Looking for an adventurous weekend getaway? One option many haven’t considered is right under our noses: taking Amtrak to Durham. My wife and I did this urban excursion back in the Fall and had a fantastic experience. Not only were we able to take an unfamiliar mode of transportation and avoid heavy traffic, but we were able to explore a culinary playground for what felt like the first time. Our one-night excursion included a night at the incredible 21c Hotel, drinks in the 21c’s bar, dinner at Mateo, and late-night drinks on the roof of The Durham Hotel.
So packing your rolling suitcase! Here’s how to do make it fun and easy:
Taking the train to Durham made the trip really feel like we were getting away from it all. Had we driven, it would have felt like just another trip to Durham. Amtrak is scheduled to leave Raleigh each day at 4:50pm and the fare is $9 per person.
Parking is less than ideal at the Raleigh train depot. Though it is free, the lot is very small, and overflow means parking on the street. The alternative is departing from Cary where the terminal is spotless, parking is outstanding. The train leaves at 5:03pm each day from Cary, and fare is $6.50 per person.
The problem with departing from Cary, though, is that you skip the great experience of leaving from downtown Raleigh. You definitely want to sit on the right side of the train, because the views as you depart downtown Raleigh, passing by the new train depot construction site, through NCSU, by the backs of Hillsborough street businesses, and by the NC State Fairgrounds, is superior to that on the left side of the train.
It should be noted that Amtrak runs late the majority of the time. Thankfully they have an outstanding phone app which accurately reports the train’s status. It is a must when traveling on Amtrak.
Usually this train doesn’t sell out, so you can buy a ticket at the depot upon arriving. Seating on the train is general admission, though, so it does help to be first in line at the designated steps when the train is loading. All seat rows have a standard pair of electrical outlets under the window, and the seating dimensions are similar to those in First Class on a large airplane. Baggage is loosely stored overhead, not checked.
if the train is running late, you can walk across the tracks to visit Videri Chocolate Factory or Boxcar Bar + Arcade. CAM is also an option on some days, as they are open until 6:30pm on Wed-Fri. If you are in Cary and the train is late, consider visiting the shops in the Ashworth Drugs block.
Durham has three outstanding hotels: The Aloft, The Durham, and the incredible 21c Hotel. The latter two hotels are just two blocks from the Amtrak station, while the aloft is adjacent to the DPAC, essentially 4 blocks away. The scheduled arrival is 5:24pm, so you should have plenty of time to check in and prepare for dinner.
The Aloft– As with most Aloft hotels, the rooms are modern, certainly adequate, but not high end. This location just opened 6 months ago, and I’ve heard a good first hand report about the couple’s stay. Rooms are usually $160 per night.
The 21C Museum Hotel – Named as one of the best new hotels in the nation in 2015, the 21c is set in the 1930s era Hill Building, Durham’s tallest. The public areas of the building have been converted to a restaurant, a bar, and several rooms of museum space. The front desk area is tucked away on the second floor, but that only ads to the intrigue of the place. The rooms are large, and terrazzo floors and rugs, modern furniture, and neat lighting. The bathrooms look like something from a Stanley Kubrick movie, glowing fuchsia backlighting around the edges of the mirror. Very sexy. Rooms at the 21C begin at $240. Note: the hotel has a construction site across the street, so request a room on the west side of the building if you can.
Make no mistake, these are three high fashion hotels. The 21C has a spa and workout room. The Aloft is the only one with a pool, but it is very small. The Durham has no similar amenities. This is the area where these three hotels are sorely lacking, honestly.
There are some outstanding dining options within a four block walk of these hotels. We walked 2 blocks to Mateo, the creation of James Beard award-nominated chef Matt Kelly. The dinner was impressive, which comes as no surprise given the reputation of the restaurant. Last week Alton Brown gave high praise on Facebook, calling Mateo America’s best tapas restaurant. As of now, you can still have a decent choice of times on Open Table one week in advance.
Over at The Durham, James Beard award-winning chef Andrea Reusing’s new lobby-filling The Restaurant has received high praise from the highest of area food snobs.
