Now the state's largest metropolitan area, North Carolina's famed "Triangle" is made up of the state's capital, Raleigh; its state-supported university home town, Chapel Hill; and Durham, where Duke University is the crowning jewel. The Triangle harbors an educational and research complex that may well be unrivaled in the country. And yet each point of the Triangle retains its own distinctive charm, its gentle pace and its unique sense of culture. History is never more than a heartbeat away from the contemporary pulse of this vibrant region.
Contributing to the quality of life in the Triangle is the mild climate, the soothing scenery and the Southern heritage. All these features render life more sensuously lived, more gracious and more productive. Long since ceasing to rely on the wealth seasonally delivered by a tobacco-dominated agriculture, these three quite different towns joined forces in 1959 to shape a vision for the future with the establishment of The Research Triangle Park. Today, as this vision begins its second half-century, the result is an employment base of about 45,000 people working to lay groundwork for the breakthrough discoveries of tomorrow.
The Triangle's academic industry is an intellectual powerhouse. Duke University has long been one of the most prestigious universities in the country. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with its nearly perfect campus, fields numerous nationally and internationally important programs. North Carolina State University is the region's technical center. Historically black North Carolina Central University, with more than 8,000 students, boasts one of the largest public law school facilities in the southeastern United States.
The Triangle's public schools are excellent, as well, many ranking among the highest in the United States. And the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, founded in Durham in 1980, is a public-supported residential two-year secondary school whose students enjoy exceptional opportunities in mathematics, the sciences and the humanities throughout their junior and senior years. Competition for admission is fierce, and its graduates enjoy the right to a tuition-free education at one of the state's public colleges.
Triangle area residents can also easily satisfy their appetites for culture. The Memorial Auditorium of Raleigh, recently enhanced, is home to the Carolina Ballet, the North Carolina Symphony, the North Carolina Theater and the Best of Broadway Theatre series. The new Durham Performing Arts Center continually attracts concerts, plays, speakers, and for six weeks each summer, the American Dance Festival to it's revitalized downtown location. In Chapel Hill, UNC's renovated Memorial Hall offers a variety of artistic attractions, as does the award-winning Playmakers' Repertory Theater.
Four remarkable — and free — museums explain why Raleigh claims the title "the Smithsonian of the South": the Museum of Art, the Museum of History, the Museum of Natural Sciences and Exploris. These institutions demonstrate what can happen when local government, the cognoscenti, and the well-heeled forge an alliance. For understanding the world, Exploris may introduce visitors to the life of the Senegalese, to the mysteries of our planet at the Museum of Natural Sciences, to the historical evolution of North Carolina at the history museum, or to the splendors of Renaissance painting at the Museum of Art, now with an impressive new wing opened in 2009. The North Carolina Museum of Art recently received a gift of 23 sculptures by August Rodin from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation, making it the only cultural institution in the South with a major Rodin collection and one of international importance as well. NCMA's restaurant, Iris (named for Mrs. Cantor), serves artful fare that reflects its stunning contemporary setting.
Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art and Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum may not house as large a collection as NCMA, but each offers impressive rotating exhibitions from the old masters' show, "Velásquez to El Greco," at the Nasher to Andy Warhol's Polaroid Portraits at the Ackland. Lunch at the Nasher Museum Café is the perfect fortification for a leisurely visit to the exhibition.
One of the most luxurious hotels in the area is the baronic Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club, conveniently located on the Duke campus, near the famous medical center, 15 minutes from the Research Triangle, 20 minutes from the Raleigh-Durham airport. Overlooking the 18-hole golf course, surrounded by trees, the setting is as bucolic and quiet as it gets. The 164 rooms — we like the reasonable size of this snug and discreetly luxurious hotel — are spacious, comfortable and well-appointed with all the amenities including Internet connection. Although the building is relatively new, it exudes an aura of Southern charm and old money. One reason could be its name, borrowed from the founder of the Duke tobacco dynasty (American Tobacco Company), who brought to Durham the illustrious Trinity College in 1892. The Duke family's generosity over time led to the Duke name replacing "trinity," and thus Duke University was born in 1924 with an endowment from James Buchanan Duke.
Other appealing lodgings include The Umstead Hotel & Spa in nearby Cary. Its exquisite art collection, featuring work by North Carolina artists and glass pieces by Dale Chihuly give the hotel the feeling of a fine art gallery. It works both as a restful retreat, with walking paths around a scenic lake on the premises, as well as a perfect spot for business conferences. Now under the leadership of chef Scott Crawford, Herons, the hotel's fine dining restaurant, features a Southern-infused menu. Another distinctive hotel in the area is The Carolina Inn on the campus of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Elegant and very "Old South" in atmosphere, yet modern in amenities, the Inn, affectionately referred to as "the university's living room," is known for both its gracious service and its seasonal Southern food. It's a perfect spot for strolling this idyllic town and its academic complex.
Finally, part of the Triangle's "charm" factor lies in a fourth town: Hillsborough, founded in 1754. Located in Orange County just 12 miles from Durham and Chapel Hill, and only 38 miles from Raleigh, Hillsborough benefits from its well-preserved historic character and its proximity to all that the Triangle has to offer. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the downtown historic district boasts more than 100 buildings from the late 18th and 19th centuries, many of which are now venues for attractive shops and restaurants. Hillsborough has become a colony of writers and artists who value its small-town intimacy and its Triangle connections.
* Images of Raleigh skyline; University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Memorial Auditorium; and Museum of Art by Bill Russ, from www.visitnc.com
(Updated: 06/22/11 JC)