Surprising Elegance
Big-time refinement in Raleigh, N.C.

My husband, Reggie, and I always expect to score some to-die-for European pastries during our frequent trips to visit his hometown of Philadelphia, but we weren’t expecting to find the same tempting treats in Raleigh, N.C.  

Admittedly, Reggie is an advocate of everything north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but even he had to agree that Raleigh is equally as elegant in its accommodations and as tasty in its cuisine as his native city.

He quickly came to this conclusion when we pulled into The Umstead Hotel and Spa (866-877-4141 or www.theumstead.com), Raleigh’s newly opened AAA Five Diamond luxury boutique hotel. The plush property sits on 12 acres adjacent to Umstead State Park (919-571-4170) and is nestled against a serene 3-acre lake. The Umstead’s sleek décor captures the beauty of its natural surroundings in everything from furniture to pottery. I happened to mention to a staff member that the hotel reminded me of one from the Four Seasons chain. She told me that the Umstead was inspired by the Four Seasons in San Francisco, a favorite of owner Ann Goodnight.

I was especially interested in the hotel’s nature-themed art collection, which can be found in every nook and cranny — even the toilet room in each hotel room has original art — and its contemporary wood furniture design, with many of the pieces from Chicago designer Lee Weitzman.

The Umstead Spa, located near the outdoor pool area and complete with cabanas and wait staff, was the perfect prescription for the tension I was feeling in my neck after our drive down. The soothing earthy colors and gentle music in the relaxation lounge helped me to enjoy the lingering benefits of my much-needed massage.

Because we arrived late in the day, we opted to eat at Herons, a restaurant in the hotel. What a treat. The service was impeccable, and the meal was the height of Southern sophistication — think stone-ground-grit soufflé, caramelized sweet potatoes and butter-poached Maine lobster.

Our Saturday outing started with an excursion to North Hills (919-881-1146 or www.northhillsraleigh.com), a mixed-use development in the city’s midtown that’s also a tempting shopping destination filled with upscale shopping, restaurants and entertainment. Before walking to Vivace (919-787-7747 or www.vivaceraleigh.com) for a nice Italian lunch, we slipped into Quintessentials (919-785-0787), filled with gifts that range from the sublime — hand-cut Royal Copenhagen Flora Danica china at $5,950 a place setting — to the ridiculous: themed holiday headbands complete with earrings for less than $20.

Vivace was a wonderful surprise. The eatery’s chic metropolitan design is something you’d normally see in a city like New York. Long sheer curtains fall from ceiling to floor. The bar lobby with oversized leather sofa and plump pillows opens to the al fresco dining area. The tempting menu is authentic regional Italian — I overindulged in the chickpea spread with sun-dried tomatoes — and includes an incredibly extensive regional Italian wine list. As a side note, the owners are hoping to open a second restaurant in the Short Pump area.

Next, we drove to the North Carolina Museum of Art (919-839-6262 or www.ncartmuseum.org), which, like our own Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, is undergoing an expansion that will result in a state-of-the-art building with spacious galleries and sculpture gardens. The expansion fits neatly into Raleigh’s more than $2 billion in development downtown, which includes a new convention center, multiple public arts projects, new luxury hotels and the expansion of different museums. We drifted through the special exhibition at the art museum featuring 19th- and 20th-century French and American artists before heading to Apex, a quaint Mayberry-like town just outside of the city.

Salem Street is the main drag in Apex’s historic district, a nostalgic area peppered with tiny mom-and-pop shops. I couldn’t help but visualize Andy Griffith and Barney Fife sitting at the oak barrel in front of the Pineapple Tea Room (919-303-0411 or www.pineappletearoom.com) ruminating over a game of checkers — the chairs and checkers are there for the playing.

At one end of the street is Savory’s Bakery (919-362-8408), an intimate bakery/café. The minute Reggie and I saw the swans (cream puffs) and napoleons (flaky pastry layered with custard and topped with crunchy sugar), we knew the baker had been trained in Europe. We sat at one of the small tables and devoured an apple tart and a delicate sugar cookie glazed with orange.

Not far away on a side street, I discovered My Girlfriend’s Closet (919-303-0651), a collection of small shops packed into a 103-year-old home. While I was elated to find a gem selling everything from handmade jewelry and funky pocketbooks to luggage and consigned clothing, Reggie was less than thrilled. He opted to cruise back to the main street while I waited to purchase a previously worn Ann Taylor wool jacket.

We met back at The Rusty Bucket (919-290-2575 or www.therustybucket.biz), a cozy shop with country décor recycled from old hay and tobacco barns — there were even two antique doors that the owner found in Richmond. The store carries everything from penny candy to North Carolina jams and jellies.

That evening, we made our way back to midtown Raleigh to eat at Jibarra (919-844-6330 or www.jibarra.net), a Mexican restaurant with a sophisticated twist. My dish, sarandeado (corn husk-smoked halibut served with chipotle sauce and a potato and cherry tomato salad) was divine.

We ended the trip with a jaunt to the State Farmers Market (919-733-7417), where we picked up some sweet North Carolina yams and a heavenly glass of lemonade. Just two of the riches you’ll find south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

A Highlight of the Trip

You can’t visit Raleigh without stopping at La Farm Bakery (919-657-0657 or www.lafarmbakery.com) in Cary and filling your bag with goodies. The bakery uses European techniques and a European hearth oven to create 15 different styles of artisan breads and 20 seasonal breads that are crispy on the outside and light on the inside. We came away with a trunk full of hand-rolled baguettes (a must), white-chocolate mini baguettes (oh, yeah) and cinnamon buns that were smack-your-mama good. 

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