Since the start of the pandemic, the Texas Monthly team has worked hard to make the most of all the extra time at home. We’ve read, watched, and listened to everything on our How to Hunker Down Like a Texan and What to Read Now lists. We’ve cooked up recipes from some of our favorite Texas restaurants and recently began shaking up cocktails alongside some of the state’s best bartenders in our new TM Happy Hour series. And we’ve been sharing these ideas plus tips for backyard adventures like gardening, chicken-keeping, and more in our Staying In With TM newsletter.
Now, we’re ready for a vacation.
But with coronavirus cases still rampant, many Texans aren’t ready to venture out just yet. So we’re preparing for the ultimate at-home staycation with a little help from the pros.
We asked the creative minds behind some of our favorite places to stay in Texas—a luxury hotel, lakeside spa, historical resort, urban bed and breakfast, small-town inn, and two desert retreats—for tips to create a restful day at home. Their five-star advice follows.
From Willow House (Big Bend)
At Willow House, situated outside of Big Bend National Park, guests come for a breath of fresh desert air and unplugged relaxation. And according to the boutique escape’s proprietor, Lauren Werner, they leave asking for two things: how to get the calming scent that perfumes the rooms, and where to buy the soft bedsheets. She shares these not-so-secret tips with us below; but first, her recipe for staycation success.
“It is important to set the scene,” Werner says. “Preparedness can allow for a stress-free staycation.” She knows a thing or two about being prepared: in remote Terlingua, where Willow House is located and resources like water can be scarce, it can be a matter of life or death. But Werner is hinting at more leisurely pursuits.
“Get ahead of your work schedule, remove stressful distractions from eyesight, make purchases for meals and cocktails in advance, and think about what you want to get out of your time. Are there certain card games you want to play?” she asks. “Would you like to paint or draw? Do you want to be listening to certain music? Would you like to spend time hiking or biking? Purchase your art supplies, create your desired playlist, and map out your desired hike in advance.”
Freshen the Air
Werner spritzes each space with a natural, homemade concoction before guests arrive—and they love it. She says that if you perfume the air often enough over time, the scent will linger for longer, too. Here’s how to make it:
1 16-ounce glass spray bottle
1 tablespoon lavender essential oil
1 tablespoon rosemary essential oil
14 ounces purified water
Mix all ingredients together in a spray bottle, shake well, and spray it into the air around your house.
Upgrade Your Linens
“You do not need to spend a fortune,” Werner says. “You just need to do your research.” Her team read thousands of reviews and tested thirty sets of sheets before picking their favorite for Willow House. Thread count isn’t that important, she says. “Focus on the thickness of the sheet—a quality that often goes overlooked.” Or skip the search and order this set, which Werner uses at Willow House.
Build a Better Breakfast
From La Maison in Midtown (Houston)
After staying at La Maison in Midtown, an urban bed-and-breakfast in Houston, guests rave about the home-away-from-home hospitality and cooking. But we’re already at home for this staycation, so … how do we make it special? Co-owner Genora Boykins says it’s simple: “You want to get away from your everyday routine.” And what better place to start than breakfast?
Try a Stress-Free, Make-Ahead Meal
Even at La Maison in Midtown, the innkeepers enjoy serving breakfast that can be prepared ahead of time. (The peach bake is so often requested by guests that they published the recipe online.) At home, Boykins recommends trying a quiche or casserole so that you don’t have to cook the morning of your staycation. And whatever you make, don’t skimp on presentation. Eating fruit salad? Pile it into a martini glass first. A parfait? She suggests layering it prettily. A casserole? Garnish that plate!
Eat Somewhere Different
It’s a small change, but sitting in a different spot can shake up the experience. “I’m sure most people might have breakfast at a breakfast nook or a breakfast table,” Boykins says. “So if you have a formal dining area, consider using that. Or take that space where you normally have your meals and make it a little more formalized and special.” (She also recommends alfresco dining, but … “we’re in Texas,” and it’s summer. Indeed.)
Dress It Up
A little table decoration goes a long way. But don’t go shopping: Boykins’s main mantra is to “use what you have.” Add a tablecloth and flowers. “If you don’t have a nice vase to place them in, use a teacup. That’s where you want to be creative. It could be as simple as clipping a rosebud and putting it in a little small container.” Incorporate cloth napkins. “If you don’t have napkin rings, use some twine or something.” And she says this is the time to dust off the pretty dishes we don’t normally use.
