Eggleston Arch. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Town & Gown

Regional college towns make enjoyable destinations

By Nancy Rones Zolotorofe

Amazing memories tend to surface when reminiscing about college days. Much of that nostalgia may spring from an alma mater’s locale.

Vibrant university towns — ones abundant in culture, great eats and drinks for every budget, bustling nightlife, outdoor activities and spirited sporting events — can make a student’s experience.

But the appeal doesn’t have to end there. These dynamic collegiate destinations offer everyone from friends to families perfect mini getaways (hold the tuition). This fall, jaunt to one of these college towns, all within a few hours’ drive of Ballantyne.

The historic Horseshoe section of the UofSC campus.

Columbia, South Carolina

Drive time from Ballantyne: 
1 hour, 25 minutes

Home to the University of South Carolina, this capital city seamlessly melds Southern hospitality and tradition with urban hipness. The university recently struck another blow for distinctiveness when it changed its acronym to “UofSC,” letting the University of Southern California have USC all to itself.

Other signs of spirit and revitalization echo throughout Columbia, where old-time storefronts are now home to modern businesses. Ballantyne-area resident Beth Fernandez, whose daughter is a nursing student at UofSC, says Columbia feels like a small town. It has “vintage architectural charm,” and “the locals have a strong sense of community and pride, especially when South Carolina’s Gamecocks are playing football at home,” she says.

Every Saturday, the colorful, quirky Soda City Market is the picture of community. Meandering along Main Street, sampling food and perusing flowers and handcrafted wares is a popular pastime. For cultural cravings, visitors admire outdoor murals in the Vista area or hit a museum. Fresh off a major renovation, the Columbia Museum of Art boasts 26 impressive galleries. A highly anticipated Van Gogh exhibit arrives in October.

If kids are part of the crew, they’ll have a blast climbing the vertebrae of Eddie, a 40-foot “boy” at EdVenture Children’s Museum and listening to his heart and breathing. To satisfy anyone’s inner child, there’s Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, where feeding the giraffes is a highlight.

Save energy to tour UofSC, or at minimum, the historic Horseshoe section. “With its huge oak trees and stucco buildings, this part of campus is the oldest and most beautiful in a Charleston-like way,” says Ballantyne Country Club resident Elizabeth Arnall, whose dad lived on the Horseshoe as a student. (Arnall’s mom, grandfather and two of her children are also Gamecocks.)

The city’s exploding culinary scene makes you wish for more meals in a day. Cola’s, set in a restored bottling plant, is a solid pick for seafood; Rockaway Athletic Club ranks high for Columbia’s famed pimento cheeseburger; and the rooftop bar and seasonal fare at Hendrix don’t miss a beat.

Steps from Hendrix, Hotel Trundle is a 41-room haven nestled in three historic buildings in the Main Street District. The hotel opened last year as a retro-chic boutique, complete with exposed brick and a touch of original wallpaper. Celebrities like Tim Tebow and DJ Khaled have called Hotel Trundle home during their stops in Columbia.

Cocky, the UofSC mascot. Photo courtesy of Brett Flashnick.

Franklin Street view from Top of the Hill restaurant. Photo courtesy of Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

A scene from the Carrboro Music Festival. Photo courtesy of Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Drive time from Ballantyne: 
2 hours, 20 minutes

“My daughter didn’t want a sleepy college town,” says Ballantyne resident Heather Madrzykowski, whose daughter, Emily, graduated from Ardrey Kell High School and is now a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). “There’s always something going on in Chapel Hill.”

“The campus is very active and has a cool athletic scene and great history,” Madrzykowski continues. “Then, there’s all the buzz and restaurants on Franklin Street, downtown’s main strip.”

Her sentiments are spot-on. For starters, live shows are traditionally part of college-town culture, and Chapel Hill is no exception. On Franklin Street, visitors can watch laugh-out-loud comedy at The People’s Improv Theater (The PIT) founded by a former “Saturday Night Live” writer. On Saturdays, The PIT offers a family-friendly improv show.

The area also has a booming live music scene. One of the most legendary venues is Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, the artsy town right beside Chapel Hill. For 40-plus years, musical acts, including big names like Nirvana and John Mayer, have played at Cat’s Cradle. For music en masse, Carrboro’s annual musical festival at the end of September features more than 200 musical acts.

Chapel Hill’s event roster also features many worth-it annual celebrations. Two film festivals in the fall — Filmfest in Chapel Hill and the Carrboro Film Festival — indulge movie lovers. For a magical spectacle, Paperhand Puppet Intervention’s yearly pageant, running through Sept. 29 at UNC’s outdoor Forest Theatre, tells a story using giant puppets, papier-mache characters, masks and dance.

