Staying with Friends: On the Porch in Raleigh, North Carolina

One thing you won’t find in New York City, at least at my apartment, is a screened-in porch. But in the summer in the south, the porch is the living room, kitchen, dining room and bar, a focal point of a home to rival the greatest of fireplaces. I know because I had the pleasure of enjoying a porch for a couple of days recently in Raleigh, North Carolina.


Through my friend Rob, I’d met Tim and Susan, a couple that left New York City after about fifteen years to slow down and try their hands in the south. Like our friends in the Outer Banks, they were standard bearers for North Carolina’s wonderful brand of hospitality, immediately shuffling us out to the porch, plopping us down in chairs and handing us frosty beers plucked from an ice chest. One of the greatest things in North Carolina is the beer-filled cooler that holds a prime position on porches across the state.

We talked. Rob updated his friends on news from New York and I grilled the couple on life in Raleigh and how it compares to the north, particularly because Tim will soon open his own bar near the campus of UNC. “The bottom line is, with Research Triangle Park, there is this really well-educated community and an awfully diverse community here,” he says. “My thing is that there’s a phenomenal number of ‘classic American’ bars but there aren’t really a phenomenal number of bars that have been influenced by Europe. And it’s not that I want to create a ‘European bar’ but there are a lot of things that the Europeans get right with bars,” like lighting, music, ambiance and drink selection.

Tim’s new spot should be, like his porch, a great place for gathering. The idea of televisions in pubs is repellant to the long-time bartender, a pointless intrusion on the real reasons for going out: the people and the booze and sometimes the food. Construction at his place is still underway, but he’s already found that the business of building a restaurant in Chapel Hill is, in many ways, much easier here than in New York City. Rent is cheaper, of course, but so are construction costs, contracting fees and permits. Bureaucratic headaches are nothing compared to what restaurant owners confront up north. It’s the kind of place, says Tim, where he can actually open his own business; that wasn’t a certainty in his former hometown. (He also has more room in his house for power tools now.)

Critically for the area restaurant scene-if not his place-the local products are good, says Tim: “There is some very good beer being brewed in North Carolina. I was shocked to say so when I moved but there’s some fabulous beer being brewed down here.” Lonerider’s Shotgun Betty and Foothills Pilsner from Salem, North Carolina are a couple of his favorites. 3 Cups, a Chapel Hill gourmet shop, stocks plenty of international groceries and wines, but its event program is all about local chefs and farmers. “There is good food here,” Tim says. Much of it is on view at the Raleigh Farmers Market, which has so much to offer that it’s open daily.

While his future bar is across “The Triangle” from the capital, Raleigh’s downtown alliance is encouraging development in the heart of the city, where there’s already a healthy dining and nightlife scene. Poole’s Diner is a foodie favorite occupying a restored luncheonette, bustling until the wee hours as friends finish that last bottle of wine and linger over dessert. The chef there, Ashley Christensen, is embarking on a new triple-concept restaurant, adding to the offerings in downtown with Beasley’s, Chuck’s and an as-yet-unnamed bar. It’s not just eating and drinking: The Contemporary Art Museum opened earlier this year in a converted warehouse on West Martin Street.

The nerve center of it all is Morning Times, a killer coffee shop where friends bump into friends by coincidence and everyone seems to greet the baristas by name. Tables line the street, occupied by couples reading the paper and neighbors “visiting,” that southern form of chatting that makes a conversation much more than just small talk. There are salads and sandwiches and wraps to order, sure, but the egg and cheese biscuit is what you really want for breakfast (and probably lunch too).

For all the positives, development work continues, as The Raleigh Connoisseur blog, which tracks downtown news and notes, describes in its mission statement:

Transit, urban planning, and land use are new problems that we will face as the city grows. What will downtown’s role be in all of this? I am trying to follow Raleigh’s attempts at bringing back the urban center it once had in the early 1900s.

