Family Road Trip Becomes Rite of Passage When Purpose is Campus Visit

By Karen Rubin

With the infinite possibilities of travel, there are many reasons that determine the destinations we select. This trip, which I call our “Southern Strategy,” was motivated by the beginning of the college selection process by our son, turning a typical family road trip into a rite of passage.

A campus visit trip has much the same character of a business trip-because of the purposeful nature in going city to city, town to town. But, with a little advance planning, they still can be have all the elements a family vacation affords in being enjoyable and enlightening, and yes, a bonding experience.

Calculating for the block of time we had, I chose the furthest point of our route-Chapel Hill, North Carolina-figured the driving distance (about 11 hours without stops-this was before the latest explosion in gas prices), and plotted an intermediary point that also would give us an opportunity to visit at colleges along the way.

Now there are guidelines to getting the most out of a visit to a college campus: ideally you should visit when the college is in session, as opposed to vacation times or on weekends, so you child can get the best sense of students and campus life. Try to pre-arrange for your child to stay with a student on campus to get the full flavor and feeling of a place, from the living and dining situation to extra-curricular activities, to attending a class or two.

One way to find a student to stay with is to contact alums from your high school who are at the campus-even if they can’t host, often they will help find another student. Another way is to ask at the Admissions Office to find a student to host your child (though it seems they are less keen to help juniors than to help seniors). A better tactic is to call upon a club or social organization on campus with which you might have a connection.

Arrange the visit so that you will have time to attend the school’s orientation and tour together, before you separate and your child goes off with the student host-to sit in on classes, extracurricular activities, the dining hall and other elements of campus life. We have found it most helpful that there be both time touring together, as well as time for the student to visit with peers. Encourage your student to take notes (but don’t expect it), especially if you are visiting several campuses during one trip, over a period of time (try not to visit more than one school in a day).

The campus tour gives a lot of information that will be important for ultimately selecting schools that will provide the best academic and collegiate experience, but also that are the most practical financially and otherwise (I take particular note of acceptance rates.)

The Ackland Art Museum on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus, offers an eclectic collection(© 2006 Karen Rubin).

Then, in this planning phase, I look to see where we shall stay. To be candid, my rule of thumb is to seek out members of the Historic Hotels of America. This is an extraordinary organization of unique properties that are at least 60 years old and have a historic connection to the community. Since many college campuses are also historic, there are often these properties in the vicinity, giving you a greater sense of the heritage of a place (Historic Hotels of America, 800-678-8946,

So, with the plan to get to Chapel Hill on Sunday night so that Eric could attend classes on Monday, we set out Friday for a weekend in Baltimore, with a stay at the historic Radisson Plaza Lord Baltimore (see Discovery, 3/17 and 3/24), a four-hour drive. From there, it was a manageable 5 1/2 hour drive to Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

On the way back, we broke up the trip with a stay at Charlottesville, VA, about three hours drive, staying at the elegant and charming Boar’s Head Inn, an incredible Historic Hotels of America member property that is actually owned by the University of Virginia (the school uses their indoor tennis facility and their golf course for their teams), then the return to Long Island, about seven hours (but here, you have to be careful to time the trip so you don’t get caught in Washington DC rush-hour).

Chapel Hill

There really is a chapel on the hill in Chapel Hill.

Chapel Hill isn’t really what I imagined it would be. The closest comparison would be Princeton, but the village is not even that big, but like Princeton, it seems to be oriented around a source of considerable pride and joys in the State of North Carolina, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is notably the first state university in the nation, founded in 1795. The sprawling campus has 25,000 students, and provides a hub for cultural and intellectual life of the community. Duke University, in Durham, is just 20 minutes away (there is even a free bus service between the campuses).

The Ackland Art Museum, which is part of the campus, is a veritable jewel, housing 15,000 works of art, including North Carolina’s premier collections of Asian art and works of art on paper. In fact, it is considered to have the most important public collection of Asian at in the southeast. Its exhibitionss span a remarkable range of époques, cultures, styles and media and are presented in a very unusual way that invite a different way to think about the art. Many of the exhibitions that originate at the Ackland travel to museums across the U.S. several hundred pieces of art are on view at any one time, meaning that just about any time you come, there would be different selections.

“Our goal is that once a month, we will have something new to see,” said Amanda Hughes, Director of Special Projects.

All of the items in the collection have been acquired through private philanthropy.

