Even since I decided to own that hikes and walks in nature help me unfurl story snags and otherwise come up with writing ideas, I have been spending one morning per week (usually Thursday) on a hike followed by the afternoon at a coffee shop (actually putting words on the page). I have a usual hiking place and I have a couple usual coffee shops, but I decided that I was curious about the other great writing places around me: where might I find good drinks, good food to snack on or eat for lunch, non-prohibitive prices, a pleasant ambiance, and, maybe most importantly, an atmosphere conducive to camping out with a laptop for hours on end. This atmosphere would need to be friendly toward the worker/studier, but also have frequently free seats with adequate tabletops and power outlets and be not too loud or distracting (though I do have headphones and, when I write, ultra-focus). Then I decided that a tour of hikes and coffee shops in the Triangle (read Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill and its environs) would be a fun way to shake things up once a week; shaking things up is something I thrive on.
Since this is going to take me like half a year at least, I thought I would post my updates every once in a while. I mean, no one wants to read reviews of like seven hundred places at once, anyhow. And if you don’t live around here (or are visiting), then you are under no obligation to read these reviews, at all. Maybe take it as inspiration to find the places around you where a writer can sit and write in quality peace or a writer can get lost in their head in nature. (Keep in mind these are winter pics.)
Week One: Haw River Trail and Cup 22 at the Haw River Ballroom (Graham/Saxapahaw)
The Haw River Trail is 2.8 miles, easy walking, and takes about an hour (at least when you’re chatting with a friend). I was with said friend who is very familiar with the area, but I think you have to walk kind of up the road to get to this trail from the café, so you might want to figure that out. Maybe just talk to the barista. After that, you walk up the river and back on a very flat, wooded trail along the Haw River. This time of year it feels smalltown industrial, but I believe that in the summer it would be a lush (if hot) walk in a particularly pretty part of city-side rural North Carolina. It’s worth it largely because of the Haw River Ballroom (with its Cup 22, see below, but also the General Store and bakery). Four stars.
Cup 22 does not have café food, but it has the best coffee, good pastries and donuts, and FOR SURE the best space to write (and just to hang) of any place that I have been to so far. There is PLENTY of space and it is both hip and full of sunshine and historic beauty. It is connected to the “ballroom,” which is a giant space/erstwhile theater, which does mean it is not at all cozy but almost painfully cool. In a pandemic, maybe the large space is a good thing. There are walking trails outside, including a short walk to the previously mentioned Haw River Trail. There are other events held there regularly, so you probably want to check the schedule for open hours before heading out, especially since it is one of the furthest afield of the Triangle options. Five stars if you can drive that far.
Week two: Eno River Buckquarter Creek + Holden Mill Trail and Saladelia (West Durham/Orange County to Durham)
I have hiked the Eno River hundreds of times, no lie. I have hiked the Eno River Buckquarter Creek + Holden Mill Trail tens of times, probably, or if I haven’t then I have at least been to Fews’ Ford to swim that many times—years ago. Few’s Ford is where you would park and begin the Buckquarter Creek Trail, or at least where I did and makes the most sense to me. The trail pinches in the middle at a bridge and if you continue over the bridge you are on now on the Holden Mill loop to extend the hike and, whew, even take a little extension loop at the end of that. (There are also options to hike a less-travelled trail back to the Cox Mountain Trail and its other extenders or to get to that trail via two fords (including Few’s Ford). And there’s an option to Ridge/Fieldstone/Shakori Trail which can create another large loop. For these options, take a map and strong legs and know how to read the map.) I believe that with all three of these loops (Buckquarter, Holden, and extension) complete, I ended up at something like 6 miles. That seems excessive, so it could be as little as 4, but that doesn’t seem right either. (Adding Cox Mountain in any variation would more than double the hike. It’s a long one.) Each successive loop of the trail combination gets more intense, though none of them are crazy intense. If you go past Buckquarter, you are going to have to climb over a couple rocks/boulders and with any of the trails you have some hiking upwards onto the tops of large hills. Don’t go this way if you can’t catch your breath and scramble a little. But Eno River trails are my favorite, so I loved this beautiful, urban (and not at all) yet woodsy hike and it felt good to just walk and walk and walk. Five stars.
