Initials are carved deeply into the old oaken tables at The Rat, telltale marks left by decades of University of North Carolina students who have favored this cavernous pub since it opened near the Chapel Hill campus almost 50 years ago.
But when I first walked in from a bright, sunny day, I did not see the carving. I could barely make out an almost seven-footer--likely a basketball player in this hoops-crazy part of the world--who was folded into a shadowy booth near a picture of Michael Jordan and the national championship North Carolina team of 1982.
In another corner sat my friend, a university librarian, who had maps spread out as he plotted his 20th trip to Canada's Northwest Territories. On the jukebox, Bette Midler was singing "Wind Beneath My Wings."
Part study hall, part beer hall, this traditional gathering place is officially named the Rams Head Rathskeller, but you see that only on the menu.
The Rat's down-home staff has been serving students for generations: The "Rev." Jim Cotton came on line in 1947, they say; Cliff Stone in 1952; "Flukey" Hayes since 1963.
The Rat was built on beef. Its specialty is The Gambler, a steak that comes out sizzling on a pan heaped with onions. The librarian ordered his medium-rare, and tried not to wince when I chose a spinach salad. (I did not have the nerve to admit that I'd pigged out on barbecue the night before in Durham, near the campus of archrival Duke.)
After a bar was added in 1980, The Rat's capacity for diners dwindled from 300 to 250. You enter The Rat from Amber Alley, down a flight of steps from Franklin, which is the Main Street of Chapel Hill.
My home for the weekend was the Carolina Inn, a traditional red-brick establishment embraced by fraternity row. Magnolias were in bloom, their fragrance wafting through the dormer windows. It all seemed to fit with the gracious mood of the nation's oldest state university.
In the splendid public rooms of the North Carolina Collection in Wilson Library, I studied displays about famous people with North Carolina connections: Sir Walter Raleigh, Virginia Dare, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Wolfe and Eng and Chang Bunker--the "original" Siamese twins, who, after worldwide stage tours in the 1800s, married sisters from North Carolina and fathered 22 children.
You always learn something when you go back to college.
Earlier this year, I visited New Hampshire, checking in at the Hanover Inn, which opened in 1889 across from the Dartmouth College green.
Hanover, with its ponds, fine old trees and houses, is a classic Ivy League town. Dartmouth traces its charter to George III in 1769.
From my room, I could hear the carillons and see Baker Library--reminiscent of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, but with 3,000 square feet of murals by Mexican artist Jose Clemente Orozco, and portraits of famous graduates from Daniel Webster to Dr. Seuss.
My favorite eatery was Murphy's Pub, where the floors are wooden planks and the walls are forest green.
"It's Dartmouth Green," a waitress said loyally. "It's also Irish green." A century of black-and-white photos of Main Street and the campus line the walls, including fanciful scenes of ice sculptures from Dartmouth's Winter Carnival. A blackboard lists a dozen stouts and ales; specialties include New England clam chowder and fish and chips.
A block away, on Lebanon Street, I wandered into a Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream parlor with a pleasant back deck and a special called The Vermonster.
"Ben and Jerry were from Burlington, Vermont," the clerk explained as she pulled out a large cardboard bucket. "The Vermonster is 20 scoops of ice cream, plus 10 scoops of chopped walnuts, four bananas, four scoops of hot fudge, three scoops of chocolate chip cookies and two scoops each of Heath bars, sprinkles, M&M;'s, Reese's peanut butter pieces. . . . Anything else? Oh yes, it's topped with real whipped cream."
She was quick to add: "We sell it mostly for fraternity parties."
The Vermont-New Hampshire state line is the Connecticut River, less than a mile away. You'd have to walk a lot farther to recover from The Vermonster.
If you go:
The Carolina Inn, corner of Cameron and Columbia, P.O. Box 1110, Chapel Hill, N.C. 27514, (919) 933-2001. Double rooms: $64. Not all rooms are air-conditioned, which is important in summer.
The Hanover Inn at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H. 03755, (603) 643-4300. Doubles: $148.