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 Durham Hotel – Set in an old office building that looks like it came out of 1960s Miami, The Durham delivers a high end experience in incredibly minimalist rooms. Nightly rates begin at $290.
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.
The 21c’s Counting House restaurant, Pizzeria Toro, Rue Cler, Piedmont, Dashi, Bull City Burger and Brewery, and Dos Perros are all excellent dining choices as well.
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.
Some other excellent lunch options include Toast, Old Havana Sandwich Shop, Luna Rotisserie and Empanadas, Pizzeria Toro, Dashi, Bull City Burger and Brewery, and Dos Perros .
* * *
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.
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