Unfortunately, there have been changes at Saladelia lately. A place I have been eating at, meeting friends at, and even writing at for almost twenty years, is no longer a viable writing option, at least for the foreseeable future. Over the past two decades, the cafe had expanded from one storefront to three-attached, and there were plenty of tables and couches to sit on with either a good coffee or some delicious food and work to your heart’s content. However, they recently had to give up their tenancy, I am guessing from rising lease costs, and move abruptly to their catering building. They have outfitted the front of this space so that it is cute and cheery, but, sigh, there is only room for one long table. Outside, they have a tent with more café tables, but finding a spot and then feeling comfortable staying there for a long time? Not good. My lettuce kept blowing away and I felt guilty taking up a seat and table space. The cashier informed me that they mean to expand the space back into a larger dining room, but this will be a long process. Until then, grab a falafel and meet a friend on a nice, sunny day, but maybe wait to hang out and get work done. Temporarily three stars.
Week three: Duke Gardens and The Durham Café (Central Durham)
I have been to gardens around the world—gardens that are meant to impress. I have not been to a garden better than Duke Gardens. I find that many locals don’t understand the value of Duke Gardens, but that’s okay, I guess; they still manage, decade after to decade, to keep the gardens not only “up,” but also constantly improving and enjoyable at every turn and all year ‘round. It is a few bucks to park at Duke Gardens and there are times when they are crowded to the point of obnoxiousness (because they are gardens, not a concert). (Also, FYI, you have to get a permit worth upwards of $100 to take professional photos.) But I can’t think of many better places to walk around and think than Duke Gardens, a place which is close to my home and also close to several good places to sit and write (though not within walking distance). There is a café with outdoor seating at the Gardens, but it is seasonal and keeps strange hours, so I have never attempted to sit there and write. If you are going for the first time, I doubt Duke Gardens would be conducive to actually covering much ground and getting lost in your own head/story space, because there is too much to observe. But for an old-timer like me, even with an ever-changing and -expanding space, it is a wonderful walk on a non-sunny, non-temperate, non-weekend afternoon (because that’s when people flock to the space in droves). You can meander around and make it however many miles you want, only climb stairs if you want, etc. I probably hit three or four miles covering most of the main paths before I left. Five stars.
I was a little dubious that the lobby of a hotel would be a great place to sit and work of an afternoon. But the café at The Durham has created a kind of gathering space for downtown people (I can walk to my hairdresser, among other things). I wandered through the welcoming lobby and up to the bar to order a drink (an NA spritzer) and a snack (there is also regular food available) and then found a table in the enormous windows under the enormous ceilings. There were many other people there meeting with friends and doing work and there was plenty of space (though I wonder if it does occasionally fill up). The food and bev were fine, probably better than fine, but the space is ideal unless the bigness (and related acoustics) is going to distract you. An ideal place for writing downtown Durham which seems to already have been discovered by various students and at-home workers. Four-point-five stars.
Week four: Hemlock Bluffs and Crema (Cary)
A hike at Hemlock Bluffs is maybe 2.5, even 3 miles if you walk the circumference of both East and West loops. It’s mulched, basically, and has decking over wet areas and even some stairs, so it is not difficult to walk. However, the East side does have a number of stairs that must be climbed, so just know you have to be fit enough to go back up the stairs you will first go down. It is a Town of Cary educational forest, which makes me wonder if you might encounter school groups. I didn’t. Apparently, hemlocks are an anomaly in this part of North Carolina at this point in geological history, so a park was built around them and their “bluffs” (baby cliffs) out over Swift Creek. It’s not rural, so there is some noise from nearby roads and even neighborhoods (like lawnmowers), but there were also parts where all I heard was the breeze and the frogs. I thought it was really nice and would be happy to return, especially since it wasn’t very busy during the day (though again I wondered about field trips and even weekends). There were many spots to stop on a bench or step off the trail for a view or to jot down writerly notes, which might be fancier in the green months. Five stars.