Teaching and learning is fundamental to the mission and the museum’s approach-and you can see it in the way the pieces are arranged and displayed-the combinations and juxtapositions that make for interesting connections of idea and process and stimulate discourse.

During our visit, there was a very interesting exhibit of art that represented the world’s great religions.

The second floor offered a burst of eclectic themes-from folk art of Africa to bold contemporary pieces (Ackland Art Museum, S. Columbia and E. Franklin St., 919-966-5736,, admission is free.).

The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center Star Theater, became the first major planetarium on a university campus when it was dedicated in 1949. From 1959 to 1973, it served as a training site for early astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz; some early Space shuttle mission astronauts came here for training in celestial navigation. It offers planetarium shows such as “Extinction!” postulating what happened to dinosaurs; “Life in the Universe” and “Solar System Adventure (for schedule, visit, 919-962-1238, $5.25/adults, $4.25/child).

Walking about the campus, we discovered fascinating exhibits of historic books, maps, photographs, currency on view at the North Carolina Collection Gallery in the Wilson Library. The Gallery’s Sir Walter Raleigh Rooms comprise one of several historic settings on display: decorated with 400-year old English paneling and furnishings, the rooms complement exhibits bout the man who personified England’s national ambitions in the “Age of Discovery” and who in the 1580s sent English colonists to America to settle Roanoke area of North Carolina. The gallery also has a display about the Eng and Chang, the original Siamese twins who settled in North Carolina in 1839, and maintains the Thomas Wolfe Room, with exhibits that recount Wolfe’s student years at the university (1916-1920) and his literary accomplishments. A guided tour is offered Wednesdays at 2 p.m. and by appointment; self-guided at other times.

The university also is the setting for the Coker Arboretum, a century-old five-acre garden just next to the Planetarium. The Arboretum is part of the 598-acre North Carolina Botanical Garden, the largest natural Botanical Garden in the southeast, and the Mason Farm Biological Reserve.

A guided Historic University of North Carolina Campus Walking Tour is offered daily at 1:30 p.m. (other times, you are given a brochure to do a self-guided tour); 250 East Franklin St., 919-962-1630,

Historic Hillsborough, which goes back to 1754, has an entire downtown district that has been named to the National Register of Historic Places with more than 100 late 185h century and earth 19th century structures. Historic places also include the Old Burwell School, a 19th century Presbyterian school for young ladies (free docent-led tour); the 1815 Ayr Mount Plantation, and Hillsborough’s Montrose Garden is a mid-19th century collection of gardens. You can do a self-guided walking tour or take a guided tour, available by appointment (919-732-7741, 877-732-7748,

A short drive from the center of town is the Occaneechi Village Restoration, an Indian village that was reconstructed with a palisade, huts, cooking site and sweat lodge, as it would have been during the late 17th century (foot of Cameron St. on the Eno River, 919-304-3723,

The Carolina Inn

The university also is unusual for having right on campus a most extraordinary historic inn, The Carolina Inn. Created as a kind of “home base” for returning alumni, the inn captures the essence of southern gentility. It is quintessential North Carolina.

The Carolina Inn, built by a UNC alum and gifted to the university in 1935, epitomizes North Carolina graciousness(© 2006 Karen Rubin).

The Inn was built in 1924 by John Sprunt Hill, a UNC graduate who, in 1935, gave the Inn to the University to serve as “a cheerful inn for visitors, a town hall for the state, and a home for returning sons and daughters of alma mater.”

“It’s like a living room for the university”-homey, not clubby. In fact, there are not many inns you could find that have white sofas and splendid antiques (so many, there is a wonderful guide to the historical furnishings, and historical photographs showing famous guests, including Eleanor Roosevelt who is pictured here in 1953 (“She’d go to the kitchen to get her own coffee.”)

There used to be a ladies parlor (south) and a gentleman’s parlor (north); there is a gorgeous ballroom described as “Adamesque” which is more elegant and delicate than the Georgian/Federalist style.

The Club Room used to be a Faculty Club, even today, they serve afternoon tea on vintage tea cups.

Though the Carolina Inn has kept pace with societal changes (it no longer has separate ladies and gentlemen’s parlors), it still retains this exquisite charm.

In addition to having a rich cultural history, The Carolina Inn is architecturally significant, blending elements of antebellum Southern plantation houses with Georgian and neoclassical features often found in the Northeast. The original front of the building was modeled after the Potomac River front of Mt. Vernon.

