Monday, July 24, 2006

America's Best College Towns

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We are a divided family. We divide over universities, not all universities mind you, just two, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (known as Carolina) and Duke University. These rival schools, located a few miles apart, hate each other passionately. It’s an old story which contains a bit of “Gone with the Wind” and a bit of “Bonfire of the Vanities”. Mostly it is a problem with basketball. On the day that I visited Duke, there was a young man walking through the engineering school with a t-shirt which screamed, “CAROLINA SUCKS”, just so you get a feel for the depth of the problem.

The bulk of my family have always strongly supported Carolina which makes sense since they are Carolinians but Duke has made inroads in recent years. My parents now use Duke’s hospital (big vote of confidence). In addition, my son applied to one of their graduate schools. His girlfriend, Alison, is a graduate. Brick by brick, we loyal Carolina supporters have been drawn into Duke’s powerful orbit but still, I take exception to that t-shirt.

For visitors who could care less about who hates whom, both towns, Chapel Hill for UNC and Durham for Duke offer crowd-free, fun places to visit. Both Universities have lots of things to do and see, most of which are free or priced for students. Back in November, my friend Mase wrote a wonderful post for NoCrowds about visiting Chapel Hill, making the case that the best way to experience the best America has to offer is to visit its college towns. Following on from that idea and to even out the playing field and in the interest of family harmony, yesterday I asked my son’s friend, Alison, if she would give me an insiders’ tour of Durham and the Duke Campus. Here is what we did.

We parked. You may laugh but parking at universities is often a huge problem, mostly driven by the fact that almost all American students have cars. To Duke’s credit, they have built a big new parking lot on the West Campus and this problem is mostly solved, at least for now. Alison says things will get more difficult when the full complement of students is back on campus.

We began our tour of Duke at their bookstore where I like to begin every university visit. In this case, I could have skipped it. The Duke bookstore is really nothing special.

What is special is the monumental chapel next door which has the metrics of a mind blowing cathedral: seating for 1,670, seventy-seven stained glass windows containing 800-900 figures made from over 1 million pieces of glass, three organs, a fifty bell carillon, and a fine portal with sculpted figures of a curious collection of luminaries such as Savonarola, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee (and who says Duke is just for Yankees?). I’ve been to countless churches and cathedrals in my time, but when we visited the Duke Chapel one of the three organs was playing and the combination of the music, the scale and the grandeur of the place made the visit uplifting and memorable. There is a sheet at the entrance with information for a self-guided tour (not great) and a much more useful brochure, “The Guide for Visitors” which I would definitely pick up.

After our visit to the Chapel, we made our way to the Sarah Duke Gardens, a short walk away. Occupying 55 acres the Gardens are recognised as one of the premier public gardens in the United States which attract more than 300,000 visitors annually. But don’t worry, the size of the place absorbs the numbers easily. On the day we visited, it felt like we were the only people there.

The gardens were designed by Ellen Shipman (1869-1950), a pioneer in American landscape design. Duke Gardens is considered Shipman’s greatest work. There are five miles of walks and pathways, areas devoted to flora of the southeastern United States, an area devoted to the plants of eastern Asian with lovely rock gardens, foot bridges, stone lanterns and a teahouse shelter. As I said before in my post about Kew Gardens in the United Kingdom, I’m not much of a gardener, but I loved my visit to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens and I respect the way they have devoted so much resources to the preservation of great American landscape design.

After our visit to the Garden, we wandered through the gigantic University hospital complex which, as I explained above, now tends to the medical needs of my parents. I suspect that if you are a patient, the “in your face” scale of the place is comforting but for me, I kept thinking about some of the Victorian era hospitals we still have in Britain and shake my head at this modern medical megalopolis. The place is so big that it has its own mini train (which looks like the little pods from Woody Allen’s movie “Sleeper”) to carry people around. Anyway, suffice it to say that if you take ill during your visit to Durham, you will receive some of the finest medical care to be found in the United States.

Following our tour of the campus, Alison suggested we get a sandwich at Fowlers on South Duke Street near the East Campus. Once again we found a parking place straight away. Fowlers is in a large converted warehouse with a cafĂ©, a delicatessen with a very good selection of foreign foods, a large cheese selection, a butcher and a fishmonger. You can eat outside on the porch if you like. It was far too hot for that the day we were there. I had the homemade pastrami which was excellent even if I did have to send the first sandwich back because they used the wrong bread. I would love to give this place a better review because management obviously cares, in the right way, about food and so much of what is served is of superior quality. Still, on the day of our visit, I felt that staff was well intended but way too disorganised and it distracted from the experience. According to Alison, good meals near campus can also be had at Elmo’s Diner which serves inexpensive good southern food and great breakfasts as well as the Cosmic Cantina for burritos and pitchers of beer.

Following our lunch, we drove around the East Campus and past a Durham Shrine to fine food – the Magnolia Grill. Founded by chef owners Ben and Karen Barker, the Magnolia Grill serves sophisticated and beautifully prepared versions of traditional southern food and is one of my favourite places to eat in the South. Sadly, there was no time for a meal during this visit. Reservations can be hard to come by, but go if you can get a table.

After lunch we toured the East Campus, the highlight for me being the series of colourful benches built by students in front of their dorms which they happily burn and build again when Duke beats Carolina in basketball. Go figure. After that, we got back in the car and headed for Chapel Hill for some ice cream at Cold Stone on Franklin Street where, if you leave a tip, the happy workers, one of whom is my cousin, will sing you a funny little “tip song”.

Going back to Jeff Mason’s point that the best way to see America is by visiting its college towns, I highly recommend making Durham and Chapel Hill a stop on any tour of the American South. The attractions are interesting, the people are friendly, the food is great, you can park your car, and Carolina, for the record, definitely does not suck.

Good Food in Durham

The Magnolia Grill
1002 Ninth Street
919 286 3609
Reservations essential

112 South Duke Street
919 683 2555
Open 7 days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner (closes at 6:00 on Sunday)

Elmo’s Diner
776 9th Street
919 416 3823

Cosmic Cantina
1920 ½ Perry Street (just off 9th Street)
919 286 1875

1 comment:

  1. If God is not a Tar Heel, why is the sky Carolina Blue?