Of all the areas of the Triangle, I probably know Cary the least. By reputation, at least, it seems to be the antithesis of what I love about my own hometown of Durham and places like Carrboro, certain parts of Chapel Hill and downtown Raleigh: The funky, gritty mix of people and places jumbled together by accidentodd signage, ghosts of industry, that sort of thing.

Funky? Gritty? In Cary?

Well, no. That, I did not find. But jokes about relocated Yankees aside, Cary does in fact have a history that its town leaders and residents are preserving. Cary also has a remarkable diversity of people, if not of architecture. Fourteen percent of its residents were born in another country, and its well-known South Asian community brings to the town a certain cosmopolitanism.

Another surprising thing about Cary is that, for all its suburban-style development, the town has an extensive offering of public parks and greenways. The League of American Bicyclists named only two North Carolina cities Bicycle Friendly Communities: Carrboro and Cary.

The town’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources Department also provides a massive offering of events and courses for kids and adults, everything from clown camp to ceramics to African drumming to first aid. In fact, the Robert V. Godbold Park is home to the 12,000-square-foot Sk8-Cary skate and BMX bike park (2040 N.W. Maynard Road, 380-2970).

There are many friendly, knowledgeable people at Cary’s park and rec department, but Darrell Stover is my personal favorite, because he’s got style. Stover worked for years at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, and with his jazz and poetry background, you’d swear he was a Durham cat through and through. But the truth is, he’s lived in Cary since moving to the Triangle more than 10 years ago from the Washington, D.C., area, and he loves it. “It’s a town feel,” Stover says.

I start my journey at Cary’s Page-Walker Arts and History Center (119 Ambassador Loop, 460-4963), where Stover works. Now a place for art classes and community events, he tells me it was built in 1868 in the French Second Empire style by the town’s founder, Allison Francis Page, as a hotel to serve the folks hopping on and off between the two train lines that still run through downtown. The founder’s son, Walter Hines Page, went on to be the first Southern editor of the Atlantic Monthly and an ambassador to England.

It’s hard to imagine that at the time the town was incorporated in 1871, only 300 people were living there in a one-square-mile area. Today, thanks to the development of Research Triangle Park and major companies like software giant SAS, Cary’s population is more than 120,000 people covering 54 square miles. (“Just about the same size as Disney World,” says town spokeswoman Susan Moran.)

Stover gives occasional walking tours of downtown and presents the center’s history exhibit to town schoolchildren every year. He also helps out with the planning for Cary’s annual celebrations for Kwanzaa, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Diwali. What other town in North Carolina throws a big party every autumn for the Hindu festival of lights?

As we walk across the tracks, Stover points out the town’s first school building, the original Cary Academy (South Academy Street at Kildaire Farm Road) (not to be confused with the private school started 10 years ago by SAS founder Jim Goodnight). It occupies that space in the town’s centera city block that interrupts the flow of traffic down the main streetthat in most towns is taken up with the court house. The old school will soon be turned into a performing arts center. Present-day Cary Elementary sits right behind it.

Stover takes me to meet Ralph Ashworth, who’s owned the Ashworth Drugs (105 W. Chatham St., 467-1834, www.ashworthdrugs.com) for the past 50 years. He’s busy working in the office while his son, Paul, is filling prescriptions. So I sit on a stool at the old-fashioned soda fountain counter and peruse the menu: fresh-squeezed orangeade and lemonade; sodas, milkshakes and floats; homemade chicken, tuna and egg salad sandwiches for next to nothing. The most expensive things on the menu are $4 sandwiches. One after another, people order a hot dog with the works: mustard, onions, chili and slaw ($1.35). I have a chocolate milkshake ($3.50) and am delighted when the guy behind the counter offers me the extra shake in a cup. How can I refuse?

Ashworth recalls that when he and his wife bought the place in 1957, “Cary only had one stoplight, and that was in front of the drug store. It was U.S. 1, so if you went from Maine to Florida, you came right through here.”

