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North Carolina Travel Guide
Cary

WHITHER CARY? 
A TRUE CAROLINA COMMUNITY

by Leslie Udry

Mural in Cary, NCAlthough it started as a bedroom community for people working in Raleigh, Cary is now the fastest growing town in North Carolina. Cary has ranked high on MONEY magazine's BEST SMALL CITY TO LIVE IN lists since 2010. It's the safest town in N.C. (and one of the ten safest in the country), with an economy that has remained stable throughout the recession. Houses hold their value, and workers hold their jobs -- with remarkable consistency. But for the tourist, maybe the best thing about Cary is that it's at the center of "The Research Triangle", and so close to where you'd rather be. Raleigh museums are only a 10-minute drive away. The cultural attractions of Durham and Chapel Hill are less than 20-minute ride in the other direction. Is that a good enough reason to visit Cary? Well, maybe not. Unless you are gallery hopping, probably the best reason to visit Cary is to check it out if you are planning to live in the area. So with that in mind let's just see what this town is all about.

Cary, Chatham StreetWhen I grew up around here, Cary was a sleepy crossroads town. Like so many, it grew up around a railroad station in the 1860s...but it didn't grow very much until the 1970s. In 1970, U.S. Census figures showed a population of 7,640. The latest figures put Cary's population at 142,390 - a staggering 1,763 percent increase. Its rise from a crossroads town to a bedroom community for the surrounding region accounts for most of the increase, and it keeps going up. Now it's easy to miss little old Cary amidst the sprawl of condos, single home developments, shopping and office complexes that make up new Cary. But don't miss it. While it is difficult, especially late on a Saturday afternoon, to tell if the old section of town is on its way up, or battling a descent into irrelevance, you owe it to yourself to see what Carolina town centers used to look like. Does your town center have a drug store soda fountain and an automotive service station and a train station? We didn't think so.

Downtown CaryUnless you like to be completely dependent on your GPS, it helps to know that old Cary central is bound by two beltways: an inner circle formed by Maynard Avenue and the outer circle of Cary Parkway. If you approach Cary by the Harrison Street exit off I-40, you will find your way quickly to the few blocks of downtown Cary near the train station. It runs about three blocks from Harrison Avenue to just beyond Walker Street, and along Academy Street. The intersection of Academy and Chatham looks like the middle of things in terms of their downtown though really most of the life is in the shopping centers which are too numerous to list and all look basically the same with some variation. Not much different than what you might find in your own town though probably newer and more planned every day.

Ashworth Drugs, Cary, NCIn downtown Cary you'll find Ashworth Drugs, a 1957-vintage drug store soda fountain which sells “the best hotdogs in town”, including the Monday Special: 9 inches of wiener goodness with chips and a soda for $5. This is the true center of old Cary and the place you will be most likely to find the people who remember the town before all the northerners showed up. The luncheonette and the people who run the pharmacy are friendly in the way that small town people can be, even after the small town has become a big town and maybe even a city, or part of a larger city, Raleigh for instance. You will also find plenty of those northerners, older ones who remember luncheonettes and soda shops, coming in for lunch or a soda and to enjoy the atmosphere of the kind of place that may not be around in the future as more people take their needs to the large drug stores in the outlying shopping centers, stores that don't have hamburgers and hot-dogs and friendly waitresses bringing you your root beer float.

Cary SculptureThere are several art galleries, home decor boutiques, and a few auto repair shops...an interesting mix but nothing to get excited about if you are a shopper. If you like old buildings, well go to Apex which you will find a lot more rewarding. But there are a lot of old houses in the downtown and the tree-shaded streets are a nice way to spend your day if it is not too hot. When we got there late on Saturday afternoon, the Cary Gallery of Artists, Emerge Gallery, and most other shops had closed for the day, so we stumbled into Lucky Pie Gallery (145 W. Chatham St.) mostly because it was open. Promoting “locally hand-crafted art and up-cycled decor” -- it is some crossbred minotaur child spawn of garage sale and shop class. Starting with used (and possibly broken) household materials, creative types have combined elements and used paint or collage to make them glam....lots of hand-painted glassware, resurfaced coffee tables (some quite handsome mosaics, but some that might be summer camp projects), and re-purposed kitchen appliances. My personal favorites: a blender made into a table lamp, and a ceiling lamp shade made from plastic bendy straws. Overall, up-cycled decor is a great idea, but I’m not sure that it’s Art yet. However, Lucky Pie just opened last summer so let’s see what happens next.

