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North Hills Monthly

Southern Hospitality Alive and Well in Chapel Hill, NC

Jan 01, 2018 02:04PM ● Published by Vanessa Orr

The UNC campus

You know you’re in the South when you’re sitting in front of a heaping plate of fried chicken, hush puppies, catfish, fried green tomatoes, barbecue, mac and cheese, turnip greens, squash casserole, cornbread…and more. And you’re supposed to save room for a little dessert—because there just might be a pie or three that you’ve got to try before you can call yourself sated.

Sitting at a long table inside Mama Dip’s Kitchen in Chapel Hill, NC, I was reminded of how much I love southern cooking, and in fact, love the town where I spent four life-changing years attending college some 30 years ago. A lot has changed since I was a Yankee down in the Tarheel State, but the one thing that has remained the same is the warm welcome that visitors receive from the folks in Orange County, NC.

Southern hospitality is alive and well in Chapel Hill, which is fondly known as “the southern part of heaven,” by those who live or go to school there. The town is anchored by the University of North Carolina (go Heels!), the nation’s first public university that opened in 1795, and it definitely has that college feel—there isn’t a store along Franklin Street that isn’t chock-full of Carolina blue items, and you’d have to live under a rock to not realize that the school has an NCAA championship basketball team. 

The campus, on the other hand, is a testament to tradition: Silent Sam, a monument dedicated to the sons of the university who fought in the Civil War, still watches over the quad, and the Old Well, which for years served as the sole water supply for Old East and Old West dormitories, still welcomes students who follow the tradition of taking a good luck drink on the first day of classes. I was pleased to see a new addition since my time at the college: a gift by the class of 2002 paying tribute to the “unsung founders” of the university—the people of color who helped build the campus—recognition that is long overdue.

Sculptures and art abound in Chapel Hill, not only on campus but on downtown walls and alleys that are decorated with vibrant murals featuring everything from sea turtles to amber beads encasing Chapel Hill icons. Nature’s beauty is on display as well; generations of students as well as visitors have enjoyed wandering among the flowering trees and shrubs in the five-acre Coker Arboretum located at the heart of campus.

Speaking of plants, the North Carolina Botanical Garden is only a short drive away and showcases plants native to North Carolina that you can peruse while wandering along its piedmont nature trails. I was absolutely captivated by the display of carnivorous plants, especially Venus flytraps, which evolved in the state. Fascinating fact: You can look but don’t touch—turns out it’s a felony to traffic in Venus flytraps, and you can actually do prison time for taking one of these plants out of nature.

Another unique stop while you’re traveling through the area is the Ackland Art Museum, named for William Hayes Ackland, who is actually entombed on the site. Yes, you read that right—in addition to an impressive collection of Mediterranean, Medieval and Renaissance, and European and American art, you can also take a moment to visit with the museum’s benefactor, who insisted that his donation only be accepted by the university if he could become part of the exhibits.

Orange County also includes the hip town of Carrboro, which is just a short walk further along Franklin Street, and between the two towns, there is a plethora of cool restaurants and bars for foodies to try. Stand-outs include Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery, the fifth oldest brewpub in North Carolina, as well as Top of the Hill Distillery, where you can take a tour and sample superior handcrafted organic vodka, Piedmont gin, spiced rum and Carolina whiskey. It’s truly unique in that it’s the only fully local and USDA-certified organic distillery in the Deep South, and distills the world's only locally sourced, organic, 100 percent straight wheat whiskey in the world.  

Other attractions in the area include the Carolina Basketball Museum, Kidzu Children’s Museum, and the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center where you can learn about everything from nighttime Carolina skies to the future of aeronautics. It’s easy to get around the area, too—not only is it extremely walkable, but the Chapel Hill bus system is free fare, so it doesn’t cost you anything to explore.

I loved my time revisiting my alma mater, but I highly recommend a trip to Chapel Hill to first-time visitors as well. The area is beautiful, the people charming, and the food selection is impressive, not to mention overwhelming. To learn more about Orange County, NC, visit www.visitchapelhill.org.