The Inn has been expanded and restored over the years. The most extensive restoration and expansion, completed in 1996 at a cost of $16.5 million, added modern features and conveniences and, at the same time, restored much of the Inn’s traditional warmth and grandeur. An extensive collection of antiques, along with a few objects original to the Inn in 1924, complements the casually elegant décor.

The inn affords a total of184 rooms; 169 Guestrooms, five luxury suites and two VIP suites, outfitted with triple sheeted plush top mattress, down comforter, and an abundant supply of jumbo pillows; There is complimentary wired and wireless internet access in all guest rooms and WIFI internet access in public areas. There is also an exercise room plus complimentary access to area health clubs.

Even if you do not stay over at the inn, enjoy a meal at the The Carolina CrossRoads Restaurant, which earned a Mobil Four-Star rating since 2001. The ambiance is just perfection and the cuisine emphasizes local and regional trends and fresh ingredients. There is a comfortable bar (where the original lobby used to be) 919-918-2777

The Carolina Inn is just such a perfect confection-I can easily see why it has long been one of the most popular sites in North Carolina for special events, weddings, business meetings, and academic conferences.

Still owned by UNC, the Inn is managed by ARAMARK/Harrison Lodging and as per the original deed – profits generated from the operation of the inn are given back the university to fund the library system.

The university managed the Inn until 1993. At that point, it needed a considerable amount of renovation, and the property was leased to Doubletree, and was completely renovated.

Though part of the Hilton group (so it offers Hilton Points and miles) and managed by Aramack, the Carolina Inn still has close ties to the university. As per the stipulation of the gift to the university, profits generated from operating the inn are returned to the university to fund the library system (211 Pittsboro Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516 , Tel: 919/933-2001 or 1-800-962-8519,

The Carolina Inn is listed on the National Register for Historic Places, and is a member of the Historic Hotels of America (

Siena Hotel

There you are, riding down the highway, you pull into the driveway, cross the portal and all of a sudden, you feel you are in Europe-quite unexpected. Is a hotel along the main drag that goes between the highway and downtown Chapel Hill

The Siena Hotel, a four-diamond recipient since 1989, is a luxury boutique hotel that lets you imagine you have stepped into a Tuscan villa, with its European antiques, Italian marble floors, majestic columns, and art work evocative of the Renaissance.

The clear associations are intentional. The hotel owner is from this region of Italy.

There are 68 spacious guestrooms and 12 suites, individually furnished with European armoires, marble desks. Amenities include high-speed internet (they will provide a cable for your laptop)

Guests enjoy complimentary membership in a nearby Capital health club. There is also an in-house masseuse available.

Duke University, in nearby Durham(© 2006 Karen Rubin).

Its fine dining restaurant, Il Palio, is North Carolina’s only AAA Four Diamond Italian restaurant and boasts a wine list with more than 400 selections (you can see the menu online Executive Chef Jim Anile, who joined Il Palio in 2002 from the Ahwahnee Hotel, a historic four-diamond, four-star property in Yosemite National Park, serves up modern Italian dishes, using all fresh ingredients, and brings in some other culinary influences and styles where appropriate, such as Asian. He offers a gourmet tasting menu that consists of several small courses each specifically chosen by the Chef and paired with a wine.

The restaurant is named for a famous horserace that takes place in Italy.

An interesting program is a “Day as a Chef,” where you can go behind the scenes at Il Palio and spend the day along side the Executive chef and his team. You get to create your own four-course menu, shop for fresh ingredients, work alongside the chefs in the kitchen, and pair dishes with wine from the wine list. At the end of the day, you get to invite four guests to dinner with wine (reservations are by appointment, 919-918-2567,; a special guestroom rate can be provided in conjunction with the package).

Free high-speed internet access from the room (they even provided the cable we needed); the hotel also offers a business center, valet and room service.

The hotel also has a very pleasant bar and lounge, where a pianist plays in the evening. There are pleasant sitting areas.

The hotel can accommodate meetings up to 115 for sit-down functions.

Children and pets are welcomed.

Rates include nightly turn-down service with Belgian chocolates, local phone calls, and daily newspaper. (Siena Hotel, 1505 East Franklin St, Chapel Hill, 800-223-7379; 919-929-4000,

For further information contact Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, 501 West Franklin St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516, 919-968-2060, 888-968-2060,

© 2006 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Send comments or travel questions to .

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About Travel Features Syndicate

Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including, Huffington Post and and blogs at "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at 'Like' us at

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