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Much more going on in Chapel Hill than the Tar Heels

| Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, 5:39 p.m.

Like many fans of North Carolina, my family counts artsy Asheville and the Blue Ridge Parkway, especially during leaf-peeping season, among our favorite destinations.

Yet of all the places we've been in this Southern state, we're most fond of Chapel Hill.

To be fair, my wife, Gail, did graduate from its namesake university and is a die-hard Tar Heel, but our teenage son Ewan and I happily admit we're nuts for the place, too. Which is why we've gladly returned a half-dozen times in the past few years.

During this three-night visit, we vowed not only to revisit our usual Chapel Hill haunts but to seek out fresh experiences, including exploring more of its tree-lined trails and eating at a hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint that friends have raved about.

And maybe best of all, we would enjoy the idyllic college town's people, who are so darned nice.

Dropping our bags in our room at the Carolina Inn (800-962-8519 or carolinainn.com) after a half-hour drive west by rental car procured at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, we hoof it several blocks to the Yogurt Pump (919-942-7867 or yogurtpump.com). YoPo, as it is known, is not your typical purveyor of chilled dairy treats. Just ask any of the students and alums who cheerfully stand in lines extending well outside its unassuming door.

With a couple of hours until dinner, we drive several miles to the Carolina Basketball Museum (919-962-6000 or wapo.st/CarolinaBasketballMuseum). It's here, next door to the university's hallowed hoops arena, that my otherwise sports-phobic wife undergoes a transformation. Her speech grows more animated. Eyes shine fanatically. In other words, she's a lot like when there's a Tar Heel basketball game on TV.

As with any shrine, this one has its share of totems and artifacts, including past players' jerseys, sneakers and video screens replaying glories.

Dinner at the inn's Crossroads restaurant challenges our assumptions about Southern food. Who knew a dish with pork belly, grits and pickled radish could be delicious and delicate? Even carb-averse Gail gleefully tucks into the sublimely creamy mashed potatoes.

As we head to bed, Gail and I agree that the Hot Toddies, boozy and soporific, were an ideal nightcap.

Late the next morning, we stroll through town, detouring to enjoy the familiar tree-and flower-lined paths of the Coker Arboretum (919-962-0522 or ncbg.unc.edu/coker-arboretum) and amble across broad campus lawns where students gather to bask in the sun. We venture down unexplored paths, popping up fortuitously near YoPo, where we indulge in another round of treats.

Keeping our vow to seek out new experiences, we head several miles north to the Pig (919-942-1133 or thepigrestaurant.com) for lunch. Misgivings about its office-park appearance are dispelled at first bite.

Gail goes with a nifty riff on North Carolina-style barbecue, a salad topped with tender chunks of Vietnamese pork cheek and crispy, dried shrimp. Ewan has a more traditional heaping plate of Eastern Carolina-style pulled pork with cider-vinegar sauce. On counsel of the affable guy behind the counter, I order a fried bologna sandwich, which has about as much in common with my childhood memories of this luncheon meat as Spam does with chateaubriand.

“My mom comes here to eat that sandwich, not to visit me,” he says, smiling.

The coming two days bring a mix of old and new. One unseasonably hot midday, we duck into the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center (919-962-1236 or moreheadplanetarium.org), where in air-conditioned darkness we take our first voyage far beyond our galaxy in its guided celestial light show.

Most mornings and afternoons, we walk through town and the neighboring woods, riotously bright green with spring buddings, retracing old paths and tiny creeks, and searching out new spots.

Evenings bring us to our beloved bar the Crunkleton (919-969-1125 or thecrunkleton.com), which Gail says mixes the best negroni cocktail outside of Italy, followed by dinners at cozy Elaine's on Franklin (old fave — 919-960-2770 or elainesonfranklin.com) and Lantern (new discovery — 919-969-8846 or lanternrestaurant.com), where Ewan especially enjoys a dish of ingredients similar to a Bento box, from which he assembles his own sushi, wrapping each creation in edible seaweed paper.

A final day's late-morning walk takes us (surprise!) by YoPo for our fourth visit this trip. Heading out the door, we give our stash of paper receipts, 10 of which can be redeemed for a free yogurt, to a trio of grateful students. Even we admit that they are likely to come back before we are.

Paul Abercrombie is a Washington Post contributing writer based in Tampa, Fla.

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