It’s no surprise that, as a recent study revealed, Texans prefer to vacation in Texas. Given the state’s size, we have more than enough staycation options. But since our last roundup of the most notable Texas lodgings, in 2004, there have been some significant shifts. Design-driven boutique hotels are now ubiquitous, and with the explosion of real-time online reviews, fancy extras like designer toiletries are quickly becoming obligatory. Less crucial is proximity to a major metropolitan area, as hoteliers focus on creating immersive mini-environments that you never have to leave. Whether you’re trying to escape the noisy bustle of urban life at a minimalist cottage in Talpa or swanning through the lobby of a Dallas hot spot, hotels these days tend to be all-in experiences. To get a sense of these changes, I drafted a list of 44 hotels that have opened or undergone significant renovations since 2004. After winnowing those down to two dozen, I booked rooms anonymously to determine my ten favorites. Checking each of them out was rough work (e.g., breakfast in bed, spa treatments), but someone had to do it.
With cushy rooms, a rooftop pool, an on-site guacamologist, a 12,000-foot spa, and, in some rooms, a bathtub view of the city’s skyline, this Uptown favorite gives a whole new meaning to living the “suite” life. 2121 McKinney Avenue, 214-922-0200
Meant to evoke the old-world sophistication of a private Italian villa, this boutique hotel has suits of armor in the lobby, rich tapestries in the suites, and Tuscan delicacies served in the elegant dining room. 1080 Uptown Park Boulevard, 713-418-1000
The Prairie by Rachel Ashwell
Designer Rachel Ashwell has transformed five cottages on an 1800’s homestead into a “shabby chic” bed-and-breakfast, which means claw-foot bathtubs and frilly white bedding. 5808 Wagner Road, 979-836-4975
Revamped by hotelier Liz Lambert, this 1914 River Walk establishment has a modern-vintage vibe (yes, those are the original Bastrop pine floors) and a restaurant that serves pan-Latin dishes and old-school cocktails. 1015 Navarro, 210-222-2008
La Posada Milagro
If you’re looking for a West Texas hideout, make the trek to this stacked-rock guesthouse; its four rooms are small and simple (don’t worry, there’s Wi-Fi) and have amazing views of the Chisos Mountains. 100 Milagro Way, 432-371-3044
The Best Toiletries:
Fredericksburg Herb Farm, Fredericksburg
Chances are you’re going to make off with the gratis bath products anyway. But what luck to find that the farm-to-tub toiletries left for guests in these fourteen pastel “Sunday haus” cottages are the sort you’d actually want to use again. The aromatherapy shampoos, conditioners, shower gels, and lotions are made on-site with home-grown ingredients, and larger versions are available in the gift shop.
The Best Lobby:
El Cosmico, Marfa
As cool as the trailers, tepees, and tents are at this West Texas encampment, you’ll find yourself gravitating to its living-room-like lobby to access the Wi-Fi, shop for palm-leaf hats and Bolivian blankets, buy a cold beer, play a vintage LP, or kick your feet up on the coffee table and read a copy of the Big Bend Sentinel while making new friends.
The Best Mode of Transportation:
The Ritz Carlton, Dallas
Yes, the valet attendants can get you a cab in a nanosecond. And yes, the McKinney Avenue Trolley stops a few yards from the hotel’s entrance. But wouldn’t you look so much better in the back of a chauffeured black Bentley? Complimentary rides within a three-mile radius are offered first-come, first-served.
The Best Pool(s):
Éilan Hotel Resort and Spa, San Antonio
While sun worshippers bask on loungers sitting in shallow water or sprawl out in the twenty white cabanas around the outdoor pool, serious swimmers can perfect their strokes in the indoor lap pool at this new luxury hotel in far northwest San Antonio.
The Best Do Not Disturb Sign:
Hotel ZaZa, Houston
Given the hotel’s playful—and often cheeky—charm, you may not be surprised to find that one of its privacy door hangers features a supermodel wearing what looks like full-body rainbow war paint. But you may have to suppress a chuckle when you see a burly man stealthily hanging the sign—which reads, “I’m busy putting on my makeup”—from his door handle.
