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Toots and Magoo
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After hearing a long string of praise for the rural charms of Chapel Hill, N.C. — mostly from University of North Carolina alumni — I decided to finally pay it a visit.
With my first drive down the main thoroughfare of Franklin Street (yep, it's named after Ben Franklin), I was transported to a mini-version of Asheville, an artsy mountain town about 3.5 hours west of Chapel Hill that I adore. Chapel Hill feels smaller, with more of an academic edge, but it still pulls off an artsy flair. The area has a vibrant music scene (James Taylor grew up here), and Orange County (where Chapel Hill lies) has more resident artists than any county in the state. Every second Friday, they hold an art walk ( 2ndfridayartwalk.com ) in a collection of downtown Chapel Hill and Carrboro galleries, complete with live music, wine, cheese, and new and local art.
It was the name that drew me to Toots and Magoo (919-942-3339 or tootsandmagoo.com ) — my parents have called me Toots forever, for a reason none of us remembers — and once inside the eclectic boutique located in downtown Chapel Hill's shopping district, I scored a vintage poster of downtown Paris, a steal at just $3.75. And even if you're not staying at Fearrington Village, park in the center of the village and shop at McIntyre's Books (919-542-3030), the site of various literary events each week (most are free); Dovecoat (919-542-1145), which sells gift items from jewelry to designer furniture in what was originally the family milking barn; and Roost (919-542-1239), a former corn crib where you can now find one-of-a-kind vintage Indian textiles, as well as bohemian bags and jewelry.
Eight miles from downtown Chapel Hill is Fearrington Village (919-542-2121 or fearrington.com ), an upscale getaway set in wide pastures spotted with Belted Galloways, a breed of cows with a stripe of white down their middle. The 640-acre farm got turned into a shopping and dining area with an inn and a AAA Five Diamond restaurant beginning in the 1980s. The 35 suites at the Fearrington House Country Inn feature beds draped in rich fabrics and, perhaps most importantly, heated towel racks. Try to get a room in the small white buildings around the flagstone courtyard; most have views of the trellised White Garden. Also consider signing up for the culinary retreat taught by Fearrington House Restaurant executive chef Colin Bedford from April 25 to 26 on the art of grilling ($520 per person or $820 per couple). The weekend includes a gourmet breakfast, hands-on instruction, wine and hors d'oeuvres, accommodations, and more.
Around the corner from the Farmer's Market is Neal's Deli (919-967-2185 or nealsdeli.com ), a beloved spot where lunchgoers often face lines that stretch out the door. Don't get impatient and skip Neal's — this was my favorite grub of the weekend. My sister's Reuben combined savory corned beef (made on-site) with Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and sweet Russian dressing on toasted rye bread, while the avocado salsa topping my smoked-turkey sandwich added the perfect tang. For a serious latte, drive about five minutes east to Caffé Driade (919-942-2333 or caffedriade.com ). The café sits on a bluff overlooking Booker Creek, and though it's a grad-student hangout, they don't overrun the place. In the summertime, cigar lovers are welcome to purchase from Caffé Driade's collection ($3.50 and up) and enjoy a puff on the open porch.
For me, the foodie havens were the best part of Chapel Hill, and I spent almost two hours at A Southern Season (919-929-7133 or southernseason.com ) and still was not ready to go. What began as a tiny coffee roastery has been expanded into a 28,000-square-foot food bazaar. Make a beeline to the room of gourmet cheeses, then head to the desserts, including 36 chocolate-covered candies (try the pure dark bulk, $44 per pound). This spot also offers classes several times a month in their upstairs facility, including April 8th's "My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything."
Venture a few miles north to neighboring Carrboro for a sampling of local art at the North Carolina Crafts Factory (919-942-4048 or nccraftsgallery.com ). Work by 500 North Carolina artists, from jewelry to pottery, is set in two easy-to-browse rooms.
It's a quick jaunt across the street to the Carrboro Farmers' Market (919-280-3326 or carrborofarmersmarket.com ). Currently in the middle of its 32nd year, it offers items including artisan beer, naturally made baked goods and about 60 varieties of tomatoes, all grown within a 50-mile radius of Carrboro.
If fresh flora and fauna is your thing, just four miles east is the five-acre North Carolina Botanical Garden (919-962-0522 or ncbg.unc.edu ), part of UNC Chapel Hill. A free one-hour tour of the display gardens starts at 10 a.m. on Saturdays; it's also open daily for exploration.