Although I’ve lived in the Carolinas for about twenty years, my firsthand experience in Raleigh was limited to the two times my plane landed there. I was anxious to remedy that and see for myself what everyone I’ve talked to raves about. Now that I know what I’ve been missing, I’m kicking myself for having waited so long.
Located in the picturesque suburb of Cary, and just minutes from downtown, The Umstead Hotel and Spa (was an ideal base for my Raleigh activities. One of only four AAA Five Diamond properties in the Carolinas, this oasis earned its Five Diamond rating within a year of its opening in 2007.
You can choose from 150 guest rooms with 27 suites. My room, a studio suite with a ridiculously comfortable king-sized bed and separate sitting area, was glorious. The room was dressed in rich but muted hues, stunning artwork and Italian linens. My bathroom included a deep soaking tub fitted with a tub caddy filled with luxe bath products and a loofah, lush bathrobes and spacious shower. New bath slippers awaited me each night bedside.
The only downside for me was how little time I actually got to spend here during my weekend stay. I could easily sequester myself there for extended periods of time and be blissfully content.
Situated on 18 acres of wooded landscape, it’s convenient to area attractions yet tucked away enough to offer privacy you’d want for an intimate getaway. Whether you seek a couples’ retreat, a sanctuary for some much-needed “me” time, or a family-friendly escape, The Umstead checks all the boxes.
“We’re in the business of making memories for our guests,” explains Shital Vyas, Guest Relations Manager. “We want our guests to leave here feeling relaxed, refreshed and rejuvenated.”
Respite is definitely easy to achieve here. Take walks along the trail that borders a tranquil lake — home to a resident heron, turtles, fish and other local wildlife. Sit by the outdoor fireplace or enjoy afternoon tea with live harpist accompaniment. Other touches like freshly picked flowers on tables and lots of natural light from the floor-to-ceiling windows added to the relaxed ambiance.
Grab an art tour brochure from the concierge and spend some time exploring the hotel’s extensive collection. Whether it’s the Chihuly glass sculpture that graces the center of the lounge, sculptural pieces from North Carolina artists like Ben Owen and Mark Hewitt or vibrant paintings from local artists Herb Jackson and Juliana Novozhilova, placement of the artwork throughout the property is intentional, but not intrusive.
Though I did visit the 16,000 square-foot spa (and purchase a few amazing hair products), time constraints kept me from indulging in a massage during my stay. I’ve added it to my long list of reasons for a return visit.
Make sure to reserve a table at The Umstead’s signature restaurant, Herons, a AAA Five Diamond restaurant and one of only 64 Forbes Five Star restaurants in the world. Chef Steven Greene, a James Beard “Best Chef: Southeast” semi-finalist, is at the helm.
The hotel’s onsite herb garden and nearby one-acre garden provide homegrown herbs and vegetables for Chef Steven’s creations. They source dairy, farm-raised meats and other cuisine from more than 14 local farms. The menu changes seasonally, though some guest favorites remain. Distinctive dishes include lamb with caramelized yogurt, Romanesco, ramps, mint and pistachio; beef with amaranth, pickled eggplant, miatake, rye berries, kohlrabi and sherry jus; and chicken prepared with truffle pasta, braised turnip, buttered farm kale and bottom mushroom. They also offer vegetarian and gluten free menus.
NC Museum of Natural Sciences
Established in 1879, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is the oldest museum in the state. It’s comprised of the Nature Exploration Center and the Nature Research Center and teems with specimens and artifacts that include varied gems, fossils, plants, live animals and other examples of the state’s natural habitats and inhabitants.
I never considered myself to be very interested in scientific things, but I was completely enthralled here. There are about 4.5 million specimens at the museum, and I wanted to explore all of them. From the impressive collection of whale skeletons at the Coastal NC Overlook to the moon jellyfish in the Micro Lab, there’s so much to investigate. I lost count of the times I heard versions of the enthusiastic “Look at the whale, Mommy!” or “Look at that, Nana!”
