Before we moved to Durham, I didn’t know too much about Duke University, aside from the basketball team or world-renowned hospital. It’s home to beautiful campuses with many paths that I’d recommend to visitors. The prettiest spot at Duke University is a 55-acre patch between Flowers Drive and Anderson Street. Early in the morning is the best time to beat the crowds and capitalize on the sunlight. Standing as a memorial to some prominent university benefactors, the awesome Sarah P. Duke Gardens is a perfect starting point when exploring Durham, especially when you’re outside.
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Exploring the Awesome Duke Gardens
Other than a brief phase when I thought Bobby Hurley was cool, Duke has long been far from my favorite school in the world. Maybe it’s the Cameron Crazies or the legions of bandwagon fans that follow the Blue Devils. It could be a lot of things that rubbed me the wrong way and I’m not alone. However, I’ve struggled to hate Duke ever since moving to Durham because every minute in this city has won me over. I honestly never thought life would come to this – living within a minute from Duke University. It’s turned my life upside down and forced me to decide between continuing the Duke hate and making an attempt to embrace the school.
Fast forward to this drive, and I’m not really thinking about basketball and Krzyzewskiville as my car turns onto Anderson Street. The tree cover and breeze passing through my windows were much more important along the way, as well as my hopes for good light. It’s 9 A.M. on a Sunday and I’m happy to see the sign that says parking is free until 1. A few cars are parked in the lot but not enough to signal crowds that will come later in the day. I grab the camera and lock up, noticing Duke Chapel in the distance as I walk towards the entrance and into Sarah P. Duke Gardens.
Just inside, I dodge a few puddles on the dirt path that’s a bit soaked from the previous day’s rain. Cherry trees line the walkway with green leaves, making me long for a visit in early spring when they’ll be brightly showing off those beautiful blossoms. At the Mary Duke Biddle Rose Garden, I photograph a few wild roses and walk along the ramp on the right. The W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum lies ahead with an entrance gate that reminds me of temples and traditional buildings in both Korea and Japan. I pass through and walk towards the pond, sidestepping the ducks that keep popping up out of nowhere.
Kids and their parents are trying to get a rise out of the animals but both parties get bored and move on to another part of the path. I walk closer to the pond and stare out across the pond, noticing the lovely red arched bridge that connects to the Japanese Pavilion. It’s much smaller in scale but highly reminiscent of the one I visited in Nikko many years ago. Standing next to the stone lantern (ishi dourou), I try to capture the bridge’s reflection against the water in the early morning light. It’s a gorgeous scene and peaceful too, as the children’s voices have moved to another part of the garden.
That bridge might’ve looked immense from far away but up close, it’s tiny and takes only a few seconds to cross. I keep walking and look back, falling in love with the scene behind me. Japanese cypress trees (hinoki) hang over the path and the arched bridge’s red paint perfectly mixes in with the greens and gray colors. I don’t want to keep walking for fear of never being able to witness such a perfectly painted picture, framed by the trees and walkway. My dreams are ruined but in a good way, thanks to these colorful hydrangeas that poke out around the next corner ahead.
The Historic Terraces greet me as I turn back towards the entrance. A wedding planner is directing an upcoming celebration and after shooting a few flowers that still wear the previous night’s rain, I pass through the Garden of Native Plants before leaving. That section also houses endangered and carnivorous plants, with a few pitcher plants taking me back to the mossy green forest in Malaysia. Needing a few more photos and being granted another beautiful morning, I go back with my father-in-law the very next day. Instead of turning up through the terraces, we keep walking towards the edge of Flowers Drive where some southern magnolias have started to bloom.
Having long forgotten any feelings I ever held towards the Duke Blue Devils, I won’t say I’m a fan but hopefully my Tar Heel-loving friends will understand. It’s hard to live so close to a place and hate it at the same time. It’s especially easy to give up the animosity when the place has something like Duke Gardens inside. I could easily spend an entire day walking around either the Asian Arboretum or Garden of Native Plants. The big and open field inside the Historic Gardens would be ideal for a picnic or just a book reading session. Regardless of whatever route I choose, Sarah P. Duke Gardens is Durham’s best spot to relax and the first place I’d take any visitor on a sunny day.
Which part of Sarah P. Duke Gardens would you start with? Do you have a similar garden in your town or city? What do you like about it?