Indeed, in this growing city and metro region, sprawl could be public enemy number one, with engineers commuting to RTP, suburbanites driving downtown for a night out or an entrepreneurial bartender living in Raleigh opening his place in Chapel Hill. All the driving makes economic sense now, but will it still as the population continues to grow-and gas prices keep rising?

657 new islands discovered across the globe

A new geographic survey, conducted by researchers from Duke University and Meredith College, located in Raleigh, N.C., has discovered more than 650 new barrier islands, spread out across the globe. The team used a collection of satellite images, navigational charts, and topographical maps, all of which are available to the general public, as part of their research. They counted 2149 barrier islands worldwide, up from 1492, the number found following a similar study conducted back in 2001.

Barrier islands are common around the world, and appear along the coasts of every continent except Antarctica. They usually are made up of deposits of sand and other sediment that collects along the coastlines, running parallel to the shore. They can be quite transitory however, coming and going with the change of tides, which may help explain why more were discovered in this recent survey, although it is also likely that many were simply missed in the previous count.

While more than 74% of all barrier islands are located in the Northern Hemisphere, they tend to serve similar purposes where ever they are found. These islands often serve as a protective barrier for shorelines against storms and high tide erosion. They are also quite often a safe haven for wildlife as well.

The study did find a few surprising results. Generally it was believed that barrier islands could only exist in a setting with seasonal tides that did not exceed 13 feet in height. But a chain of 54 islands was discovered stretching along the coast of Brazil in an area where the seasonal tides are often in excess of 23 feet. Scientists say that those islands can exist in that environment thanks to the vast amounts of sand and silt delivered to the region by the Amazon River.

The 657 new islands will obviously be welcomed with open arms by beach combers the world over. I’m sure there are already a number of resort chains that have begun scoping out this prime real estate as well. Maybe we should all launch Google Earth and start looking for a private island of our own. After all, there has to be at least a few more that are still waiting to be found.

NHL All-Star Game travel advice: what to do in Raleigh, NC

It’s shaping up to be a busy, busy weekend for sports. The NFL’s Pro Bowl is set to take place Sunday night, and a few hours prior, the NHL’s All-Star Game will kick off in North Carolina’s capital city. This weekend will be the first that Raleigh has hosted the All-Star Game, with the Carolina Hurricanes being the host team and their RBC Center being the host facility. Those living here (like me!) will be quick to point out that Raleigh brought home a major national championship before the more populated Charlotte, with the Stanley Cup coming to NC during the 2005 – 2006 season.

The city has been doing an awful lot of planning since it found out it would be this year’s host in April of 2010, including the finalization of RDU’s sophisticated Terminal 2 this past week. We’re still no closer to having a legitimate public transportation system (outside of a few sporadic bus routes), but there’s plenty of southern hospitality to go around for those coming to town. If you’re planning a trip down below the Mason–Dixon Line in order to attend this year’s NHL All-Star Game, read on to discover five can’t-miss places to visit (and eat at) while in Raleigh.

The Pit. Yes, this is the same Pit featured on Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food,” and if you’re looking for a real taste of the south, you’ll need to grab a reservation here. The vibe is authentic, the “y’alls” are easy to come by, and the food is simply delicious. Don’t be scared to try a few local favorites: fried catfish, cheesy bacon grits, sweet potato fries and fried okra.

Cook-Out. Don’t bother searching for an official website — there isn’t one. Cook-Out is a mysterious fast food eatery that only has stores in the state of North Carolina, and while the grub itself is delightful, it’s the expansive milkshake menu that’ll have you returning nightly. You’ll find well over 30 options, with each shake costing just $2.19. Feel free to mix and match flavors (Oreo Cheesecake is a popular custom flavor), and grab a “Huge” sweet tea if you want to really know what a southern beverage tastes like. Here’s a secret: order a Cook-Out tray at the Cook-Out on Western Blvd. near NC State’s campus, and you can take home a Cook-Out visor or t-shirt for just $1.99!