Cary NC sculptureCary’s got sculpture. More sculpture per block than I’ve seen in any town outside of Italy. The ubiquitous bronze children that frolic silently at every turn, appear to be part of a permanent installation. But there is a temporary show of guest sculpture along Chatham Street that will remain in place until late June 2013. Some of these are worth the trip. And here’s another really fun thing: all the street lamp posts downtown are knitted up in brightly colored yarn. I can only assume that Cary has been hit by Knitta! If you want to devote an entire evening to Cary's art scene, consider the monthly Cary Art Loop. The loop was founded in 2005, and the Final Fridays Art Crawl happens at the end of each month from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Art from Unwined, CaryTwo related places that have residence in Olde Cary Commons at 201 West Chatham Street, an innovation center for progressive businesses, is the Unwined Wine Bar in Suite 103 and  Manifestationz Art Gallery founded by artist Omar Cummings, in Suite 100. Stop in for Live Jazz every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday Nights and Live Art every Saturday Night to see real artists at work. There are Free Wine Tasting on Thursday from 5:30 - to 7:30 as well. Both Manifestationz Art and Unwined Wine Bar are a part of Cary's Final Friday Art Loop. In such an unlikely location Unwined Bar is like finding a hidden speakeasy where the coolest people in Cary come to hear the best in local live jazz, taste wine from a fabulous selection and browse and buy art, some of which is painted on the spot. They also have food.

DOWNTOWN CHOW


Serendipity Cafe, CaryBesides Ashworth Drugs, the popular Serendipity Deli at 118 S Academy Street, appears to be the most successful eateries at this intersection but, like most of downtown Cary, on Saturday they close by 3:30 p.m. We want to go back to visit Serendipity. The deli has interesting Greek twists like Mid-Eastern Mystery, and Greek Grilled Cheese served as Pita pocket sandwiches, as well as all-American sandwiches like the Smokey Cowboy and Serendipity Peanut Butter Special (with Banana of course).

The newly opened Cafe 121 at 140 East Chatham Street may yet make a stand for fine dining. Featuring a fusion of classic cooking styles by Chef Hamm who taught Culinary Arts at Lee County High School for 12 years then entered the college level of instruction in 2011 with Central Carolina Community College and has opened his restaurant in Cary to go along with hos restaurant of the same name in Sanford.

Near the intersection, at 200 S. Academy Street, was the site of a now-closed Czech restaurant. But New York City transplant and former Harvard Club executive sous chef Brian Fitzgerald is opening the Academy Street Bistro there this spring, offering another opportunity for downtown dining.

Peak Olive Oil Company, CaryYou might not expect to find an olive oil shop in a furniture store but sure enough in downtown Cary at 220 West Chatham Street Peak Olive Oil Company introduces a whole new experience with premium extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars in a tasting bar format. They feature a large selection of single estate extra virgin olive oils from award winning producers for you to taste before you buy and then have your selection bottled on site. They import only the finest and freshest oils from artisans and small batch producers from Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Tunisia, Australia, Argentina, Chile and California. I highly recommend you buy a bottle of their truffle oil and while you are at it get some of their truffle infused seasalt. Either of these items will make anything taste good.

Once in a Blue Moon Bakery and Café in Ashworth Village at 115-G West Chatham Street besides being a bakery and selling all sorts of breads, cakes and pastries, is also a cafe with a variety of gourmet sandwiches, soups and salads, as well as casseroles, side dishes and snacks.

SOMETHING SCONISH TO START THE DAY

When I come to town one of the first things I look for is a good scone. I found it here La Farm Bakery at 4248 NW Cary Pkwy, along with rustic bread loaves and many other hard-to-resist bake goods, cheese spreads and mustards. I know that everything is good because there were free samples strategically placed every few feet around the tiny bakeshop, and these freebies offset the somewhat steep prices ($3-$4 scones is high where I come from). That day they highlighted a seasonal irish soda bread and asiago bread, both of which I can recommend. Located in one of many unassuming strip malls that punctuate the outer perimeter of Cary, one crosses La Farm’s threshold to find oneself in a french country kitchen.... Exposed beams of weathered barn wood, with olde brick and stone tile, it is super quaint. And I mean that in the best possible way. This particular strip mall, Preston Corners, seems to me a swell place to while away an afternoon -- after coffee and croissant at La Farm, I’d shop awhile at ADORE, the high end resale clothing boutique....maybe lunch on a rolled sandwich at the Roly Poly next door, and stop for a sip at the wine shop on the corner (free wine tastings until 4 pm on Saturdays)