Special exhibits like the Mazes & Brain Games exhibition (which runs through Sept. 3, 2018) make return visits a must. Located in the Nature Exploration Center, Mazes & Brain Games takes you through interactive galleries of brain-stumping challenges including optical illusions, puzzles and the opportunity to build a 3D marble maze. You can also sit in on a Rat Maze presentation where you’ll learn how rats help in memory and spatial learning research and watch a live demonstration of a rat conquering a maze.
One of the (many) cool things about the Nature Research Center is that you can peek into real labs with scientists running experiments. During my visit I watched one of the scientists meticulously clean off a clutch of dinosaur eggs. Among the rarest dinosaur fossils, the eggs were discovered by a team of paleontologists led by Lindsay Zanno, head of paleontology at the museum. The eggs came from a feathered, bird-like dinosaur — the oviraptorosaur — and estimated to be 97 million years old.
In the Naturalist Center you can explore artifacts and specimens that are normally housed in collections cabinets. Staff members are on hand to answer questions and they encourage it. Younger visitors are informed that if they stump the staff, they’ll receive a prize. This is just one example of the fun ways they engage and inspire a future generation of scientists.
Mordecai Historic Park
Nestled in the heart of Raleigh’s downtown area, the Mordecai Historic Park was once part of one of the largest antebellum plantations in central North Carolina. The original portion of the home was built in 1785 by Joel Lane for his son and daughter-in-law, Henry and Polly Hinton Lane. It became known as the Mordecai House after the Lanes’ daughter, Margaret, married Moses Mordecai. This buttery-hued, two-story plantation house is the oldest residence in Raleigh on its original foundation. A tour of the home reveals many family heirlooms like baby clothes, Joel Lane’s desk and a wooden serving tray.
Not all the historic structures here are original to the plantation but were moved to the park from other locations. The Andrew Johnson Birthplace is one of them. Our nation’s 17th president was born in the upstairs room of this small house in 1808 when it was located on Fayetteville Street. It was moved to its present location in 1975. Other buildings of note include St. Mark’s Chapel, the Badger-Iredell Law Office and the Allen Kitchen.
NC Museum of Art
Located on Blue Ridge Road, the North Carolina Museum of Art is one of the premier visual arts museums in the southeast. With a permanent collection that spans more than 5,000 years, there’s plenty to soak in.
I began my museum tour in the East Building where the “You Are Here: Light, Color, and Sound Experiences” exhibit is housed. It runs through July 22, 2018, and I highly recommend you go see it. These immersive contemporary art installations — video works, sound installations and large-scale light works — were captivating.
My next stop was to the West Building to check out the permanent collections. The museum boasts a robust collection of medieval art, ancient Egyptian art, modern greats and Classical statues, among others. I lingered over works by Auguste Rodin, John Singleton Copley, Mary Stevenson Cassatt and Claude Monet.
A first for me — during my visit, there was a memorial service for someone in one of the galleries. What a beautiful place for a send-off!
Though I didn’t have time to explore it, the museum’s outdoor 164-acre Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park includes public art installations, wooded trails and perfect picnic spots.
Dining and Nightlife
The culinary scene in Raleigh is straight up legit, and my restaurant list here reads like a James Beard Foundation advertisement. It’s safe to say that if you visit the Capital City and you eat at a chain restaurant even once while you’re there, you’ve failed.
Death & Taxes
Death & Taxes is the fourth incarnation of 2014 James Beard Award-winning chef Ashley Christensen’s culinary genius (she also opened Poole’s Diner, Chuck’s Burgers and Joule). The restaurant’s name pays homage to the building’s previous residents — a funeral home and a bank. The menu here is driven almost entirely by live-fire cooking, and it’s insanely good. Dinner here felt like a casual, on-going party. The custom-made marble tables, Flos lighting and leather banquettes created an upscale, but homey setting.
We sampled a little bit of everything and each dish was delivered at a perfect pace. Our table was situated by the open kitchen where the staff turned out epic dishes like the pappardelle with king trumpet mushrooms, ramp pesto, pistachio and manchego and the grilled asparagus with culatello, and egg gribiche. Cocktails were on point. Try The Juice (gin, lillet rouge, chartreuse, orange, peppercorn and lime) and R.I.P. Arnie (vodka, Earl Grey syrup, lemon and crude bitters).
