Unless you’re breaking out of a maximum-security prison, an escape should be as effortless as possible while still shaking you free of routine. To this end, we asked ourselves some serious questions about the nature of the journey and scoured the state for answers. The results are a mix of quick jaunts, some to the middle of big cities and others to the end of a road to nowhere, some with focused activities and others whose focus is inactivity. At some, you’ll go without television, telephone (yay!), or gourmet dining, while at others you’ll bask in the lap of luxury and eat like royalty. Before you bristle because your favorite bed-and-breakfast—say, the Galbraith House in Amarillo, the Mariposa Ranch in Brenham, or the Hoopes’ House in Rockport—isn’t included, we’d like to explain that we wanted our recommendations to transcend the expected, to steer you to places you have never heard of or change your perception of places you have.
We want to get back to nature
but we don’t want to sleep on the ground.
On the delightfully isolated north shore of Lake Buchanan, the biggest and least populated of the Highland Lakes upstream of Austin, you’ll find Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park. Texas’ first large, publicly developed eco-resort, it opened last fall as a partnership between the Presidian Corporation of San Antonio and the Lower Colorado River Authority. It is a test model for the private-public partnerships that are being considered for managing the facilities in some state parks, but more to the point, it represents a new way of accommodating people who want to commune with nature but still sleep on a firm mattress. The 940-acre setting is wild and natural enough to attract bald eagles from fall through winter and endangered black-capped vireos and golden-cheeked warblers in the summer. The grounds sport a fifteen-mile trail system, an observatory (touted as a more accessible alternative to Fort Davis’ McDonald), organic gardens that supply the lodge’s dining room, a swimming pool, the marina for the Vanishing Texas River Cruises (which ply Lake Buchanan and, when there’s enough water, go upriver to view the bald eagles’ winter nesting grounds), and an on-site naturalist who leads birding, plant, and wildlife walks.
The elegant metal-roofed, native-stone lodge, designed by San Antonio’s Lake / Flato architecture firm, blends gracefully into the landscape. The 64 spacious, spare rooms have covered porches with rockers but no televisions. (Those who have trouble decompressing will find a TV in the bar-family room.) Not least, there is a surprisingly good restaurant—far better than the one at Big Bend National Park, for instance—serving up everything from steak and shrimp to polenta sandwiches at reasonable prices. The resort also features camping and RV facilities, canoe and kayak rentals, a fishing pier, and such kids’ activities as reptile demonstrations and guided walks on weekends.
Canyon of the Eagles is far from perfect: The trail maps are confusing, the trails are poorly marked, the pool is too small, the walls in the rooms could be thicker, and the observatory, run by volunteers, doesn’t have a set schedule yet. But this eco-resort marks a whole new approach to the outdoor experience. I’m ready to go back. Joe Nick Patoski
If Canyon of the Eagles sounds too civilized and too formulaic for a heavy date with Mother Nature, you’re a prime candidate for a sleepover at Selah, Bamberger Ranch—more precisely, at a weathered wood cabin on the ranch. Called Hes’ Country Store, it is outfitted with bunk beds for four, a kitchen area with a stove and a refrigerator, a bathroom (shower only), all sorts of antique implements hanging on the walls, and a picnic table out back. There’s a potbellied stove for heating, and a single fan and old-timey wooden windows without screens for cooling. What makes it so special is where it is: in the middle of a 5,500-acre ranch near Johnson City that is the home of the most passionate environmentalist I’ve ever met, J. David Bamberger. Through inspiration, an ardent love of the land, tons of money, and tons more sweat, Bamberger, who made his fortune as a co-founder of Church’s Fried Chicken, has transformed this Hill Country spread into an internationally recognized model for land stewardship.
Staying at Hes’ store (named after Bamberger’s mother, Hester) is more an educational experience than a recreational one, taught by a guy who laughingly introduces himself as “something of a nut.” A tour of the land is part of the package, led by either Bamberger, his wife, Margaret, an exceptionally well-versed naturalist, or one of the ranch hands. We tagged along with the Comal County Master Gardeners on a morning group tour. In three hours we saw dinosaur tracks, some of the last four hundred oryx left on earth, a rain machine, and the world’s only man-made chiroptorium (bat cave), not to mention a dizzying array of native trees, plants, grasses, and wildflowers. Thanks largely to Bamberger’s aggressive eradication of second-growth cedar from the land and his restoration of its native grasses and plants, springs and creeks have appeared, attracting deer, turkeys, endangered golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos, and even a bald eagle, rarely seen in these parts.
But the biggest treat of all was hearing a man speak as eloquently about his land as Thoreau wrote about Walden. We slept real well too. Take your own groceries. J.N.P.
Within seconds of arriving at the inn at Chachalaca Bend, between Harlingen and Port Isabel, my husband, Richard, and I actually spotted the inn’s namesake chachalacas—cocoa-colored birds with puffy pigeon bodies and roadrunner heads—strolling through the lush vegetation. This well-timed sighting was only a prelude to the parade of birds to come, lured to the forty-acre private preserve on the Resaca de las Antonias, an oxbow lake off the Rio Grande, by thickets of mesquite, ebony, and Mexican olive trees, perpetually stocked feeders, and ready-made housing, not to mention birdbaths and trickling fountains.
Birders with finely tuned nesting instincts will be attracted to the swank inn, whose six rooms, all named after local birds, are feathered with fine linens and cotton robes, hand-painted tiles, and whirlpool baths. With its natural wicker furniture, dark hardwood floors, ceiling fan, and double French doors, our room, the Kiskadee, exuded a sort of West Indies charm. Four of the six rooms open onto the wide second-story veranda, from which even the intensely lethargic can spot flashy green jays, orchard and hooded orioles, golden-fronted woodpeckers, and great crested and Kiskadee flycatchers. Downstairs, the barn-wood-paneled library, complete with stone fireplace, is stocked with field guides about birds as well as books on bugs, mammals, exotic travel, and the history of aviation. Bountiful breakfasts—fruit, yogurt, French toast, eggs, and more—are served in the dining room. You have to fend for yourself for lunch and dinner.
