The trouble with traveling to West Texas is creature comfort—or rather, the lack of it. The prettiest and most-pleasing places (Indian Lodge at Davis Mountains State Park, the Hotel Limpia in Fort Davis, the Gage Hotel in Marathon) are always so crowded that you need a shoehorn to get in on weekends and holidays. What you’re left with is the stunning contrast between the magnificence of the land and the mundaneness of the amenities. In the majority of motel rooms available, thin walls and cookie-cutter layouts are the rule, while dining is dominated by stuccoed chicken-fried steak and La Brea tar pit coffee.

Within the past year, however, the accommodations out there have significantly improved, and they promise to get even better in the not-too-distant future. The Gage, the crown jewel of West Texas accommodations for the past decade, has added a splendid twenty-room adobe wing and will soon build a generous new dining room. The Holland Hotel in Alpine has totally remodeled both its dining room and its menu in swanky Southwestern style (the smart money is on a makeover for its rooms too). And out near Shafter­­—Big Bend country—Cibolo Creek Ranch has just opened Texas’ poshest guest ranch, an exclusive retreat for well-heeled dudes.

Intrigued by these new opinions, I decided to go west—to explore, to eat, to sleep. The allures of the land and basic bed and board I already knew (see “Big Bend Made Easy,” TM, March 1993, and “So Cool,” TM, August 1992). What attracted me was the idea that the lodging is finally catching up with the landscape—that the room you come back to after a day of sight-seeing or hiking might add to the experience rather than detract from it. I was not disappointed by what I found.

Gage Hotel

If it hadn’t been for the rocking chairs on its concrete porch, I would have thought the Gage Hotel was the Marathon public library. Given the building’s boxy brick exterior and its matching stone lions, the mistake was understandable. But the rockers—filled with folks wearing hiking boots, down vests, and hundred-mile stares—gave it away.

Built in 1927 by pioneer cattleman Alfred Gage and reopened in 1982 by current owners J. P. and Mary Jon Bryan of Houston, the Gage is West Texas’ own Little Mexico and Santa Fe all rolled into one. What makes it special is its detail and its character: Nothing has been left to chance. The Bryans personally selected every artifact in the place. Each room is painted stark white and is beautifully appointed with pieces that encompass several decades and two nations: a primitive rendering of a calf roper, sooty Tarahumara Indian pots, cow skulls galore, an ornate bull rider’s belt, a cowhide trunk, an aqua-blue Mexican cupboard. “We aren’t trying to be a historical museum,” says manager Bill Stephens. “We want to create a certain mood and look.”

In the main building are nine rooms with private baths and eight that share the four big bathrooms down the hall (two for men, two for women). But as special as the original section of the Gage is, the place to stay is its new twenty-room wing, Los Portales (the Porches), designed by the Albuquerque architectural firm of Walton and Walton. Softly mottled tan adobe walls and long covered brick walkways enclose a grassy courtyard. A fountain gurgles. Primroses fill tall clay jugs, and fat clusters of red chile peppers hang on the walls. The décor of my room, called Los Vaqueros, was so soothing and so far removed from the twentieth century that even the sight of a utility pole poking up above the courtyard walls was a bit of a jolt.

A few dozen yards from Los Portales, across the fire-lit open patio, is the Iron Mountain Grill, the hotel’s tiny restaurant, a plain white room in the main building with high ceilings and dark woodwork. (This year, the Bryans are building a handsome new rock-trimmed adobe dining room that will seat seventy inside and another forty outside.) The night I was there, the Grill’s eight tables were filled; guests who hadn’t made reservations were cruising the lobby like sharks.

