By Kelly McCall Branson
Featured Photo: Morehead Planetarium and Science Center; Photo Courtesy of KAD Photo/Shutterstock.com
In our continuing series exploring the different regions that make up the greater Triangle, we now turn to the environs around one of its main points — Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill and its sister city Carrboro may be kissin’ cousins but these side-by-side towns each have their own distinctive ambiance. Travel south from Chapel Hill, and you’ll find wide open spaces and one of the most ambitious master planned communities in the state in Chatham County. And as the Triangle’s population continues to grow, sleepy little Mebane, to the north is growing too.
The Town the University Built
Chapel Hill, so-named for the tiny Anglican “chapel of ease” built in 1752 on its crest, was, from its inception, a town built to serve its university. The Carolina Inn now occupies the site of the old chapel, and the University of North Carolina — the first public university in the nation — has grown into a vast campus, serving more than 30,000 students.
With a population around 61,000, Chapel Hill has become a city proper, but it remains unmistakably a college town. The renowned Old Well, in the heart of the UNC campus, is perhaps the most photographed site in North Carolina. The university is the city’s largest employer, alongside UNC Health.
Take a stroll down Chapel Hill’s main street — Franklin Street, named to honor Benjamin Franklin — and you’ll pass students’ favored pizza joints and ramen shops alongside the finer dining options (including the James Beard Award-winning chef Andrea Reusing’s Lantern.)
With plenty of delicious, and eclectic, dining options, Bon Appétit has called Chapel Hill one of “America’s Foodiest Small Towns. People magazine proclaimed Merritt’s Grill’s BLT “the perfect sandwich,” and Food and Wine awarded tiny Sunrise Biscuit Kitchen its “Best Biscuit in the U.S.” accolade. And there are no fewer than six craft breweries within a two-mile stretch from Chapel Hill to Carrboro.
Much of the city’s cultural offerings are associated with the university. One of the favorites is the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. This prominent Franklin Street fixture, with its classical architecture (designed by the architects of the Jefferson Memorial) and its giant rose-garden sundial was built in 1949 as the first planetarium in the South. Some 60 astronauts, including John Glenn and Neil Armstrong studied celestial navigation here. It’s still dazzling visitors with its planetarium shows and Science Stage presentations.
Just a few blocks away, on Columbus Street, the Ackland Art Museum houses more than 19,000 works and mounts special exhibits of both local and national artists. Just next door, the June Alcott Gallery exhibits works by UNC faculty and students. Across campus, the Robert and Sallie Brown Gallery and Museum features works by contemporary black artists.
The 100-year-old Playmakers Repertory Company mounts professional theater entirely produced by UNC students, faculty and staff. And the university’s music department hosts a variety of performances, ranging from classical to bluegrass to hip-hop and rock at various venues. On the eastern edge of campus, the Koch Memorial Forest Theatre, an enchanting stone amphitheater carved into the wooded hillside, stages theatrical and musical events in warmer months. (Don’t miss performances here by local visionaries, Paperhand Puppet Intervention.)
For more outdoor excursions in Chapel Hill, visit the more-than-1,100-acre North Carolina Botanical Garden with its vast collection of endangered North Carolina plants. The Coker Arboretum encompasses five acres of flowering trees and shrubs. With miles and miles of biking trails, Chapel Hill (along with UNC and Carrboro) are designated Silver-Level Bicycle Friendly Communities by the League of American Bicyclists.
Of course no description of Chapel Hill would be complete without basketball. This is Tar Heel Country, where basketball greats like Michael Jordan got their start, and no fewer than seven men’s national championship banners fly. A basketball game at the nearly 21,000-seat Dean E. Smith Student Activities Center — more affectionately known as the Dean Dome — is an experience not to be forgotten.
With all that a major university has to offer, as well as award-winning public schools and a plethora of foodie choices, a Chapel Hill address is one of the most sought after in the Triangle. Two of the nation’s early New Urbanist communities — Meadowmont Village and Southern Village — offer an innovative, walk-friendly new kind of neighborhood. And, amazingly, there are still a few options to spread out in Chapel Hill, with the Bonterra community offering large wooded homesites up to two acres — privacy and proximity to everything important.
Follow Franklin Street West ‘til it joins with Rosemary Street, and boom, you’re in Carrboro. The town of just over 21,000 is known for its progressive vibe. Organic groceries, coffee shops, craft galleries and indie music venues abound.
The Cat’s Cradle has been one of the Triangle’s premier music venues for more than 50 years, hosting bands as diverse as Nirvana, Public Enemy, John Mayer, Joan Baez and Ziggy Pop in its 750-person space.
