Friday, November 11, 2005
Jeff Mason's Southern Part of Heaven
Today marks a significant leap forward for NoCrowds as we post our first guest contribution. Jeff Mason, a friend and early strong supporter of this site, presents the idea that visiting American college towns offers a superior way to see America. Yes, we did promise recently to focus on Europe, but all rules can be broken for the right reasons. The right reasons here are 1) Jeff’s approach is perfectly NoCrowds focussing on ways to take back the travel experience and 2) he is one of the world’s experts on Chapel Hill. Anyone who has this much passion for a small southern town is unquestionably our kind of guy. For Europeans coming to the U.S., Jeff presents a first class concept about how to see the real America. Read on and I think you’ll agree.
North Carolina's Southern Part of Heaven
When traveling in America, one of the hidden opportunities to experience the best the country has to offer is to visit a “college town.” The environs generally offer a cosmopolitan town or village embracing expansive lawns surrounded by classroom buildings, bookstores, restaurants, and arts and sports venues.
The atmosphere is often charged with youthful exuberance and intellectual pursuits. Since many of the colleges located in these towns are also some of America’s more prominent liberal arts institutions, it also a good opportunity to encourage your kids to study hard so they can attend someday.
While crowded during the academic year, in summer and on weekends, these bucolic spots are deserted and offer a chance to take quiet strolls through the campus and enjoy the local fare in a more leisurely mode. These towns cater to students, so food for the stomach and mind can be had at a much lower cost and with less stress than in a large city. Plus, if you are like me, it is the chance to take advantage of things we neglected to do while we were in college ourselves.
While many such towns exist throughout the country – Charlottesville (University of Virginia), Princeton, Ann Arbor (University of Michigan), Hanover, NH (Dartmouth), Oxford (University of Mississippi), to name a few – one of the more popular is in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
The town of Chapel Hill is home to the first state supported university in America – the University of North Carolina. It was founded by veterans of the Revolutionary War who dreamed of a new democracy in which all citizens had access (and duty) to an education. Chapel Hill’s major thoroughfare, Franklin Street, is named for Benjamin Franklin, who was an ardent supporter of public schools and drafted large parts of the University’s charter.
From very humble beginnings, the village and town have evolved into centers of scientific research and liberal arts. The town of Chapel Hill, part of “Research Triangle Park”, is known worldwide for it technology research. A former University president described Chapel Hill as “a town touched by a strange magic,” and that feeling is easily captured during a late morning or early evening walk from Franklin Street through the McCorkle Place quad in the oldest part of the campus
While newer than most of the other buildings on the quad, the Morehead Planetarium, located adjacent to Franklin Street, offers daily planetarium programs, science exhibits and chances to explore the night sky from its observatory. American astronauts trained here until 1975. On weekdays, the Planetarium also serves as the official “Welcome Center” for the University, where you can obtain maps, directions and schedule a campus tour.
The Coker Arboretum, located just behind the Planetarium, is a quiet 5-acre sanctuary of trees, flowers, birds and meadows. A botany classroom, many trees or shrubs are marked with an explanation about their unique nature. As with much of the campus, students use the arboretum for romantic walks, reading or lying in the sun.
If a stroll through the arboretum takes its toll, return to McCorkle Place and relax on the bench in front of “Davie Poplar,” which campus lore maintains started as the tree branch which the University’s founding fathers placed in the ground to mark where the campus would be built. (It is actually much older.) The nearby “Old Well” is where thousands of freshmen have sipped water, hoping the stories were true it would bring them good luck with their examinations. A few steps way is “Old East.” the oldest state university building in the country and a National Historic landmark. For many years, it was the only classroom building and dormitory on campus.
Today, the main campus consists of over 700 acres and almost 26,000 students, a highly respected faculty and one of the largest library systems in the country. The Wilson Library, at the end of the next quadrangle (Polk Place, named for a graduate and the 11th U.S. president, James K. Polk) houses the largest archive in the country about the American South, along with a large library of rare books and other special collections. On any given day, exhibits outside the main reading room can range from a death mask of Napoleon to Jack Kerouac’s manuscript scroll of his famous book, “On the Road.”
Being a liberal arts university, during the academic year the campus offers almost nightly performances by students in its Dramatic Arts programs in theatres located primarily along Cameron Avenue, or its popular professional theatre group, the Carolina PlayMakers Repertory Company. Memorial Hall is the venue for the Carolina Performing Arts Series, which brings professional performing artists to campus about 30 weekends a year. Similar to many colleges, these productions often explore current issues and new artists that cannot be produced at larger venues that demand higher ticket prices.
One block north on Columbia Street you will find the Ackland Art Museum, which displays part of its 15,000 piece collection in galleries devoted to major art forms and history.
Of course, no trip to Chapel Hill is complete without running into some famous athlete who graduated from the university. While many “Carolina” graduates are leaders of America’s largest financial institutions, prominent journalists and authors, actors and politicians, two of its more famous alumni are former NBA star Michael Jordan and world soccer star, Mia Hamm. It is not unusual for them and other alumni to return to the town to visit, particularly in the summer months.
Finally, no trip to Chapel Hill is complete without a stroll down Franklin Street and dining or relaxing at some of its more popular restaurants and pubs, which include the following:
· Top of the Hill . A microbrewery and restaurant that overlooks the major downtown intersection of Franklin and Columbia Streets.
· The Lantern. A small and popular restaurant specializing in Pan-Asian cuisine.
· 411 West. A popular Italian restaurant.
· Crook’s Corner. Famous for its classic “shrimp and grits” entrée.
· Elaine’s on Franklin. Regional cuisine.
· West End Wine Bar. A large selection of wines and beer.
· CrossRoads Restaurant. This restaurant, which is part of the university owned Carolina Inn, offers southern cuisine and is a short walk from Franklin Street. Each Friday in the summer and fall, the Carolina Inn provides concerts on its front lawn and porch, generally by local bluegrass groups.
This is just a small sample of the excellent restaurants near campus. But it is the vibrant pace of life in a garden like atmosphere that makes many people refer to Chapel Hill as “The Southern Part of Heaven.”
So, if you want to enjoy a quiet weekend or summer day in America, visit a college town. You get the cosmopolitan feel of a large city, without the crowds and noise, and a chance to mingle with some of the best and brightest of the next generation.
About 15 minutes west of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, just off Interstate 40 West. Approximately 4.5 hours south of Washington, D.C., and 2.5 hours from both the North Carolina coast and mountains.
The Carolina Inn
Courtyard by Marriott