The sun had risenat six-thirty, and for the first time in ages I woke up without an alarm. I ran down the outside wooden stairs with a book and flopped onto a sofa on the breezy dogtrot between the two halves of the main lodge. A pot of coffee—good coffee—would be ready in an hour or less. As the sky turned from peach to baby blue and breakfast aromas began to waft from the dining room, the silhouettes of scrubby trees came into focus along the grassy slope stretching down to the creek.
In Jefferson, time stopped in 1873. That’s the year the water level in Big Cypress Bayou fell, leaving the bustling river port quite literally high and dry. The city’s lovely old homes sat there for decades, like so many dragonflies in amber, until the people of Jefferson gradually began to reimagine their town as a historic tourist mecca.
It’s hard to compete with the beautifully restored Second Empire–style Parker County courthouse. But the red-brick facade of Fire Oak Grill will likely catch your eye as you wander the square in the town of Weatherford, birthplace of Peter Pan actress Mary Martin and final resting place of cattle driver Oliver Loving, thanks to a very long haul at the hands of his dedicated friend Charles Goodnight.
When I hear the phrase “catch and release,” I’m more inclined to think of the knots in my shoulders than unsuspecting fish in the lake. Fortunately, Rough Creek Lodge is ideal for both rest and recreation. My travel buddy and I took quite a shine to its 11,000 acres of pure Texas adventure, with all the amenities we expected, like hayrides, and quite a few we didn’t, like model rocket launching.
When you’re roaming the highways and byways of Texas, certain things are as inevitable as wishing you’d filled your tank at that last gas station. Stopping for dinner in a small town means burgers, enchiladas, and chicken-fried steaks, and staying the night means an Econo Lodge or the Saggy Springs Motel. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Scattered among the homey cafes and bargain inns are hidden gems where you can dine on tenderloin of elk and blissfully slumber on Frette linens. All you have to do is find them. So late this summer, a small but stalwart band traveled several thousand miles to uncover ten places where the food is so tempting, the beds so Goldilocks-worthy, and the sights so seeable that you could easily make them a weekend’s destination. Our choices range from a gracious Victorian manse in East Texas to a stylishly rehabilitated railroad hotel in West Texas. All exceed the small-town norm by a country mile. So now get in the car and go.