We’re going to a cabin in Bandera,” I announced. “Uh-oh,” said Richard. My husband’s lack of enthusiasm was understandable. “Cabin” is as abused in the hospitality trade as “cottage” is in real estate. We’ve stayed in windowless storage sheds, unheated shacks with box springs for mattresses, and noisy fourplexes, all masquerading in print as cabins. But the constant traveler is nothing if not blindly optimistic, so I set out with hope in my heart. Richard, however, remained doubtful.
The last time I was in Bandera was a couple of years ago, when I was researching an article on dude ranches. Now, dude ranches have their fans—midsized children, for example—but except for a select few, they generally violate the Truth in Brochure rule with abandon. If it’s run-down and uncomfortable, it’s “rustic.” If it has two cows on fifty acres, it’s a “workin’ ranch.” If it serves up vats of cheap patty sausage, canned peaches, and runny scrambled eggs, it’s giving you a “cowboy breakfast.” But I love the land around Bandera, with its dramatic hills and cypress-lined waterways, so I picked this piece of the Hill Country for my springtime escape. Let the rest of Texas strike out for more-bluebonnet-saturated destinations like Brenham and Llano, where they can watch women, babies, and dogs frolic in the roadside flowers as shutters click; I prefer my wildflowers less peopled.
So we set out for the Hill Country Equestrian Lodge, a 275-acre ranch ten minutes outside Bandera. Our little house, the Lovett cabin, came with the requisite front-porch-with-a-view and stand-alone seclusion this pretend pioneer craves—and the central air and heat, spotless baths, and comfy bed this tenderfoot shamelessly requires. There was wood in the fireplace and the appliance-filled kitchen was stocked with breakfast goodies like bacon, eggs, cereal, fruit, and coffee. The decor was simple: natural pine furniture, quilts, little piles of fossils from the ranch on the mantel, and a refreshing absence of those demanding signs that are often plastered on cabin walls and make me feel as if I’m in juvenile detention: “Don’t Leave the Fire Unattended!” “Don’t Flush Stuffed Animals Down the Toilet!” “All Dishes Must Be Washed and Replaced Precisely in the Cabinet or You’ll Spend a Day in the Hole!” The ranch itself was also delightfully free of gift shops, arcade games, Olympic pools, tennis courts, and vapor lights.
The Lovett cabin is tucked into a grove of ancient live oaks within shouting distance of two other cabins, whose presence was oddly reassuring rather than intrusive—especially since they remained vacant during our visit. (I do think that sharing one of the lodge’s two duplex cabins with strangers, rather than friends or family, would be intrusive.) “I wanted the cabins to feel private but still relate to each other, like a little village,” says Dianne Tobin, who owns the lodge with her partner, Peter Lovett. Although the cedar cabins are just over a year old, their historic-atmosphere quotient is high, thanks to their limestone chimneys and high-pitched metal roofs, their underground utilities, and the nearby hundred-year-old ranch house that Tobin and Lovett call home. For Tobin, a Bandera native who returned after eight years of exile in Dallas, owning a ranch, working with horses, and making a living from the combination is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. For Lovett, who grew up on the East Coast, the business is a welcome change from his former career as an actor and location scout. Both are happy to cater to your every whim or leave you the hell alone, whichever you want.
The ranch, in a valley so picturesque it seems digitally enhanced, is snuggled up against the northeastern border of the Hill Country State Natural Area, 5,400 rugged acres crisscrossed with nearly forty miles of trails. Tobin, who has trained and shown horses for thirty years, took Richard and me on a two-hour horseback ride into the park (by way of the ranch’s handy-dandy private entrance). This was not the nose-to-tail trudge typically served up at guest ranches. I was actually riding the quarterhorse Impressive Identity, a grandson of a national halter champion, not just hanging on to the saddle horn. I shifted my weight on steep slopes, kept my calves close to his sides, and at Tobin’s suggestion, tried to learn how to “collect” the horse when he trotted, signaling him with the reins to bring his back up to meet my rear. (The subtlety of the technique was lost on me. Maybe I ought to enroll in Tobin’s Whole Horsemanship Program, a clinic that teaches riders such skills as how to develop a “good seat” using balance and proper posture.)
