By Kelly McCall Branson
Featured Photo: Downtown Apex; Photo by Wileydoc/Shutterstock.com
For the second installment in our series exploring the towns and villages that make up the greater Triangle area — outside its official points of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill — we’ll take a look at Southwest Wake County.
From the highest point on the old Chatham Railroad line, to magical healing springs to a town with two historic downtowns, to one that’s really a small city, the area just south and west of Raleigh is more than just bedroom communities for the “big city;” These are towns with distinct identities, unique features and loads to offer — great schools, safe neighborhoods, cultural and recreational opportunities, eclectic shopping and a smorgasbord of dining and drinking choices.
Not a Village Anymore
With a population of more than 170,000, Cary is no longer a sleepy little town. In fact, Cary has nearly triple the residents of Chapel Hill.
This booming Triangle community has a long history — starting in 1750 as a settlement called Bradford’s Ordinary, Cary was named by its first developer, mayor, postmaster and railroad agent, Allison Francis “Frank” Page, for a prohibition crusader from Ohio named Samuel Fenton Cary. Incorporated in 1871, Cary was, in fact, a dry community for nearly 100 years.
It wasn’t until the development of Research Triangle Park in the 1960s that Cary really took off. Its population has tripled in the past 25 years, and its residents represent a broad cross section of the country and the world. Less than 30% of Caryites were actually born there, and 20% of its residents are from outside the U.S. This great diversity makes Cary the ultimate melting pot of cultures.
Cary has been named one of the “hottest” cities in America, one of the best places to live, one of the best small cities, one of the safest and — no surprise, given its proximity to Research Triangle Park, and three major research universities — one of the top tech cites in the country.
These days, one of Cary’s greatest assets is its phenomenal sports venues and facilities. The 150-acre WakeMed soccer park features a 10,000-seat stadium and seven additional soccer fields and is home to two-time National Women’s Soccer League champions North Carolina Courage.
The $11 million USA Baseball National Training Complex boasts four Major League Baseball standardized fields and will host a wide variety of selection and training events for USA Baseball.
Cary Tennis Park is the largest public tennis facility in North Carolina and one of the largest in the Southeast. Sk8-Cary is an outdoor, 12,000-square foot action sports venue for Skateboards, inline and quad skates, non-folding scooters and bicycles. The new 22-hole Diavolo disc golf course has been named one of the best in the world.
And if your interests lean toward the great outdoors, Cary has a staggering 2,700 acres of green space, including 39 greenways covering more than 80 miles of paved paths for cyclists, joggers, walkers and roller bladers to enjoy, and 34 parks, like 310-acre Bond Park (one of the largest in Wake County), with picnic shelters, athletic fields, fitness and hiking trails, a playground, a 300-seat amphitheater, a community center, a senior center, a challenge rope course and a boathouse with kayak, pedal boat and sail boat rentals.
If it’s culture you crave, Cary has the Paige-Walker Arts and History Center and Cary Heritage Museum, housed in a restored 1868 railroad hotel. Or visit the 1946 film and performing arts venue, the Cary Theater. Cary’s Downtown Park offers places for musical performances, outdoor movies and public art.
When it comes to shopping, Cary has all the big-box stores as well as an abundance of Mom-and-Pop, locally owned boutiques. And for grocery shoppers, Cary is a cult triple threat, with Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans.
You’d be hard pressed, even in the nation’s biggest cities, to find more diverse dining options. Of course you’ll find Italian, Mexican, Indian and Chinese offerings. But Cary also has Nepalese, Turkish, Thai and Ethiopian cuisine, as well as Neapolitan pizza and homemade ice cream. The James Beard recognized French baker, Lionel Vatinet, is famous for his white chocolate baguettes at La Farm Bakery, and the AAA five-diamond Herons, at the Umstead Hotel and Spa, is as beautiful as it is delicious.
The housing opportunities in Cary are as eclectic as its population, with every option, from apartment homes to townhouses to starter homes to grand estates.
The Peak of Good Living
Twelve miles southwest of Raleigh, the town of Apex got its name as the highest point on the Chatham Railroad, running from Richmond, Virginia to Jacksonville, Florida. Steam engines would stop at the top of this climb to replenish their water supply on the way to Raleigh. Water which falls on one side of Salem Street in Apex flows to the Neuse River, while water falling on the other side of the street flows to the Cape Fear River.