MEDITERRANEAN MEZE

La Shish, Cary, NCTo me, Cary is the place to go for ethnic food, which is probably called something else now if one is politically correct. Anyway, you don't have to go far to find something a little exotic to eat. By the time we stopped for a bite at La Shish at 908 Maynard Ave, my blood sugar had taken a dive and I was long past the point where I can make mature menu selections....so while I engaged a restorative glass of wine, my BF wisely chose the Mezze sampler and said Be quick about it! The Greek salad was there in a flash, soon followed by small plates of hummus, falafel, and stuffed grape leaves, and then our sample size mini-entrees (plenty big enough). Everything was tasty and fresh, and I was particularly smitten by the Chicken Shawarma. Because it was the first warm spring night, we sat on the patio (which we had to ourselves) -- a row of tiny tables behind a clever screen of salvaged iron fence, trellis and potted plants, creating a garden illusion not 15 feet from the Reedy Creek Shopping Center parking lot. Indoors, a cozy and casual elegance is created by well-placed eclectic paintings, soft lighting and pasha- style cushions. The noise level is kept low by strategic use of red curtains back and front.
 

I cannot say as much for the ambience at  the Turkish diner, Bosphorous at 329-A N. Harrison Ave, but their many fans don't seem to care. When we stopped by the brightly-lit, no frills eaterie around 8 pm, there was a good sized line of hopeful patrons waiting outside for seats inside, or on the covered porch. We ordered take-out instead... a less-than-exciting Cigar Bourek appetizer, because I had never had Cigar Bourek before. Since we were already full of Chicken Shawarma and Kafta from La Shish, we didn't have room for a real entree....but judging from the crowd it draws, Bosphorous must be doing something right. We will go back later and find out what.

EAT SOME MORE

Family-owned Greek and Lebanese food. Gets raves on nearly everything, and has a lunch buffet that changes daily.

Greek Fiesta
-
- 319 Crossroads Blvd..
A local chain of casual Greek restaurants, with eight locations in the Greater Raleigh area. All offer online ordering. Join the E-Pita club for special on-line offers, and a chance to win a Greek Islands cruise for two. The photo on the right is theirs.

Havana Grill -- 404 W. Chatham Street, downtown.

Cuban food, obviously; family friendly fast food ambience, but serves food that seems to have been cooked slow. The patio may feel like a tropical island (with a red plastic palm trees ) if you close your eyes....but don’t go for the ambience. Dancing on Saturday nights.

Komo Komo
- Korean/French Kitchen --1305 Maynard Rd.

Chef Jae has an admirable culinary pedigree. You must try the Bibimbop. Some say the sauce could be hotter, but it was fine by me. They also have a tea service on Saturdays, and by reservation.

Udupi Cafe -
-590 E Chatham St

Pure vegetarian South Indian


Chefs of India
-- Triangle Market Chatham Square, 748-K East Chatham St. 

Pretty spicy for Americans, or at least for Tender Tongues like me. Everyone likes the Butter chicken. Popular for most of the decade, but getting some bad reports in the last year. But you know how it is with Indian restaurants. One person's favorite is another person's least and it just depends on what you order.
 

Maximillians -- 8314 Chapel Hill Rd

Chef/owner Michael Schiffer who has won numerous awards has brought the kind of first class dining to Cary that used to only be found in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

MAINLY MUSIC

There are a number of public venues where you can enjoy music and other outdoor entertainment of an evening.
 

Koka Booth Ampitheater, CaryKoka Booth Amphitheater -- 8003 Regency Pkwy, Cary. Located on 14 acres of parkland next to Symphony Lake, the amphitheater hosts a large range of entertainment, from beer and wine festivals, to Sound of Music sing-alongs (when did this start happening?) and Lyle Lovett concerts. The North Carolina Symphony plays there every Saturday in summer during Symphony Summerfest, and the Hob Nob Jazz Series is held here as well. In what has become a popular summer favorite, “Movies by Moonlight” Series is presented by WakeMed Cary Hospital. For a mere $3, (kids under 12 are free), patrons can bring a blanket or chair as the spacious lawn at Booth Amphitheatre is transformed in to an outdoor movie theatre. A portion of the Movies By Moonlight proceeds will benefit the WakeMed Children’s hospital. The theater seats up to 7,000 on the lawn so there is plenty of room.