Our “pregame” events included cocktails at the excellent bar in the 21c. We were able to peruse the art gallery; a wonderful experience. After the meal at Mateo we made our way two blocks to The Durham’s rooftop bar. Views here are very good, and it gave us a chance to experience the neat, quirky aspects of this hotel project. The atmosphere at the top was certainly the most Glenwood South-like experience of the evening, however.
Admittedly, our trip was a food-based one, however there are some great entertainment options in downtown Durham including a DPAC or Carolina Theater event, a Durham Bulls game, or even a public event at the American Tobacco complex. While these are great options, the Amtrak factor must not be forgotten. Many of these events begin before 8pm and given Amtrak’s history, it could put a squeeze on dinner plans or even jeopardize seeing a ticketed event. If you anticipate dinner and one of these events, prepare to compromise by abandoning the Amtrak option in the afternoon and just drive it.
One of the reasons this getaway is an adventure is that Durham is not the safest place on the planet. In fact Durham County is one of North Carolina’s three counties with a higher violent crime rate than any county in New Jersey. Its rate is 2.5X higher than Wake County’s.
I have had no problems, however my sister and her date did have a scary incident. On a warm night this winter, between the 21c and Mateo, they approached an oncoming group of about 20 young black males who, from across the street, yelled at them, mocking them as racists and making lewd suggestions. There were no other people around to help had the group decided to cross the street and be violent.
The streets are dark in downtown Durham, and sometimes are quiet. In 4 nights of going out inside the Durham Loop, I have never seen a police officer. While the crime rate inside the Loop is probably not nearly as high as the county’s rate, the people creating that rate are not far away. This needs to change, now. Downtown Durham is poised to be the next Big Thing in the nation, as long as people feel safe. The population on the street is changing this spring, however, as the general population walking around patronizing businesses on a given weekend night is steadily increasing during warm weather nights.
There are two options for your return trip on Amtrak; 9:42am and 2:42pm. The early train is good for those who need to get on back to Raleigh, but the afternoon train is the way to go. Regardless, check the Amtrak app upon waking and see how the trains are running. (we made the mistake of hurrying to the station only to learn that the early train was delayed 2 hours).
There are some great lunch spots in downtown Durham. The most popular is Dame’s Chicken & Waffles, reported to be “the real deal”. Another great option, however, is Parker & Otis, which is 2 blocks west of the Amtrak station. P&O is a great café and gift shop like none in Raleigh.
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Sometimes we all need a getaway. Unfortunately we find ourselves turning to the same old options, many of which involve multiple-night stays and a considerable amount of difficult driving. However random adventures can be just as exhilarating. Consider a great option that is right in our backyard; the Amtrak Getaway to Durham.
For five decades now the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill area has been termed “The Triangle”, and for good reason. As three cities/towns hosted the most important academic, medical and business centers, it was only natural to focus on the three entities. While we expected infill in The Triangle, we perhaps didn’t see our grown concentrations morph the area into a different shape; a red fox.
The area’s satellite imagery reveals much growth from Chapel Hill and Carrboro toward Raleigh, but Raleigh’s growth has been along outward spokes to the northeast, southeast, and southwest. According to the figure, Umstead park appears like a saddle on the little fox, and Jordan Lake looks like a long line of droll from Carrboro/Chapel Hill, the mouth of the dog.
While I’m not assigning any character traits to communities based on this morphology, the shape does spur some interesting questions such as:
- Why hasn’t Creedmoor Road/hwy 50 seen any retail development?
- Why has the Apex/Garner axis been kept so rural?
- Why has the Durham/Wake Forest axis been kept so rural?
Maybe these little red foxes that are invading our cities are simply a calling; the new mascots for the area. Instead of “The Triangle”, we could be called “The Fox”. The airport code could be changed to “FOX”. The 10 o’clock news could be the Fox News Hour….oh wait.
If you have ever found yourself overwhelmed in the cooking section of a bookstore or at Amazon.com, you aren’t alone. There are hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks out there and it is difficult to discern the good from the bad.
One of the best ways to improve your cookbook collection is to look at what cookbooks the great chefs are using. One of the most exposed and interesting selections in the area is at Rise, the biscuit/donut shop in the Southpoint mall complex. It’s a fun look; rewarding to see some of your favorites, but also a great chance to add to your own list or your gift lists.
