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For the quality-time-lovers

By Rory Smith

A few days ago, I was (as I often am) failing to get any work done in Perkins. Instead, I was daydreaming, only brought back to reality by a handful of friends chatting about their plans for Valentine’s Day.


“I looked for dinner reservations three weeks ago and nothing was available.”


“We might as well cook…”


That was February 1st. Still two weeks out from the Big Day, and OpenTable had been swept clean of reservations since early January. As couples across Duke and Durham are planning to celebrate love of all kinds, I’m sure many are left wondering how they dropped the ball, seemingly left with nothing.


A few thoughts, for those who might have similar concerns:

  1. From my experience, the best memories aren’t made when you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Savoring another spicy vodka rigatoni from Cucciolo won’t be a bad experience, but the most memorable quality time happens when you try something new or push yourself outside of your comfort zone. This could manifest itself as trying a brand-new restaurant, venturing to a nearby town, or getting creative about what you consider a “date” or quality time. This year, Valentine’s Day is your oyster.

  2. As a ~Durhamite~ born and raised, I take pride in my ability to recommend new spots around town to my friends. I’m a firm believer that there’s something for everyone here, and this year I’m determined to share some of my hidden gems with a larger audience.


Whether you’re planning a Valentine’s date for you and your boyfriend, a random Saturday afternoon with your best friend, or an activity for parents’ weekend, consider these my suggestions for quality time well-spent in the Dirty D. And with nearly 21 years in this town under my belt, I’d say I know what’s up:)


For the nature lover

Step 1: we’re packing a picnic lunch. In the spirit of choose your own adventure, here’s three suggestions to fill your basket:

  1. Durham Food Hall – most have been, and for good reason. If you’re getting an early start, pick up bagels from Everything (you’ll need energy for step 2)

  2. Parker and Otis – objectively one of the cutest spots this town has to offer. Order from their breakfast&lunch menu, or check out some of their grab-and-go options. Don’t forget to stop by their stationery section and marvel at all of their V-day knick knacks

  3. Bulldega Urban Market – if you’re not feeling like a proper meal or prefer to share, grab a variety of snacks and charcuterie staples of your choosing here

Step 2: haul yourselves and your goodies over to William B Umstead State Park. It’s technically in Raleigh, but only about a 20-minute drive from campus. Trust me when I tell you the hike will be worth it.


My trail of choice: the Company Mill Loop. You can make this trail two miles, four miles, or do the whole 6.2. Regardless of the length you choose, you won’t be disappointed with the foliage, views, serenity, and picnic tables along the way. For an arguably better view (but a completely flat trail), there’s a three-mile loop at Lake Crabtree right on the other side of I-40 (about a 5-minute drive from Umstead). Once it gets a little warmer, this park is a perfect spot for biking, boating, and simply taking in the great outdoors.


After you’ve exhausted yourselves from the hike, your last stop is to soak up a beautiful sunset. The drive from Umstead to Maple View Farms is around 35 minutes, which just means you have time to dig into one of the Coop’s many playlists (


Keep in mind that February sunsets take place around 5:45pm. Perfect timing, because during the winter Maple View is open until 7! Sample flavors like Carolina Crunch and Honey Toasted Almond (my personal faves) before bundling up in your car or the grassy knoll and admiring the beautiful Hillsborough skies.

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For the thrill seeker

Your adventure starts in downtown Durham at Urban Axes, a relatively new ax-throwing attraction. Most days, you can walk in and throw-your-heart-out for an hour with up to five friends. This year, they’re offering a Valentine’s special which includes one drink per visitor and tips on your technique from the center’s “Axeperts.”


Weather permitting, spend your afternoon at Eno River State Park. Personally, I’ve never faced the waters of the Eno Quarry before mid-March, but if you’re craving an adrenaline rush, be my guest. If you’re not down for a cold plunge but still want to get outside, this is another perfect spot for a picnic [photo evidence here → ]


Your next thrill is I-40 at rush hour – that’s right, we’re heading back to Raleigh. Dinner will be at the Cowfish, a self-proclaimed “sushi burger bar” that marries exotic fish and American bar food. Straight from the Cow Fish's website, here you’ll find “nostril nudging, taste bud tickling and visually vivid food, the likes of which you’ve never tasted.” One of the most popular dishes is their specialty Bento Box, which includes a slider, a 4-piece sushi roll and a side of fries 😛

For the kid at heart

It’d be a mistake if this date didn’t begin with a little competitive fun. Frankie’s Fun Park was my go-to childhood spot for a full-day adventure, with its many arcade games, mini golf, bumper cars, roller coasters and laser tag. If you can’t make it all the way to Raleigh, a new amusement park just opened in Durham with similar attractions – it’s called Angel Island, right next to the Target, and though I can’t comment from experience, I’m sure you’d have a blast.


Dinner this evening: take your pick amongst Durham’s finest pizza! We all know Toro, but check out Hutchins Garage, Pompieri, or Pie Pushers if you’re itching to try something different. You won’t go wrong with a childhood classic, and if you’re struggling to get a V-day reservation, takeout from these spots will never fail you.

Your second-to-last stop is Boxcar Bar + Arcade. Get your quarters ready – Boxcar has something for everyone, from air hockey to skeeball to Guitar Hero. Just be wary: if you and your S/O are both competitive by nature, the night might just take a turn for the worse.

If you didn’t get your foodie fix from Hutchins, end the night at Two Roosters Ice Cream in Golden Belt, where five flavors each month are dreamt up by kids themselves.

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For the undiscovered Picasso

Grab your morning brew of choice and head to Raleigh – this date starts at the North Carolina Museum of Art. NCMA offers films, performances and concerts, guided tours, opportunities to practice mindfulness and more. Their current exhibition, Thinking Through Making, encourages spectators to consider the value of the art-making process rather than focus solely on a curated product.


After you’ve gotten your fill of art and nature in NCMA’s Museum Park, we’re heading back to Durham. Two errands before you make it home: Michael’s Craft Store and your grocery store of choice (Teeter <3). From Michael’s, grab a few canvases, acrylic paint brushes and a set of craft paints. If you can’t see where this is going, I’ll tell you – you’re having a DIY Wine and Design night. Put on your comfiest clothes and channel your inner ~artiste~ sip and paint style.

For dinner, bring your favorite restaurants to you by ordering takeout of your choice. If you’re struggling to choose a spot, I’ll share a few of my lesser-known picks below:

  1. Korean BBQ – Namu

  2. Italian – Gocciolina

  3. Fast-casual/vegetarian-friendly – Roots (@ UNC)

  4. NC BBQ – Q Shack (suuuuuuper southern vibes)

  5. Comfort Food – Geer Street Garden

  6. Sushi – Spicy Nine (@UNC) or Akai Hana (Carrboro)

  7. Chinese – Hong Kong


The remainder of your evening will be spent however you please: painting, imbibing, cuddling up, maybe revisiting those playlists above. No matter which path you take, remember to keep an open mind and heart. The best things are often discovered when we least expect them, and trust me, this town has a lot to bring to the table :)

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