But as cushy and comfortable as the inn is, it’s the birds that would bring me back. Finally prying ourselves off the veranda’s wicker chaise longues, we climbed to the top of the forty-foot observation tower to watch snowy egrets, little green herons, roseate spoonbills, and cormorants as they fished the resacas or perched in nearby treetops. We followed the nature trail to a four-star bird blind, outfitted with barstools and a ceiling fan, where we spied red-winged blackbirds vying for a spot at the feeding stations, white-tipped doves patrolling the ground like tiny tanks, and a stunning black-and-white warbler that took a quick dip in the little man-made stream. Then we hopped in a canopied golf cart, a perk for guests, and zipped out to the open meadow and butterfly garden, where we saw black-bellied whistling ducks—who look as if they’ve dipped their bills and feet in Revlon’s newest shade of coral—queue up for a turn at the pile of feed corn. (Note: The summer heat forces the inn to close from Memorial Day to Labor Day.) Suzy Banks
We’re looking for a wonderful boutique hotel
for an urban getaway.
There is no better way to experience the hipper side of Austin than by staying at the recently renovated San José Hotel, located about half a mile south of downtown on thriving South Congress Avenue. The San José is nestled among the city’s better vintage-clothing and kitschy antiques shops, the popular Yard Dog folk art gallery, the Continental Club (one of Austin’s well-known live-music venues), and the constantly packed Güero’s Mexican restaurant. But it’s also worth staying there just to see how this onetime thirties tourist court, which into the nineties was a notorious fleabag for drug addicts and prostitutes, has been transformed by owner Liz Lambert, a former lawyer in the state attorney general’s office. The San José is now an innovative mix of little bungalows with porches that come with flowerpots and even repainted metal chairs that used to sit in the yards of old Texas motels. There are also large suites next to the swimming pool and tiny but functional upstairs rooms overlooking South Congress. In one of these rooms, you can open your blinds at night and watch the red neon “hotel” light blink on and off: the perfect setting for you to hole up and write your noir novel.
The hotel’s decor is a delight—mainly because it’s so unexpected. There is no plush carpeting in the forty rooms; rather, the floors have been stripped to their concrete base, polished, and covered with throw rugs. The beds, side tables, and writing tables are made of East Texas pine that was harvested back in the thirties. The bedspreads are expensive new versions of the old Indian blankets that were de rigueur for Austin hippies in the seventies. Instead of art, poems by e. e. cummings are tacked to the wall. You can choose music and videos from the hotel library (the CDs are mostly blues and jazz greats, and there’s a good collection of Texas movies, everything from Paris, Texas to Giant). And if you take your dog, Lambert graciously provides dog beds and dog bowls.
Then there is the groovy, mostly female staff. Many of the employees are either in a band, dating someone in a band, or married to someone in a band. The front desk manager is model-turned-mother Karen Sexton (married to the great Austin guitarist Charlie Sexton), and Denia, one of the women who works the front desk, has a new band called Denia and the Devine Five. The small bar, which serves beer and wine, has already become a quiet hangout for the locals. Although there is no restaurant, Lambert’s brother, Lou, who runs a catering shop down the street, cooks steaks and fish on the outdoor grill every Tuesday night. A continental breakfast is served in the lobby, or you can walk across the parking lot to Jo’s (which Lambert also owns), a kind of coffee shack that offers a variety of coffees, bagels, and muffins. Many Austinites rarely go north of the Colorado River—they say everything they need, from Barton Springs to the Broken Spoke, is in South Austin—and after a weekend at the San José, you begin to understand why. Skip Hollandsworth
In San Antonio the boutique hotel of choice is the pricey Havana Riverwalk Inn, tucked away on the downtown river about a ten-minute stroll from the main River Walk entertainment district. This could be the one place where you can walk out of your hotel, head to the River Walk, and not feel crushed by the crowds—that is, if you want to leave your room. The Havana’s 27 spacious rooms have a spectacularly historic feel, with great antique four-poster beds, armoires, and desks so big that you and your beloved can dance on them. Decorative touches include vintage photographs of old San Antonio on the walls and well-worn cowboy hats hiding the thermostats in each room. Every floor of the three-story building has a long, covered balcony. The lobby and the dark basement bar are full of ancient, distressed-leather chairs. The hotel’s restaurant, Siboney, operates as a full bakery in the morning, serves salads and sandwiches for lunch, then turns into a tapas bar at night. S.H.
For pure European grandeur, the two best urban boutique hotels in the state are the seven-suite Hotel St. Germain, near downtown Dallas, rated the number-one hotel in Texas by the 1997 Zagat guide, and La Colombe d’Or, in Houston’s museum district. Owned and operated by Claire Heymann, the elegant granddaughter of a Paris antiques dealer, the St. Germain is straight out of the Old World, filled with ornate canopied feather beds, fireplaces in each suite, tapestries on the walls, and on and on. White-gloved butlers with French accents are on hand to take care of your every whim, and in the restaurant you dine on seven-course gourmet meals by candlelight ($85 per person prix fixe). The hotel is just across the street from the tony Crescent shopping area, within walking distance of the city’s best art galleries, and a quick three-minute drive from the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meyerson Symphony Center.
If the St. Germain symbolizes the best of Paris, La Colombe d’Or is like an old, beloved château in the French countryside. Not everything in this refurbished oilman’s mansion is perfect—you’ll find a couple of worn carpets and some nicks in the walls and the furniture—but that is owner Stephen Zimmerman’s idea of how a luxury hotel should look. The original La Colombe d’Or, in the hills above Nice, opened in the twenties, and the owner often let artists stay in its rooms in exchange for one of their works. In similar fashion, Zimmerman puts much of his money into an extensive art collection that covers the walls of his hotel—original oils by Dalí and Kandinsky along with works by little-known modern-day French artists and such Texas painters as Lucas Johnson and Earl Staley. The five suites on the second floor and the penthouse that covers the entire third floor are gigantic: Each has a private dining room that can seat up to fourteen people. There is the obligatory intimate French restaurant on the first floor, with superb cuisine (when you make a reservation, Zimmerman gives you a table for the entire night), and across the hall are a cozy bar and a wood-paneled library. But the real highlight of the hotel is the ballroom. The rococo-style wall panelings—which Zimmerman got from a wealthy Houston oilman who had bought them from an antiques dealer after World War II and then kept them in storage for more than fifty years—were carved by artisans in the 1730’s. The ballroom is not nearly as big as one you can rent at a Marriott, but in a state where bigness is considered a virtue in itself, Zimmerman knows he can get a lot of attention being small. S.H.