For engaging displays of a different kind on campus, you can pop into the Carolina Basketball Museum, adjacent to the Smith Center, and soak in Tar Heel basketball history and memorabilia. A must-see section spotlights alum and phenom Michael Jordan. A letter from Jordan’s coach, the legendary Dean Smith, describes skills Jordan needs to work on and is a priceless lesson for kids.

Also, the Old Well on campus offers a “good luck sip.” Students drink from the Old Well on the first day of classes to improve their chances for top grades. Visitors should also leave time to admire the magnificent historic homes on the tree-lined blocks around UNC.

Hundreds of eateries in town make it difficult to choose where to fuel. Nothing says “Chapel Hill institution” like breakfast at Carolina Coffee Shop or Sutton’s Drug Store, both serving since the 1920s. A newer destination is popular for lunch: Sup Dogs, where students flock for beef hot dogs smothered in imaginative toppings. There’s also Lula’s for crispy fried chicken.

Dinner reservations are a must for the highly acclaimed Asian restaurant Lantern (start with the pork dumplings). Or, at the Top of the Hill eatery, take the elevator up to the outdoor deck for a panoramic view and Southern-leaning food. (Top of the Hill is the place to watch Carolina basketball face off with rival Duke.)

Marriott’s AC Hotel offers walkable access to most of the excitement downtown. It is a modern European-designed hotel just one block from Franklin Street. The helpful staff provides local shuttle service when tired feet surrender. If serious Southern elegance is preferred, choose The Carolina Inn. Through mid-October, the inn hosts Fridays on the Front Porch, a relaxing weekly outdoor event with music and food trucks. It’s the ideal beginning or end to a quick escape.

The Drillfield at the center of campus. Photo courtesy of The Inn at Virginia Tech.

Blacksburg, Virginia

Drive time from Ballantyne: 
3 hours

Set in the rural Blue Ridge Highlands of Southwest Virginia, Blacksburg lures travelers with its gorgeous natural attractions. Fall mountain foliage makes the show even more spectacular, whether on a woodsy trail, golf course, vineyard or farm.

Virginia Tech (VT) is the heart of Blacksburg. A requisite tour around the school’s gothic-style buildings, clad in the area’s gray Hokie stone (dolomite), leaves the impression of an English manor — or Hogwarts. Donning the same distinctive stone, The Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center is a 147-room beacon of hospitality on the VT campus.

In-the-know parents, including Elizabeth Arnall, whose younger son is an architecture major at VT, often book the inn. “You can walk to most places, including the restaurants and farmers market in the cute downtown area,” says Arnall, owner of a handmade jewelry company, Whimsies By Elizabeth. (See one of her pieces on p. 76.)

When VT’s beloved Hokies football team has a home game, the inn paints the lawn like a football field and hosts a tailgate party for guests. The game at Lane Stadium is an electric experience full of tradition. One ritual — when fans jump up and down to the Metallica song “Enter Sandman” — has registered as a small earthquake several times.

Visitors can also find other pulse-raising outdoor pursuits near campus. Stunning hikes are plentiful, and the 4-mile loop to Cascade Falls in Jefferson National Forest is a favorite among hikers of all levels.

For those who prefer two-wheeled adventure, there’s the bike-share program, which offers leisurely pedaling from Blacksburg to neighboring Christiansburg along the scenic Huckleberry Trail. There are bike hubs at the Blacksburg Farmers Market and Blacksburg Library. For bucolic views from the links, you can book a tee time at the Pete Dye River Course of Virginia Tech, which lies along the New River.

Picturesque farms are common in the region, and not surprisingly, agritourism has caught on. About 12 miles from Blacksburg, Beliveau Farm boasts a boutique winery, where visitors can taste wines and picnic around the grounds, vineyard and seasonal pumpkin patch. September’s Grape Stomping Festival, which conjures a famous episode of “I Love Lucy,” is one of Beliveau’s most popular events. Expect the farm’s new brewery (slated to open mid-2019) to also draw crowds.

Farm breweries appear to be the offspring of the local brewery boom. Rising Silo Brewery is a standout, sharing space with a working farm and casual farm-to-table restaurant. Live music, brews and fresh food are “on tap.” In Christiansburg, Sinkland Farms Brewery hosts a monthlong Pumpkin Festival on October weekends, complete with a corn maze and rides on rescue horses.

Rest assured, the Blacksburg area also holds many indoor diversions and has a thriving arts scene. A picture-perfect evening might include dinner downtown at The Black Hen Restaurant, followed by a performance at Moss Arts Center or an indie movie at the historic Lyric Theatre.

But as compelling as these and the many other area attractions are, they still have a hard time rivaling the mountain scenery — especially in the fall. It’s a leaf peepers paradise.

Cascade Falls. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tourism Corporation, Virginia.org.