A video tucked away neatly at ourtransitfuture.com shows a flyover of the planned light rail system for Chapel Hill and Durham. The 14-minute video begins behind the parking decks of UNC’s hospital, and follows the route all the way to its eastern terminus near NCCU, east of downtown Durham.
What’s remarkable in the plan is the amount of elevated guideway that is planned, especially in thinly populated areas of Chapel Hill. Elevated guideways significantly increase costs because each span between stanchions must hold the weight of a train and its passengers for each direction of track supported. The elevated guideways allow the train to travel through the wetlands of east Chapel Hill and to traverse large roads, such as 15-501, where grade separation is required. The section near the Smith Center is, perhaps, the most perplexing.
There seems to also be a difference in opinion between Orange and Durham Counties regarding the mixing of modes on existing streets. Grade level crossings are avoided, at great costs, in Chapel Hill where the MLK area of Durham integrates the rail down the road’s median and with its large intersections.
As I stated in the previous post, the plan really does a nice job at connecting most of the high-traffic destinations on the line. The line includes the UNC hospitals, the Smith Center, and Friday Center. While the line does not access the older parts of UNC’s campus, passengers can freely transfer to Chapel Hill’s excellent bus service for access to the older parts of campus (same goes for Duke). In Durham, Duke is accessed via its hospital. The plan presents several redevelopment nodes in Durham County, especially the Duke Street area where the system connects to Amtrak. While some of the planned stations are not at current population centers or destinations, they are at gaps in the city which will be easily filled, unlike the layout of Charlotte’s Blue Line.
Triangle Transit Authority tonight announced that the FTA has approved the request to begin development of a 17-mile light rail line that would connect Durham and Chapel Hill. The line would serve UNC, east Chapel Hill, the 15-501 corridor to South Square, Duke, Downtown, and NCCU. The project would use no rail corridors west of Duke University, instead using existing highway right of way.
The development phase will likely take 2 years, followed by a 3 year engineering phase. If all goes as planned, service would begin as early as 2024, and will cost $1.34 billion.
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Whah! 1.34 billion for a 17-mile project? That comes to $79million per mile, but expect costs to probably double if all goes as planned. For comparison’s sake, the Triangle Parkway toll road cost 137.5million for a 3.4 mile stretch ($40m/mi) and the Western Wake Freeway cost $446.5 million for a 12.6 mile stretch ($35m/mi). Those projects were completed in 2012.
Let the shouting match begin. People who oppose this are “backward”, “stupid”, and “living in the 50s” while those who are for it are “blowing all of our money” and “jacking up taxes”. Both sides have good points. A friction-free connector of the three universities and downtown Durham will really help all entities from a productivity standpoint. Perhaps if node-oriented development occurs, then fewer cars will be on the already congested, pathetic pair of roads that connect Chapel Hill and Durham.
On the other hand it isn’t prudent to ignore the costs and the state of technology. Light rail is a really expensive way to move people. One only has to look at Disneyworld to see a large transit system that has opted for bus transit for all expansion in the last 32 years. Also consider the prodigious number of transit systems that carry unsustainable costs. Are ridership projections accurate or would it turn out to be like Austin’s MetroRail which averages fewer than 2,500 riders a day? Granted, Austin’s routing execution was poor and it runs few trains per day, so it’s considered a $130 million flop in that city.
My prediction is that this line will get built, but the costs will more than double by the time it is built. Given the large number of college-oriented riders this system would have, it would probably be well-traveled, so we, the public, just have to figure out if we want to support its cost structure.
From the Vault:
On Monday the News & Observer’s Andrew Carter published an article about UNC doing a feasibility study about Smith Center renovations. While the university claims the facility is still "first rate", fans and recruits know better. Access to the building is among the worst in the country, seating is cramped, bathrooms are dirty and in disrepair, there are no luxury boxes for revenue generation, and student seating is too far from the court to offer a home court advantage like other teams enjoy. The photo shows the men’s room situation, where those who choose to wash their hands are rewarded with only a frigid trickle of water and empty soap dispensers.
