Wandering the hallways of the Umstead Hotel and Spa, in Cary, NC, feels a bit like visiting a gallery. There are close to one hundred original works of art in the public spaces. All were chosen or commissioned by Ann Goodnight, the hotel’s developer.
The Umstead Hotel
100 Woodland Pond, Cary, NC 27513
Most of the contemporary works—paintings, ceramics and sculpture—are by North Carolina artists, and an additional local artist is showcased each month.
The extensive art collection, which includes photography and prints on the guest floors and in the rooms, is a defining characteristic of the property. Yet it is certainly not the only draw.
The Umstead’s posh rooms, hot-spot bar, gourmet restaurant, state-of-the-art events spaces, and world-class spa pull their weight, too. Two years after opening, in 2007, the Umstead became one of only 44 properties in United States to receive five stars from the Mobil Travel Guide.
Guest Rooms at the Umstead
All guest floors (excluding the spa level) require room-key access. Although the property was near capacity during my stay, the halls remained tranquil, a characteristic appropriate to the meditations on nature adorning the walls.
Each of the 150 rooms—27 are suites—is appointed with a marble bathroom featuring a deep soaking tub big enough for two and a rain shower.
Even though it was cold during my visit, I lingered on my lake-view room’s narrow balcony in a plush terry robe. The “lake” is small (3 acres) and of the fountain-in-the-center variety; the Umstead is part of an industrial park of sorts. Yet it manages to achieve a feeling of being in nature; I could just make out a pair of ducks paddling the water’s circumference from my balcony perch.
In addition to standard amenities, guest rooms are outfitted with 42-inch plasma TVs, wi-fi, and iPod docking stations. But I found the sanctuary so calming, I never wanted to turn on electronics.
Note to couples planning a wedding: Rooms with two beds feature doubles, not queens.
Dining at the Umstead
On a small patch of earth just behind the hotel is an herb and vegetable garden, from which the chefs snip for their dishes. Most of the rest of the ingredients come from local farms not much farther away.
Although the award-winning cuisine at Herons restaurant is definitely modern American, it is also distinctly Southern. A bacon-and-cheddar biscuit and a sweet-potato roll joined the basket of house-made breads (all of which were soft, warm, and paired perfectly with “salty pecan” butter); and broiled grouper was served over chow-chow, a hot and sweet chutney-slaw. I also tried traditional dishes such as a seafood cioppolini, and dolled-up down-home classics such as deconstructed shrimp and grits: two enormous prawns over an oozing sautéed grit cake with a poblano-pepper sauce (it was divine).
Most wine lists in my home state are stuck in the gray area of California chardonnays and cabernets, but the Umstead’s selection—750 strong—reaches into the nethers of the globe; at any time, 25 are available by the glass. The cocktail menu is also extensive and features interesting tinctures; try the martini with pickled-okra juice or the hibiscus mojito.
A sampling of Herons’ menu is also available at the bar area, which begins to hop after 5pm. Pro: You’ll enjoy live music, which happens nightly; I caught a pianist and guitarist, and a harp player during my stay. Con: You’ll miss the warm murals, enormous works of pottery, and incredibly romantic ambiance of the restaurant proper.
Weddings at the Umstead
The Umstead Resort and Spa is literally designed for nuptials: An aisle was built into the grounds so that when a couple is standing at its terminus, the lake’s fountain is in view between them.
When not in use, the concrete-slab structure becomes another of the hotel’s modern-art displays. Then, for ceremonies, chairs are stationed on either side of it across the 6,000 square-foot lawn. I visited during February; the property already had a wedding booked for every weekend from April through August.
In addition to the space and the convenience of its location, the Umstead’s biggest draw for celebrations is its menu. The property dedicates the same attention to its catering wing as it does to Herons restaurant.
Most receptions are held in the main ballroom; the doors open onto a spacious lakeside terrace, and it can seat up to 240 with a dance floor (the smaller ballroom fits 70 with dancing).
A nice touch: Digital screens outside the ballroom doors can play a slideshow of your photos throughout the event.