Under the direction of chef Grady Spears, who does double duty here and at the Holland Hotel restaurant in Alpine, the food bridges the gap between Southwestern cuisine and Tex-Mex, with the sophistication of the former predominating but the basics of the latter anchoring the preparation (for instance, the plates come with beans and rice, just the way God intended them). To start, I passed up appetizers like multi-cheese quesadillas and grilled-chicken-and-black-bean nachos and chose the apricot-sauced quail, which proved to be meaty and moist. The two entrée plates I sampled—fat and flavorful cabrito enchiladas and a mellow goat-cheese-stuffed chile—were each a palette of contrasting colors: black beans, a splash of sour cream, yellow-corn-and-chile relish, sliced avocados, diced red bell peppers.

“Well, how are they?” a woman at the next table asked, leaning over to inspect my plate. The Gage is like that: You strike up conversations with people you don’t know, and you trade notes on how long you’ve been coming and when you’re planning to return. Holidays are so popular that you can’t wait to make reservations until the last minute. Says Stephens: “I have people booked for Thanksgiving weekend two years out, most of them repeat customers.” Of course, once newcomers see what the revamped Gage has to offer, it may be harder than ever to get in. Box 46, Maraton 79842; 800-884-4243; $42-$90 double.

Holland Hotel

When I arrived at the Holland, suitcase in hand, I wandered back and forth for about five minutes, searching for the registration desk. Was it in the seemingly abandoned lobby? No. In the empty banquet room? No. Eventually I peered into the bar, a tall storefront room with chic black-and-white cowhide-covered barstools, and asked the affable bartender. “Right over there,” she said, pointing to the hotel’s restaurant, the Cinnabar. It turned out that the hostess stand was also the registration desk. A slightly flustered waitress pushed aside a stack of menus, made an imprint of my credit card, and handed over a key. I carried my own bag to the room.

Management of the Holland changed hands in May, and during my stay, it was clearly in a state of transition: Organizational details were low on the list of priorities. High on the list, fortunately, was the restaurant, which reopened in August. When I returned to the Cinnabar a few hours later, I found creative, delicious food and a marvelous setting. Under the guidance of Alpine architectural designer David Busey and Alicia Bryan (the daughter of the Gage Hotel’s owners), what used to be a nice but generic hotel dining room has been gutted and completely reimagined as a space that could pass for a century-old Mexican hacienda, with oxblood Saltillo tile floors, pale ocher-tinted walls, and pristine white alcove seats. Sepia-toned pictures hang on the walls. Sconces cast warm pools of light on the tabletops.

Like the Grill at the Gage, the restaurant at the Holland has a menu that straddles the fence between Tex and Mex as well as the line that separates country cooking from city cuisine. The man behind it is 25-year-old Grady Spears, a self-taught alumnus of tony catering companies in Houston and Dallas. In his starched shirt and jeans, with his fresh, open face, he looks like he belongs on the cover of a country music album, but don’t be fooled. Spears has a secret ambition: to become the Robert Del Grande or Mark Miller of the Trans-Pecos.

“I came out to West Texas a couple of years ago to do a week’s worth of consulting with the Gage Hotel and fell in love with the area,” he says. “I ended up moving here and taking over that restaurant.” Last May, he and Gage co-owner J. P. Bryan leased the Holland under the assumption that if Marathon could support a really good restaurant, Alpine could too.

They assumed correctly. Under the day-to-day supervision of Matt Dement, the Cinnabar’s minuscule kitchen puts out copious quantities of amazing stuff. The chunky, tomatoey salsa that accompanies the chips may be the best in Texas—hands down. The spinach salad makes a strong showing tossed in a creamy anchovy-touched dressing with a hint of chipotle. The yeast rolls look like biscuits and seem on the verge of floating off the plate. The inch-thick slab of salmon is moistened with cilantro cream and seasoned and grilled to a mahogany turn. The eight-ounce filet mignon is perfectly rare and succulent and comes wrapped in wild-boar bacon.

