Believe it or not, you won’t have to venture outside Texas to sample deep-fried pork intestines, a Malaysian delicacy. Or visit a historic Hauptstrasse. Or lie blissfully alone on a beach that stretches for miles around. This month’s cover story takes you on road trips to the Hill Country, Port Aransas, Houston, Marfa, and Rough Creek (a swanky resort and spa just outside Glen Rose), and each journey is an exploration in gastronomy (grilled antelope), danger (a crash course in surfing) and leisure (a hot stone massage). They’re proof that Texas getaways offer satisfaction for gourmands, adventurers, and lazy folks alike. Don’t worry, though—we haven’t forgotten those quintessential Lone Star standbys: horseback riding, four-wheeling, and grilling. Here’s the story behind the story.
Texas is a big state. How did you narrow your search and end up with these five destinations?
We started with general ideas for the types of vacations we wanted to include—beach, road trip, foodie, resort, outdoors—and I whittled down destinations from there. I was looking for places that had broad appeal and were in distinctive regions. Though I guess you could call them “staycations” since you won’t have to leave the state, each of these trips takes you to a completely different environment. That’s the beauty of Texas’s vastness: You can travel for hours (and hours and hours) in one direction and be at the beach, or head another direction and be among mountains or rolling prairies or a metropolis.
Once you had your destinations mapped out, how much time did you spend traveling for this piece? How many miles did you log?
I spent about twenty days on the road, which were spread out over four or five weeks. And I got to know the Avis lady quite well. I logged more than three thousand miles behind the wheel.
You never left Texas, but you tried food from all over the world. Did you try those fried intestines? What other exotic foods did you taste while reporting this story?
In fact, I didn’t even have to leave Houston to try food from all over the world. Although I declined to eat the deep-fried pig intestines at Banana Leaf, a Malaysian restaurant in Houston’s Chinatown, I did have bone marrow and pig’s ear for the first time, both at Catalan. It was Catalan’s head chef, Chris Shepherd, who drove me around the city and introduced me to some of his favorite under-the-radar eateries. He also took me on a tour of the massive food market in the Hong Kong City Mall, where I became acquainted with such delicacies as balut, which is a fertilized chicken egg that has a nearly developed embryo inside, and kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of fermented vegetables and spices.
You mention traveling with kids several times in the piece. Were any tykes present during your research?
No, I didn’t have any tots in tow. It would have been cruel and unusual punishment to drag a kid along on a reporting trip as frenzied as this one.
Where did you find all these offbeat shops and restaurants? We’re guessing not on Yelp.
Like most travelers, I found leads by asking friends, flipping through guidebooks and, yes, scouring the Internet. But the best finds were often the ones I just stumbled upon when I was out reporting, like the Wild West Store, in Wimberley. There was a bright pink sign outside that said, “The Boot Whisperer is in,” and since I’m always on the lookout for a good pair of boots, I stopped in. I was delighted to find Ulli Johnston, who took one look at my feet and started flitting around her shop. She picked out a handful of beautiful vintage pairs that all fit me to a tee—and she didn’t even have to ask me what size I wear.
Did you find that the locals were receptive to tourism? Or do they generally want to keep their gems secret?
Since tourism equals money, most places are willing to welcome an out-of-towner and his pocketbook. Many of the spots I went to are quite used to tourists, and everyone I encountered was friendly and hospitable and went out of their way to point me to things I might have overlooked.
Can you relax and enjoy the destinations while working on a travel piece like this, or is it all business and note-taking?
Going on vacation is relaxing. Going on vacation for work is not. Granted, in the grand scheme of things, this was not as taxing an assignment as, say, Nate Blakeslee’s report this month on how Mexico’s drug war is affecting Texas. But aside from just the sheer logistics of planning five back-to-back trips, my biggest challenge was making sure I was doing and seeing and eating enough during the few days I spent in each location. For instance, I ate at about twenty Houston restaurants over three days, knocking out nine of them in a single day and trying about three to five dishes at each eatery. It’s not a pace I would recommend if you’re looking to enjoy yourself and not anger your intestines. Over the course of my reporting, I took more than two thousand photos and filled two Moleskine journals with notes and still came back wishing I had taken more photos and more notes. But for all the Tums I chewed and traffic I had to sit through, I would never turn down an assignment as fun as this one.
What makes a road trip better than a flight or train ride?
Because I’m based in Austin, it just happened to be easiest for me to drive to each of the five locations. (I had originally planned to fly up to the Panhandle, but that trip fell through.) I could have flown to Midland and then made the three-hour drive down to Marfa, but the seven-hour haul (or was it eight?) from Austin seemed like a rite of passage I had to experience, especially since it was my first time out to West Texas. I’d love to take the train out there one day, but there’s something about a road trip—eating junk food, enduring sketchy gas station bathrooms, singing with the windows rolled down, getting lost, seeing tiny towns whiz by—that is particularly invigorating.
What restaurant, activity, or location didn’t make it into the story that you wish you could have included?
The article would have been twice as long (and my editor twice as mad) if I had included all of the great places I went to and all the noteworthy things I did. Like eating peach margarita cupcakes and shark jerky at Rowdy Maui, a riotous boutique in Rockport, which is just a quick ferry ride from Port Aransas. Or stumbling upon Coati’s Corner, a party rental space in Marfa that has a teepee and an outdoor dance floor. Or feasting on a picnic of pie in Houston’s lush Discovery Green while I watched kids running through the fountains and non-pie-eaters taking a free yoga class. Or enjoying a concert under the stars (and next to the Guadalupe) at the Whitewater Amphitheater, just around the corner from the Hideout on the Horseshoe, in Canyon Lake. And then there were the things I didn’t even get around to doing that I would have loved to include, like parasailing in Port Aransas, taking a private cooking class with chef Gerard Thompson at Rough Creek Lodge, and going on a tour of Donald Judd’s studio and home, in Marfa.
What advice can you give to Texans gearing up for a long road trip?
One point that can never be reiterated enough: Long stretches with no rest stops plus floorboards filled with empty bottles of water equal disaster. Oh, and it’s always a good idea to check hours of operation before you spend half a day driving out to that restaurant or shop or tourist attraction you’ve been dying to go to only to show up and find it closed.
What was the one thing you wished you would have brought with you on your travels?
I’m a horrible combination of classic over-packer and worst-case-scenario planner, so I didn’t travel anywhere without a case of Clif bars, a few gallons of water, two flashlights (and backup batteries!), four types of sunscreen, and enough antibacterial wipes to sanitize the Pentagon. Somewhere along the way, though—probably as I was lugging my overburdened bags up another flight of stairs—it dawned on me what I didn’t bring: enough space in my luggage for souvenirs!