Hotel ZaZa, Houston
Every square inch of this 315-room hotel in the Museum District exudes the look-at-me personality of a Kardashian sister. Formerly the famed Warwick Hotel (which opened in the twenties), the twelve-story building was transformed into the glitzy ZaZa in 2007 (a sister property of the same name opened in Dallas in 2002). To be perfectly up front, it took me a little time to warm to the hotel’s overt (some might say obnoxious) over-the-top-ness. The lobby, for example, is decked out with massive crystal chandeliers, wall-size mirrors, and a long, koi-filled pool. You may do a double take when you see the Daliesque upholstery on the chairs near the grand piano: Is that a bulldog wearing a business suit? The outdoor pool, which is ringed with direct-access villas, evokes the sophisticated glamour of Beverly Hills with its black-and-white-striped loungers, well-manicured shrubbery, and private cabanas (each has a small chandelier and a flat-screen TV). The cozy ZaSpa offers “Botox-like” facials and detoxifying “morning after” scrubs. And did I mention the constant celebrity sightings? Dozens of framed portraits of A-listers—everyone from Prince to Pee-wee Herman—grace nearly every wall. In my king suite, a black and white photograph of a pensive-looking Marilyn Monroe hovered over a reading chair. In the bathroom was a photograph of an orangutan who also appeared to be contemplating the meaning of life. While my room didn’t lack for whimsy (the bed had golden claw feet, and turndown service included a package of Mike and Ike candy), it was positively ho-hum compared with the ZaZa’s seventeen “Magnificent” and “Concept” suites, like the 1,035-square-foot space-travel-themed Houston We Have a Problem, which has an astronaut suit in one corner, and the 2,016-square-foot Tycoon, which has a soaking tub on its terrace. Downstairs at Monarch, the ZaZa’s see-and-be-seen bistro (its patio has a nice view of the local landmark Mecom Fountain), I nibbled on a deconstructed ahi tuna roll and then destroyed a gingery, wasabi-slathered beef tenderloin while surveying the stylish crowd. When the waitress came by again, I asked her about the pink concoctions everyone seemed to be drinking. “Oh, that’s our Big Flirt martini,” she said. I ordered one on the spot. 5701 Main, 713-526-1991, hotelzaza.com/houston
Hotel Galvez, Galveston
Opened in 1911 as a triumphant symbol of Galveston’s rebirth after the devastating 1900 hurricane, the coast’s premier beachfront hotel unveiled an $11 million face-lift last year on the occasion of its hundredth anniversary. So while you’ll find much-needed upgrades throughout, the Queen of the Gulf still radiates the same splendor that made the landmark building the center of Galveston’s social life in its heyday. As you pull into its long driveway, lined with palm trees, it’s easy to see why the Galvez once played host to an endless stream of presidents and celebrities. The creamy stucco building, eight stories tall and topped by a red tile roof, is as inviting as it is grand (keep an eye out for the decorative pineapples, which are a symbol of hospitality). In the bright and spacious lobby, original marble columns topped with restored bronze capitals uphold a beamed mahogany ceiling. Though there’s a richly hued sitting area here—not to mention a striking bar—I found myself gravitating to the two light-filled loggias on either side of the lobby. From my cushioned wicker chair, I could see the Gulf’s waves lapping at the shore just beyond the Galvez’s great lawn and garden. And, lucky me, I had the same view from the recently installed divided-light windows in my room. Though outfitted with new furniture, the 224 guest rooms are surprisingly bland in comparison with the majesty of the Galvez’s common areas. Fortunately, you’ll probably spend most of your time luxuriating in the spa or at the pool. At the former, which is tucked away in the basement, I sipped lavender-infused champagne in the relaxation room and recharged in the meditation garden. At the latter, I stretched out on a lounger underneath a vine-covered pergola and took full advantage of the swim-up bar. On my last evening, after a dinner of seafood gumbo at Bernardo’s (next time, I want to visit on a Sunday to sample the restaurant’s award-winning brunch), I borrowed one of the hotel’s bicycles and went for a cruise along Seawall Boulevard. As I pedaled back, dusk was falling. The four copper octagonal towers that rise from the middle of the hotel’s roofline were lit up, and I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen such a magnificent sight.2024 Seawall Boulevard, 409-765-7721, hotelgalvez.com
Rancho Loma Restaurant + Rest, Talpa
