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updated 10/10/2005 7:22:58 PM ET 2005-10-10T23:22:58

"Life is a banquet." So says Loretta Swit (of "M.A.S.H." fame) as the star of "Mame," which played at the world-class BTI Performing Center for the Arts in Raleigh, North Carolina. Coincidentally - and surprisingly - life is like a banquet in Raleigh itself. With restaurants, museums, and shopping galore, it is a big city with small-town feel - and an extra dose of Southern hospitality.

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Located halfway between New York and Florida, Raleigh is just a short plane ride away for Eastern seaboarders in particular, making it a great place for both a long weekend and an extended vacation. Take advantage of Raleigh's many fine museums; a number of them are free of charge, and they're worthy of any large city. Depending on your interests, you might want to visit the Raleigh City Museum, the North Carolina Museum of History, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences; they are just a short walk from each other. Then drive to the North Carolina Museum of Art, which is a brief jaunt away.

For a first-hand taste of Raleigh's rich history, take a leisurely trolley ride throughout the downtown area past Raleigh's most famous historic sights. Trolleys have been a part of the city's life since the late nineteenth century. Glide by Mordecai Historic Park, the Capital Area Visitors Center, State Capitol at Bicentennial Plaza, Glenwood South at West & Jones Streets, Joel Lane House, and City Market.

Ever had a hot Krispy Kreme doughnut? If not, you are missing out! Visit Raleigh's branch, where you can buy one hot off the racks (as long as the neon "Hot Doughnuts" sign is lit!) Watch through the window as bakers feed huge bags of flour, sugar and other ingredients into mixers and ovens, and marvel at the waterfall of glaze that descends upon row after row of fresh hot donuts as they roll by on conveyor belts. Guaranteed to make you hungry!

But don't forget to save room for breakfast or lunch at Big Ed's. Big Ed himself, clad in a red-and-white checkered shirt and denim overalls, will greet you himself. "Got enough mouth for two sets of teeth," says his wife. If you are not in the mood to chow down on fish roe and eggs, or brains and eggs (?), you can't go wrong with the fluffy, hubcap-sized pancakes (the recipe is an altered version of his mother's pound cake recipe). The sausage is made the same way Big Ed's granddaddy did. Before you even taste your grits, says Big Ed, you should doctor 'em up with butter, salt and pepper, which makes them "Georgia ice cream." Look up - there are tin bathtubs and milking stools hanging from the ceiling!

Don't get the wrong idea, though, there is plenty of first-class fine dining in Raleigh. The 42nd Street Oyster Bar rivals the famed Grand Central Terminal institution, with amazing seafood, and excellent Cosmopolitans! The prices are certainly more reasonable than in Manhattan!

Don't miss the Angus Barn, just a short drive from the center of town, this is an experience that should not be missed. It's no joke -I would make the trip to Raleigh just to eat there! Family-owned since it was opened in 1960, this rustic, multilevel restaurant makes its home in a renovated barn. Before you sit down to dinner, sip a drink at the Wild Turkey Lounge, an upscale, old-fashioned saloon that boasts the largest private collection of Wild Turkey bourbon decanters in the world. It also features a gun collection and other memorabilia used by real cowboys.

Now make your way into the cavernous main dining room, where elk-antler chandeliers hang high above the tables and where you will enjoy the most amazing steaks and other hearty, yet gourmet, country-style cuisine. Additionally, the restaurant's wine cellar has a room that can be rented for private parties; it is just perfect for engagement parties or wedding rehearsal dinners. You will revel in its gorgeous crystal, and its stunning decor might include details like lush orchids hanging from the ceiling. Take a tour of the vast wine cellar, which houses nearly 25,000 bottles of wine; it is available to all restaurant guests.

To work off all this good eating, stretch your legs in one of Raleigh's many parks. Nicknamed "The City of Oaks," its founding fathers were dedicated to maintaining its wooded tracts, gardens and grassy parks - and still are. Visit the Ellen Mordecai Garden, which was recreated from descriptions of the Mordecai kitchen garden in the early nineteenth century. It contains many vegetables, herbs and flowers that were grown in the mid-19th century and admission is free.

You will feel so at home in Raleigh you will want to come back again and again! And the good news is, there is plenty more to do.

If you go:

Angus Barn
9401 Glenwood Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27617 (www.angusbarn.com)
(919)-781-2444

Ellen Mordecai Garden
1 Mimosa St., Raleigh 27604
(919) 834-4844
hours: daily, sunrise-sunset

Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau
(800)-849-8499, www.raleighcvb.org

Big Ed's City Market
220 Wolfe Street, Raleigh, NC 27601
(919)-836-9909

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