“People don’t get up every day and fix a mimosa,” Boykins says. “They could, but they don’t.” But in this case, you should. “You’re kicking off your staycation. Your table is beautifully set. You’ve got a nice meal. And a mimosa is just a nice, final touch. It puts you in the mind-set of, ‘I’m really away, and I’m going to relax.’” Cheers to that.
Don’t Drink Just Anything
From Hotel Emma (San Antonio)
There’s a magical hotel in San Antonio, a stone’s throw from the River Walk, that feels like it’s been there for ages—and in a way, it has. The building dates back to the nineteenth century, when it opened as Pearl Brewery; but it didn’t become Hotel Emma until the early aughts. Today, the destination is still a (food and) drink lover’s paradise; there’s even a culinary concierge on staff. So we asked chef John Brand to divulge a few of the signature tipples that keep visitors coming back again and again.
Brew the Best Stuff
The hotel prizes Texas-made provisions, some of which are also for sale at Larder, the property’s small nearby grocery. One in particular holds a special place in Brand’s home: “I love to start the morning off with coffee from Merit,” he says, nodding to the San Antonio roasters whose product is an integral part of the Hotel Emma experience: in lieu of in-room coffeemakers, fresh brew is served to guests in the library.
For the afternoon, Brand recommends stocking up on wines from Hill Country and High Plains vintners. Becker Vineyards’s Provencal and McPherson Cellars’s Verde Verde are two favorites that pair well with a bowl of peanuts. Though Hotel Emma’s are famously seasoned with chile, any salty variety will do.
Stir Up a Strong One
Checking in at Hotel Emma means being greeted with a cocktail. One is a classic margarita, which is easy to whip up at home. Just stock up on these ingredients, set your preferred “check-in time,” and toast to your “arrival,” if you so choose.
La Babia Margarita
1 ounce tequila
1 ounce triple sec
1 ounce lime juice
Mix all ingredients together. Shake. Strain over fresh ice into a festive glass (Hotel Emma pours theirs into etched turquoise stunners from San Miguel de Allende).
Spruce Up Outside Spaces
From Stagecoach Inn (Salado)
These days, a quaint but bustling art scene draws out-of-towners to the small Central Texas town of Salado, which falls midway between Austin and Waco, just off I-35. But the old Stagecoach Inn has given weary travelers a place to rest their heads since the nineteenth century. Recently rehabbed by an Austinite, the new motel-style rooms are equipped with private patios—a fitting feature given the tranquil grounds. There are courtyards, walking paths, and a nearby creek; even the dining room looks out onto a garden. Below, landscape architect Christine E. Ten Eyck shares quick tips for planting the perfect space to come home to, wherever you live in Texas.
Opt for an Organic Feel
“Landscape and gardens encourage one to slow down and enjoy the sensory experience of fragrance, the sound of rustling leaves, and the beauty of green foliage or colorful blooms,” Ten Eyck explains. “When designing for home, my first recommendation is not to over-hardscape with concrete and hot paving. At the Stagecoach, we used gravel and stepping stones and lawn as our pool deck.”
Here’s what she recommends planting for a native feel:
Texas or Mexican redbud
Ten Eyck worked to create small, intimate nooks outside each hotel room. To get a similar effect in your backyard, she recommends incorporating trellises with vines (star jasmine is a good choice) as well as gravel courtyards.
If a tropical vibe is more your style, she suggests:
Mediterranean fan palms
Mexican bird of paradise
Design a Reading Nook
From Commodore Perry Estate (Austin)
If you get restless during your staycation, enjoy a leisurely, virtual stroll through the dreamy grounds of the new Commodore Perry Estate in Austin. Its creative director, interior designer Ken Fulk, outfitted the historic suites and new guestrooms with custom French textiles, vintage finds from Round Top, and hand-painted murals. There’s also a sunny pool and a buzzy bar. But perhaps nearest and dearest to Fulk’s heart are the libraries. “One of the great joys of a vacation is time to read a great book. And there’s nothing like a cozy nook for reading.” Below are his quick steps for outfitting such a space in your own house. As for what to read there, might he recommend his favorites: Zelda by Nancy Mitford; All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy; Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; and Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.