I have a strange connection to Crema, but I haven’t been back there (since the one time I was there about ten minutes telling my sister I was pregnant with my son) in, well, more than fifteen years. There are a couple things missing: cool ambiance, for one. Sublime beverages, for another. (I have had some revelatory coffees, teas, and mocktails lately). But still, I liked this place and its workspace because of the outside area which is permanently covered and, at least on this day, had a great breeze and a pleasant vibe. It’s not enormous—inside or out—so it’s possible it would get too full to find a seat or to feel right staying for several hours. But there was something in the feel of the space that would call me to drink their good coffee and work on their patio on a nice day; maybe it felt neighborhood-y though officially in a strip mall. They do not have café food, and I did not get a pastry because they were out of chocolate croissants. Four stars.
Week five: Filament Coffee + Tea (Mebane) and Common Grounds (Apex)
I ended up at Filament (not pictured) not because it was on a list that said it was a great place to write, but because I was meeting a friend for coffee and she suggested it. Which means there was no hike involved in this outing, nor the next three reviews. Sometimes I just find myself out and about and in need of a place to work for a hot minute. Filament might be the furthest from the Triangle-proper on my list, but I include it because I liked it. It is small inside, so you might not find a seat, which is usually a requirement for getting work done. But if you do get a seat, it’s quaint and pretty and has great coffee and tea. There is an element of smalltown animosity which I often find at smalltown shops, (you’d think it’d be the other way around), but then while you are there you can walk the historic, downtown Mebane (did you even know? I didn’t) for some antiques or lunch or something. It’s very small, but cute—okay maybe trendy—as a button. Four stars (due to space limitations).
I ended up at Common Grounds after a nearby lunch with family. It was pretty busy and didn’t have a ton of space, but I did manage to snag a countertop spot by the window looking out into the shopping-area hall. So they are trying for ambiance with their décor, etc, in this downtown Apex spot, but there are limitations considering their location and their size. Great drinks, again, but only pastries available (and they were a bit sparse by the time I arrived). They roast their own coffee and have a strong (extra-mile) business ethic. A lot of locals run through—even on a rainy day—to grab their usual. It was delicious and I got my work done, but found myself wishing for a better space (especially since you could get stuck in the hallway), though they didn’t seem to mind me (or any of the other workers and studiers) there. Three point five stars (due to space limitations and ambiance).
Week six: Sir Walter Coffee + Kitchen, Thanks a Latte, and Ashley’s Harvest Moon Bakery (Holly Springs)
This is not actually a “week” of coffee shops, but I occasionally end up in Holly Springs (while my dog is at the groomer) and need to work for an hour or two. So I have tried a few of the coffee shops and cafes. Originally, I just kept returning to Sir Walter Coffee + Kitchen (not pictured; with, I think, the original in Raleigh) because they make great café drinks and I could sit outside in the Pandemic (though there is a large indoor space). However, the café transitioned to a full-service restaurant and that’s not what I’m looking for. However however, I have just been informed that it is going back to the counter-service café and revamping their menu (which is good because I didn’t really like the restaurant menu, either). So this is a strange review, then. I used to enjoy the old café-style Sir Walter, so I am guessing I would give the new café a five star review. But as it is right now, it doesn’t work for the purpose, so like two stars until March 2023, and then we’ll see.
When Sir Walter no longer worked for me, I checked out Ashley’s Harvest Moon Bakery (not pictured), a place I think I had been when I lived temporarily in the area. It’s not super cool in there. It feels kind of neighborhood-y to the point of nepotism. But I had a decent lunch and a decent drink and sat at a table to do what I needed to. The problem is that people come here for breakfast and lunch and they don’t have an enormous dining room, so I felt a little slimy taking up space for too long and would not have done it at all without purchasing a meal. Once the lunch crowd cleared, I was one of the only people there and there was one other person working. Overall, though, I didn’t think I’d be going back in order to spend a few hours working. It didn’t seem like the right fit. Three stars (for my purposes).
