02/16/2015 01:56 EST | Updated 04/17/2015 05:59 EDT

Escape Route to Florida #3: Raleigh & Savannah

On the last part of our U.S. road trip we tuned into country music, Southern rap, and two different cities.

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On the last part of our U.S. road trip (see Escape Route to Florida #1 and #2) we tuned into country music, Southern rap, and two different cities:

Raleigh, N.C.

Raleigh was the dark horse of our trip. There's an undercurrent of excitement in the air that gives this state capital the allure of a city on the brink.

With a mix of creative and entrepreneurial activity focused on art and design, restaurants and craft breweries, it's emerging as a go-to destination. Our friend Cathy Burrows, who shuttles between Toronto and Raleigh, had tipped us off to the art scene and suggested the perfect hotel.

Photo: Lin Stranberg

A great hotel

Sometimes the difference between a good trip and a great one comes down to the hotel you stay at, and The Umstead was one of the great ones. It's like a next-gen Four Seasons that's more personal and intimate -- subtle but sumptuous décor and surroundings, ultra-chill spa (hotel-owned and operated) and VIP service that makes you stand taller and feel glad you came: "Such a pleasure to have you with us here tonight..."

A bike ride away from Umstead Park (the hotel has bikes for guests), The Umstead is on 12 acres of woodland bordering the campus of the SAS Institute, the largest privately held software company in the world. CEO James Goodnight and his wife, Ann, have created a beautiful hotel in a natural setting and filled it with American art, from Chihuly sculptures to North Carolina pottery, that soothes and inspires.

Photo: Lin Stranberg

After breakfast at Herons, the hotel's main restaurant, we drove to the Duke University Chapel in Durham, then back to the North Carolina Museum of Art. We toured the admission-free permanent collection, lunched at Iris and circled back through the Rodin sculptures in the courtyard. With time running out, we skipped seeing Chapel Hill, the third triplet in the Research Triangle, and hit the streets of Raleigh.

Art, denim and chocolate

We passed on the craft breweries and their taprooms as we are not really beer geeks. In fact, our favourite bars are the ones made of chocolate. So we headed to Videri, the bean-to-bar factory in the Warehouse District, and watched baristas sort, grind, heat and pour fair-trade and organic cacao beans into dark and delicious chocolate.

Photo: Lin Stranberg

Around the corner, we visited the "non-automated jeansmiths" at the Raleigh Denim Workship + Curatory . Husband-and-wife team Victor Lytvinenko and Sarah Yarborough design the jeans, made onsite with vintage machines and denim from the oldest American mill in Greensboro. They attribute their success to Raleigh itself: "The community at large wanted this to happen. Everybody wanted it to work, and it did."

Photo: Lin Stranberg

Next, we dropped by Lucettegrace to pick up owner-chef Daniel Benjamin's fresh takes on traditional pastries "uniquely realized for Raleigh today."

Photo: Lin Stranberg

Our last stop was to see the work of regional artists like Jimmy Craig Womble at Adam Cave Fine Art. In an historic building just blocks from the capital, gallerist Adam Cave shows the work of about 25 contemporary artists. "The galleries and art in a given town can tell you a lot about the tone of creative culture there," he said. "Raleigh, which is on the rise in so many ways, draws people in the arts."

Savannah, Georgia

There's more to Savannah than the historic district but it's the marquee attraction -- one of the most beautiful downtown areas in the U.S.A. We wanted to stroll through it, but the last day of 2014 was closing in with chilly temperatures and gusty winds, so we took a ride with Old Town Trolley Tours instead.

Photo: Lin Stranberg

Founded in 1733, Savannah was America's first planned city, with a geometric layout like no other. It has 22 of its original 24 squares; at the centre of each is a statue of a governor or general from Savannah's past. The squares are like miniature parks, lined with live oak trees draped in Spanish moss, and each has a different flavour. They are ringed by restored mansions, townhouses and row houses behind wrought iron fences. The district's resident college, Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), is one of only two schools in the U.S. offering degrees in Historic Preservation.

Despite the blustery weather, Savannah was intensely atmospheric. If we'd had more time, we'd have at least toured the Mercer Williams House described in Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil. As it was, our only brush with the past was climbing down a narrow, centuries-old staircase that connected with the river walk and our hotel, the Savannah Marriott Riverfront.

Photo: Lin Stranberg

Bottoms up

Millions of people visit Savannah each year, and New Year's Eve is the biggest blast of all. In the historic district, it's legal to drink on the go from containers 16 oz. or under. The "Up the Cup" party on the Savannah riverfront attracts huge crowds until after midnight, when a six foot to-go cup is raised with fireworks to ring in the new year.

Before the fireworks, we watched container ships go by and enjoyed super service in the hotel's concierge lounge, admiring the retro 80s atrium charm. The Marriott Riverfront is a little dated but it works -- it's right on the Savannah river, and the staff is right on that warm Southern hospitality.