I am a super newbie. I've not ridden a bike much since high school. I currently have a cruiser bought at a garage sale that was a cheap big box store bike to start with. It is too large for me and does not have enough gears to make it viable to ride around my neighborhood. I've ridden it about two times.
I am a (slow) runner (intervals of walking and running actually) and am currently training for a half marathon. However, I'd really like to add cycling to my fitness routines. I have a history of knee troubles (two major surgeries in high school), but I've been doing well with interval running. I know cycling would be a good option to decrease impact on my knees.
I'll be primarily cycling in my neighborhood and a local park both with paved roads/paths. My neighborhood is pretty hilly (we live in the foothills of the Appalachians). I like the upright form of a hybrid bike, as I have some neck/shoulder issues that I think would be aggravated by a road bike. Plus a road bike is not in the budget.
I'm hoping to spend between $400-$500 on the bike. (I'm a middle school teacher. . . ) We've been to some local shops, and I've tried out different Raleigh models (Detour 4.5, Detour 3.5, Venture 4.0, Route 3.0). I know I do not want a suspension fork. I'm wondering if I should be looking at something a bit more performance hybrid oriented, and if so what. (We had been focusing on Raleigh's because my husband is from England and loves British connections here, but when he found out they are no longer designed in England, he decided it's not a big deal.)
Also, I know I need a women's frame. I am 5'1" and very petite. I've ridden both unisex and women's models, and the distance to the handle bars is much more comfortable on a women's frame.
So, what other brands should I be considering? What models do you think would be best for the type of riding I'm hoping to do (paved but steep hills primarily for fitness). I apologize for the length of the post, and I thank you in advance for your suggestions and advice.