So then I ended up at Thanks a Latte (not pictured). This place has the ambiance of a downtown, smalltown boutique store, which it also is, essentially. Also, you best be warned that it is Christianity-forward. At first, I was like, why is this needed?, and then it occurred to me that many of these types of coffee shops are styled in a way almost antagonistic to the Christian lifestyle, so I guess I get why. It’s not like anyone was shoving tracks in my back pocket, it was just visible in the merchandise, just like Common Grounds’ merchandise is replete with pro-marijuana messaging. Overall, the space is sunny, pleasant, and airy. Good drinks. Only pastries (so no lunch). And when I was there, there were open spots and a welcoming feeling. It is possible it gets full, as the space in medium-sized. Four-point-five stars.
Week seven: NC Museum of Art
There are some rather interesting walks over the grounds at the NC Museum of Art (which can get crowded for large grounds during events and beautiful weekends). Not only do you get outside here, but you get to look at art installments along the way. The trails meet up with the Greenway, as well, allowing you to make a large loop of your walk or even shoot off into Raleigh or back toward RTP on it. There are a reputed 4 miles of trails on the grounds, though since they loop back around on each other, you might not get 4 miles in. If you want to see all the art, you will take all the criss-crossing trails (and you could even go inside for a slower walk through the free museum). I love this space. And what is better for thinking about story than a combination of nature and art? Do note, however, that the Greenway is freeway-side, so nothing about this space is very wild. You always know you are urban though surrounded by green spaces. Small note: There are lots of restrooms. Five stars.
Bonus: you don’t have to leave the grounds to then pull up a café stool and work. There are three “café” options at the museum, including a new outbuilding Welcome Center that is temporarily closed and only open on the weekend in the winter anyways (so not much of an option unless your timing is right and you want to work outside). At the right moment, there are a few tables at this outbuilding, and there are about 10,000 places to sit along the trails and on the grounds. The East Café is more casual, but West Café has better seating for working outside of the restaurant in the hallway/vestibule. The café itself is a sit-down restaurant but if you want to pull up to a couch or a high-top table, you can order a beverage and snack from the QR code on the table (or walk up the café and order before you get yourself settled). Five stars if you find the right space.
Week Eight: Lake Crabtree County Park and Fount (Almost-Morrisville-Cary and Morrisville)
I have had a love-hate relationship with Lake Crabtree County Park for years and years. My daughter used to go to school near here, so my son and I have spent some time wandering this park. While it was a green space to hang out and my son liked to putter around the shore of the lake, I have always been annoyed by some things about it, including that the trails—meant largely for cyclists—are closed when it’s the least bit wet. Frequently. I decided, though, to give the round-lake hike a try by myself and see if that didn’t avoid the bike-trail issues. Ya’ll, I officially now just have a hate-hate relationship with this park with a very small flame of love somewhere buried in my angry heart. Sure, I liked that it was a six-mile loop that changed style frequently and showed me some cool views and even a crane hunting, catching, and eating a fish. But not only is it difficult to find this trail and then easy to lose (it is terribly marked for most of it), it smells like strong farts now and again, and you have to be on high-alert for cyclists who generally are not happy you are there, but the sign at the front of the park said “Trails Open” on this day. Ahem. I walked five miles around the lake (after taking like a half-hour to find the trailhead, as it were)—five miles!—and came across a gated trail with a sign telling me the trail was closed ahead. Then I was dumped unceremoniously on the side of a busy highway. My options were turning around and walking back five miles to my car which I neither had the time nor stamina for, or urban-navigating my way to my car along this highway with barreling semis and bottles of pee in the grass. No joke. Since I know the area and am a skilled navigator, I walked the highway occasionally convinced I had made the wrong decision and would pay with my life. By the time I walked back through the front gate with the “Trails Open” sign mocking me, I was livid and understandably so. If I had seen a ranger anywhere, they would have gotten an earful. But that was not their fate, that day, if indeed they even exist except to put up infuriating signs. Despite how cool and convenient this trail could be, zero frickin’ stars.