Wolfpack vs. Tar Heels basketball. UNC alums will swear up and down that Duke is their only rival in The Triangle, but if NC State pulls the upset at the Dean Dome this weekend, you’ll never find a more sour group of fans. NC State vs. UNC games are always rowdy, and if you can score a ticket for this Saturday’s matchup (1/29) in Chapel Hill, it’s most certainly worth going to. Just getting inside of the Smith Center is a magical experience for devout college basketball fans.

Velocity VeloCAB ride. Downtown Raleigh may not be the biggest downtown you’ve ever seen, but it’s still full of life, parks and history. It’ll be chilly in late January, but if you’ve got a beefy coat and a significant other to cuddle up with, a ride in a rickshaw (dubbed a VeloCAB) is a great way to learn about Raleigh from an expert that lives here. And hey, you may just pass by somewhere you’ll want to return to afterwards.

Second Empire Restaurant and Tavern. If you leave Raleigh without dining here, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice. This restaurant is a Four Diamond award winner, and their menu changes on a regular basis. They go out of their way to procure ingredients from right here in North Carolina, and every single dish is a winner. Head to the tavern if you aren’t looking to dress up, or reserve a table in the main dining room if you bring your formal wear to town.

Raleigh — along with all of North Carolina — is a fine place to visit, and while there are quite a few hotels to choose from, the out-of-the-box travelers would do themselves a favor by heading up to Durham. There, you’ll find The Arrowhead B&B, a gorgeous inn (circa 1775) ran by two of the nicest, sweetest individuals (Phil and Gloria Teber) you’ll ever meet. The breakfasts you’ll find here are to die for, and if you’re into splurging, the Carolina Log Cabin or Garden Cottage are the ones to book.

If you’re a local, feel free to add your own must-do suggestions in comments below. For the full schedule of events during the 2011 NHL All-Star weekend, click here. Enjoy NC, y’all!

Airport efficiency: the world’s winners

Do you get frustrated when you walk into an airport? Even before you get there? On good days, it’s a painful experience, with long lines, the security gauntlet and procedures (which may or may not be appropriate) that are guaranteed to annoy. It should come as no surprise that some are better than others. While the hope for a headache-free flight may not change your vacation plans, knowing that you’ll pass though one may take the edge off a bit.

The Air Transport Research Society has put out a list of the world’s most efficient airports, large and small, in the top three regions for travel: North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe. The rankings were based on a wide range of statistic, including “traffic data, on-time statistics, financial reports and passenger throughput.”

According to the ATRS, the five airports least likely to drive you nuts (by region) are:

  • Europe, Large Airport (more than 15 million passengers): Oslo, Norway
  • Europe, Small Airport (less than 15 million passengers): Geneva, Switzerland
  • North America, Large Airport (more than 15 million passengers): Atlanta, Georgia
  • North America, Small Airport (less than 15 million passengers): Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
  • Asia-Pacific, Large Airport (more than 15 million passengers): Hong Kong
  • Asia-Pacific, Small Airport (less than 15 million passengers): Seoul-Gimpo, South Korea

So, which one is the best in the world? The ATRS gives that distinction to Atlanta, which is tops for traffic and has solid financial management. Seoul-Gimpo, according to the study, has made a “remarkable turnaround, and Oslo knocked Copenhagen out of the winner’s circle that it had owned for several years.

[photo by Franco Folini via Flickr]

Odds are, you’ll be on a smaller plane

Airlines are using the little planes for longer runs, these days. According to the Las Vegas Sun, the average regional airline flight hit 461 miles in 2008, up profoundly from 274 miles in 2009. That’s an increase of 41 percent! This is an industry-wide trend, so shopping around isn’t likely to help you get a larger jet. The major carriers are relying on regional affiliates, so you’ll probably be out of luck. The regionals fly more than half the flights from some pretty hefty airports, including LaGuardia, O’Hare, Milwaukee, Raleigh and Memphis. And, these airlines account for 45% of the traffic at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International, the busiest airport in the United States.

American Airlines and United announced that they were adopting this approach back in September, particularly at airports such as Chicago and Denver. Delta has moved its Washington-to-New York shuttle to one of its regional carriers, as well.

[Via USA Today]