Rio de Enero

If you visit San Antonio in January, when the river’s touristy stretches are drained, you can still commune with the waterway’s serene soul.

TRAVEL WRITERS LOVE TO IGNORE the obvious. In the well-trampled territory of Texas, this can produce some pretty squirrelly results—like the national magazine that recently said the state’s best beach was on Lake Travis. And yes, even I have spent more time than I care to admit trying to whip up enthusiasm for, say, the scenic beauty of cactus-riddled Sanderson. But let’s face it. Some places remain tourist-free for reasons that have nothing to do with being undiscovered.

And then there’s the San Antonio River Walk, an attraction so alluring that it’s often buried beneath a writhing mass of humanity. Every time I’m in San Antonio I swear I won’t go there, and every time, there I am, dodging bulging fanny packs and grackle poop, bedazzled by the end result of architect Robert H. H. Hugman’s vision for a Venetian-inspired Paseo del Rio. Construction began in the thirties, and the charm—along with a wee bit of schlock—has been layered on ever since. No two of the original 31 stairways are alike, and the bridges range from a few late-nineteenth-century iron structures—whose builders sent cavalry troops charging across them to test their strength—to arched stone footbridges, magnets for lovey-dovey couples. Fountains, tile murals, benches in cozy niches, and plaques commemorating historic sites pop up around every corner. Such unlikely botanical bedfellows as palm, cypress, lime, and magnolia trees cram the lush banks, and even in mid-winter, bougainvillea, elephant ears, and ferns thrive in protected spots.

Oodles of hotels have also sprouted along the River Walk. I’m partial to those that complement the romantic ambience, like the venerable, Spanish Colonial-style La Mansión del Rio—built around an 1852 Catholic school, with balconies overlooking the central hubbub—and the atmospheric Havana Riverwalk Inn, on a quiet northern stretch of the river. But the buzz about the Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, which opened one year ago, was so intriguing that I decided I had to check it out.

With its ocher and umber stucco exterior, circular tower, and multiple levels, the hotel sits on the river like a Tuscan villa that expanded over generations. But crack open its Mediterranean facade and you’ll find an interior that might have been designed by an Asian playboy with a James Bond fetish. The minimalist public spaces are all concrete walls, bold fountains, splashes of red carpet, boxy leather chairs, dark wood, and chrome-bead curtains. Cool, man.

The swinging-bachelor theme continued unabated in my room, with its faux-mink throw and eight-foot-tall framed mirror leaning against the wall. But the designer-playboy hadn’t given much thought to the bathroom, which, while stylish, was disappointingly dinky. And the feather pillows were so hard I thought they were stuffed with whole geese. All was forgiven, however, after one touch of the Poggesi Italian linens. Best of all was the balcony overlooking the River Walk, where I ate fresh raspberries for breakfast, one of my favorite hedonistic pleasures.

The Valencia is pricey, but its location is premium. You can march four blocks to the Alamo, sashay one block to catch a performance at the over-the-top Majestic Theatre, restored to its 1929 splendor, or stroll three blocks to admire the $5.8 million renovation of the elaborately adorned San Fernando Cathedral, parts of which date back to 1738, making it the oldest continuously operating Catholic sanctuary in the United States.

Starry-eyed affection for the river was effortless on the balmy, not-too-crowded Sunday I was there in November. But as I sat in a far corner of the open-air patio at Boudro’s on the River Walk, eating guacamole smashed tableside, watching the people parade, and pondering why so many muscleless men wear muscle shirts, I wondered if my feelings would change if I came here when the river is drained for its annual maintenance (this year, January 5 through 12). Sure, I’d be able to get a table at any restaurant at any time.

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