The spirit of collaboration is strong in Raleigh, and that’s especially true at Brewery Bhavana. The words on the front door reeled me in immediately: taproom, flower shop, bookstore, dim sum restaurant. Co-founders, sister-and-brother duo Vanvisa and Vansana Nolintha (who also own next door’s popular Bida Manda Laotian restaurant), joined forces with local brewer, Patrick Woodson in hopes of creating a unique space that nurtures relationships and fosters community. In addition to amazing food and craft beer, guests can peruse books curated by Monica Jon and select one of Deana Nguyen’s floral arrangements.
There’s a long community table in the middle of the room where you can enjoy a beer with friends without ordering food. But trust me, you want to order food here. Brewery Bhavana earned a spot on the Bon Appétit magazine list of America’s Best New Restaurants 2017, was named one of the 10 coolest places to eat in 2018 by Forbes and was recently named a James Beard Semi-Finalist for Best New Restaurant.
Choose from small plates or larger meals. I opted for the vegetable curry puffs, the edamame-and-ginger dumplings, and the stir-fried green beans with garlic and soy sauce. You can pair your dish with one of the 20 craft beers on tap.
A 2018 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southeast, chef Cheetie Kumar draws from her extensive travel to create a culturally rich menu heavy on Pan-Asian and Indian influences. She grew up in India, moved to the diverse neighborhood of Brooklyn and toured Europe with her band, Birds of Avalon.
Garland’s seasonally evolving menu consisted of sharing plates and large plates. Wanting to sample as much as possible, we chose the cauliflower 65 (a delicious vegetarian version of chicken wings), Moroccan hummus and the tteokbokki (house-made rice sticks tossed in a spicy gochujang sauce). I particularly liked the funky and playful design of the restaurant — the floors are repurposed gym floors from a local community center, vibrant paintings adorn the walls and the women’s bathroom floor is tiled with pennies.
On my return visit to Raleigh, I’ll definitely check out Garland’s large plate options. The vegetable curry and tofu rice bowl have my attention. Other dishes include the pork rice bowl and lamian noodles with grilled NC ribeye.
After our meal at Garland, we headed to Watts and Ward, a speakeasy style cocktail bar that celebrates the defiant spirit of Prohibition-era America. The bar was named for the Watts Act of 1903 and the Ward Law of 1905, two pieces of legislation that sought to ban alcohol sales in the state almost 20 years before Prohibition went into effect.
I loved the oversized leather sofas, fireplaces and antique-style décor. We were lucky enough to grab a seat at the bar and witness the wizardry of bartender Daniel Mann Barnes. His passion for creating unique and unforgettable cocktails is undeniable.
“I learn a new drink every day, and I’ve been doing this for 23 years,” Barnes shared.
He was patient with my endless questions about every drink he made, and quick to share his extensive knowledge of craft cocktails.
Before I headed home, I made a stop for breakfast at La Farm Bakery and spent an enjoyable morning with Master Baker and owner, Lionel Vatinet (a three-time James Beard Foundation semi-finalist for Outstanding Baker). Vatinet and his wife, Missy, opened La Farm in 1999. As I grazed on my breakfast of croquet madame (he replaced the ham with spinach for me), Vatinet shared the story of how La Farm came to be.
Vatinet discovered his passion for artisan bread making at the age of 17 and joined the Compagnons du Devoir, a French organization of craftsmen and artisans that dates back to the Middle Ages where students learn their trade from apprenticeships with masters.
His desire to demystify bread making and share his knowledge with others lead him to Martinique, London, Washington D.C. and finally Cary, N.C.
Although the restaurant was buzzing with customers, I never felt rushed or in his way. He greeted customers as if they were guests in his home. After I finished my breakfast (which was divine), Vatinet showed me the different types of breads on offer and even took me through the “bread test.” He explained how to note the color, texture, sound and smell of bread.
I hit the road with a huge bag of bread booty but made sure to place it in the back of the van. I didn’t trust myself to have such an ample stash of heaven within reach during a three-hour drive home. Inspired by his story, I plan to put my signed copy of his book, A Passion for Bread: Lessons from a Master Baker, to good use.
(Photos: Kristy Tolley, The Umstead Resort & Spa and Garland Restaurant)
(Go Magazine May/June 2018)
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