Downtown Apex is considered one of the most intact turn-of-the-century railroad towns in the area. True to its railroad roots, the Apex Chamber of Commerce is housed in the old Apex Union Depot, and the North Carolina Railroad Museum & New Hope Valley Railway offers rides on a historic steam engine and a museum featuring antique train cars, artifacts, and memorabilia.
Enjoy small-town theater and art at the Halle Cultural Arts Center, with three galleries, two studio classrooms and a 150-seat theater that’s host to jazz concerts, ballet performances and free movies. In the spring and summer, the free Movies in the Park series brings families with picnics and blankets to downtown and Apex Nature Park.
The fully illuminated Knights Play Golf Center boasts 27 holes on its par three course, open for play day or night.
Apex has been showered with accolades — named as one of the top best towns for families, best places to move to, and the #1 Best Place to Live in the US by Time/Money Magazine. It’s no wonder Apex has grown to a population of over 70,000.
Where the Waters Run Clear
Drive south from Apex and you’ll come to Holly Springs, named for the 40-foot holly trees that towered over freshwater springs (springs that still feed ponds and creeks to this day). In colonial times, a small cluster of homes and businesses formed around the original “holly springs” in an area that once was a Tuscarora Indian hunting ground.
Scottish settler Archibald Leslie opened a tailoring business and began construction of a 180-acre estate in the early 1800s. His Leslie-Alford-Mims House, and the springs that supplied the home with water, still stand, having weathered nearly two centuries and a two-week occupation by Union troops during the Civil War.
The town of Holly Springs has seen explosive growth over the past 10 years, and some 40,000 people now call it home. It has been named a best place to live and raise a family and, in 2021, as the safest city in North Carolina.
Just a few miles away from the “big city” of Raleigh, Holly Springs offers a more relaxed pace, with room to spread out. One of its premier neighborhoods, the 671-acre 12 Oaks, is designed to feel like a Southern college campus, with streets, golf cart ways and trails threading past woods, ponds and creeks. The community is anchored around a 7,000+ yard Nicklaus design course and offers a full-featured private clubhouse.
Wide, open spaces once used for farming now provide an ideal location for special events and festivals at the 117-acre Bass Lake Park, where visitors can enjoy a fully stocked 54-acre lake, an archery field, and a range for flying radio-controlled aircraft.
But this bucolic paradise also boasts state-of-the-art technology; You may feel like you’re out in the country, but with Ting Crazy Fast Fiber Internet’s true fiber-to-the-node internet service (no sharing bandwidth with your neighbors), you’re connected to everything at blazing fast speeds.
For Holly Springs sports enthusiasts, the 42-acre Ting Park athletic complex offers an 1,800-seat multi-sport stadium, eight regulation tennis courts and four pickleball courts, two regulation soccer fields and two outdoor basketball courts. The Daniel Dhers Action Sports Complex is the largest family-oriented, year-round, action sports facility in the world with more than 37,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor riding terrain.
The Holly Springs Farmers Market operates year-round and has been named one of the best in North Carolina.
For those craving an artistic experience, the Holly Springs Cultural Center, in the heart of Holly Springs, offers local theater, performances and visual arts.
Fuquay — first settled in 1805 by Frenchman, William Fuquay, this quaint town was famous for the healing powers of its Fuquay Mineral Spring. Its sister town, Varina was the pen name for a young Fayetteville lady who wrote morale-boosting letters to a certain Confederate soldier named Ballentine, who later married his pen pal and named the tiny railroad crossing for her.
In 1863, Fuquay and Varina joined to become today’s Fuquay-Varina, and the town is graced by, not one, but two distinct downtown districts with local shops, restaurants, art galleries and more. The Fuquay-Varina Arts Center offers a gallery and 294-seat theater for live performances by community and professional troupes, concerts, recitals and movies.
During the warm months, South Park’s 6,000-square-foot splash pad, includes multiple streaming water jets from more than 35 water features. And folks can still visit the Fuquay Mineral Spring Park.
With a growing population of more than 30,000, Fuquay-Varina has no shortage of delicious craft beer. Aviator Brewing Company has a taproom, smokehouse, pizzeria and bottle shop. And the Mason Jar Lager Company and Fainting Goat Brewing Company both serve up live music along with their artisan brews.
Whether it’s the world-class sports facilities, old-fashioned downtowns or great safe neighborhoods to raise a family, the towns of Southwest Wake have a little something for everyone.