Given the success of the restaurant, my room at the Holland was something of a letdown, not because it wasn’t nice but because it was so completely out of character. A floral-print bedspread, botanical drawings, a shirred-fabric headboard: I could have been in Dallas. On top of that, the tiled bathroom was tiny and still had an ancient lavatory with separate hot and cold taps. At the moment, only nine rooms are in service, including a couple of quirky so-called suites that should be booked only if all other rooms are filled. “I’m sure at some point J. P. is going to want to restore the hotel,” says Spears. “Right now we’re concentrating on the restaurant.” 209 W. Holland, Alpine 79830; 915-837-3455; $40-$105 double.

Cibolo Creek Ranch

Six months ago, a friend called to tell me about the deluxe dude ranch known as Cibolo Creek, and I couldn’t wait to go. When I heard how much it costs—an average of $500 a night, including food, per couple—I swallowed hard. Yet once I trekked way out into Big Bend country to see if myself, I had to admit that price is right (or certainly in line with what you get). If you want horseback riding, hunting, classy food, personal attention, and all the little luxuries of an elegant hotel as far from civilization as you can flee, it’s hard to imagine a better place.

Three years ago Cibolo Creek consisted of 25,000 acres of worthless gnawed-to-the-roots West Texas pasture. Its distinguishing features were the melted ruins of strange adobe fortifications and watchtowers that looked like squatty mud silos. Today, thanks to the property’s owner (a Houston businessman who wants desperately to remain anonymous), the dilapidated towers and other original adobe structures have been painstakingly restored as a museum dedicated to ranch founder and pioneer cattleman Milton Faver. More important, guest facilities have been constructed that include sitting rooms, kitchens, dining rooms, a swimming pool, a Jacuzzi, an exercise room, an office with a fax machine, and riding stables. There are six guest rooms and a master suite at El Fortin del Cibolo division of the ranch, another four rooms 25 minutes away at La Cienega division, and a snug honeymoon cottage at the division known as La Morita.

Every room has its own name—the Indian Room, the Cowboy Room, Colonial Suites North and South—as well as its own style. One has a hand-stitched quilt on a wooden bedstead and converted oil lamps; another has antique Mexican Colonial bedsteads and painted-tin retablos (altarpieces) on the wall. All have Saltillo tile floors and rough-hewn cottonwood-beam ceilings. None have televisions or phones. Cibolo Creek is the kind of place where you could happily go for days without saying a word to another living soul.

When solitude finally palls, however, resident managers Don and Marge Becker have plenty of activities planned. Guests can help work the ranch’s herd of four hundred Longhorns or hunt varieties of deer and dove, plus blue quail, mountain lion, and javelina. They can also ride on sixty miles of trails.

Another thing you can do at Cibolo Creek is eat very well. Much of the dining is connected to some form of entertainment: On a typical day trip, a group might ride out to La Cienega, cook breakfast over an open fire—blueberry pancakes, Mexican eggs, French toast, sourdough skilled biscuits, coffee—then continue on to Shafter before returning. Barbecues are planned for the immense open pit that looks like it could hold half a cow. Formal meals, however, are prepared in El Cibolo’s Mexican-tiled kitchen under the direction of Patti Cervantes, a former caterer and onetime chef at the Inn of the Mountain of Gods in Ruidoso, New Mexico. When I visited, she whipped up an admirable light lunch in the Southwest cuisine style, consisting of smooth cheese-chile-and-potato soup, chunky grilled chicken salad with pistachio-Parmesan pesto, and light, sweet homemade zucchini bread, all exceptionally tasty.

By the time I left Cibolo Creek, I had inspected so many restored rooms, heard so much local history, and climbed ladders into so many adobe watchtowers that I was getting a case of museum fatigue. Someday, when I have more time, I want to return and stand on top of the hill where Milton Faver is buried and gaze over the countryside or maybe sit by the cool blue pool at La Cienega and listen to the wind riffle the leaves of the cottonwood trees. When you live in the city, the call of the West can be well nigh irresistible. Box 44, Shafter 79850; 32 miles south of Marfa on Texas Highway 67; 800-525-4800; $210-$295 per person per night double occupancy, plus 10 percent service charge (includes room, activities, food, and drinks). No children except by prior arrangement.