We’d like to get out of the city
and still eat well.
At least one morning of your stay at the Inn Above Onion Creek, get up early and walk a few hundred yards to the overlook. The air will be cool and the grass spangled with tiny wildflowers; foraging cottontails will freeze as you pass. Your reward will be a view over the five-and-a-half-year-old inn’s five hundred rolling acres located 25 miles south of Austin; you’ll also work up an appetite, which will be quickly dispatched with generous portions of cinnamon coffee cake, link sausage, and eggs scrambled with potatoes and cheese, served at long tables in the ample farmhouse-style dining room.
You won’t eat luxuriously here, but you will eat very well. Breakfast is served every day, as is a simple set dinner consisting of a salad or an appetizer, a main course, and dessert. When I visited, we had a marvelously tender stir-fry of pork tenderloin and vegetables. Other nights you might have fried catfish with corn soufflé or a Southwestern grilled chicken salad. Manager Scott Taylor used to be a chef in San Francisco, and he is an excellent cook.
Afterward, watch a video, soak in your whirlpool bath, or read a book (plenty are available in the library, along with the videos). The nine rooms, all decorated differently but with equal good taste, are big enough that you actually feel like hanging out in them. (My one complaint is that the walls are thin.) The sheets and spreads are by Ralph Lauren (at least they were in my room), and each bed has a removable feather mattress on top of the regular mattress. When I sank into it, I could barely see out. But maybe the best way to spend the evening is in a rocker on one of the wide verandas, listening to the tree frogs and cicadas. You won’t need sleeping pills, I promise.
Central Texas is full of other secluded outposts that emphasize fine dining. One of the best known is the 21-year-old Guadalupe River Ranch near Boerne, a pastoral inn, spa, and executive retreat. It has fantastic views and 48 rooms (including 15 cottages), all tastefully decorated. Some are rustic, others more modern. Although the ranch changed ownership in April, sous chef Keith Eggleston will stay on as executive chef and expects to continue the tradition of excellent food seven days a week, served either in the civilized dining room or under the stars. Dinners are also offered to the public. At Blair House Inn—a comfy, contemporary eight-room bed-and-breakfast filled with art just outside Wimberley—varied and original five-course dinners are prepared on Saturday nights, plus desserts seven evenings a week. The dining room is open to the general public (by reservation) as well as the inn’s guests on Saturday evenings. The plantations of the Deep South have nothing on Rose Hill Manor, a year-and-a-half-old four-room colonial-style inn that opens its dining room to both guests and non-guests on Friday and Saturday nights for four-course dinners prepared by the chefs from Ernie’s Mediterranean Grill, in nearby Fredericksburg. Patricia Sharpe
What is the color of money? Well, at Rough Creek Lodge it is a deep, rich brown—think cognac, cigars, and Caribbean tans. In the two and a half years it has been open, this 39-room resort on 11,000 windswept acres seventy miles southwest of Fort Worth has established a reputation as a fine-dining venue, executive retreat, and gentlemanly hunting lodge (pheasant, quail, and partridge). The design (by Lawrence Speck, the dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin) is clean and modern; the decor nods ever so genteelly toward the Old West. If Cary Grant and Gary Cooper had decided to open a lodge together, Rough Creek would have been the result.
In the dining room, a soaring space with gleaming wooden tables and tall leather chairs, chef Gerard Thompson offers dishes that would pass muster in Dallas or Houston. My lavish three-course dinner began with a complimentary mini-appetizer of smoked mussels splashed with chive oil, proceeded through a silky soup of fire-roasted eggplant and tomato, and peaked with a prodigal entrée of pan-roasted pheasant (I couldn’t resist ordering the lodge’s logo). Presented in a lovely puddle of demiglace, the slightly tough bird was eclipsed by the accompanying truffled risotto, a dish of staggering richness. Dessert—a strawberry-and-rhubarb puff-pastry tart with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream—was hardly austere. By the time the bill—$55 without wine—arrived, I was hoping the lodge’s spa included a sensory-deprivation chamber.
Ultimately, though, the best approach to a stay here is to give in to luxury. Enjoy being pampered by the staff; take advantage of the sauna, heated pool, massages, facials, tennis, clay shooting, mountain biking, and more; book a “Valentine’s Fantasy” package for next February. Except for the name, there’s nothing rough about Rough Creek.
If you’re east of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, in the vicinity of Tyler, check out the brand-new Kiepersol Estates Bed and Breakfast, perhaps best described as a restaurant with guest rooms attached. The fare is upscale steakhouse and quite nice; the five rather small, plush rooms seem to have been decorated by an interior designer with a tassel fetish. The Kiepersol Estates’ recently planted vineyard, with its resident flock of chattering, bug-patrolling guinea fowl, is an easy stroll away. P.S.
We’re going to but Big Bend
but we don’t want to stay in the usual places.
If you want something really different, I’d suggest that you stay in one of the inns just across the border in Mexico. Let’s start with a place that could generously be described as, well, primitive. Across the river from Rio Grande Village, at the southeast edge of the park, is the tiny Mexican village of Boquillas, a cluster of adobe buildings that is home to no more than three hundred people. After parking your car on the American side (a solicitous Mexican attendant will watch your car for a tip), and after taking a two-minute rowboat ride across the river ($2, $3 if the river’s up), you then either ride a donkey ($3 a person) or catch a five-minute ride in a pickup truck ($5 a person) to the Buzzard’s Roost, a ramshackle little one-story building with a sagging porch that looks like something in a Mad Max movie. There is no electricity, phone service, or running water; a couple of portable toilets are fifty yards away, and if you want to bathe, you have to walk down a hill to some hot springs. The three rooms are relatively bare. (Two of them are filled with cots and go for $15 to $20 per person per night; the private room is $25 per person. You can make reservations by writing, otherwise it’s first come, first served.) In town, there is almost nothing to do except have some tacos and beers at Don José Falcon’s cafe, have some more beers and play a game of pool at a cantina, then return to the Buzzard’s Roost, where the owners, American-born Joe Sanchez and his wife, Doris, two crusty desert people who cannot imagine ever leaving this place, serve you enchiladas and more beers, then pull out their guitars and sing country and western and rock and roll. It’s like an old hippie enclave—everyone ends up great friends by the end of the night—and it does have a lasting effect on those who visit. After Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen, Jr., stayed at the Buzzard’s Roost, he wrote a song in its honor called “Gringo Honeymoon”—one of the best songs he’s ever written.