Located at the corner of Chatham and Academy, Ashworth’s is still at the center of things, and its namesake is active in all the downtown business organizations. He explains that downtown Cary has managed to avoid the blight that most small downtowns have suffered in the past few decades. “It’s been pretty stable all these years.”

So in all this time, I ask, what has Cary grown into? Why do people like to live here? “It’s a very welcoming town, a wonderful place to bring children up in,” he says. “And it’s a very safe townthat’s very important to us.”

A short drive from downtown is Chatham Square (740 E. Chatham St.), a modest shopping center that makes up Cary’s Little India. There you’ll find the Triangle Indian Market, a good place to stock up on chutney, and a variety of restaurants including the much-acclaimed Cool Breeze (463-9130), a place for fresh, snacky foods and treats (such as dahi batata puri and lychee ice cream). A short walk to the adjacent parking lot will bring you to Shree Udupi Café (590 E. Chatham St., Suite 102, 465-0898), an all vegetarian restaurant that specializes in fried and bready foodenormous samosas, dosai (crepes) and uthappam (pancakes) stuffed with tasty goodness.

I walk into Palika Bazaar (740 E. Chatham St., 463-0338) to peruse the sarees, flowing skirts, bangle bracelets and the aisles of DVDs and CDs. Laura Boyes, the Indy‘s resident Bollywood film buff, told me this place has an incredible selection of Bollywood films and soundtracks for sale. Those soundtracks take the place of much of the advertising American films receivethe music is released first to get audiences hooked on those catchy tunes so they’ll want to come and see the spectacle. The proprietor is eager to help me find a DVD I might enjoy, though when he senses I’m not in a buying mood today, he’s just as happy to talk about the films in general and share his pride in keeping the shop going for 10 years.

Not all of the establishments in Chatham Square are South Asian. There’s a tienda and a halal meat shop, as well.

Another great thing about Chatham Square: It’s only a five-minute drive to the Galaxy Cinema (Village Square Shopping Center, 770 Cary Towne Blvd., 463-9989, mygalaxycinema.com), so you can get a good dinner before or after the movie.

This. Cinema. Rocks. Not only is the Galaxy committed to showing the best current independent film releases, it’s also committed to showcasing Indian films. If you want to see what Bollywood movies are all about, this is the place to do it. (They also hosted this year’s Triangle Jewish Film Festival.)

Regardless of what you see, the snack bar provides much more than popcornyou can buy samosas, good beer and spicy Indian snacks. The Galaxy, more than any other place, makes Cary worth driving to.

It’s time to get out of the car and take a walk in the woods. Cary has many beautiful parks to choose from. For now I decide to head south on Kildaire Farm Road to Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve (2616 Kildaire Farm Road, 387-5980), a 150-acre preserve along Swift Creek jointly owned by the state and the town that’s home to a stand of hemlock trees that are about 200 miles east of where they’re ordinarily foundhemlocks prefer to grow in the cool of Appalachia. These are leftover from the last glacial period, about 10,000 years ago, and thrive along north-facing bluffs, which you can explore along two miles of trails.

The Stevens Nature Center exhibit explains the natural phenomenon and the effort to preserve the trees in the face of rapid, expansive development all around. I’m particularly impressed by the overlaid maps that show the pace of development around this fragile patch of land and the staggering statistics: In 1977, there were 16,359 cars registered in Cary. In 1997, there were 52,447. How many more today, I wonder?

I take a short stroll along the shade of the Swift Creek Loop Trail (careful not to step off wooden stairs and platformsthis is serious poison ivy country) and, unable to spot the spotted salamander I learned about at the center, decide it’s time for lunch.

As tempting as those Indian restaurants are, my heart is set on checking out La Farm Bakery (4248 Cary Parkway, 657-0657, lafarmbakery.com), the French bakery featured in the Indy‘s Dish issue last month. I find it in what seems to me an unlikely place, the Preston Corners shopping center at the corner of Cary Parkway and High House Road. It seems strange to seek out an authentic boulangerie in the midst of sprawling suburbia, but La Farm does not disappoint.