Cary Arts Center
-- 101 Dry Avenue

Spring and Fall they host the FREE Marvelous Music Series downtown. This includes the off-beat likes of the Jeremy Kittel Band and the Water Coolers  

(919) 469-4069.


Sertoma Amphitheater
-- in Bond Park, 801 High House Road

More free outdoor music in spring and summer, via the Hometown Series, which as you might expect includes mainly local bands (like the Cary Town Band), and the Pine Cone series, which brings world class Bluegrass to town.


The Page-Walker Arts and History Center
--- a restored railroad hotel at 119 Ambassador Loop. This is Cary’s only museum-like structure and is dedicated mainly to the history of Cary. But Starlight Concerts are held from June through August in the garden plaza out back. 

OTHER EVENTS
 

Lazy Daze Festival in Cary, NCThe Lazy Daze Arts and Crafts Festival (photo) takes place downtown every August and has done for 37 years. I hear good things about this, but since I never leave my air conditioned house during the hellish Carolina summer, I’m unlikely to find out. But there’s this: Lazy Daze Festival was selected as one of the Southeast Tourism Society's Top 20 Events for August 2012! Now there’s also a Spring Daze Festival in April. I might make it to that one. For those who are not as sensitive to the heat as I am, which I am guessing is a lot of people or nobody would go anywhere in August, this festival is a good excuse to visit Cary if you need one.

Dog Days of June
-- June 1 at Fred G. Bond Metro Park, Field # 4
Kids and pups will both be amused by the frisbee disc competition and the Dog Wash. I wonder if they do cats? Mine is a bit dusty.

If you must watch sports, there’s the USA Baseball National Training Complex, 200 Brooks Park Ln, where you can watch the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship in late May. Tickets on sale now.

Lots of other events listed here:
http://www.townofcary.org/

SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS IS ON ITS WAY
Then there's The Cary Kids Museum in concept, but it doesn't exist yet. If you'd like to help it materialize go to: http://carykidsmuseum.org/donate/

STAY AND SPA


Umstead Hotel and Spa, Cary NC
Cary’s most famous institution is the Umstead Hotel and Spa. About as La-de-da as a spa can get. In addition to the usual therapeutic facilities, 150 guest rooms and Forbes Four-star restaurant Herons, the Umstead also boasts "a serene private art collection". I thought this was a joke until I went to see for myself. All high quality, extremely tasteful and, yes indeed, serene, but still an absorbing afternoon stop for art lovers. A self-guided art tour brochure is offered in the foyer, where you will first be dazzled by the six towering blown glass vases full of enormous tulips and calla lilies, the golden ceiling, sumptuous burled wood and inlaid furniture and walls. Then you will see the art. Now I'm not a big fan of POSH (which is fortunate since I'm not financially equipped for it) but I found this hotel delightful in every way. The doormen and footmen greeted us cordially, but then left us alone to wander the gallery halls.
The lounge area just beyond the lobby was hosting an afternoon tea when we visited. The other half of the lounge is fitted out as a clubby bar where you can get pimento cheese dumplings with your pork belly sandwich. There was a harpist serenading diners on a GREEN harp (perhaps special for St. Patrick’s weekend). Both rooms open out onto the sandstone balcony that runs along the rear of the hotel common areas. Down the patio toward the ballrooms, a wide staircase descends to a landscaped garden, and then further to a railed walkway along the pond on property.


Beyond the lounge there’s Herons Restaurant - rated 4 stars by Forbes Magazine and 4 diamonds by AAA, it has also been praised in Conde Naste Taveler, Food and Wine, and Southern Living. The Umstead hosts monthly Art & Nature Lectures wherein guest artists come to share their work, and talk about their inspiration. FREE And then there's Umstead Uncorked, a monthly wine tasting that compares wines from all over the world. Reservations and $40 required to attend.

More Hotels in Cary

For more hotels in Cary visit Booking.com's Cary Pages

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