But horseplay isn’t the only game around. Hikers and mountain bikers who want to rough it in the natural area by day, then retire in civilized comfort by night, should seek shelter here. They can soak away their muscles’ memories of the ascent up Ice Cream Hill in the whirlpool spa at the foot of the old windmill. And birders should take their binoculars. On a quick morning walk through the back section of the ranch, I saw eastern bluebirds, a golden-fronted woodpecker (I think), a pair of red-tailed hawks, and many of the usual suspects—cardinals, titmice, mockingbirds. Tobin has spotted painted buntings, eastern phoebes, and vermilion flycatchers over the past year.
When it comes to cabins, I’ve discovered that there’s a fine line between seclusion (desirable) and isolation (undesirable, unless you’re the Unabomber). This distinction hit me one night when I was staying alone in a cabin at a far-flung state park, without the company of a radio, TV, telephone, or good book. The closest outpost of civilization was a sinister convenience store forty minutes away that was staffed by the supporting cast of Deliverance. Throughout the lonely evening, I kept visiting the park’s unmanned entrance booth to stare at the glowing soft drink vending machine, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, was comforting. But the Lovett cabin passed my Goldilocks Proximity Test with flying colors—not too close to Bandera, not too far away, but just the right distance to let us enjoy a taste of society and commerce, then smugly escape back to our cabin to stare at the stars, listen to the silence, and toast our feet by our own private campfire.
Bandera, although never true cattle country, nevertheless sports a crust of cowboy kitsch. We’re talking (I mean, talkin’) the Stagecoach RV Park and the Cowboy Capital Campground, the Stampede antiques store and the Branding Iron Gift Shop, the Old Spanish Trail Restaurant and Arkey Blues Silver Dollar, where you can boot-scoot through ankle-deep sawdust under the watchful gaze of molting taxidermy, portraits of John Wayne, and minimalist fluorescent nudes on velvet. At least I think they were nudes, either that or characters from the Chinese alphabet. When this amusing but overly thematic world wears thin—and it will—you can retreat to Love’s Antique Mall, near the river on Bandera’s Main Street, where nearly two hundred vendors showcase their secondhand treasures. (Richard scored an aluminum hard hat and a wire egg basket.) If you tire of chicken-fried steak, refuel across the street from the mall at the sunny Fool Moon Café, which serves very un-grub-like cuisine—huge salads of field greens with pears, blue cheese, and caramelized walnuts; seared tuna au poivre with polenta and sugar snap peas; green tea; and mocha lattes—at surprisingly reasonable prices.
Or for a theme of a different flavor, head fourteen miles up river-hugging Texas Highway 16 to Medina, a tiny town that is apple-crazed to the core. At Love Creek Orchards’ Cider Mill and Country Store, the patio cafe is festooned with so many silk flowers, cheerful murals, plywood cutouts, and whirligigs it looks like the set of a low-budget children’s television program. Richard and I drank apple-strudel-flavored coffee and apple-cider slushes while the sunniest cook we’ve ever met grilled our BLTs (apple-smoked bacon, of course). For dessert, we had apple pie with apple ice cream and hot apple-cider sauce—and bought a couple of apple turnovers and apple muffins for the ride home.
And as for my skeptical husband’s opinion of our cabin vacation, three words sum it up: “I shall return.”
Hill Country Equestrian Lodge, 1580 Hay Hollar Road (1.4 miles off Ranch Road 1077), Bandera (830-796-7950, fax 830-796-7970; hillcountryequestlodge.com). Four one-bedroom cabins with a queen-size bed, a queen-size sleeper sofa in the living room, and an RV-inspired dining nook that converts into a queen-size bed; two baths; fully equipped kitchen; and fireplace; $198 a night for two people. Four one-bedroom suites in two duplex cabins, each with a queen-size bed, bath, and kitchenette; $150 a night for two. Two-night minimum. Guided trail ride, $25 an hour per person. Private riding lessons, $50 an hour. Whole Horsemanship Program, $100 a day plus lodging (call to schedule). Guest horse boarding, $10 a night. Texas Department of Transportation wildflower hot line: 800-452-9292.