Pull Together the Basics
“Start with a comfy chair and ottoman, then add in a nice task lamp, a side table for a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and you have your own little slice of heaven.”
Add Something for all the Senses
Hear: “Music has the ability to transport and truly set the mood to relax and unwind. Personally, my favorite end-of-the-day mix starts with jazz great Nancy Wilson.”
Smell: “Nothing matches the power of a great scent to help us instantly unwind. I prefer a clean herbaceous scent like laurel combined with a woodsy undernote.” (He famously incorporates candles from Buly 1803 into the spaces he creates, including Commodore Perry Estate.)
See: “No room is complete without beautiful fresh flowers to set the scene.”
Taste: “Whether it’s a drinks tray, a bar cart, or a full-fledged bar, cocktails (and conversation) are an essential part of relaxing after a long day.”
From Gage Hotel (Marathon)
Out in Marathon, a designated Dark Sky park, the stars at night are indeed big and bright, and guests enjoy gazing upon the Milky Way from the courtyard at the Gage Hotel. Constellations are as dazzling to the naked eye there as they are under a telescope at the nearby McDonald Observatory. And if you’re looking to slow down and enjoy the cosmos in your own backyard, the property’s general manager, Carol Peterson, says no special instructions apply: “When the evening comes, throw down a Mexican blanket and wish upon a star.” To enhance the experience, consider a star chart—and a ranch water (to pour one like the bartenders at the hotel’s famous White Buffalo Bar, add a shot of tequila to a tall glass, fill with ice and Topo Chico, and add fresh lime juice).
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
From Lake Austin Spa Resort (Austin)
Lake Austin Spa’s holistic approach to wellness draws in health junkies and locals alike. Sure, they come to relax and unwind. But what they’re really after is rest. “Sleep is essential for health and wellness because it is when our body has the chance to repair and heal,” the resort’s inspiration and wellness specialist, Julie Haber, explains. “We have better focus and are able to make decisions more effectively when we get enough sleep.” And who doesn’t want to emerge from a vacation feeling rested? Here are some tips and tricks for a staycation—or any time.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
A quick checklist for better sleep, according to Haber:
Sneak in Siestas “Naps are a wonderful way to rejuvenate your body and mind. Take a ten- to fifteen-minute nap daily. Do not fight your body’s urge to nap.”
Exercise Often “Nothing feels better than sleeping after a day of exercise, and in fact, it is hard to sleep if we have not moved our bodies enough during the day.”
Cut Out Screen Time “Limit or turn off the technology completely after sundown.”
Rise (and Fall) Like Clockwork “A consistent rhythmic schedule is important and comforting to the body and mind.”
Adjust the Thermostat “There is research that the ideal temperature for sleeping is 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Keep a Notepad on the Nightstand “Write down any ‘to do’s’ or worries before bed, and make a commitment to release them until the following day.”
Unwind, From Head to Toe “Massage some lavender and/or magnesium oil on your feet for a pleasantly relaxing evening ritual before bed.”
“At Lake Austin Spa Resort, we’ve incorporated organic essential oils into most of our spa services,” says Megan Fitzgerald, the executive spa director. Their most popular offering is a deep rest treatment, which can be adapted at home with simple aromatherapy. Here’s how:
1. Select a soothing scent. Fitzgerald recommends clary sage, neroli, spike lavender, bergamot mint, basil, jasmine, blood orange, lavender Bulgaria, and sandalwood. (For home use, she especially likes H. Gillerman Organic oils and Tisserand’s sleep blend.)
2. Breathe them in. Instead of applying oils to the skin, Fitzgerald says that using an atomizer is best (and a nebulizer in particular is preferred). “Inhaling aromas allows the scent molecules to travel from olfactory nerves directly to the brain, impacting the amygdala—the emotional center of the brain.”
Try a Small Ritual
Fitzgerald suggests light yoga, a warm bath, and deep breathing to get in the mood before tucking in. Or try a progressive body relaxation. “I will often guide people through a meditation that helps the body and mind to relax, let go, and ultimately sleep,” says Haber, who shares the simple steps here:
1. Start by lying on your back.
2. Bring your awareness to the top of your head, and slowly move progressively down to your toes as you remind each part of your body to relax. Take your time with this.
3. If you find any places in your body that have tension, breathe into them.
If you have trouble quieting the mind to focus on this exercise, she recommends finding a guided meditation online.