The first thing I noticed as I pulled into this middle-of-nowhere retreat an hour south of Abilene was that I had no cell service (though Sprint customers should have better luck). The second thing I noticed was the achingly pastoral scene surrounding me: an organic garden verdant with heirloom tomatoes and black Spanish grapes, a peach orchard, and a petting zoo’s worth of critters, including a horse, two donkeys, a cluster of lambs, a brood of chickens, and the two black-mouth curs that bounded over to greet me. Their owner, Robert Williamson, wasn’t far behind, emerging from the restored 1878 farmhouse where he lives with his wife, Laurie, and their eleven-year-old daughter, Zadie. The former Dallasites, who own this three-hundred-acre spread, started welcoming strangers to their home in 2003, when they opened a 24-seat restaurant under their roof. Customers and friends took to hinting that they wished they could stay overnight, so in May the family debuted Rest, a flat-roofed, five-room structure made of corrugated tin and wood that’s as modern as their native-stone farmhouse is historic. The first four adjoining rooms have expansive sliding-glass doors, so you can look out onto a seemingly endless swath of prairie from your queen-size bed. The fifth room, at the far end of a long walkway, is a minimalist sanctuary with a king-size bed, a poured-concrete floor, a freestanding soaking tub, and white walls adorned with two of Robert’s meditative photographs of horses. The yuzu margarita and plate of spicy edamame that were awaiting me turned out to be harbingers of the thoughtful dishes that Laurie would prepare for dinner that night (which included a salad of prosciutto, burrata, and fresh-picked peaches and a tender cut of Akaushi steak). Laurie admits that “there’s not much to do out here”—though one can go antiquing in nearby towns—but I found that having no television and no radio was no problem. As for my cell phone, it made for a nice paperweight atop the stack of magazines I’d brought to read by the pool. 2969 CR 422, 325-636-4556, rancholoma.com
Riven Rock Ranch, Comfort
Update: Riven Rock Ranch closed in November 2013 and is now a private residence.
The most strenuous task you’ll have to accomplish during your stay at this 210-acre working ranch may be uncorking the bottle of Texas wine that’s been set out for your arrival. Unless you consider strolling through a garden or floating the Guadalupe River (bring your own tube) to be unnecessarily taxing, in which case perhaps you’d rather spend your time reading by the pool or getting to know the Tennessee walking horses that roam the pastures. At dinnertime, I made the two-minute drive from my suite to the Terrace Grill, the outdoor restaurant that sits on the property’s highest point. After eating a not-that-petite filet with an herby house-made Boursin-style cheese, I briefly contemplated ordering one of each of the ten desserts on the menu but ended up singling out the sinfully rich sundae topped with a chocolate Rebecca Creek Whiskey sauce. Owner Chris Havens, who opened Riven Rock with his wife, Elaine, four years ago, stopped by to introduce himself, and our conversation veered from wine (this summer marked the first harvest of the ranch’s tempranillo and viognier grapes) to the spa he plans to open to the German family that built the circa-1890’s farmhouse I was staying in. Riven Rock’s six guest cottages—three are new and three are renovated historic ranch dwellings—feature state-of-the-art kitchens and gas fireplaces and are decorated in a sophisticated country motif. Before turning in to my River Suite for the evening, I sat on the limestone patio and sipped my “welcome” wine. As I took in the stunning Hill Country panorama, I thought of the ranch’s original occupants, who must have enjoyed the same view many, many sunsets ago. 390 Hermann Sons Road, 877-726-2490
The Joule, Dallas
Housed in a twenties-era downtown high-rise, this boutique hotel boasts the only underwater bird’s-eye view of the city. That’s right: if you’re daring enough to swim to the glassed-in edge of the Joule’s heated rooftop pool, which juts out a dramatic eight feet beyond the building’s facade, you can peer down on the passersby walking along Main Street. If you like to do your people-watching unmediated by water and glass, you might prefer the rooftop bar, which lures in packs of glamorous locals. Or perhaps you’d rather browse the more than 250 wines for sale in the well-stocked Next Vintage shop before heading into the Charlie Palmer restaurant for dinner. In between bites of my veal chop, I mentioned to the waitress that the giant turbines spinning slowly on the ceiling reminded me of a West Texas wind farm. Accurately sensing my ignorance of thermodynamics, she graciously explained that the hotel is named for a unit of energy. Makes sense, as there are industrial-chic touches everywhere, from the two massive rotating gears behind and above the check-in desk to the chrome reading lamps in the 129 guest rooms. In my eighteenth-floor corner suite, there were navy brushed-velvet sitting chairs, two walk-in showers with dual “rain forest” showerheads, and glossy lacquered-wood desks. A full martini station, arty coffee-table books, and luxe Bulgari bath products further upped the swank quotient. In addition to the black and white photographs of Dallas cityscapes in each room, there’s roughly $22 million worth of art on view throughout the Joule, including Richard Phillips’s creepy but cheerful painting of a very large eye near the ground-floor elevator bank. One know-before-you-go tip: even though it’s only four years old, the Joule is currently undergoing a $78 million expansion, so you’ll have to pardon their dust until February, when the hotel will reveal its 29 new suites, 3 new penthouses, expanded lobby, 8,000-square-foot spa, subterranean lounge, and second, more casual restaurant. 1530 Main, 214-748-1300