And then I gathered up my sweaty and super-crabby self and drove to Fount. Thank the Lord for this place at this moment! I could see the glaring flaws: it was SO busy I waited in a line to order and then had to squeeze myself into a counter-space between people who looked like I was messing with them, and it’s almost painfully hip. However, though the workers seemed to favor regulars (and maybe friends), they were very friendly. Loved the drinks. Loved the food (though pricey, perhaps). And loved the space. And actually, if you just wanted to grab a coffee and write for hours without feeling like a jerk or getting kicked out, there was this bizarre bleacher area where a few people were doing just that without getting in the way of the full-meal peeps. I don’t know if this was on purpose, but it was a notable innovation. I think I loved this place so much because of the open garage doors and the coolness of the whole package. Maybe I shouldn’t rate them so high because it could be a fight to get a table or maybe even a bleacher, but five stars.
Week Eight, More: Eno River Cole Mill Trail and Namu (West Durham)
So, I am no stranger to the Eno River Cole Mill Trail. I have been on this trail hundreds of times. It almost feels more like the home of my memories than any actual home, as it has outlasted them all. I said to my son the last time we were there, “I practically popped you out on this trail and then you walked your whole life here.” He agreed. So clearly I love this trail. It is a “real” hiking trail, as in it is not paved and has no real stairs (though there are a couple bridges). It hovers beside the Eno River for half of the hike and then cuts back to the parking lot through the woods. You could just walk up and back on the river, if that’s your jam. There are a few “beaches” where people are fond of sticking their toes—or even their whole bodies—in the water. Some people fish. You might catch a kayak or canoe going by. And on a perfect Sunday afternoon you are most assuredly not going to be alone. Pea Creek Trail used to run in the opposite direction down the river from the Cole Mill access point, but it has been closed for years and I now have no faith it will reopen. As for the Cole Mill loop, you can double your hike by taking the Bobbit’s Hole Trail loop at the far end. (This is one of the popular, summer, swimming holes for Eno aficionados). It’s more of the same of Cole Mill and loops back at a point at Bobbit’s Hole. Part of what I have always loved about the Eno is that it feels like you are in the middle of nowhere; it’s almost all woods and river. The site says that both trails (Cole Mill and Bobbit’s Hole) together are 2.8 miles and about an hour’s walk (which is quite brisk). I have never managed anything close to this with my son or even husband in tow, as wildlife is far too engaging for rushing. For writing and thinking, however, this would be a great route. Five stars.
And another place that has worked its way into my Durham memories is Namu (not pictured). In the past, these memories were a little dicey. Namu used to be Straw Valley, a coffee shop and venue that could never manage to get its crap together to be open at posted hours and consistent in anything. While it was the coolest space, they were too unreliable to be cherished. Then, years later, Namu happened. It still shares some business-model bizarreness with their predecessor (what exactly is this rabbit warren of twists and turns?), but they are much more professional and a hundred per cent reliable. The only downside here is that even with many rooms (like three indoor and four outside, but they bleed into one another) over a large, winding area, it gets really crowded, which includes parking. And it can be near-impossible to find a friend without texting one another detailed instructions to your location in real time. The plus-sides, however, are more. Great drinks. Great Korean food (though pricey). An amazing ambiance with options. (Would you like to sit in a coffee shop? Or a Korean bar? Or in a bamboo garden? Or a large patio with live music? (Do they still have live music here? I’m not actually sure.) My writing group now meets here once a week on a Monday night and it’s the perfect place at a perfect time. I am happy to keep going back and have no qualms about setting up shop and ordering via QR code to any of the like-two-hundred tables. Five stars.