So maybe that kind of roughing it doesn’t work for you. Then you need a hacienda. Head to the town of Lajitas, west of the national park, where you can hook up with Gloria Rodriguez, the owner of La Gloria Bed and Breakfast, twenty miles away in the quaint, peaceful, utterly non-tourist town of San Carlos, with its picture-postcard square. In her pickup Gloria herself will drive you up the dirt road to San Carlos—a beautiful hour-long journey in which every new rise in the road brings a breathtaking sight, from canyons to tiny hilltop Catholic shrines. The four-year-old La Gloria, with its three large bedrooms, is full of modern amenities that you don’t expect in an old Mexican town: There are new bathrooms and the kind of kitchen you normally see in American suburban homes. Rock-terraced gardens fan out below the inn, and you are served traditional Mexican breakfasts and dinners on a large colonnaded porch that overlooks a rugged line of mountains. In the mornings Gloria, wearing her trademark straw hat, will lead you on a hike from the inn along the gurgling, spring-fed San Carlos Creek to the majestic San Carlos Canyon, whose walls rise hundreds of feet above you. S.H.
Once upon a time, resorts in Texas were places that developed around hot mineral springs, once-magnificent spas like the Hot Wells Hotel in San Antonio and the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells that are mostly memories today. But if you’re willing to drive beyond the pavement to the extreme southwest corner of the state and put up with desert dust and only the most basic amenities, you can take the waters again at the Chinati Hot Springs resort. A small cluster of adobe cabins set in the foothills of the Chinati and Cuesta del Burro mountains seven miles from the Rio Grande, the resort was reopened to the public in 1998, two years after the death of sculptor Donald Judd, who had bought the funky Kingston Hot Springs in 1990 and closed them off to everyone but his friends.
The new version of this historic site has some New Age touches. Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap is provided in the baths, votive candles are everywhere, tai chi classes are conducted by Hot Springs Creek from time to time, and a clothing-optional policy explains the bearded man who was splayed out buck-naked on a picnic table by his cabin one recent morning. You can choose among three snug little cabins, only one of which, the “honeymoon suite,” has a private bathtub. The other two share bathing facilities (the two tubs bear a striking resemblance to tiled horse troughs), and everyone shares toilet facilities and the cookhouse, in keeping with the laid-back vibe of the place. There’s not a whole lot to do, other than hike, laze in a hammock, sit around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and take the waters in one of the indoor tubs or the giant, communal galvanized-steel tub outdoors. If the 108-degree waters don’t cure what ails you, they will definitely relax you (could it be the lithium?). There’s a small camping area by the creek too, but no hookups for RVs. Take your own groceries and drinks—it’s eight miles to the nearest bar and another forty miles to a convenience store or cafe. J.N.P.
I freely admit that, before I arrived in Del Rio, I harbored little hope that it would offer much more than a decent motel room for the Big Bend-bound. Wrong again! The border town of 34,000 is surprisingly lush and green, with palm, pecan, and magnolia trees towering over curbless streets that meander this way and that. And, though Del Rio has its share of pretty haciendas, as befits a settlement on the Rio Grande, my specific destination was the handsome Villa del Rio, a Mediterranean-style manor adjacent to the vineyards of the Val Verde Winery, the state’s oldest. The house has some wonderful touches, such as beautiful antique tiles, both Italian and Mexican, and hand-painted mini-murals of the region’s history in the recessed arches over windows and bookshelves. I stayed upstairs in the Peacock Suite, which included a small screen porch and a tiny balcony overlooking the courtyard and its tiered fountain cascading into a goldfish pool. That night, I left the screen door open and puzzled over a muffled noise reminiscent of a wrong-answer game-show buzzer; the next morning I discovered, while exploring the two-acre grounds, that the source was a baby kid at the goat farm next door. The same blend of elegance and rusticity applied to breakfast too. A plate of fresh fruit included mango sprinkled with chile powder and lime, Mexico-style; next came jalapeño-cream cheese crêpes and a farmhand-size slab of fried ham.
Before you drive on to Big Bend, check out the charmingly tatty Whitehead Memorial Museum, a pioneery compound with a refreshing lack of lawsuit-phobia: One sign warned, “Draw Well Water at Your Own Risk.” And a fun detour is Alamo Village, the movie set outside nearby Brackettville; besides the saloon and other faux-Western buildings, there’s the Alamo replica built by John Wayne for his 1960 epic. Anne Dingus
We’d like to get away to a small town
with lots for the family to do.
With its limestone bluffs and juniper-covered slopes, Somervell County is a diminutive slice of Hill Country that somehow migrated to the rolling prairies southwest of Fort Worth. The state’s last undammed river, the Paluxy, winds its way through the hills, as does the Brazos, and they converge a mile or so downstream from Glen Rose, the only town in the tiny county. (At 187 square miles, it is smaller than many a West Texas ranch.) The geographical setting alone ought to have made Glen Rose a popular tourist destination, but for most of its history, the quiet town of around 2,500 people was overlooked by all except paleontologists searching for dinosaur bones, moonshiners who operated in the nearby cedar thickets, and occasional visitors to the Paluxy’s springs.
All those years of being ignored, however, have had the fortuitous result of preserving both hills and town much as they have always been. Glen Rose is about as unchanged by fast-food franchises, chain motels, subdivisions, and Wal-Marts as a town can get. Its courthouse square continues to be occupied by businesses that cater to locals, including Linda’s, an old-fashioned cafe. Its riverfront remains in its natural state, a perfect place for wading or clambering up massive rocks.
