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Rollicking Raleigh, NC

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Rollicking Raleigh, NC
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Rollicking Raleigh is for Families!

Do you have Sir Walter Raleigh in a vintage can? Then you've got the namesake for an off-the-beaten track city that captures mellow Southern charm, college-town hipness and the history of a 210-year-old capital in a compact, family-friendly package. Raleigh, the biggest and most diverse city in North Carolina's eclectic Research Triangle can readily and inexpensively entertain a family for a weekend or longer. My 6-year-old daughter Corey and I romped through two days there and left much undone for a return trip.

We started, as well-planned trips to Raleigh should, at Big Ed's City Market Restaurant. When Big Ed Watkins extends a massive paw in greeting and asks, "Where y'all from?" you just know if it isn’t authentic country cooking, this converted downtown farmer's market won't Ed Watkins, owner of Ed's Restaurant extends his usual greeting, serve it. Corey and I found Ed's biscuits standouts and the collard greens, grits, roast beef, and chicken and dumplings didn't disappoint either. Although the hand-written menu lacked kid-friendly fare other than grilled-cheese sandwiches and iced tea sweetened just short of lethal, the cavernous ceilings hung with antique farm gear and waitresses who call everybody "hon" made up for the missing hot dogs and pizza.


Big Ed's City Market Restaurant shares the block with Artspace, a visual arts center with exhibition galleries, and educational programs including hands-on kids' workshops and 40 artist studios. We walked off lunch while chatting with potters, painters and sculptors as they worked. For shopping, you can step outside to browse intimate galleries and boutiques in brick-fronted buildings that line the City Market district's cobblestone streets.

A short stroll across an adjoining park Corey and I found Exploris, an exceptional interactive museum devoted to showcasing other cultures. We had fun guessing which global cultures went with pull-out drawers holding typical food, toys, clothing and other interesting things from various continents and countries. Even better was a hands-on display of some 200 toys hand-crafted by children from 30 different countries. It was enlightening to see well-equipped American kids awe-struck over wire push-toys twisted by an African boy and coveting a Guatemalan girl's home-made corncob doll. Admission at Exploris, one of three major museums in the museum district is $12.95 adults, $5.50 kids. IMAX movie tickets are more. Everything is free for kids under 4.

Nearby at North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences visitors can find trove of dinosaur fossils, hands-on classes for little naturalists, a conservatory fluttering with hummingbirds and butterflies, and an arthropod zoo, icky enough for the kid in anybody. On the day Corey and I visited, a zany annual insect extravaganza called BugFest packed the hallways, a big outside plaza drew hundreds of nature lovers to the cockroach races, and a museum cafe served edible insects!

Across the plaza, the North Carolina History Museum recalls the American Civil War in a manner befitting the state's status as the one that supplied more Confederate Army soldiers than any other. Audio recordings of officers' letters home, dioramas of bivouacs, and displays of authentic uniforms and equipment
bring the historic conflict to life. The history museum’s top floor hosts a glossy sports hall of fame for stock car racing legend Richard Petty, basketball guru Michael Jordan, and other native jocks. Admission is free to these two state museums, along with the North Carolina Museum of Art located on the outskirts of town.
Raleigh's city market is the place to find family fun.
On Saturday morning a sizable flotilla of strollers pushed by moms joined Corey and me at centrally located Pullen Park, where a train ride circles a restored 1911 carousel and pedal boats splash in a pocket lake. Raleigh’s stately hardwoods – it's known as the City of Oaks – are reflected in shade swings, slides, playscapes and sandboxes in the park. You can, as we did, mingle freely here and engage other visitors in conversation. You can't get the full flavor of Raleigh without bathing your ears in the regional southern dialect and enjoying the genuine friendliness of the locals. Bring a few dollars to spend on ride tickets.

Raleigh also offers an array of dining options. After Big Ed's, Corey and I switched to sushi and steak at Kanki, a local Japanese steakhouse. We celebrated our calorie-burning Pullen Park visit with a stop at Krispy Kreme, the donut chain founded in Winston-Salem in 1937. For entertainment and pizza, try Bullwinkle's, a cartoon-themed dining arcade. The Mellow Mushroom, another chain peculiar to the state of North Carolina offers a variety of pizzas and salads in the gentrifying Glenwood South entertainment district.

After the capitol and state government, Raleigh's dominant institution is North Carolina State University. The campus occupies 1,900 city acres and nearly one in 10 of the city's 300,000 population is enrolled there. The Wolfpack men's basketball team has won two national championships and rivalries with Duke and the University of North Carolina, located in the other two Triangle cities of Durham and Chapel Hill, respectively, mean Wolfpack fans are beyond rabid. Before any in-season visit, check for seasonal sports tickets at www.gopack.com. There are more sports options as well. Corey and I took in a thrilling women's professional soccer match at SAS Arena in which the Carolina Courage, led by forward Tiffany Roberts, dominated World Cup star Brandi Chastain's San Jose CyberRays 4-1 on their way to playing in the 2002 Founder's Cup championship game. The Carolina Hurricanes National Hockey League team skates in the Entertainment & Sports Arena September to April. The city also hosts minor-league baseball and arena football teams.

We stayed at an economical ($50 double-occupancy) and family-friendly suites hotel, the Homewood near suburban Crabtree Valley Mall. If you prefer intimate convenience to in-room kitchens and free breakfast, try downtown's William Thomas House Bed and Breakfast ($115 and up) within walking distance of the Museum District and state Capitol building. For other moderately priced lodging options check with Raleigh Convention and Visitor's Bureau, www.raleighcvb.org or call toll-free 800-849-8499.

Raleigh straddles coast-to-coast Interstate 40 in the temperate region of central North Carolina where the hilly Piedmont meets the Atlantic coastal plain. It's a five-hour drive from Washington, D.C., the nearest major metro, and around twice that distance from both Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Raleigh-Durham Airport,
15 minutes from downtown, is served by several major airlines. Amtrak's Carolinian and Piedmont line connects Philadelphia and New York City.

If you thought Sir Walter Raleigh is only the setup for an ancient juvenile prank call, consider taking your juveniles and yourself to the city named after him. It's a secret too good to keep in a can.

 



 

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