None of this is new, however. In 2000 Tar Heel fans had these same complaints about the then 15-year old Smith Center. I submitted four options (featuring 4 to-scale cutaway diagrams) to then Athletic Director Dick Baddour with only a polite form letter in reply. Unfortunately the only renovations since that time have focused on player and coach areas and lower level chair replacement. Problems with the building remain, and it is good that the university is reviewing options.
Attached is the 2008 gogoraleigh post that reposted the original 2000 plans for renovating the Smith Center. The success of the student section behind the home goal shows that Project 1a is quite feasible, and likely the rest still are.
There once was a snowy night back in the year 2000. As two feet of snow fell on the Triangle, the UNC Tar Heels were to face the Maryland Terrapins in the Dean Smith Center. Weather prevented most ticket holders from attending, so all seating was opened to general admission. The the court was surrounded by screaming students and those at the game said it was "magic" as the Heels upset the Terps. On my twelve-year-old UNC blog, Tar Heel HOOPla, I posted some ideas for renovating the Smith Center shortly after the game. The plans would allow the court to be permanently surrounded by students while appeasing the building’s donors. (I also sent these to Athletic Director Richard Baddour, but only received a polite form letter in return.) As the Dean Dome completes its 23rd season, not much has changed. The building doesn’t allow the team to get the most support possible. It isn’t a lost cause, though. These same ideas could still be applied to give UNC a better home court advantage. Here is that 2000 article:
Dana’s Smith Center Renovation Plans
As UNC plays its 15th season in the Smith Center, the debate over student seating rages on. Both of the times in the 15 years that seating has been changed to “general admission”, the court has been surrounded by students, and the players have responded with a resounding performance. This could become the norm for the Smith Center with some easy improvements. Clearly N.C. State has shown with their new arena that placing students, the most active and audible fans, around the court creates an intimate, loud setting in a large venue. Simply reassigning student tickets to the first several rows will not suffice as students usually stand for the entire game. Because the lower level descends to the court surface smoothly, the only way to accommodate standing students without obstructing other lower level patrons is to sink the front rows.
Project #1 focuses on placing students around the basketball court. To date there are two popular solutions floating around. One plan, Project 1a, involves replacing the current collapsible seating in the first 11 rows with lower-rise collapsible seating. Given that the 12th row (the first row of permanent seating) patrons should not have their view obstructed by standing students, there should be a drop-off of 43″ from the 12th to 11th rows. This will allow patrons to see over rowdy students that are up to 6′2″ tall. The first row of permanent seats, unobstructed, would become a premium seat location. This new seating would seat students exclusively, so the quality of the chair is not important. Seat width can be as narrow as the seats upstairs, too, since students won’t be using these seats as much as paying patrons.
While Project 1a is a fairly inexpensive solution, it substantially compromises the students’ view. If the current collapsible seating were removed, there would be a wall about 96″ high just in front of the 12th row. After accounting for a 43″ drop, the new collapsible seating could only be 53″ tall. Given those dimensions,11 rows of collapsible seating would only provide an 8.8 degree rise from the floor. While this is almost 50% steeper grade than the current configuration at N.C. State, 8.8 degrees is still too shallow to enjoy the game to the fullest. Also, these seats would be decidedly inferior to those currently in place for non-basketball events.
Project 1b replaces the collapsible seating with the best overall aesthetic and functional solution. In this plan the collapsible seating and Smith Center playing surface would be removed and the floor would be excavated 82″ down. A new floor and collapsible seating would be installed.
This new, lowered section of collapsible seating would ascend not at the current 15 degree angle, but at the 20 degree angle seen in the permanent rows of the lower level. Keeping this 20 degree angle is essential to preserving the views of the students and the ticket-holders in those seats for non-basketball events.
In either plan the permanent aisles would not be confluent with the new fold-back seating, so the aisles would have to be reconfigured in at least 4 places so that students in lower rows could access the concourse. While the removal of the existing fold-back risers and the reconfiguration of a few aisles would remove several seats, the new seating arrangement would put nearly 2800 students in the first 11 rows lining the court providing the rowdiest, most intimidating home-court atmosphere in the nation.
Projects 2, 3, and 4 outline several ideas concerning the addition of luxury suites to the Smith Center. While luxury suites can ease UNC’s budget, they also can offer some incentives for lower level patrons to give up the seats affected by Project #1.