But Glen Rose has much more to offer than just a fossilized version of small-town Texas—real fossils, for example, at the Somervell County Museum on the square and in Dinosaur Valley State Park, where you can stand in pleurocoelus, iguanadon, and acrocanthosaurus footprints in the Paluxy shallows. Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, a drive-through park, allows you to get up close and personal with giraffes, wildebeests, rhinos, and several species of antelope. Sculptor Robert Summers, whose work includes the cattle drive in front of Dallas’ city hall and the John Wayne statue at the Orange County, California, airport, is the son of a former Somervell County judge; some of his works are in the collection of the Barnard’s Mill Art Museum two blocks west of the square. Dining options range from local favorites like Hammond’s B-B-Q to prix-fixe gourmet meals at the Inn on the River and Rough Creek Lodge.
I arrived in Glen Rose on a Friday afternoon in April with the eldest and youngest of my three teenagers, Janet and Barrett, in tow, somewhat under protest. But their complaints ceased when we pulled up at Big Rocks Park on the Paluxy. A pile of flat-topped boulders rose from the streambed over the top of the bank. I watched them climb down to the ribbon of water and splash happily. Afterward we drove around the town. Most of the homes and businesses are old and modest structures, as befits a community that was among the poorest in Texas for many years.
Then, in the early seventies, came the event that changed Glen Rose forever: Texas Utilities decided to locate a nuclear power plant five miles north of town, and suddenly the county had jobs and tax revenue and a railroad track. Today the frame houses and small family businesses have been joined by sparkling new facilities built with public funds, among them a huge air-conditioned expo center, an amphitheater for concerts and plays (including The Promise, a musical version of the life of Christ that attracts large crowds on summer weekends from June through October), and a public golf course (a second is under construction).
Helen Kerwin greeted us at Country Woods, the bed-and-breakfast where we were spending the weekend. A former mayor of Glen Rose, she is now a county commissioner, and she gave me the lowdown on the town’s history. Country Woods sprawls over forty acres bounded by the Paluxy on one side and hills on the other. It includes the main house, where she raised her three daughters, and several cottages, among which are two of the oldest homes in Glen Rose, which she moved there and restored. We stayed in the Cabin in the Woods, nestled against a hillside several hundred yards from the main cluster of buildings. It came with two TVs, a VCR, tapes, a generously stocked kitchen (microwave popcorn, chilled wine, and soft drinks), and Madeline, the resident cat. After a satisfying dinner at the Inn on the River, a 22-room B&B with a conference center and a cozy restaurant, we went back to the cabin, where Janet grabbed two quilts and announced that she was sleeping outside on the deck, and Barrett plopped down in front of the VCR.
The next morning, Helen served us a sumptuous breakfast of sausage casserole, fresh fruit, and homemade cranberry muffins on our deck, then we headed for Fossil Rim, in the hills southwest of town. We took the Behind the Scenes Tour, which meant that we had a driver and got to go off the main road into the “intensive wildlife management area,” for a closer view of cheetahs and wolves and Attwater’s prairie chickens, with their yellow eyebrows and throat sacs. Fossil Rim takes in endangered species and tries to breed them and in some cases return them to the wild; some species are all but extinct in nature and may spend their lives here or in zoos. The irresistible appeal of the park, even for normally blasé teenagers, is that you can feed the animals, and they don’t need much coaxing to approach your car. You are likely to find yourself surrounded by greater kudu and addaxes or encounter a giraffe stretching his neck in your direction. (On hot summer days the best times for viewing wildlife are early in the morning and late in the afternoon.)
The tour took three hours, and by the time it was over, we were ready to head for the Paluxy and Dinosaur Valley State Park. On the way we passed the Creation Evidence Museum, located in a pink metal building, but its challenge to evolution and the fossil record had to wait for another day. The state park has three areas of dinosaur tracks in the river’s limestone bed. At first glance they were indistinguishable from other depressions and fractures in the limestone, but on closer inspection it was easy to pick out the ones with three toes (thought to have been made 110 million years ago). Alas, the best tracks were removed 62 years ago by scientists from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where they remain today. If the Greeks and Egyptians can demand the return of their temples, why not Glen Rose?
I knew better than to drag Janet and Barrett to the art museum, so I left them at the park to wade in the clear river, which was not much deeper than the three-toed footprints, while I went back to town. From the museum’s windows, I could see Barnard’s Mill, the oldest structure in town, and the gunports from which early settlers could fire at raiding Indians.
We cooked at the cabin that evening and fed apples to one of Helen’s horses that grazed nearby. As night fell, we sat on the porch and watched a violent thunderstorm miss us to the north. Insulated by the woods, we could hear no sound except the wind in the trees and an occasional rattle of thunder. It could have been a hundred years ago. Paul Burka
We’d like to spend some time on the water
but without the hassle of crowds.
For those of you who thought you had to travel to the mountain rivers of Colorado or Wyoming to enjoy the lovely, archaic sport of fly-fishing, we take you now to, of all places, the Llano River in the Hill Country, where a stunning blond angler named Raye Carrington awaits you. An ex-Austinite and a bridge-playing buddy of Ann Richards’, Carrington happens to be one of the country’s most well-regarded fly fisherwomen—in fact, a fishing-rod company has signed a deal to put her name on a new line of fly-fishing rods—and she is so devoted to Texas fly-fishing that last October she opened Raye Carrington on the Llano River, a fly-fishing retreat near the town of Mason, about a two-hour drive west of Austin and north of San Antonio.
Note that I said “fishing retreat.” This isn’t your basic fishing camp where men sit around in their undershirts drinking beer and cleaning fish and telling lies. For one thing, the twenty-acre property looks like something out of a Martha Stewart fantasy. About one hundred yards from the ever-gurgling river, Carrington has built or refurbished a couple of tin-roofed cabins (one is a converted barn) and an expansive main house with a glorious tree-shaded porch and feeders and water gardens nearby that nourish an assortment of native and migratory birds. The five guest rooms, which sleep two to four people each, feature Southwestern-style cedar furniture and down comforters on the queen-size beds. What’s more, all the rooms come with small refrigerators, coffeemakers, books on angling and Texas history—everything except telephones and televisions.
The fact is that many of Carrington’s visitors come here just to relax, to read, to pet her dog and cat, and to stare out at the spring-fed Llano River, one of Texas’ last wild rivers, the water rolling over granite and limestone, with sand and gravel bars that make for easy wading. These visitors take day trips to Fredericksburg for shopping or they tour the Eckert James River Bat Cave just outside Mason—and in the evenings they head off for a steak dinner at the old-timey HooDoo Cafe in nearby Art (population: 2), whose owner, Randy Gaulding (he’s one of the two residents; the other is a budding novelist), features live music or western movies two nights a week at the Art Feed Store next door.
