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School's Out
She Graduated From College Years Ago, But the N.C. Triangle Still Has Class

By Jennifer Abella
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

If I close my eyes, I can picture myself among them again: college students tossing Frisbees, studying or crossing the quad on the way to class.

On this warm late-spring morning, however, the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is mostly empty and quiet. Wandering past familiar landmarks that I once passed daily, I couldn't help but think that author (and fellow alum) Thomas Wolfe was right: You can't go home again. But maybe -- just maybe -- that's not such a bad thing.

The Triangle region, named so for its three principal towns of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh, holds more than just bastions of higher education, dive bars and cheap eats. When the 78,000-plus students from its colleges and universities (including UNC, Duke and N.C. Central universities in Durham and N.C. State in Raleigh) are gone for the summer, the Triangle's grown-up side is never more evident.

In college, I cheered on the Tar Heels at football games. I joined the throngs of costumed students spilling into the streets on Halloween. I bellied up to the bar at Linda's (the best watering hole in the world). I frequented Waffle Houses after long nights out. But being a gawker, a tourist, a grown-up in the Triangle was new to me. For a weekend, my best friend, Amanda, a fellow UNC grad, and I would do just that.

Fresh produce used to be whatever I could snag from the dining hall. Nowadays, the Raleigh Farmers Market, which draws buyers and sellers from across the state each day, is more my style. With about 100 spaces for vendors hawking goods from honey to potatoes, birdhouses to bread, chili plants to skin products, it's easy to believe there's not much the market doesn't sell. In one building, families loudly divvied up their purchases among themselves. In other spots, you could almost eat your weight in samples of gourmet cheeses, homemade cake and fresh tomatoes.

A short drive away is the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, featuring modern and African art and more. As children gazed at the relics in the "Temples and Tombs: Treasures of Egyptian Art From the British Museum" exhibition (up through July 8), Amanda and I couldn't help wondering: Why, exactly, are the noses missing on most of the busts? We giggled. Sometimes grown-ups can't help acting like kids.

Durham's answer to the N.C. Museum of Art is on the Duke campus, about 20 miles down the road. The small but airy Nasher Museum of Art, which opened in 2005, skews toward modern art, including video installations and large outdoor sculptures.

Through the museum atrium's glass ceiling, the cloudless sky -- Carolina blue, of course -- beckoned us outside to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens, a few blocks away. In the spring and summer, you may find yourself mixing with guests on their way to an outdoor wedding or families roaming through the colorful displays. During our walk, we admired the pink blossoms that hung over a small pond and buried our noses in fragrant roses.

Though Chapel Hill is a relatively straight, 15-minute shot from Durham, we still got lost (so much for us remembering our way around). Our destination was the Carolina Inn, where we'd end our afternoon.

Though it sits across the street from the UNC campus and near the school's "fraternity court," the 83-year-old hotel in Chapel Hill is geared more toward alumni and visitors than to students. But now that we were the former . . .

Southern ladies took tea in the lobby, while multiple wedding parties dodged one another in the halls. To get out of the way of harried wedding planners and little boys in bow ties, we grabbed seats in the Carolina Crossroads Restaurant and Bar, a casual spot for friends to catch up in.

Every college town seems to have a main drag where the students hang out. Chapel Hill has Franklin Street; Durham has Ninth Street. For N.C. State students, it's Hillsborough Street, which is not so bad for adults, either. An old movie-theater marquee announcing the Hillsborough Street Textbooks store almost overshadows the sign for Frazier's. The dimly lit upscale restaurant seems strangely out of place, yet it complements the bars and pizza joints lining the street.

On Saturday nights in college, Amanda and I would hit the bars in Raleigh's Glenwood South area, staying out until last call or until we got hungry, whichever came first. Nearly 10 years later, there we were again, this time looking for a bit more sophistication. A trip-hop soundtrack and the Moroccan-inspired decor of exotic lamps, low-slung couches and ottomans made us feel at home among the diverse crowd of post-college hipsters at Mosaic Wine et Lounge. As we sipped our martinis and wine (no beer this time) on a couch in a room off the bar, Amanda said, "I feel so sophisticated."

Bingo.

The next day Amanda had to get home, but I still had some exploring to do. Sunday mornings are my favorite time to visit downtown Chapel Hill and Franklin Street, when the busy road is at its quietest; only a few families dot the sidewalks, and cars are few and far between. I noted which businesses had moved or closed and which were new. So much for time standing still. I met my family for brunch at Crook's Corner, a favorite Southern restaurant, and what seemed prohibitively expensive in college now wasn't so bad (it really does pay to have a full-time job): Brunch for five cost $60.

Afterward, we headed to Maple View Farm, a few miles northwest of Chapel Hill. And we weren't the only ones: The farm's country store had a steady stream of customers dropping by for homemade ice cream and bottles of fresh milk, butter and cheese.

As I sat in one of the rocking chairs that line the wide porch overlooking the countryside, I came to a not-so-startling conclusion: I may be an adult now, but you're never too old to enjoy ice cream.

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