Project #2 involves replacing the current suites and seats under the second level overhang with luxury suites. These suites would be replete with 8 leather seats overlooking the playing surface, a countertop for bar and food service, a television, and a private bathroom.
Fifty-two such luxury suites could be placed with ease in the Smith Center. (seating map) There would be two non-adjoining suites at the top of sections 127, 126, 125, 124, 121, 118, 117, 116, 113, 110, 109, 108, 107, 104, 101, 100, 133, and 130. Single suites would top sections 123, 122, 120, 119, 115, 114, 112, 111, 106, 105, 103, 102, 132, 131, 129, and 128. Each suite would need to be about 15 feet deep (from the back of the second row of leather seats to the concourse door). In order to accommodate the addition of the suite, approximately five rows (Z, AA, BB, CC, DD) of current seating would need to be removed (shown in grey).
Project #3 involves the construction of a “halo” ring of luxury suites. Due to the design of the Smith Center, the only way to achieve this is to essentially build a structure resembling a ring of Kenan Stadium press boxes. These suites could actually be as large as desired, but are portrayed in the illustration as being 15′ deep. These suites would contain all the amenities mentioned in the lower level suites, but also would have a private concourse and elevator service to the Bowles Room. As shown in the diagram, about 3 rows of current seating (rows W, X, and Y) would be sacrificed to the 2 rows of leather luxury seats.
Clearly the view from a halo box is inferior to all others in the arena, so some incentives would need to be offered. First class wait service and food of the quality level of the Carolina Club would be offered. Halftime and final game statistics would also be delivered to each suite. Pampering the patrons in the halo boxes is an absolute must, though, in order to fill such suites.
Project #4, the most aggressive plan, focuses on placing luxury suites in the bottom of the upper level. Certainly the edge of the upper level is a cherished view, and these such suites would be even more cherished. In order to accommodate a suite in this prime location, a massive overhaul of the Smith Center would have to occur. Because rows E, F, and G and the vomitories would be removed, a separate, third level concourse for rows H through Y would have to be built over the current concourse. Stairways, restrooms, and concession stands would be placed in exterior additions to the existing Smith Center structure.
The second level suites would get their own concourse which would overlook the first floor (existing) concourse. These suites would have four rows of luxury seating, accommodating 32 patrons. Because the upper level ascends at an unbroken 34 degree rise, there would be an uncovered portion approximately 14′ 7″ deep. Some privacy could be offered by mounting an awning (shown as a heavy read line) at the end of the suite’s ceiling. Two private restrooms may be needed in these suites.
Certainly the Smith Center is one of the finest college venues in America, however some improvements could make the Heels more formidable at home. Clearly what is best for the team is placing the students around the court. As we saw in UNC’s game against Maryland and in all of N.C. State’s home games, students give a major boost to the team. While surrounding the court with students will make games more lively, those holding seats on the first 11 rows will have to be displaced. Surely there will be resistance to reassignment from some Smith Center donors. However plenty would minimally sacrifice their seat location in the name of improving the arena’s atmosphere. It is time for everyone involved to do what is best for the University.
The episode of Man vs. Food shot in Durham will be run tonight on Travel Channel (TWC 1354) at 9pm. From the Man vs. Food website:
In this episode, Adam created the 2009 Doughman race and a team called the MvF Food Fighters to take on a series of events for the overall title!
The final leg of the race was consuming four Sunny Side-Ups, maple cupcakes topped with cream cheese frosting! They placed a dissapointing [sic] 19th place.
Today the City of Durham is discussing a proposed 26-story tower that would be the city’s tallest. The project would stand next to the venerable Hill building, inside of downtown’s loop, and would contain 133 apartment units in the buildings upper 21 stories. Half of the street level would be retail while the rest of the building would be parking garage.
There is a very nice pdf of the proposal posted at the Durham website. It includes details of the project, its positive and negative impacts on the surrounding neighborhood, and many, many renderings.
I first should say that I love the architectural style of the building. The use of balconies to give the building a softer, rounded look is beautiful. The building would be a great improvement to the stale Durham skyline. I do have many deep concerns about the viability of the building as a business project, and concerns about its affect on future housing in downtown Durham.
