Local hotel heaven


illustration by Edgar and Suzanne Cabrera

by CC Parker

Ending the day in one’s own bed is the highlight of “staycationing” for some people. But for many of us, bedding down somewhere new – but nearby – is another kind of fun.

I first caught the bug when my friend Eli Pennington and I took our brood of children to the Embassy Suites near Crabtree Valley Mall for a spring break getaway. We had a fantastic time. The kids frolicked in the pool and hot tub. Eli and I enjoyed complimentary happy hour cocktails next to the babbling brook that runs through lobby’s jungle-themed lounge. The children were ecstatic to be chauffeured in the hotel van across Glenwood Avenue for dinner at the hibachi restaurant Kanki. An in-room movie for the kids and nightcaps for the moms ended the evening. The next day, we began with a morning swim, moved on to the complimentary breakfast buffet, then headed back to the pool once more.

No one had to make a bed. The kids were enthralled with the telephone mounted in the bathroom. The pull-out couch facilitated a slumber party and wasn’t viewed as second-class bedding. And we all completely ignored the mountain of wet towels strewn everywhere. The jungle lounge foliage added an exotic touch. In fact, our pictures from this getaway looked very similar to photos actually taken in Costa Rica by more fortunate friends that year. We liked it so much we did it again the next year, at the Cary Embassy Suites, and had just as much fun.

Historically, Raleigh has had limited hotel offerings. Back in the day, you’d have visiting guests stay at The Velvet Cloak on Hillsborough Street, which boasted an indoor pool and upscale restaurant. All sorts of weddings, prom dinners, Broughton Queen of Hearts luncheons, and debutante soirees were held there. I still hear stories about the shenanigans back at “the Cloak,” as we called it, after my own wedding reception. Walter’s own Jesma Reynolds confirmed her parents stayed there as well, en route to their exotic honeymoon many years ago. But, let’s face it: The Cloak was still a drive-up motel.

There was also The Plantation Inn, “out in the country” (where Capital Boulevard and I-540 now intersect). This was once a prime location: Before I-95, the two routes that ran from New York to Florida were U.S. 1 and U.S. 301, so The Plantation Inn was in a good spot to offer upscale accommodation for people traveling up and down the East Coast. It was a family-owned hotel boasting an excellent restaurant, formal gardens, and a formal bar that served mixed drinks – very avant garde in the day when liquor by the drink was a novel concept in Raleigh.

As a small child, I clearly remember my grandmother arriving from Kinston to babysit so my parents could spend the night at The Plantation Inn. I can just see my mother, lipsticked and dressed in her pleated Tyler House skirt and Farah-Fawcett-style silk blouse, holding her little square overnight case. The hotel’s owner, Jim Morse, was a business friend of my father, and my parents were delighted to find a gift-wrapped azalea plant as a welcome gift in their room. Mr. Morse was known for his personal touches.

A hotel stay for a romantic interlude is not a new concept. But a hotel stay for a night alone…

Several years ago, our friend Jack Rogers surprised his lovely wife Amy with a night away not long after their son was born. When the Rogerses arrived at the hotel room, he handed her a stack of magazines, a bottle of wine, and said he was leaving her to enjoy a night alone. He would retrieve her in the morning. This was an unanticipated, welcome surprise to Amy.

When I recount this story, men usually scratch their heads, looking sheepish. They assume they weren’t listening closely and missed the point. “He left her alone in the hotel room for the night? Now why would he do that?”

Women, on the other hand, visibly swoon. They don’t need me to repeat it. “He left her ALONE for the night? With wine and magazines!”

After hearing the “Amy alone in the hotel” story 50 times, my husband surprised me with two nights at my own personal nirvana: The Umstead. That is, one night by myself. He joined me for the second. As he said, “There is more than one way to skin a cat…”

This place is decidedly not a drive up motel. Plush, hushed, serene… the Umstead has a fabulous gift shop where you can buy your own Ben Owen urn, or a cashmere robe, or more magazines. The spa is equally wonderful, and the pool offers lots of options – cabanas, umbrellas, and a secondary deck away from the fray. On the main floor you can dine at Herons inside, or on the porch overlooking the rear lawn. My night of solitude was so very satisfying. Silence + Beauty + Room Service = Happy. My husband and I had an equally delightful time the second night, dining on appetizers and drinks by the outdoor fireplace.

Local hotels are fun with families, alone, with your husband – what about with friends? Bright and early we desperate housewives wheeled up to The Umstead’s front entrance. No one planned to valet park (why spend the money?) and yet we needed assistance unloading the massive luggage required for the overnight stay.

The Umstead understands that visiting groups have their… traditions. And like most fine hotels, this one is gracious enough to allow its guests do their own thing, discreetly looking away if necessary. Sort of like the scene in Pretty Woman when the Beverly Wilshire Hotel’s general manager sees Julia Roberts alight from the elevator in her smashing red gown and diamond necklace. He knows that at midnight she’ll turn into a pumpkin and that the necklace goes back to the jeweler, but he likes her just the same.

It’s the same dynamic here. Graciously, the valets say, “Welcome back to the Umstead, Mrs. Parker,” (which I LOVE). They are unblinking as they unload our massive coolers. That’s plural.

When we childhood friends gather, our tradition will be forever steeped in Needham Broughton High School Spring Break 1984. No gathering is complete without Martha Farmer’s signature dip and veggies and her world- famous sausage balls. John Peterson’s Mai Tais are a newer tradition. Beer? Yes. Wine? Of course. Tim Clougherty’s bootlegged Sex and the City movie? We’ve got you covered. Yes, we need those boat-sized coolers.

For our part, in spite of our uncouth arrival, we do behave like ladies. No raging parties or topless swimming or drunken scenes at the bar. The Umstead does not embarrass us, nor do we embarrass The Umstead.

This past fall, at beautiful Betty’s birthday there, her crew had also assembled their own cocktail party inside and outside. Quite the spread of favorites, from Kat’s pickled tomatoes to Adora’s top-secret curry dip, served on gold foil plates. The food and wine led to wonderful discussion and conversation. Everyone left refreshed.

We all occasionally need a night away. Whether you are in the company of your children, your spouse, your friends, or alone, I highly recommend escaping to one of Raleigh’s local hotels. Your kids will love the Jungle Lounge. Save the Umstead for yourself!