We want to get back to nature but we don’t want to sleep on the ground.
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On the delightfully isolated north shore of Lake Buchanan, the biggest and least populated of the Highland Lakes upstream of Austin, you’ll find Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park. Texas’ first large, publicly developed eco-resort, it opened last fall as a partnership between the Presidian Corporation of San Antonio and the Lower Colorado River Authority. It is a test model for the private-public partnerships that are being considered for managing the facilities in some state parks, but more to the point, it represents a new way of accommodating people who want to commune with nature but still sleep on a firm mattress. The 940-acre setting is wild and natural enough to attract bald eagles from fall through winter and endangered black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers in the summer. The grounds sport a fifteen-mile trail system, an observatory (touted as a more accessible alternative to Fort Davis’ McDonald), organic gardens that supply the lodge’s dining room, a swimming pool, the marina for the Vanishing Texas River Cruises (which ply Lake Buchanan and, when there’s enough water, go upriver to view the bald eagles’ winter nesting grounds), and an on-site naturalist who leads birding, plant, and wildlife walks.
The elegant metal-roofed, native-stone lodge, designed by San Antonio’s Lake / Flato architecture firm, blends gracefully into the landscape. The 64 spacious, spare rooms have covered porches with rockers but no televisions. (Those who have trouble decompressing will find a TV in the bar-family room.) Not least, there is a surprisingly good restaurant—far better than the one at Big Bend National Park, for instance—serving up everything from steak and shrimp to polenta sandwiches at reasonable prices. The resort also features camping and RV facilities, canoe and kayak rentals, a fishing pier, and such kids’ activities as reptile demonstrations and guided walks on weekends.
Canyon of the Eagles is far from perfect: The trail maps are confusing, the trails are poorly marked, the pool is too small, the walls in the rooms could be thicker, and the observatory, run by volunteers, doesn’t have a set schedule yet. But this eco-resort marks a whole new approach to the outdoor experience. I’m ready to go back. JOE NICK PATOSKI
If Canyon of the Eagles sounds too civilized and too formulaic for a heavy date with Mother Nature, you’re a prime candidate for a sleepover at Selah, Bamberger Ranch—more precisely, at a weathered wood cabin on the ranch. Called Hes’ Country Store, it is outfitted with bunk beds for four, a kitchen area with a stove and a refrigerator, a bathroom (shower only), all sorts of antique implements hanging on the walls, and a picnic table out back. There’s a potbellied stove for heating, and a single fan and old-timey wooden windows without screens for cooling. What makes it so special is where it is: in the middle of a 5,500-acre ranch near Johnson City that is the home of the most passionate environmentalist I’ve ever met, J. David Bamberger. Through inspiration, an ardent love of the land, tons of money, and tons more sweat, Bamberger, who made his fortune as a co-founder of Church’s Fried Chicken, has transformed this Hill Country spread into an internationally recognized model for land stewardship.
Staying at Hes’ store (named after Bamberger’s mother, Hester) is more an educational experience than a recreational one, taught by a guy who laughingly introduces himself as “something of a nut.” A tour of the land is part of the package, led by either Bamberger, his wife, Margaret, an exceptionally well-versed naturalist, or one of the ranch hands. We tagged along with the Comal County Master Gardeners on a morning group tour. In three hours we saw dinosaur tracks, some of the last four hundred oryx left on earth, a rain machine, and the world’s only man-made chiroptorium (bat cave), not to mention a dizzying array of native trees, plants, grasses, and wildflowers. Thanks largely to Bamberger’s aggressive eradication of second-growth cedar from the land and his restoration of its native grasses and plants, springs and creeks have appeared, attracting deer, turkeys, endangered golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos, and even a bald eagle, rarely seen in these parts.
But the biggest treat of all was hearing a man speak as eloquently about his land as Thoreau wrote about Walden. We slept real well too. Take your own groceries. J.N.P.
Within seconds of arriving at the inn at Chachalaca Bend, between Harlingen and Port Isabel, my husband, Richard, and I actually spotted the inn’s namesake chachalacas—cocoa-colored birds with puffy pigeon bodies and roadrunner heads—strolling through the lush vegetation. This well-timed sighting was only a prelude to the parade of birds to come, lured to the forty-acre private preserve on the Resaca de las Antonias, an oxbow lake off the Rio Grande, by thickets of mesquite, ebony, and Mexican olive trees, perpetually stocked feeders, and ready-made housing, not to mention birdbaths and trickling fountains.
Birders with finely tuned nesting instincts will be attracted to the swank inn, whose six rooms, all named after local birds, are feathered with fine linens and cotton robes, hand-painted tiles, and whirlpool baths. With its natural wicker furniture, dark hardwood floors, ceiling fan, and double French doors, our room, the Kiskadee, exuded a sort of West Indies charm. Four of the six rooms open onto the wide second-story veranda, from which even the intensely lethargic can spot flashy green jays, orchard and hooded orioles, golden-fronted woodpeckers, and great crested and Kiskadee flycatchers. Downstairs, the barn-wood-paneled library, complete with stone fireplace, is stocked with field guides about birds as well as books on bugs, mammals, exotic travel, and the history of aviation. Bountiful breakfasts—fruit, yogurt, French toast, eggs, and more—are served in the dining room. You have to fend for yourself for lunch and dinner.
But as cushy and comfortable as the inn is, it’s the birds that would bring me back. Finally prying ourselves off the veranda’s wicker chaise longues, we climbed to the top of the forty-foot observation tower to watch snowy egrets, little green herons, roseate spoonbills, and cormorants as they fished the resacas or perched in nearby treetops. We followed the nature trail to a four-star bird blind, outfitted with barstools and a ceiling fan, where we spied red-winged blackbirds vying for a spot at the feeding stations, white-tipped doves patrolling the ground like tiny tanks, and a stunning black-and-white warbler that took a quick dip in the little man-made stream. Then we hopped in a canopied golf cart, a perk for guests, and zipped out to the open meadow and butterfly garden, where we saw black-bellied whistling ducks—who look as if they’ve dipped their bills and feet in Revlon’s newest shade of coral—queue up for a turn at the pile of feed corn. (Note: The summer heat forces the inn to close from Memorial Day to Labor Day.) SUZY BANKS