But you’re nuts not to try the fly-fishing. For $75, the always-encouraging Carrington will give you a thorough two-hour lesson in fly casting. She provides all your equipment, and she’s such a good teacher that by late morning you’ll be able to hit the river alone, casting for perch and Guadalupe and largemouth bass, your silvery fishing line whipping back and forth above you in a beautiful arc. To be honest, you might not catch anything your first time out. It’s one thing, Carrington says, to be a good fly caster and another thing entirely to know which flies to use and where to send them on the water to bring in the fish. And if you don’t keep practicing, you’ll quickly forget everything that Carrington taught you. But who cares? This could be the best chance you’ll ever have to pretend, at least for a little while, that you’re Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It. S.H.
Cool concept for a long, hot summer: Round up several friends, pool your resources, load up the cooler with groceries and drinks—and get lost on the water for a few days and nights. You can do just that on a 56-foot Forever 10 houseboat on either Lake Meredith, north of Amarillo, or Lake Amistad (officially, the International Amistad Reservoir), west of Del Rio. These boats are practically floating condos, with air-conditioned, communal sleeping quarters for ten, a patio out back, and an upper deck and lounge for sunbathing (with an attached waterslide); a full galley with a stove, a microwave, and two refrigerators; two bathrooms, one with a shower; and a TV-VCR and stereo. Both Amistad, with six hundred miles of shoreline, some of it in Mexico, and the smaller and narrower Meredith, with about two hundred miles of shoreline, are designated National Recreation Areas. They offer exceptionally clear water for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving as well as fishing—your catch may include tilapia in Amistad and walleyes and bass in Meredith. A number of secluded coves on the northern shores of Amistad practically guarantee privacy. Although parts of Meredith can be crowded on weekends, especially around the marina, this dammed-up portion of the Canadian River cuts through some of the most dramatic cliffs and bluffs in the Panhandle and borders parts of the Alibates National Monument, site of one of the great Native American flint quarries. J.N.P.
We’re stressed out.
Where can we get away from it all?
For a restful weekend retreat, it would be hard to top the Red Corral Ranch. The rambling 1,100-acre spread—which lies halfway between Wimberley and Blanco in one of the prettiest and most solitary stretches of the Hill Country—boasts an organic farm, nature trails, and an abundance of wildlife. Only a herd of grazing cattle noted our arrival at the Red Corral, lowing when we swung open the ranch gate. Hand-painted signs led us along a rocky dirt road to Stillpoint Cabin, a secluded cottage in the woods where a vase of lilies and just-baked banana-walnut bread awaited us. The tiny pine-and-cedar cabin was decorated simply with Mexican blankets and illuminated by the ample sunlight that streamed in its windows, with a wood-burning stove for cooler nights. After unpacking, we took a leisurely walk through the woods, following a trail that wound past wildflowers, prickly pear, and a golden-cheeked-warbler habitat, where two white-tailed deer bounded across our path. Upon our return, we grilled dinner on the cabin’s hibachi and settled in for the evening with a bottle of wine, watching from our porch’s rocking chairs as the sun dipped below the horizon. We did not see a soul until the next afternoon, when we drove to the Limestone Lodge, the ranch’s elegant headquarters, where guests may also spend the night. (On advance request, meals using ingredients from the Red Corral’s organic farm are prepared here for an additional fee.) White peacocks strutted about the grounds, which include a swimming pool, ornamental gardens, and a meditation labyrinth, based on the original at Chartres cathedral in France. We left relaxed and restored, regretting only that we could not stay longer. Pamela Colloff
Light years from dallas—actually, about a two-hour drive east—Cooper Lake is a wonderfully wild aberration in the world of Texas lakes. You’ll find no private development—no tract mansions, no marinas, no bait shops—marring the waterfront; every inch of shoreline is claimed by either the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. What you will find at Cooper Lake State Park are tidy facilities for campers, a secluded RV park, an enclave of screened shelters, ten miles of trails for horseback riding, and the fifteen spanking-clean Pecan Ridge Cabins.
Since we gave up sleeping on the ground years ago and are (I hope) a couple of decades from catching motor-home fever, Richard and I checked into one of the cabins after picking up our key at park headquarters. It was a chilly April afternoon. A steady north wind was launching whitecaps across the 19,000 acres of water, so we hunkered down in our temporary home with good books, cranked up the central heat, and listened to the gale howl. Although the cabins are clustered together, ours, nestled in thick woods, felt completely private. We were blissfully free from the distractions of telephone or television, and thanks to the wind and our midweek timing, the only anglers braving the choppy waters of this popular bass-fishing lake were a flock of white pelicans. Each of the identical sixteen- by thirty-foot cabins (okay, so I counted the floor tiles; it takes me a while to really relax) has one bedroom with two double beds, a living-dining area decorated simply with pine furniture, a big bathroom, and a minimally equipped kitchen (coffeepot, two-burner stove top, microwave, and small fridge, but no utensils whatsoever) with a big picture window that overlooks a deck with a charcoal grill. At sunset we hovered around the grill, burning tuna steaks and solving the world’s problems—since ours had melted away—while the rowdy lake kicked up a fuss nearby. S.B.
Waylon, willie, and the boys had the right idea when they sang the praises of Luckenbach (population: 25), a Hill Country hamlet where life seems to move at a more leisurely pace than pretty much anywhere else. A dance hall, a post office, and a barbecue stand are all there is in “downtown” Luckenbach, but locals gather here most Sundays beneath the live oaks to whittle, strum guitars, toss horseshoes, and drink beer. Luckily, the Luckenbach Inn is just as much of a find as the town itself, sitting on a rise that overlooks miles of pastureland and a creek lined with two-hundred-year-old cypress trees. Pheasants, turkeys, and guinea hens, along with a personable potbellied pig named Rooter, amble about the grounds amid wildflowers and live oaks draped with Christmas lights. We took in the scene from our porch, where hummingbirds darted around a bird feeder, then headed to nearby Fredericksburg for dinner. The inn’s main attraction is the adjacent Log Cabin, a beautifully restored 1860’s cottage of dark oak, with period antiques, carved wooden doors, and rocking chairs made from hickory branches. We would suggest staying here rather than in the inn’s new rooms, which have less character; the Smokehouse, a tiny cottage behind the Log Cabin, was a little too cramped for our taste. There are no televisions, no telephones, and no clocks; our wake-up call the next morning was a rooster’s crow. A full breakfast, complete with grapefruit brûlée and fresh cranberry-peach juice, was served in the sunny dining room—a perfect start to a day of sightseeing in Fredericksburg, at the LBJ Ranch, near Johnson City, and at Enchanted Rock. P.C.
