ON THE ROAD AGAIN: ROLLIN’ DOWN TO RALEIGH

If you haven’t been there, it is easy to have an erroneous image of North Carolina’s capital, Raleigh. While there are still plenty of downtown mom-and-pop stores, the city is a far cry from the fictitious Mayberry of the 1960s TV classic, “The Andy Griffith Show.”

Raleigh is one of the fastest growing cities in the country and has weathered the recession quite well. One resident described the city as “tees, trees, and Ph.Ds” because of the plentiful golf courses, the tall pines that line the city, and the scholars who live here because of both the number of universities in the area (Duke, University of North Carolina and North Carolina State).

If one needs additional proof that Raleigh is anything but a hayseed town, it is only one of 14 American cities that have its own repertory theater, ballet, symphony and opera companies; all of which perform at the refurbished Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.

City officials take understandable pride in referring to Raleigh as “the Smithsonian of the South” for its three major museums: the North Carolina Museum of History, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, and the North Carolina Museum of Art. You can easily spend a full day in each and there is no admission charge.

The North Carolina Museum of History has diverse collections, to say the least. The exhibition on piracy through the ages, with particular attention paid to the state’s own 18th century legendary buccaneer, Blackbeard (real name: Edward Teach), has drawn large crowds. The second floor of the museum is home to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Among the familiar names are NASCAR legends Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, baseball greats Hoyt Wilhelm, Gaylord Perry and Jim “Catfish” Hunter, and basketball stars Brad Dougherty and Buck Williams. Conspicuously missing however is Wilmington, NC native and UNC star Michael Jordan. Sports Hall of Fame officials insist that Jordan has to attend an induction banquet and he has so far refused to make the time.

Dinosaurs took a particular liking to North Carolina during the Jurassic age. The fossil remains of numerous types of dinosaurs are on display at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

The North Carolina Museum of Art has sizable collections of American and European art from a wide array of periods as evidenced by paintings from Raphael, Peter Paul Rubens, Claude Monet, Jasper Johns and Georgia O’Keeffe to name a few.

Raleigh not only pleases art buffs but architectural aficionados as well. Its Oakwood section located just east of downtown is renowned for its numerous Victorian homes. While it is not exactly Forest Lawn, the Oakwood Cemetery is the final resting place for such notables as Senator Jesse Helms and famed college basketball coach and New York native Jimmy Valvano.

While Raleigh may be 21st century cosmopolitan in many ways, when it comes to dining it is still very traditional Old South. North Carolinians love their barbecue and if you have a hankering for ribs, brisket and BBQ chicken, there is no better place than The Pit Restaurant. It should be noted that North Carolina barbecue differs from the more familiar Memphis and Texas barbecue because vinegar is applied to the meats instead of sauces. If you want a tasty (though admittedly not very healthy) Southern-style breakfast, try Big Ed’s City Market where bacon, biscuits, and grits are served all day.

Of course Raleigh has numerous restaurants and an increasing number of ethnic dining spots. If you want to have a sample dish from the city’s best eateries, I recommend the Taste of Carolina Gourmet Food Tour.

If you go to Raleigh in the summer be sure to catch a Carolina Mudcats game (the Cincinnati Reds’ Southern League affiliate) at beautiful Five County Stadium located in Zebulon, just a few miles outside of Raleigh. The Cattails Restaurant located on top of the stadium down the first base side is a luxury restaurant that would very much fit in at either Citi Field or Yankee Stadium. For $30 you can enjoy a buffet that features rib eye steak, Tilapia or grouper, grilled chicken, as well as salads and pasta dishes. Naturally, you couldn’t get that deal at either of New York’s new stadiums.

Getting around in Raleigh is fairly easy even without a car. The “R” Line is a free bus that takes you around downtown and to the hip Glenwood South district that it is home to numerous boutiques as well as the lion’s share of Raleigh’s nightlife. You can also take the Raleigh Rickshaw pedicab whose knowledgeable drivers will tell you such fun trivia as where President Andrew Johnson was born and where Elvis Presley performed in town.

The area’s most luxurious hotel is the Umstead, which is located in the Raleigh suburb of Cary. Its grounds, which include countless tall and fragrant Carolina pines, are spectacular. Another good choice is the Renaissance in the upscale North Hills neighborhood.

It takes only a little more than an hour to get to Raleigh by air from LaGuardia or Kennedy and there is frequent service from Delta, American, USAir and JetBlue.

Raleigh Visitors Bureau?(800) 849-8499 or on the web go to: www.visitraleigh.com