The scent just behind the glass door brings instant serenity. In addition to the baguettes, ciabatta loaves and giant rounds of sourdough now available at Whole Foods, there is an assortment of fresh pastries that make me stand still, and samples of sweet breadssomething that tastes like a blueberry pound cakeout on the table that make me reach for a toothpick. There are fresh sandwiches, too, but I order a baguette stuffed with sausage and cheese that the woman behind the counter is happy to heat in the oven. This isn’t really a lunch place, as the only seating is at two small outdoor tables on the sidewalk, but I thoroughly enjoy this decadent lunch (washed down with a nice bottle of lemonade). I look across the parking lot at the people sitting and eating their lunch at Brueggers and think, You fools!

While much of Cary is made up of strip-mall shopping centers (just as much of the Triangle is), it bears mentioning that downtown Cary is a remarkably healthy commercial center with lots of mom-and-pop restaurants. You can get lunch at the Serendipity Gourmet Deli (118 S. Academy St., 469-1655) or the Once in a Blue Moon Bakery and Café (115-G W. Chatham St., 319-6554, www.bluemoonbakery.com), dinner at Vespa Italian restaurant (200 S. Academy St., 319-5656, cary.vespasta.com) or Saturday brunch at Cindy’s House Café (140 E. Chatham St., 380-1193), just to name a few.

It’s time to pay a visit to the past, so I head across to the Cary Senior Center at Bond Park to sit in on the rehearsal of the Cary Town Band (467-7336, www.angelfire.com/nc/CaryTownBand). Like many of the Triangle’s community music groups, this one is driven by the simple desire of its members to play music they enjoy. About 25 people file into the center eager to get startedthey have a performance at the park’s Sertoma Amphitheatre (801 High House Road, 469-4061) the following evening. They set up fast and launch into a bright, rousing march. There are tubas, trombones, French horns, clarinets and a small, white-haired lady playing an enormous drum.

This band is totally old school: Performing in crisp green and white uniforms, they play John Philip Sousa marches, German and Austrian waltzes, circus music and other traditional pieces that are perfectly suited to the idyllic small-town style Cary cherishes. Little in their repertoire was written before 1920. In fact, one of the tuba players tells me that the band has gotten some of its material from a library in Minnesota that rescues the sheet music about to be thrown out by high school and college bands.

Director James Hammerle says he started the group because “the other community bands in Cary weren’t playing the kinds of music that I thought would be popular.”

He was right. The band plays several concerts a year and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in November. You can catch them July 3 at Sertoma, July 4 at Koka Booth Amphitheatre and Aug. 25 at Lazy Daze, Cary’s enormous downtown craft fair.

I slip out of the rehearsal for a quiet walk through Fred G. Bond Metro Park (801 High House Road) as the sun goes down. All around me are joggers and walkers, people playing Frisbee and people pushing strollers. I walk down to the lakefront and sit on one of the wooden benches to watch the ducks, tempted to feed them, though luckily I left my La Farm baguette in the car. On the weekends, you can rent paddleboats and canoes to spend some time on the water, which I did once with my stepdaughters after seeing a concert at the amphitheater. I see a troupe of Daisiesthe youngest group in the Girl Scout hierarchyfile out of a public building to the water’s edge for their graduation ceremony to become Brownies, their proud parents in tow. I watch a little boy chasing a butterfly while his mom and dad walk closely behind.

This is a pleasant place, which is probably the sum of all those other adjectives people use to describe what they like about Cary. It’s not exciting or funky, and you have to be willing to spend some time in the car to get around. But, especially if you have kids to raise, there’s something very pleasant about a Sousa march, a milkshake and a sunset by the lake.

Check out townofcary.org for more information about all of the public facilities and events mentioned in this article.