The Carrboro ArtsCenter offers classes, avant-garde performances and art exhibits at its 350-seat theater and gallery. And the year-round Carrboro Farmers Market is one of the best in the Triangle, with handmade pottery and crafts offered alongside locally produced vegetables, and meats, artisan cheeses and wildflower honey.
Enjoy kayaking, canoeing and fishing at the Cane Creek Reservoir, stocked with bass, crappie, catfish and a variety of sunfish. Or rent a flat-bottomed boat for a lazy Sunday float.
An Old-Fashioned Small Town with Cutting Edge Neighborhoods
Head south from Chapel Hill into Chatham County. It’s the fastest growing county in North Carolina, and here you’ll find charming old downtowns and country estates, as well as a vast new community at the forefront of the new live-work-play inclusiveness.
Chatham County was carved out of Orange County in 1771. Iroquoian and Siouan Indians called this land home before Scottish, English and German settlers began to arrive in the early 1700s. An early 1751 English Quaker settlement along the Haw and Eno Rivers is now Siler City.
Chatham County, and its county seat were both named for William Pitt, earl of Chatham and staunch defender of American rights in the British Parliament. It borders Jordan Lake, and the Cape Fear, Haw, Deep, Rocky and New Hope Rivers traverse the county. More than 1,100 farms and dairies still operate in Chatham County, and its picturesque, rural setting has attracted more than its share of artists and craftsmen.
Pittsboro, with a population approaching 4,000, is Chatham County’s largest town and boasts a 59-acre downtown of 130 buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Just 16 miles to Chapel Hill, 25 to Research Triangle Park and 32 to Raleigh, the town is ideally situated for easy access to just about everything the Triangle has to offer.
Pittsboro is home to multiple wineries. Starrlight Mead specializes in award-winning honey wines, and Fair Game Beverage Company Wine and Spirits, in addition to crafting beer, wine and cider, distills barrel-aged rum and brandy.
Visit the Chatham County Historical Museum, housed in the historic Chatham County Courthouse, to learn about the area’s history. The quirky Small Museum of Folk Art includes works from such notable local artists as Clyde Jones, Vollis Simpson and Jimmy Lee Sudduth. Just outside downtown, try Crissman Archery or Chatham Axes for a little target practice therapy. Or bliss out at the North Carolina Zen Center, with its 15-acre forested Zendo overlooking Brooks Creek.
Get outside and enjoy the myriad water-recreation opportunities at the 14,000-acre Jordan Lake reservoir. With seven beaches and 14 miles of lakeside hiking trails, boating, paddle boarding, fishing and camping, this is truly a natural crown jewel of the Triangle. Don’t forget to watch for bald eagles and osprey overhead.
The 1,025-acre Lower Haw River State Natural Area is also a great spot for boating, fishing, picnicking or hiking the 7.3-mile Lower Haw River Trail.
The living opportunities in Chatham County are as varied as the landscape, with historic neighborhoods being joined by new communities offering a wealth of new-fangled amenities. “We are seeing people looking for peace and privacy,” says Meredith Horner, marketing manager for Robuck Homes. “But they also want proximity to recreation and shopping and entertainment and vital services.” Seaforth Preserve, nestled between Pittsboro and Jordan Lake, offers some of the largest new-homesites in the Triangle, ranging from .9 to over two acres.
The really big changes afoot in Chatham County are in the 7,000-acre plus master planned community, Chatham Park. “What we are doing at Chatham Park is combining the best elements of urban living — walkability, community, convenience — with the best elements of suburban living,” says Vanessa Jenkins, executive vice president at Preston Development Company, developers of Chatham Park.
This vast new community, well underway, will feature a variety of neighborhoods with new-home offerings for everyone from new-college grads to young families to empty-nesters and active retirees. But homes are just a part of the live-work-play equation; two retail/commercial districts are open or planned for the community with shopping, dining and entertainment options, as well as medical facilities and office space.
Nearly one third of the property has been dedicated to parks and open spaces, with miles of trails carefully designed, not just for recreation, but to provide true connectivity among the living, working and playing spaces.
The Triangle is a popular place, and as more and more folks look to settle here, the boundaries are expanding. Once quiet little Mebane (population 15,000), northwest of Chapel Hill, is experiencing its own little boom. With room to spread out and a slightly lower cost of living, communities like Bowman Village by Meritage Homes are building new-home opportunities offering the best of both worlds — small-town charm that’s just close enough to big-city benefits.
Yes, the western corner of our Triangle is, most definitely Tar Heel country, but it’s also an area full of cultural, dining and recreational opportunities, as well as good schools, safe neighborhoods and an abundance of choices for places to call home.