The trouble with traveling to West Texas is creature comfort—or rather, the lack of it. The prettiest and most-pleasing places (Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park, the Hotel Limpia in Fort Davis, the Gage Hotel in Marathon) are always so crowded that you need a shoehorn to get in on weekends and holidays. What you’re left with is the stunning contrast between the magnificence of the land and the mundaneness of the amenities. In the majority of motel rooms available, thin walls and cookie-cutter layouts are the rule, while dining is dominated by stuccoed chicken-fried steak and La Brea tar pit coffee.
Within the past year, however, the accommodations out there have significantly improved, and they promise to get even better in the not-too-distant future. The Gage, the crown jewel of West Texas accommodations for the past decade, has added a splendid twenty-room adobe wing and will soon build a generous new dining room. The Holland Hotel in Alpine has totally remodeled both its dining room and its menu in swanky Southwestern style (the smart money is on a makeover for its rooms too). And out near Shafter—Big Bend country—Cibolo Creek Ranch has just opened Texas’ poshest guest ranch, an exclusive retreat for well-heeled dudes.
Intrigued by these new opinions, I decided to go west—to explore, to eat, to sleep. The allures of the land and basic bed and board I already knew (see “Big Bend Made Easy,” TM, March 1993, and “So Cool,” TM, August 1992). What attracted me was the idea that the lodging is finally catching up with the landscape—that the room you come back to after a day of sight-seeing or hiking might add to the experience rather than detract from it. I was not disappointed by what I found.
If it hadn’t been for the rocking chairs on its concrete porch, I would have thought the Gage Hotel was the Marathon public library. Given the building’s boxy brick exterior and its matching stone lions, the mistake was understandable. But the rockers—filled with folks wearing hiking boots, down vests, and hundred-mile stares—gave it away.
Built in 1927 by pioneer cattleman Alfred Gage and reopened in 1982 by current owners J. P. and Mary Jon Bryan of Houston, the Gage is West Texas’ own Little Mexico and Santa Fe all rolled into one. What makes it special is its detail and its character: Nothing has been left to chance. The Bryans personally selected every artifact in the place. Each room is painted stark white and is beautifully appointed with pieces that encompass several decades and two nations: a primitive rendering of a calf roper, sooty Tarahumara Indian pots, cow skulls galore, an ornate bull rider’s belt, a cowhide trunk, an aqua-blue Mexican cupboard. “We aren’t trying to be a historical museum,” says manager Bill Stephens. “We want to create a certain mood and look.”
In the main building are nine rooms with private baths and eight that share the four big bathrooms down the hall (two for men, two for women). But as special as the original section of the Gage is, the place to stay is its new twenty-room wing, Los Portales (the Porches), designed by the Albuquerque architectural firm of Walton and Walton. Softly mottled tan adobe walls and long covered brick walkways enclose a grassy courtyard. A fountain gurgles. Primroses fill tall clay jugs, and fat clusters of red chile peppers hang on the walls. The décor of my room, called Los Vaqueros, was so soothing and so far removed from the twentieth century that even the sight of a utility pole poking up above the courtyard walls was a bit of a jolt.
A few dozen yards from Los Portales, across the fire-lit open patio, is the Iron Mountain Grill, the hotel’s tiny restaurant, a plain white room in the main building with high ceilings and dark woodwork. (This year, the Bryans are building a handsome new rock-trimmed adobe dining room that will seat seventy inside and another forty outside.) The night I was there, the Grill’s eight tables were filled; guests who hadn’t made reservations were cruising the lobby like sharks.
Under the direction of chef Grady Spears, who does double duty here and at the Holland Hotel restaurant in Alpine, the food bridges the gap between Southwestern cuisine and Tex-Mex, with the sophistication of the former predominating but the basics of the latter anchoring the preparation (for instance, the plates come with beans and rice, just the way God intended them). To start, I passed up appetizers like multi-cheese quesadillas and grilled-chicken-and-black-bean nachos and chose the apricot-sauced quail, which proved to be meaty and moist. The two entrée plates I sampled—fat and flavorful cabrito enchiladas and a mellow goat-cheese-stuffed chile—were each a palette of contrasting colors: black beans, a splash of sour cream, yellow-corn-and-chile relish, sliced avocados, diced red bell peppers.
“Well, how are they?” a woman at the next table asked, leaning over to inspect my plate. The Gage is like that: You strike up conversations with people you don’t know, and you trade notes on how long you’ve been coming and when you’re planning to return. Holidays are so popular that you can’t wait to make reservations until the last minute. Says Stephens: “I have people booked for Thanksgiving weekend two years out, most of them repeat customers.” Of course, once newcomers see what the revamped Gage has to offer, it may be harder than ever to get in. Box 46, Maraton 79842; 800-884-4243; $42-$90 double.
When I arrived at the Holland, suitcase in hand, I wandered back and forth for about five minutes, searching for the registration desk. Was it in the seemingly abandoned lobby? No. In the empty banquet room? No. Eventually I peered into the bar, a tall storefront room with chic black-and-white cowhide-covered barstools, and asked the affable bartender. “Right over there,” she said, pointing to the hotel’s restaurant, the Cinnabar. It turned out that the hostess stand