pines; neighborhoods filled with gracious houses of red brick or clean white-painted wood with generous porches out front.
Salty country ham and pork barbecue are menu staples, and cholesterol counts as a major food group. There's no doubt that this is the Bible Belt -- there's a church on nearly every corner -- but rarely will casual visitors be confronted about their own beliefs. The State Fair Grounds are the site of a good, old-fashioned State Fair each October -- complete with swine exhibits -- and a popular flea market on weekends. Here one can enjoy four full seasons, and even the gray, somber winter has a melancholy appeal.
Those who don't know what the letters NCAA stand for will feel out of place here. Nearly everybody has a team preference, and football and basketball seasons mean war in families with divided allegiances. At Duke, whose basketball team is a perennial power, students have been known to tease opposing teams with obnoxious antics. (One year an N.C. State player was caught snatching men's underwear from a store; Duke students tossed dozens of pairs of briefs onto the court during warm-up.) At U.N.C., the collegiate home of Michael Jordan, basketball coach Dean Smith is considered a deity, and bumper stickers boast, "If God's not a Tar Heel, Why's the Sky Carolina Blue?" N.C. State, which has seen its own national basketball championship, inspires fan worship equally devout. And football rivalries are pursued just as vigorously.
A pleasant downtown area
A city of 210,000, Raleigh is the state's capital and was always so, created here 200 years ago because of its central location. It is named, of course, for Sir Walter Raleigh. For years, before the Research Triangle Park was created in 1965 to draw clean-air businesses, the mainstay of the city was government. That's still the case downtown, one of the most pleasant areas in the town to spend an afternoon.
The original capitol building -- used until 1963 -- is the center of the old downtown area and still houses the governor's office. It's a grand old Greek Revival building whose steps are well worn -- supposedly from whiskey kegs rolled up and down them. Beneath the 97-foot-high rotunda sits a real surprise: a copy of a statue of George Washington by Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, with the general dressed in a toga. Seems nobody briefed the 18th-century artist on what an American would wear, so he dressed his subject in familiar clothing.
The legislature now meets in a modern marble building resembling a Japanese tea house, where visitors can watch the legislators at work from late January through the spring or summer, depending on the year. Next door sits the State Archives building, home to exhibits and a wonderful gift shop. The Museum of Natural Sciences displays the state's snakes, bugs, a whale skeleton and other critters. Also nearby: the Oakwood Historic District, a 19th-century residential area undergoing renovation. A short drive away sits Historic Mordecai House, a 1785 plantation home, in a park with several buildings that include the birthplace of President Andrew Johnson.
Downtown's offices and shops are connected by a pedestrian mall dotted with flower beds, fountains, benches and a bronze statue of Sir Walter. The old City Market has been transformed into quaint shops, an art gallery and studios, and restaurants. An old-fashioned trolley runs regularly through this area during lunch hours on business days. (Trolley tours of downtown are offered once a month.)
Once located downtown, the North Carolina Museum of Art has moved to the suburbs, near the fairgrounds. The collection, established just after World War II, was the first in the nation to be created with public funds as well as private donations. It's a quiet, airy place -- and free. The collection here has more breadth than depth -- it covers everything from Egyptian, Renaissance, modern Judaic and African art. But you will find a few works by masters including Copley, Rubens, Van Dyck, Monet and Pissarro.
Each of the local colleges -- there are six significant ones in Raleigh -- also has its attractions. With more than 27,000 students, N.C. State is by far Raleigh's largest university. The school excels in engineering, forestry, agriculture and veterinary medicine. It is here that acidophilus milk and the first synthetic aorta were developed.
Less well known to out-of-staters are Peace College, St. Mary's College and Meredith College -- all women's schools -- and two historically black institutions, St. Augustine's College and Shaw University.
For those who love to eat, the Farmer's Market is a treat. Homemade jams, fresh chilies, watermelon, snap beans, potatoes and countless other local products are sold here JTC straight off the truck. In the mornings, a line forms around the restaurant for scrumptious, artery-jamming biscuits, pork tenderloin and country ham.
North Carolina may be the last place one might expect to find an English Gothic cathedral. Yet here one stands, 210 feet high -- the Duke Chapel, centerpiece of Duke University.
A colorful story
Before Duke was established in the 1930s, Durham was a tobacco town. The Dukes weren't the only local growers, but their Bright Leaf tobacco made them rich. Legend has it that James Buchanan Duke offered Princeton a huge endowment if it would rename its university for him; Princeton refused, the story goes, and Duke gave the money instead to local Trinity College, which did change its name. It's a colorful tale -- but untrue. Duke's father had supported Trinity, and the son did also. Trinity's original Greek Revival campus is now known as Duke's East Campus; a mile-and-a-half away is the Gothic West Campus that Duke built.
Though the student body numbers only about 10,000, Duke is counted among the best universities in the nation and lays claim to some heady alumni, including William Kennedy Smith; authors Reynolds Price, Anne Tyler, Peter Maas and William Styron; journalist Judy Woodruff and President Richard Nixon, who attended the law school. Its medical center is well known for its work with cancer, the AIDS virus and fitness. The child-proof cap was developed here, as was the Duke Rice Diet. One of the most interesting programs open to visitors is the Primate Center, home to lemurs, lorises and tarsiers.
Duke's magnificent chapel is open every day except Christmas. One does not have to be religious to admire its exquisite stonework, rich wood chancel, arched vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows containing more than 1 million pieces.
A decade ago, Durham was decidedly divided between Town and Gown. Today there's much more overlap -- partly because the town of about 180,000 has more to offer. An ornate brick tobacco warehouse has been transformed into Bright Leaf Square, an attractive collection of antique and specialty shops. New restaurants have opened. Downtown boasts an attractive arts and theater complex and a friendly visitors center amid the traditional Southern shops and a startling new office tower.
Arts abound as well. The American Dance Festival has its home here, and Mikhail Baryshnikov used Duke as the premiere for his stage performance in "Metamorphosis." Most performance groups are connected either with Duke or North Carolina Central University, a historically black college also located in Durham.
Also worth visiting are the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and a number of historical sites, including the Duke Homestead, with displays on tobacco, and Hayti Heritage Center, a new African-American heritage site near an area once known as Black Wall Street. For those who love baseball -- or just loved the movie, "Bull Durham" -- the hometown Carolina League Durham Bulls play April to September in Durham Athletic Park.
If ever there was a college town, Chapel Hill is it. The University of North Carolina -- first state-supported college in the nation, founded in 1793 -- is the town's raison d'etre. Out-of-towners come here to soak up the academic ambience, wander the beautiful old campus, sip coffee at the Carolina Coffee Shop and rifle through the offerings at the Intimate Bookshop.
Nearly 24,000 students live here during the school year, (joining the 30,000 to 40,000 full-time residents).
Raleigh: Capital Area Visitor Center, 301 N. Blount St., Raleigh, N.C. 27601; (919) 733-3456. Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau, 225 Hillsborough St., Suite 400; Raleigh, N.C. 27602-1879; (800) 849-8499.
Durham: Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, 101 E. Morgan St., Durham, N.C. 27701; (800) 446-8604.
Chapel Hill: Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 600, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514; (919) 968-2060. UNC-Chapel Hill Visitors' Center, CB 3475 Morehead Building, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27599-3475; (919) 962-1630.