There’s something comforting about being in the proverbial middle of nowhere—if you can find it, that is. And Parker Ranch, tucked away in the low canyons of the Pecos River Valley outside the town of Iraan—and some twelve miles north of the loneliest stretch of Interstate 10 in the entire state—is definitely worth searching out. It’s so lonely, I thought I was seeing things when three tall palms materialized from the desert scrub at the end of the dirt road that leads to the majestic Spanish colonial ranch house built by O. W. Parker seventy years ago. Dickie Dell Ferro, Parker’s granddaughter, came back to the family homestead in 1995 and opened four bedrooms to paying guests. Two of the upstairs bedrooms share a bath. You’ll find a television and a small, eclectic library downstairs in the living room, and Dickie Dell will let you use her phone if you really need to.
With more than ten miles of dirt roads and a network of trails and tracks crisscrossing the 3,700-acre spread, the Parker is an ideal setting for taking long walks or mountain bikes or riding horses (take your own). Even better, just kick back and decompress, watching the wild turkeys and the white-tailed and mule deer that wander up to the lawn for their evening feedings, then marveling at the dark, star-filled night skies.
Four miles west is Iraan, the site of the storied Yates Field, once one of the biggest oil reserves in the world. In the twenties the town was also briefly the residence of the late Vince T. Hamlin, who conceived his comic strip Alley Oop, about a caveman who time-traveled to modern times, here. There’s a small park that pays tribute to Oop, his gal Oola, and their pet dinosaur Dinny next to the Iraan Museum. Also in town is the Old House Cafe, whose Tex-Mex and American menu, not to mention its ice cream and milk shakes, are as good as it gets. Fort Lancaster (arguably the most scenic of the forts strung along the historic trail between San Antonio and El Paso), the Caverns of Sonora (hands-down the best tourist cave in Texas), and the Rankin windmill farm (107 165-foot-tall electricity-generating turbines) are all within an hour’s drive. J.N.P.
In the verdant limestone canyons west of Bandera, the Lodges at Lost Maples lie along Ranch Road 337, a winding road of steep inclines and hairpin turns that is one of the state’s most spectacular drives. Though these pine-and-cedar cabins are not as secluded as the one we stayed in at the Red Corral, they are new and attractively decorated, with full kitchens and airy living quarters. Each cabin has a fireplace and a screened sleeping porch. Horseback riding and tubing are good diversions here, but the main attraction is the Lost Maples State Natural Area, only seven miles away, where birding, fishing, and hiking amid the park’s lush foliage are some of the best ways we know of to shed urban woes. But be warned: The park, and the surrounding area, can get quite crowded from mid-October to mid-November, when visitors flock there to see the breathtaking fall foliage. The nearby towns of Vanderpool and Leakey have little in the way of restaurants, and it’s a dry county, so pack what food and drink you will need ahead of time. Each cabin comes with an outdoor grill, and your hosts will bring juice, coffee, and freshly baked muffins and scones to your door each morning. P.C.
We’re going to a touristy spot, but we’d like the place we stay to be a haven.
Dust and cobwebs are standard furnishings in old log cabins, but good luck finding any speck of grime at Fredericksburg’s Austin Street Retreat. The five tightly grouped structures are all more than a century old, but our cabin, called simply Maria’s, was immaculate—even the cracks in the ceiling had been vacuumed. There was also a high serenity level, though mere blocks away cars and crowds thronged the main drag of this former German farm town, now a shopper’s paradise. Maria’s has two bedrooms (each with an antique bedstead, the high kind you have to vault onto), a tiny combination kitchen-den, and a stone-walled room for the hot tub. Subdued but suitably vintage decor includes an interesting window treatment—an ancient, oompahed-out concertina stretched across the sill. At dusk, my friend Ilse and I plunked ourselves down in the handmade pine rockers on the porch and indulged in that immortal pastime, watching the world go by (cats, dogs, a couple of trucks). Then, in an abrupt return to the present, we headed inside, suited up, opened a bottle of Merlot, and immersed ourselves in the hot tub. (As we soaked and sipped, Ilse said with a sigh: “This is great. I really needed a vacation.” “Easy for you to say,” I groused. “I’m working!”)
The next morning, however, we discovered that Maria’s lacks an overhead shower—the handheld one was bad news for daily shampooers. Oh, no—forced to go hat shopping! We sallied forth to fritter away some cash; our favorite emporia included Generations, where we exclaimed over a rack of bejeweled bug pins; Jabberwocky, a hedonistic experience for fine-linen lovers; and Three Amigas, which offered fun yard art at fair prices. And by all means pop into Parts Unknown, a cool travel-clothing store that was once the Palace Theater, if only to admire the vast forest mural on the former screen.
If you’re heading to Salado, another famous small-town shopping destination (between Austin and Temple on Interstate 35), an equally appealing bed-and-breakfast is the Rose Mansion. There are genteel Victorian-style rooms in the big house as well as early-settler log homes in the ample back yard, which is shaded by enormous oaks. Our choice: George’s Cabin, built in the late 1800’s, which is actually three one-room structures (two bedrooms and a bath) with a common roof. We loved the decor—churns, yokes, milk cans, curious rusted cast-iron thingies—although the picture of a cowboy-hatted Ronald Reagan definitely gave us pause. A.D.
If you like to be gently rocked to sleep, try Galveston’s Stacia Leigh Bed and Breakfast, located aboard a 120-foot yacht with an improbable history. Built in 1906, the Chryseis was briefly owned in the forties by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. After he was executed, it found its way into show business, appearing in such films as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Count of Monte Cristo. It looks nothing like it did in Il Duce’s time. Owners Pat and Bonnie Hicks bought the languishing yacht in Florida in 1998, renovated it—adding two stories of cabins to the deck—and renamed it the Stacia Leigh, after their daughter. No longer seaworthy, it is now permanently moored in Galveston Bay.
