Like many fans of North Carolina, my family counts artsy Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway, especially during leaf-peeping season, among our favorite destinations.
Yet of all the places we've been in this Southern state, we're most fond of Chapel Hill.
Or as we've taken to calling it: Land of the Lotus-Eaters, in mock Homeric tribute to how hard it is to leave the town.
To be fair, my wife, Gail, did graduate from its namesake university and is a die-hard Tar Heel, but our teenage son Ewan and I happily admit we're nuts for the place, too. Which is why we've gladly returned a half-dozen times in the past few years. When we asked Ewan where he'd like to go on family vacation last spring break, we were unsurprised by his answer, and quick to agree.
During this three-night visit, we vowed not only to revisit our usual Chapel Hill haunts but to seek out fresh experiences, including exploring more of its tree-lined trails and eating at a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint that friends have raved about.
And maybe best of all, we would enjoy the idyllic college town's people, who are so darned nice.
Dropping our bags in our room at the Carolina Inn after a half-hour drive west by rental car procured at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, we hoof it several blocks to the Yogurt Pump. Fleeing a luxurious room in a historical hotel for a local frozen yogurt shop may seem odd. But then YoPo, as it is known, is not your typical purveyor of chilled dairy treats. Just ask any of the students and alums who cheerfully stand in lines extending well outside its unassuming door.
With the first spoonful of Southern Strawberry, I consider the logistics of shipping a gallon home. Ewan says his small mountain of European chocolate and vanilla in a waffle cone is "better than ever."
With a couple of hours until dinner, we drive several miles to the Carolina Basketball Museum. It's here, next door to the university's hallowed hoops arena, that my otherwise sports-phobic wife undergoes a transformation. Her speech grows more animated. Eyes shine fanatically. In other words, she's a lot like when there's a Tar Heel basketball game on TV.
As with any shrine, this one has its share of totems and artifacts, including past players' jerseys, sneakers and video screens replaying glories. Gail especially likes the display with a letter of regretful well-wishes from Duke Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski to would-be student recruit Michael Jordan, who had instead decided to join the Tar Heels.
Back at the Carolina Inn, Gail and I gladly cede to Ewan the first bath in our tub (big as a compact car) and we head downstairs to share a bottle of Prosecco on the outdoor patio. As if the bubbly and balmy weather isn't lovely enough, we notice dozens of plastic, pastel-hued eggs scattered across a lawn sculpted like a putting green and perched atop low hedges in preparation for an Easter-egg hunt that coming Sunday.
Dinner at the inn's Crossroads restaurant challenges our assumptions about Southern food. Who knew a dish with pork belly, grits and pickled radish could be delicious and delicate? Even carb-averse Gail gleefully tucks into the sublimely creamy mashed potatoes.
As we head to bed, Gail and I agree that the Hot Toddies, boozy and soporific, were an ideal nightcap.
Late the next morning, we stroll through town, detouring to enjoy the familiar tree-and flower-lined paths of the Coker Arboretum and amble across broad campus lawns where students gather to bask in springtime sun. Not bothering to consult our map, we venture down unexplored paths, popping up fortuitously near YoPo, where we indulge in another round of treats.
Keeping our vow to seek out new experiences, we head several miles north to the Pig for lunch. Misgivings about its office-park appearance are dispelled at first bite.
Gail goes with a nifty riff on North Carolina-style barbecue, a salad topped with tender chunks of Vietnamese pork cheek and crispy, dried shrimp. Ewan has a more traditional heaping plate of Eastern Carolina-style pulled pork with cider-vinegar sauce. On counsel of the affable guy behind the counter, I order a fried Bologna sandwich, which has about as much in common with my childhood memories of this luncheon meat as Spam does with chateaubriand.
"My mom comes here to eat that sandwich, not to visit me," he says, smiling.
The addition of a thick slice of tart, pickled green tomato to my sandwich, also his suggestion, improves it even more. As does a pint of Gose beer, citrusy and faintly salty.
The coming two days bring a mix of old and new. One unseasonably hot midday, we duck into the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, where in air-conditioned darkness we take our first voyage far beyond our galaxy in its guided celestial light show.
Most mornings and afternoons, we walk through town and the neighboring woods, riotously bright green with spring buddings, retracing old paths and tiny creeks, and searching out new spots.
Evenings bring us to our beloved bar the Crunkleton, which Gail says mixes the best negroni cocktail outside of Italy, followed by dinners at cozy Elaine's on Franklin (old fave) and Lantern (new discovery), where Ewan especially enjoys a dish of ingredients similar to a Bento box, from which he assembles his own sushi, wrapping each creation in edible seaweed paper.
A final day's late-morning walk takes us (surprise!) by YoPo for our fourth visit this trip. Heading out the door, we give our stash of paper receipts, 10 of which can be redeemed for a free yogurt, to a trio of grateful students. Even we admit that they are likely to come back before we are.
More from Travel:
The Carolina Inn
211 Pittsboro St.
Lovely historical hotel on campus that manages to be thoroughly Southern, but not fussy. Rooms start at around $169 per night.
311 W. Franklin St.
It may not have the Carolina Inn's pedigree, but the Franklin's charming, welcoming staff makes this Curio by Hilton hotel feel like home every visit. Rooms start at around $189 per night.
Crossroads Chapel Hill in the Carolina Inn
211 Pittsboro St.
A modern approach to Southern cooking by native North Carolinian and UNC alum chef Brandon Sharp emphasizes local ingredients. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner entrees start at around $14.
630 Weaver Dairy Rd.
No mere BBJ joint grub, the Pig's surprisingly broad menu features house-made hot dogs and bologna, and country-fried tofu and barbecue tempeh. Pork comes from local, hormone-free, pasture-raised hogs. Open for lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday. Sandwiches start at around $6.
Elaine's on Franklin
454 W. Franklin St.
New American cooking, in cozy, relaxed digs. Open daily for dinner. Closed Sunday and Monday. Entrees start at around $28.
423 W. Franklin St.
Eclectic Asian-influenced cooking emphasizing local ingredients. Open for dinner Monday through Saturday. Entrees start at around $25.
Carolina Coffee Shop
138 E. Franklin St.
A prime hangout that emphasizes breakfast. Also open daily for lunch, dinner and alcoholic drinks. Hours change with seasons. Breakfast specials start at around $8.
106 W. Franklin St.
A non-chain frozen yogurt shop that's a local institution. Flavors change daily. Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday, noon to 11:30 p.m. Small servings of frozen yogurt start at around $3.
410 W. Franklin St.
Good, inexpensive Middle East and Mediterranean dishes served in cafeteria-style restaurant and deli. Open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Meals start at around $7.
320 W. Franklin St.
A window bench and mission-style leather furniture, expertly made cocktails and big selection of whiskeys are just some of what makes this such a convivial, comfy bar for grown-ups and students alike. Open daily, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Cocktails start at around $12.
The Carolina Basketball Museum
450 Skipper Bowles Dr.
Shrine to Tar Heel basketball. Open Monday through Friday,
10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday,
9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Admission is free.
and Science Center
250 E. Franklin St.
All manner of planetarium shows available. Visitors include U.S. astronauts training in celestial navigation for Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. Open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Planetarium show tickets for adults cost $7.68; for children, students and senior citizens, they cost $6.51.
399 E. Cameron Ave.
A five-acre botanical oasis in the middle of an already verdant campus.
Open daily, dawn to dusk, free.