RALIEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA — Traveler: "Where in North Carolina are you going?"
N.C. native: "Raleigh."
Traveler: "Oh, Raleigh-Durham."
N.C. native, sighing: "Well, not exactly."
Raleigh, N.C. -- Let's get this straight right now: Despite the name of the airport -- Raleigh-Durham -- Raleigh and Durham are two separate and distinct cities. And Chapel Hill is a third place altogether.
The confusion about the name comes from the 10 million people who pass through RDU airport annually since American Airlines opened a hub here in 1987 and the airport went international.
About a third of those who use the airport don't need to know about the surrounding towns; they're just changing planes. But those who do stay over will find this a surprisingly diverse region. Rural beauty and urban sophistication come together happily here in this corner of North Carolina's rolling Piedmont.
Many visitors are of the quick-hit variety, doing business at the 6,800-acre Research Triangle Park, home of IBM, Northern Telecom, Burroughs Wellcome and the National Humanities Center, as well as 50-odd other research- or service-oriented operations.
Some travelers may be headed for North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina or Duke University, three of the nine sizable colleges in the area. Others may be checking into Duke's medical center, famed for its cancer center, or maybe just heading down to Pinehurst for a few days of golf.
Whatever the reason, it's worth taking extra time to enjoy the tradition and charm that persists despite the area's 40 percent ,, growth in the last decade.
Though Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill have distinct characters, the towns known collectively as the Triangle share a certain attitude. Strangers say hello on the sidewalk, fellow drivers wait for one another to enter traffic instead of intentionally cutting each other off, and people routinely reply "Yes, sir," and "Yes, ma'am."
In the morning, one can hear birds chirping in nearby woods and neighbors calling across the hedge. The towns are dotted with pretty places to wander or simply sit: parks and college campuses covered with fescue grass, dogwoods and Carolina pines; neighborhoods filled with gracious houses of red brick or clean white-painted wood with generous porches out front.
Salty country ham and pork barbecue are menu staples, and cholesterol counts as a major food group. There's no doubt that this is the Bible Belt -- there's a church on nearly every corner -- but rarely will casual visitors be confronted about their own beliefs. The State Fair Grounds are the site of a good, old-fashioned State Fair each October -- complete with swine exhibits -- and a popular flea market on weekends. Here one can enjoy four full seasons, and even the gray, somber winter has a melancholy appeal.
Those who don't know what the letters NCAA stand for will feel out of place here. Nearly everybody has a team preference, and football and basketball seasons mean war in families with divided allegiances. At Duke, whose basketball team is a perennial power, students have been known to tease opposing teams with obnoxious antics. (One year an N.C. State player was caught snatching men's underwear from a store; Duke students tossed dozens of pairs of briefs onto the court during warm-up.) At U.N.C., the collegiate home of Michael Jordan, basketball coach Dean Smith is considered a deity, and bumper stickers boast, "If God's not a Tar Heel, Why's the Sky Carolina Blue?" N.C. State, which has seen its own national basketball championship, inspires fan worship equally devout. And football rivalries are pursued just as vigorously.
A pleasant downtown area
A city of 210,000, Raleigh is the state's capital and was always so, created here 200 years ago because of its central location. It is named, of course, for Sir Walter Raleigh. For years, before the Research Triangle Park was created in 1965 to draw clean-air businesses, the mainstay of the city was government. That's still the case downtown, one of the most pleasant areas in the town to spend an afternoon.
The original capitol building -- used until 1963 -- is the center of the old downtown area and still houses the governor's office. It's a grand old Greek Revival building whose steps are well worn -- supposedly from whiskey kegs rolled up and down them. Beneath the 97-foot-high rotunda sits a real surprise: a copy of a statue of George Washington by Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, with the general dressed in a toga. Seems nobody briefed the 18th-century artist on what an American would wear, so he dressed his subject in familiar clothing.