With polished-wood floors and gleaming oak paneling, the Stacia Leigh has three levels of rooms and a light-flooded salon area at sea level, where guests can socialize over complimentary wine and coffee and flip through the photo album that documents the vessel’s transformation. Each of the cabins, most of which are quite small, has a private bathroom (some with whirlpool baths) and a king- or queen-size bed; the original ones below deck have the most nautical ambience. All of them should be reserved well in advance. The above-deck cabins’ views of the bay, its shipyard—where mammoth oil rigs are repaired—and the nineteenth-century tall ship Elissa, moored only a few hundred feet away, more than make up for their lack of certain amenities, such as bedside lamps, televisions, and telephones. Breakfast—quiche, pastries, and fruit, served on the pier—is a congenial affair, and the service couldn’t be friendlier. At night, sit in the Stacia Leigh’s hot tub at the end of the pier and enjoy the flickering lights of arriving boats. Or head for the restaurants, shops, and nightspots along the Strand, only a block away. Jordan Mackay
Never has voyeurism seemed so appealing as at the Settlement at Round Top. In the little arts center halfway between Austin and Houston, nine restored cabins and cottages, decorated to a fare-thee-well, recreate a nineteenth-century pioneer compound. I stayed in the Cowboy Room (one of four accommodations in a former general store), and its trappings were so appealing that I yearned to look in the windows of the other lodgings—such as the Frontier House, built with an airy dogtrot and equipped with a hot tub (hardly authentic, but who’d complain?). My fellow guests, however, thoughtlessly left nary a door ajar, so I was forced to soak up only the Western atmosphere in my own smallish room. Festooned with leather this and cowhide that, it was enclosed by cedar and longleaf pine walls and dominated by an antique iron bedstead piled with bedding. Thanks to eight fat pillows, I had no problem propping myself up for a bedtime read. The bathroom too was undersized, but I got a kick out of its saloon-style doors. The best part of my stay, though, came the next morning, when I warmed a rocking chair on the veranda while sipping coffee and watching a bunny rabbit convention in an adjacent field. Breakfast in the barn turned dining room finally allowed me to inspect another building, which showcased the inventiveness of innkeepers Karen and Larry Beevers; the tin-and-cedar ceiling was formerly the roof of a nearby building—they simply flipped it over and reshingled it. Don’t expect health-conscious foodstuffs. I downed plain biscuits, cinnamon biscuits, hash browns, and a casserole of eggs, cheese, and sausage, then worked it off—sort of—by shopping for antiques in Round Top proper and strolling the pretty grounds of the Festival-Institute, a mile north of town, and the Winedale historical center, a four-mile drive away. A.D.
Those in search of a refuge amid the surf shops and fried-seafood joints of throbbing South Padre Island should look no farther than Casa de Siesta, a bed-and-breakfast that opened in January. But don’t be fooled by its location on the strip: This is an oasis in an oasis. There may not be a more beautiful or serene place to stay on the island.
Casa de Siesta feels more like a villa in San Miguel de Allende than an oceanside inn—all the rooms are built around a long interior courtyard with a splashing fountain, a swimming pool, and tropical flowering plants. But the courtyard is merely an introduction to the calm you’ll feel in your room. Heavy, arched wooden doors lead into huge spaces with floors of cool Saltillo tiles. The rooms, rustically decorated with Mexican and Southwestern furnishings, are equipped with cable televisions and small refrigerators; more Mexican tiles, these elaborately hand-painted, adorn the bathrooms. Enormous stained-glass windows framed in carved stone harness the island’s abundant natural light, letting in a cool radiance that is a soothing contrast to the brightness of sea and sand—which, by the way, are only a block away.
You may go to South Padre for the surf, but Casa de Siesta will tempt you to just let the hours pass, lounging in your room or reading in the courtyard. A breakfast buffet of cereals, pastries, and fruit is served in the attractive cantina—just the thing to get you ready for another long, hard day of taking it easy. J.M.
We want some Texas history
—but not a history lesson.
After spending the night in the Quarters at Presidio La Bahia in Goliad, I’m sitting on the northwest bastion of the presidio, sipping coffee and staring down the muzzle of one of Colonel James Fannin’s cannons. Across the courtyard, the sun rises behind the eighteenth-century Our Lady of Loreto chapel, and I think, in my typical Anglo way, “I own this fort.” After all, who but the owner could have this history-rich structure all to herself from the five o’clock closing time until the gates reopen at nine in the morning? Nine flags have flown over the Spanish presidio since it was built in 1749, making it the most fought-over fort in Texas history. But the site is infamous for the Goliad massacre, when Colonel Fannin and 341 of his men were executed on Santa Anna’s orders on Palm Sunday, 1836.
Until twenty years ago, the two-bedroom apartment where Richard and I spent the night served as the quarters of the chapel’s priest. Then, six years ago, the diocese of Victoria Catholic Church, the real owner of the presidio, began to rent it out to intrepid travelers, those unafraid of the ghosts of Colonel Fannin and his men. The apartment is appropriately monastic, with three-foot-thick stone walls and simple but comfy furnishings enlivened by a few jolts of color from Talavera dishes in the kitchen and bright Mexican bedspreads. Goliad offers a couple of passable eateries, but we rustled up our meals in the apartment’s well-equipped kitchen.
Our Lady of Loreto Chapel, one of the oldest churches in America, has been in almost continuous use since the late 1700’s (services, some complete with mariachi music piped through loudspeakers, are held there every Sunday evening at five). But the fort itself had disintegrated into little more than a short rock wall when, in the sixties, local rancher and historian Kathryn Stoner O’Connor provided funds for its restoration. A small museum in the presidio features exhibits on its violent history and restoration. Two glass cases are filled with rows and rows of tiny artifacts (buttons, a thimble, jewelry, arrowheads, iron crosses, coins, metal hardware, shards of pottery) excavated in the area. Each little relic speaks to a life lived—and possibly lost—here long, long ago. S.B.
See the directory of lodgings mentioned in Great Escapes for more information.
Points of Interest
See the directory of Points of Interest mentioned in Great Escapes for suggestions and contact information.