In Raleigh we saw the addition of two “highrise” condo buildings with the West at North project and the RBC Tower. Along with other projects such as Bloomsbury Estates, the Hue and the Paramount, Raleigh saw a fast glut of high-rise condo spaces in a very few years. Predictably the market was overbuilt for condos, and some projects either went to apartments or went into foreclosure. At this point does the downtown market of Durham need 133 sky-high apartment units when it really has…none? This is a big financial step for the developers into an untested market.
Does this project improve the quality of life in downtown Durham? For sure, the Durham loop is begging for some residential component. The area has much potential as a walkable, charming 24-hour live/work/play zone. I have serious concerns about any residential project that is more than 6 stories tall. Above 60 feet or so, residents are no longer part of the community, but rather, in their own world. It is more convenient in some cases to just go down to the car in the garage and drive to destinations. Would it be any different for this project? Does the Durham market want all of its apartment demand sucked up into one portion of one block.
In urban areas with an abundance of vacant lots, like Raleigh and Durham, I feel that the best residential plan for a viable long term community is in 3-4 story facilities. Row houses and small projects are far more likely to put pedestrians on the street, pedestrians who care about the neighborhood, than projects that allow residents to escape the very neighborhood being built.
The folks at Pre-Flight Parking near RDU informed me last night that the site is no longer taking new parkers, and will be closing as soon as the last car is claimed. Apparently within the last week the company that owns Fast Park bought out the Pre-Flight location last week. (A couple of employees said that they offered Pre-Flight employees $2 less per hour, too).
So, it appear that there are now only three alternatives for parking at RDU:
- RDU: $12/day – Park across the street from either terminal
- FastPark Parking: $5.45/day – No walking, covered parking, complimentary car wash, bus delivery from your parking spot to terminal front door.
- District Drive Park & Ride: Free – Ride TTA’s bus ($2 each way, exact change) Route 100 (.pdf). Note that this option is only convenient for late morning/early afternoon arrivals and departures. Lot is not under surveillance, but there is security-by-obscurity in a safe area.
On April 18, Food Network’s Alton Brown will come to the DPAC in Durham. Tickets go on sale on Friday (2/8) at 10am.
The nation’s next Sur La Table store may land at Streets at Southpoint Mall tomorrow morning. The store, which carries a full line of cooking equipment, is aiming for “go” when the mall opens.
I visited the Sur La Table store in SoHo a couple of weeks ago and while the store is similar to Williams Sonoma, the inventory is a bit more of a full complement cooking supply store and not quite as high-end than Williams Sonoma. It’s a store this market badly needs, especially the Raleigh market.
A few things to note in the store: the selection of thermometers, knives, and the demo of the induction cooking surface. Also of note is the store’s Grand Opening Sale which gives customers a $10 gift certificate for each $50 spent thru the store’s closing on Sunday evening. The store also runs cooking classes, such as Sunday’s $47 Essential Knife Skills class, which has gotten rave reviews online. (ask them if they demo the CIA method of peeling a pepper!)
The store is located in The Streets at Southpoint’s outdoor section.
America’s top touring comedian, Jim Gaffigan, is finally coming to the Triangle! The performance will be Saturday, March 16 at the DPAC in Durham. No info is available from the DPAC site… yet.
- Download the Wake County Schools’ 2017 Calendars July 20, 2016
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- RDU Unveils Master Plan Paths June 1, 2016
- Take an Amtrak Getaway to…Durham April 22, 2016
- Summer ‘16 Promises Huge Concert Season April 19, 2016
- Publix Coming to Downtown Raleigh April 18, 2016
- Daniels Middle School to Build Skyboxes April 1, 2016
- North Carolina Scores Big in Beard Semifinalist List February 17, 2016
- 2015: A Year of Openings and Closings December 31, 2015
- Raleigh’s Top 30 Stories for 2015 December 31, 2015
- 16 Podcasts To Save You from Sports Radio October 23, 2015
- Public Meeting on Fairview Fire Station Coming Monday October 5, 2015
- Parade of Homes Begins Tomorrow October 2, 2015
- Oktoberfest Coming to Booth Amphitheatre This Weekend October 1, 2015
- Traffic Circles Removed from Currituck Design April 28, 2015