El Cosmico, Marfa
The first time I drove by hotelier Liz Lambert’s high-desert “kibbutz,” which sits on a large, flat plot of dusty land just off U.S. 67, I mistook it for a trailer park. Which it basically is, except instead of dumpy double-wides, it’s strewn with seven sleekly restored vintage trailers, from the 18-foot-long Little Pinky to the 45-foot-long Imperial Mansion. Permanently parked on seventeen ocotillo-dotted acres, each has been outfitted with a fully stocked kitchenette, woolen pillows handmade in Bolivia, an iPod docking station, indoor plumbing, and, in some cases, a private outdoor shower (the two largest trailers also have indoor showers). Though the three-year-old property’s other accommodations—two tepees and eight 120-square-foot safari tents—hew a little too closely to my idea of roughing it (two words: shared bathhouse), I knew before I went that El Cosmico is purposefully no-frills. But it wasn’t until I had the key to the teal-and-cream 1953 Vagabond that I understood what Lambert meant when she described the trailers as “land yachts” on the surrounding desert “sea.” After purchasing a bag of blue-corn chips, a yellow journal with a picture of Hindu deity Garuda on its cover, and a couple of cold Victoria longnecks from the well-stocked sundries shop, I made it back to the Vagabond just as an evening storm was rolling in. I curled up on a cushion in the trailer’s bow and watched through the picture windows as the wind, rain, and dirt swirled outside. Visibility dwindled to a few feet, and I could no longer see the main building or the picnic tables where a group of locals and guests had gathered earlier for a community dinner. I thought this must be what it’s like when a sailor finally loses sight of the shore. I never felt unsafe or alone, just in awe of the wide-open spaces around me. 802 S. Highland Avenue, 432-729-1950
Hotel Saint Cecilia, Austin
Is that Mick Jagger taking an evening swim? It’s hard to tell in the glow of the neon “SOUL” sign that illuminates the tree-lined pool at this coolly decadent boutique hotel, but spotting rock royalty here is about as surprising as encountering a lion while on safari in the Serengeti. Lushly landscaped and well hidden even though it’s only a block off touristy South Congress Avenue, the Saint Cecilia is an ideal urban hideout, whether you’re dodging paparazzi or your preschoolers. Each of the rooms—there are five suites in a white-clapboard Victorian house, three studios, and six poolside bungalows—are stocked with “basics” like Geneva sound systems hooked up to turntables and handcrafted Hästens beds swaddled in expensive Rivolta Carmignani cotton sheets. In the moody lounge, which is open only to guests, a stuffed white peacock presides over the black marble-topped bar, where you can order the signature Two Saints cocktail (gin, St-Germain, and Topo Chico with orange) and a $32 cheese and charcuterie plate. Though there’s enough booze and snacks (buttered caramels, duck rillette, bison jerky) in the minibar to live off for at least a week, lunch and dinner have to be procured elsewhere. When a sudden evening downpour botched my plan to walk to a nearby restaurant, the hotel clerk graciously ordered a pizza for my companion and me. When it arrived, I put on the Bill Withers record we’d checked out from the lending library of vintage LPs, and we had a candle-lit picnic on the Turkish kilim rug in our suite. The next morning, after an in-room breakfast of crepes and sausage and Bloody Marys, I said a prayer to Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, asking her to gift me with the rights to even one Rolling Stones song so I could afford to stay in this heaven for the rest of my life. 112 Academy Drive, 512-852-2400
The Inn at Dos Brisas, Washington
This secluded country escape roughly halfway between Austin and Houston should have a warning posted at its entrance: “Caution: Guests may become incurably spoiled. Stay at your own risk.” Once inside its gates, you’ll wend your way along a narrow road through acres of bucolic farmland, passing organic gardens, pastures of grazing horses, and a sizable pond encircled by white Adirondack chairs, two of which are so laughably oversized they’d make Shaq look like Edith Ann. At the reception center, where a member of the Dos Brisas staff will be standing outside to greet you, you’ll be checked in as the bartender pours you a champagne cocktail and another staffer whisks your luggage away to your room. In addition to the resort’s four original casitas (each a “modest” 730 square feet), six larger haciendas were built last year. Try to keep your squeals to a neighborly decibel as you’re shown around your 2,950-square-foot Spanish Colonial Revival hacienda away from home. The architectural details (arched doorways, French oak