With well known destinations like the Outer Banks, the Great Smoky Moutains, and Asheville, most people don’t normally choose to visit Durham when deciding where they want to go in North Carolina. My wife and I chose Durham so we could knock something off of her bucket list: a Duke University Men’s Basketball game. We were spending three days in and around Durham with the game being the highlight of the trip. So without knowing much about the area, we set out to make a weekend of it.
Day One – The Search for the best BBQ and Beer
Quite literally, our first stop after getting our rental car was to find a great local Carolina BBQ restaurant. I’m very drawn to the small ‘mom and pop’ type of place and always check to see how it rates on popular crowd sourcing sites before committing to having a meal there. So after a little research, Backyard BBQ in Durham was the obvious choice. It’s located in a benign strip mall, but don’t let that fool you, the food is outstanding, the service is friendly (especially for first timers like us), and the prices were low (around $10 for a meal). The meal came with something I’ve never had – hush puppies, which are basically deep fried balls of cornmeal. Every culture seems to have a deep fried equivalent like sopapillas, funnel cakes, zeppolis, or beignets. All taste great but beignets from New Orleans are still probably my personal favorite.
After filling up on Southern BBQ, we headed out to see some of the small towns south of Durham (I’m not much of a city guy). So we followed a tip from from the person working the tourist desk at the Raleigh-Durham airport and headed out to Apex, Pittsboro, and Chapel Hill (I know…Chapel Hill isn’t exactly a small town and is decidedly anti-Duke). Apex is really just one block of shops on Salem Street and didn’t quite live up to the charm we expected. That being said, it was still a nice walk and it was really what we needed after eating too much for lunch so after a quick spin around the block, we decided to drive down the road to Pittsboro. Although it wasn’t significantly different than Apex, it had just a bit more charm and appeal. While there, we visited artists and craftsmen at the Joyful Jewel which is a shared space for locals to display and sell their work. While browsing we ran into a local soapmaker whose soaps looked more like art than a way to stay clean. Not far from the main shops along Hillsboro Street is the Chatham County Courthouse. It’s a beautiful building which was first constructed in 1881 and sits in the middle of a large, and busy roundabout. You can’t miss seeing it and we decided that it looked worthy of taking a closer look. As soon as we entered the building, we were immediately greeted warmly and excitedly by someone from the Chatham County Historical Society and she immediately took us on a tour of this most Southern of courthouses. She was full of great facts and stories not just about Pittsboro, but of the entire area. And those who have never been, Pittsboro also has one of the greatest ‘landmarks’ of the Southern United States, a Piggly Wiggly supermarket! Although not much more than a standard supermarket, it is a must stop just so you can take a quick selfie by the sign and say you were at a place with such a famous, funny, and interesting name. The last stop on our small town tour of day one was Chapel Hill, home of the University of North Carolina. Chapel Hill is not a small town but it does have a great college town vibe, even for those who consider themselves Duke University basketball fans. The mission in Chapel Hill though had nothing to do with college rivalries, but instead was more of a beer quest. The place to be in Chapel Hill is Franklin Street and it is there that we found the Carolina Brewery. It had a really nice atmosphere and it was a good place to grab a beer and appetizers. Day one done!
Day Two – Duke University and the Bucket List
This day is all about Duke Basketball and the Cameron Crazies. We arrived early so we could walk the campus a bit and explore the Duke University campus, which has to be one of the most beautiful campuses in the country to stroll through. The centerpiece of the campus surely has to be the Duke Chapel, a gothic style cathedral which is stunning both inside as well as out. The campus is very walkable and we were able to get to Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke plays, in just a few minutes. The “stadium” feels nothing more than a large high school gym, but it’s so much more than that. The student section is truly one of the most unique and entertaining spectacles in all of sports. The students are called Cameron Crazies and they chant, dance, cheer, jeer and just have a great time being college kids. They have a lot to cheer and be happy for, as their basketball team is perennially among the top programs in the nation. My wife has always been a Duke fan and I was a little slower to hop on the bandwagon but after seeing so many games on television with her and seeing how crazy the students were, I gradually became convinced that this was the college basketball team for me too, and I actually really don’t even consider myself a basketball fan! It was truly an incredible experience even if you just watch the students!
Day Three – Hiking and More Small Towns
My day started with a cold morning hike in Eno River State Park and some much needed exercise. Although the hike wasn’t particularly scenic or difficult it always feels great to get outside and get some fresh air and see some new terrain. After the hike, it was time to see a couple more small towns before going to the airport and heading home. Our first stop was the small town of Hillsborough and more BBQ, this time at the appropriately named Hillsborough BBQ Company. I had the brisket, which was fantastic and more hushpuppies, now that I knew what they were. After Hillborough, it was on to Saxapahaw, which has to be one of the most fun names in the world to say…Saxapahaw. Aside from saying the name of the town, we liked it for the Haw River Ballroom which used to be the dye house in the cotton mill and is now a happening concert venue.
Durham, for us, was almost exclusively a trip centered around the bucket list item of seeing a Duke Basketball game at home. The days on either side of the game were mostly spent visiting small towns and trying southern cooking. I would someday like to return during the summer to see what it’s like when the weather is warm and there are leaves on the trees. Having visited in the heart of winter, I felt like there wasn’t much to do for the active traveler. For a great place to stay, try the Arrowhead Inn Bed and Breakfast, a massive and beautifully maintained home that was once an 1800’s plantation. A large stone arrowhead sits on the corner of the property, marking the location of the old Indian Trading Path. It was in a nice quiet part of town, had great hospitality, and the food was excellent.