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Raleigh, North Carolina, Is Friendly and Free
By Glenda Winders
Not long after we arrived in Raleigh my companion and I pronounced it the friendliest city we'd visited in our sweep through North Carolina and neighboring Virginia. Total strangers stopped to compliment him on his shirt and me on the color of my hair. Along the way passersby were generous with information and directions, and Jackie, the exceptional server who bustled cheerfully through our hotel's restaurant each morning, treated us as if there were nothing she'd rather do than pour our coffee.
But the part we liked best about this capital city's character was its commitment to learning and its generosity toward its people. The museums clustered around the capitol building most dramatically illustrate this phenomenon. Admission to many of them is free, and they are easily reached by hopping on and off the free R-Line bus service.
We began exploring Raleigh just after lunch at the North Carolina Museum of History, which had so much to offer that we were among the last ones out at closing time. The exhibit that absorbed us so completely that we forgot to check the time was titled "The Story of North Carolina," which tells about the state's colorful history with the use of lively, interactive dioramas and signs that say "Please touch." At 20,000 square feet, it is the biggest exhibit ever mounted at this institution.
The exhibit's timeline begins in a forest setting that contains objects used by inhabitants who lived here as long ago as 12,000 B.C. and moves on through the establishment of villages by American Indians and the disappearance of the Roanoke colony. From there the path through the museum leads to the arrival of settlers who came here because there was no more land in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia and to the slaves who arrived from Africa.
Then come the wars - Revolutionary, French and Indian, and Civil. Many of the exhibits depict daily life during times of change and crisis - such as Reconstruction after the Civil War and the period following the civil rights movement in the 1960s that established a new and volatile social order.
"Into the Modern Age" explores how the state came of age in the 20th century to become a leader in its three major industries - furniture, textiles and tobacco - and invites visitors to experience working in a textile mill. Another display studies the impact Wilbur and Orville Wright on the state's economy. The North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and Museum is housed in the same building and provides a fun, energetic topper to a day of concentration and learning.
The next morning found us back downtown and touring the Museum of Natural Sciences, which was equally accessible and comprehensive. On the first floor a reproduced coastal North Carolina habitat shows how many different species can live harmoniously. From our vantage point we were able to watch a pelican dive into a pond situated above us and see the drama unfold from a fish's point of view.
In other exhibits huge bees work on a giant honeycomb, kids dig in the dirt for gems and visitors interact with butterflies. Guests can also learn about climate change, saving oceans from pollution and biomes that range from the deepest part of the ocean into outer space.
The facility is connected by a walkway to the Nature Research Center, where visitors can get involved in actual research projects. We saw several children in lab coats working as assistants to the scientists at work.
A must-see museum for kids is Marbles, which contains what is essentially a small city where children can take the wheel of a city bus, fire truck, ambulance or helicopter. They can shop at the market, play in a miniature kitchen, milk a cow, build with real blocks and tools, and play basketball on a court equipped with nets of different heights.
In an area called "Moneypalooza" they can work as pet sitters or deliver pizzas and learn to manage their money. In the art section they'll find instructions and materials for making a piece of art to take home.
Away from downtown is the North Carolina Museum of Art - as quiet and serene a venue as the others are active and cacophonous. The galleries here are day-lit, with huge windows serving not only to illuminate the collection but also to provide a transition from indoors to out. The Rodin Court and Garden outside features the largest collection of Auguste Rodin's sculptures in the Southeast, and there are more of his pieces inside.
Many other well-known artists from all over the globe are represented here, as well. We saw paintings by Titian, Rubens, Cassatt, Monet, Andrew Wyeth and Winslow Homer, along with African masks, Greco-Roman and Egyptian antiquities, and British textiles by William Morris. The "Kunstkamer" room fascinated us with its unusual artifacts that included a colorful little chest with many drawers and hiding places.
But our hands-down favorite was an installation piece by Jennifer Steinkamp called "Mike Kelley" in honor of the artist who died in 2012 and was her mentor. In this video exhibit a tree that is projected against a wall sways in the wind and its leaves bud, change colors and fall with the seasons.
Another favorite art destination was CAM, the Contemporary Art Museum. Housed in a former produce warehouse, is has no permanent collection, but when they host an exhibit, it is a much-anticipated event that is relevant, educational and fun.
"The exhibit is a platform for all we do," said Melissa Roth, whose title is simply "educator."
When a new show arrives, Roth arranges for middle-school students to come and take part. Each is assigned to one of the artist's pieces, and he or she gets to meet the artist and learn about the person's thinking and creative process. When the night of the opening arrives, these children serve as docents to explain the artist's concept to viewers and answer questions.
"Creation Stations" are set up around the space where anyone who wants to can design, color or paint something that relates to the show going on at that time.
The staff at CAM told us we couldn't leave their neighborhood without visiting the Veridi chocolatier (the name comes from the state motto: "To be rather than to seem") just around the corner, so we followed their directions and turned up at a business that creates chocolate from "bean to bar." They were making a batch while we were there, so we got to watch the operation and then sample the delicious outcome.
And what better to go with chocolate than wine. Thanks to its rich soil, hilly terrain and mild climate, North Carolina can boast of having 120 vineyards and wineries. Time only allowed us to visit one, so we chose Chatham Hill, the first winery to open in this area in 1999. The winery produces French-style dry wines and semi-sweet fruit-infused wines from grapes grown in North Carolina's Yadkin Valley. They make small batches (about 9,000 cases per year) and do much of the work by hand.
"Everything we make here is attended to with TLC," said owner/winemaker Marek Wojciechowski. "Quality is what Chatham Hill is known for."
WHEN YOU GO
The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau can help with plans to visit their city: www.visitraleigh.com.
The North Carolina Museum of History: www.ncmuseumofhistory.org
The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and Nature Research Center: www.naturalsciences.org
Marbles Kids Museum: www.marbleskidsmuseum.org
North Carolina Museum of Art: www.ncartmuseum.org
Contemporary Art Museum of Raleigh: www.camraleigh.org
Videri Chocolate Factory: www.viderichocolatefactory.com
Chatham Hill Winery: www.chathamhillwine.com
Glenda Winders is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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