floors, vaulted wood ceilings) and rustic-chic decor (hammered copper tables, crimson-and-sage plaid curtains, a mahogany leather sofa) lend a warm grandeur, but it’s the luxurious conveniences—a private plunge pool, a fireplace at the foot of the king bed, an array of bath salts next to a capacious whirlpool tub, a fridge stocked with homemade iced tea and simple syrup, an outdoor shower—that will permanently elevate your vacation expectations. (Of course, you will pay for these perks; during the high season, casitas start at $655 and haciendas at $995.) And yes, the golf cart parked outside is all yours too. It will come in handy after you’ve eaten your way through either the three-course or eight-course tasting menu served in the formal dining room, which is anchored by a French fireplace that dates to the 1760’s. (You’ll need a designated driver if you decide to partake in the wine pairing.) So what else is there to do at Dos Brisas besides be waited on hand and foot? You can go horseback riding or mountain biking. You can shoot skeet or catch fish. You can take a cooking class or a carriage ride. You can borrow a book to read or a telescope to go stargazing with. Or you can simply do nothing, which may be the greatest luxury of all. 10000 Champion Drive, 979-277-7750
JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa, San Antonio
Situated on a six-hundred-acre spread thirty minutes north of downtown, this 1,002-room resort has half a dozen restaurants, a six-acre water park, a 36-hole golf course, and a 26,000-square-foot spa, as well as its own Starbucks and FedEx shipping center. It’s larger than many Texas towns, not to mention every other Marriott resort in the world. But before you run screaming for the nearest boutique hotel, let me assure you that staying here doesn’t feel like being trapped on an overcrowded cruise ship. From my tall leather seat in the Crooked Branch bar, I surveyed the scene in the spacious lobby, which is three stories high and flanked by a pair of double-sided fireplaces. I saw old friends catching up over cocktails in semi-hidden nooks; packs of slightly sunburned men in golf attire backslapping their way into the High Velocity sports bar, their gazes already fixed on the 120-foot television screen; and a grandmother and her elementary-age grandkids huddled over a coffee table (once they taught her how to use its touch-screen surface, she began teaching them how to play chess). I also spied several young couples who appeared to be on “babymoons,” their eyes widening a bit as they watched herds of kids in wet swim trunks bounding in from the pool and gangs of teenagers making a beeline to the arcade. It was easy to find quieter spots too (aside from my room, which had a small balcony overlooking the man-made “lazy river”). If I hadn’t been content to just curl up with a book in the small library or lounge near the serene (adults-only) spa pool, I would have signed up for one of the bike trail rides or the nightlife nature walks. The trick to tackling this all-inclusive behemoth is to plan ahead—or let a concierge plan ahead for you. That way, when you get to the JW, all you have to do is throw your keys to one of the valet attendants and settle in for a boredom-proof vacation.23808 Resort Parkway, 866-882-4420
A mere fifteen minutes after being buzzed into this secluded wellness resort about thirty miles northwest of downtown, I was floating in an infinity-edge pool with a margarita in hand. As I looked out over the wooded hills surrounding scenic (if drought-depleted) Lake Travis, I struck up a conversation with a fellow guest. A professor from Pittsburgh (by way of Italy), he had been at Travaasa for almost two weeks and had a couple more days to go. We were both pleased to have discovered that the alluring photos we had seen on the website weren’t misleading; the eighteen-month-old establishment aims to offer a “Zen-like” sabbatical, and it does. Guests come to indulge in the all-organic spa treatments, figure-friendly meals made with locally sourced ingredients, and welcome quietude (the resort is kid-free). My room, located in the Lavender casita, had all the creature comforts you’d expect of a high-end hotel (coffeemaker, giant flat-screen TV, sweet turndown treat), even if it wasn’t so plush that I felt spoiled (the all-natural bedding wasn’t as soft as the sheets I have at home). Of course, the daily “experience schedule” is so robust—activities range from culinary demonstrations to horseback rides to harmonica lessons—that I wasn’t planning to spend too much time in my room anyway. Though I didn’t spring for one of the pricier third-floor rooms, which have unobstructed views of the 210-acre Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, the view from my ground-floor patio was stunning enough to move me—an incurable night owl—to sign up for a “heart-starter hike” at seven in the morning. It took a mere hour of trekking through the largely untouched habitat to feel more relaxed than I had in months. I could only imagine how unwound the good professor must have felt after two weeks of this sybaritic bliss. 13500 FM 2769, 512-258-7243