Sure, I adore the Hill Country. Of course, I have to avert my eyes from a few aws, like towns where I can sling a baby back rib and hit a Home Depot or a Chili’s restaurant. (Good-bye Boerne, Kerrville, Marble Falls, and Touristenburg—uh, I mean Fredericksburg.) But if you know where to look, the spirit of the old Hill Country can still be found—in a hidden cabin, an unspoiled stretch of river. So even though I have to dig a bit deeper to uncover its treasures, I’ll never stop loving this celebrated heart of Texas.
1. If I were a green kingfisher or an escaped black buck antelope seeking asylum from encroaching suburbs, I know where I’d live—at the 2,300-acre Honey Creek State Natural Area, east of Boerne. Although the adjacent Guadalupe River State Park is, according to a park officer, "under attack by San Antonio" on summer weekends, when a couple thousand carloads of water-seeking city folk take over the riverside picnic area, the preserve surrounding Honey Creek remains tranquil. Why? Because access is limited to weekly guided tours. The creek, its teal water as deep as a swimming pool, swirls around cypress knees and limestone boulders, one of them known as Dealer’s Rock for the land swaps and other transactions that early pioneers are rumored to have negotiated here. Access through Guadalupe River State Park, entrance on Texas Highway 46, thirteen miles east of Boerne; 830-438-2656. Park admission $7, senior citizens $4, children 12 and under free. Two-hour tours Saturdays at 9 a.m., starting at the park’s Rust House; suggested donation $2 per person or $5 per family.
2. For years, traditional country musicians ranging from earnest but wobbly locals to professional entertainers like Pretty Miss Norma Jean have taken the stage at the Mason Country Opry, in the town’s vintage Odeon Theater. I caught the varied acts at the Christmas show last December, when I was wowed by Frank Torres. He was so soft-spoken during his introduction that I wondered if I’d be able to hear him sing above the house band. I shouldn’t have worried. Torres roared into action as soon as the music began, belting out "Blue House Painted White" and "Little Red Rooster," threatening to crack the theater’s aging plaster. I left my night at the opry with the satisfying feeling of having discovered a great talent all on my own. Truth be told, credit for the Mason showcase goes to the Heart of Texas Country Music Association. 112 Moody, Mason; 325-597-1895; heartoftexascountry.com. $8 to $10.
3. How fast must you travel to outrun stress? Oh, only about one mile an hour—as long as you’re navigating the Llano River by kayak. On a perfect January day—the kind that reminds me why I endure August in Texas—I hired a river guide at Hill Country River Adventures to take me on a watery trek through a pristine slice of the Edwards Plateau south of Mason. While I swore not to reveal our exact put-in and take-out locations, I can tell you that the route included exhilarating (but novice-friendly) rapids, deepwater stretches where fish lurked ten feet below the surface, two-hundred-foot-tall cliffs encrusted with swallows’ mud villages, and coves ringed by gargantuan live oaks. I even saw a beaver (okay, it could have been a nutria, but it also could have been a beaver), as well as hawks, plovers, and great blue herons. 512-292-8215; kayaktexasrivers.com. Fishing Adventures $275 for one, $400 for 2; Eco Adventures $250 for one, $100 each additional person; includes all equipment, shuttle, drinks, and lunch.
4. The overwhelming selection of goodies at Chrissy’s Homestyle Bakery, in Llano, would turn even Dr. Atkins into a carbo-addict. I had a hard time deciding between the cracked-wheat bread, key lime bars, chocolate cake, cinnamon rolls, and torturous variety of cookies but finally settled on the lemon dream, a crispy butter cookie with a hint of citrus. I bought a dozen one day and, to my horror, arrived home a couple of hours later with one lone dream. 501 Bessemer Avenue (Texas Highway 16), Llano; 325-247-4564.
5. Ever since word spread among wayward kitties that my place is a safe haven (mandatory spaying aside), I’ve experienced a feline housing crunch. Imagine my surprise at discovering a non-governmental, non-faith-based solution to the problem. At Moody’s Feed Store, in Kingsland, I found whimsical multi-cat complexes such as the six-unit bordello-inspired Cat House. Dogs aren’t discriminated against in this home market; some of their fancy abodes even come with a rooftop sundeck. And if your furry friends aren’t house-hunting, Moody’s also has a selection of pet supplies—beds, bowls, collars, and toys—that puts the big chains to shame. 4623 FM 1431, Kingsland; 325-388-6217; moodysfeed.com.
6. Sure, 10,000 visitors may swarm the Lost Maples State Natural Area on weekends when the fall foliage is at its peak, but off-season you can have the park practically to yourself, especially if you get off the (literally) beaten path, i.e., the Maple Trail. One weekday during winter, I shared the 4.7-mile-long East Loop Trail with only a quartet of feral piglets (awww) and (yikes!) their bristly, growling mother. (Although I didn’t climb a tree, I did hide in the latrine for a spell.) But trust me: The beauty of this trail, with its limestone canyons filled with towering hardwoods and hut-size boulders, its emerald-green pond and crystal-clear creek, and its dizzying views from the canyon lip, cannot be diminished by a drab winter day, searing summer heat, or even hostile pigs. Five miles north of Vanderpool on Ranch Road 187; 830-966-3413; tpwd.state.tx.us/park/lostmap; $5 ($6 in October and November), senior citizens $3, children 12 and under free.
7. Of the thousands of lodging options in the Hill Country (hundreds in Fredericksburg alone), only a fraction are outstanding. I’ll admit to a strong bias toward cabins, but I’d rather spend the night in the Bates Motel than in some of the plywood sweatboxes I’ve seen crammed together on a barren strip of