Honeymoons at the Umstead
There are plenty of cozy spots in and around the Umstead: benches along the 1/3 mile trail circumnavigating the lake, blanket-covered cushioned chairs next to the outdoor fireplace, a couple’s treatment room in the spa, the aforementioned soaking tub and, of course, the bedroom’s 330-thread-count sheets.
However, with the highway a hop away and the Research Triangle Park crowd frequenting the bar, the Umstead is still very much ensconced in civilization.
A bride and groom looking for a post-ceremony respite before flying somewhere foreign and secluded will find in the Umstead, which is six miles away from Raleigh-Durham International Airport , the perfect place to spend their first nights.
On the other hand, couples who don’t need to get away from it all will be attracted to the convenience of a five-star resort smack dab in the middle of North Carolina.
Activities at the Umstead
Even in the winter, temperatures in the area can hover in the 50s, making a heated outdoor pool not only feasible but an irresistible indulgence for you and your honey. When it’s chilly outside of the water, snuggling in robes in one of the curtained poolside cabanas is even cozier.
The semi-secluded pool is by the entrance to the Umstead’s 14,000 square foot spa. I found the entire experience—the wet-room facilities; the treatment I received, the Umstead’s signature body polish; and the knowledgeable, skilled therapist, to be on par with New York’s finest. The hotel intends for the Spa to be a main attraction, and it succeeds.
Enjoy a treatment together in one of the larger therapy rooms, which is outfitted with two massage tables and an oversized hydrotherapy tub. After a soak—jet speed and bath ingredients are customized—duos receive simultaneous massage work. Overnight guests need not book a treatment to enjoy the facility’s sauna and steam rooms, and Jacuzzis—but they aren’t co-ed. (The spa also has a full-amenities suite, which has become a popular for bridal parties.)
Nearby the Umstead
Couples seeking a more rigorous hike than a 1/3-mile morning constitutional around the pond can follow trails in William B. Umstead Park, adjacent to the hotel. The park also offers boating and fishing. And the Umstead can arrange tee times at a nearby PGA Tour 54-hole golf course.
Otherwise, the area’s attractions are indoors. The Triangle area in North Carolina is booming culturally right now; the North Carolina Museum of Art and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences both offer free admission and are within a ten-minute drive from the hotel, which can provide transportation.
There is a performing arts center close by, along with several shopping and dining destinations. Ann Goodnight also opened a delicious and beautifully designed pan-Asian restaurant, An, across the highway from her hotel.
What Could be Better at the Umstead?
To be honest, not much. But here’s at least a warning: The Umstead isn’t cheap. Locals are unaccustomed to New York prices down home; I heard more than one patron gasp at the cost of a bottle of soda water.
High prices must reflect a very high standard for their products, and for the most part, the Umstead’s are warranted. The amenities are top of the line, and service, across the board, was fantastic. Staff members are helpful and available without breathing down a guest’s neck.
One quibble: The food disappointed on occasion. One plate had clearly been sitting in the oven too long, rendering its contents bone dry; another had not sufficiently thawed from being refrigerated. Investigation led me to discover that the kitchen was between chefs during my visit, so I assume such idiosyncrasies will be ironed out. And I should clarify: Generally speaking, these are small gripes; I found the kitchen’s menu inventive, its techniques sound, and its product succulent.
But when the bill’s going to be as high as the Umstead’s, guests will be driven to scrutinize every detail. Money-conscious visitors may have trouble turning off their inner calculators.
Is the Umstead Right for You?
Although the Umstead would make for a lovely honeymoon, I suspect couples will be more attracted to it as a weekend getaway. Several of my friends in the area have told me of plans to make a romantic visit with their husbands.
I understand that around Valentine’s Day last year, one man dropped to his knee by the outdoor fireplace (she said, “Yes”).
Then, of course, brides and grooms are also clamoring to make good on such agreements on the hotel’s property. If you’re interested, book far in advance. Whether you want to tie the knot on site or just book it for a swank post-vows reception, the Umstead can design your fairytale wedding.
But it can’t do everything—even though you might spy two Eastern Painted turtles basking together in the sun on the rocks by the lake, you’ll have to provide your own frog prince.