It’s the number one question I field from friends, family, and strangers: What’s a cool/secluded/luxurious/affordable/romantic place to stay? It’s not a surprising query. If you’ve ever been in charge of planning a vacation, you know that a good hotel is a destination in itself—and a bad one can wreck your whole trip. As I’ve wandered around the state over the past few years, I’ve checked in to dozens upon dozens of B&Bs, boutique hotels, cabins, vacation rentals, and resorts. And while there are many fine places to lay your head for a night or two, it’s the ones—like the following ten—that transcend mere function to become self-contained worlds that you want to hole up in indefinitely. To be considered for this list, a property had to be newly built or significantly renovated in the past four years (i.e., since we published our “Where To Stay Now 2012” list). But to make the list, it had to have more than pillow-top mattresses and a well-stocked mini bar and a showerhead with decent water pressure. For starters, I was looking for an uncommon attention to detail, in both design and service. Did it have lively gathering spots where locals and strangers could come into one anothers’ orbits as well as quiet nooks to retire to where you could shirk small talk altogether and read or catnap uninterrupted? Also considered was the appeal of its location, whether that was in the middle of the action (like San Antonio’s Hotel Emma or Austin’s South Congress Hotel) or off in a microcosm of its own (like the Cell Block, in Clifton, or High Hill Farm, near Overton). A place’s history, the skill of its chefs (where applicable), and the ease of transactions all accounted for something too. But ultimately, there was one telling criterion that each of the following places have in common: They’re an exciting new answer to a Texas traveler’s most pressing question.
Let’s begin with the ammonia compressor: it’s red, the size of a tractor, and smack- dab in the middle of the lobby. It’s the first signal that there’s nothing cookie-cutter about San Antonio’s Hotel Emma, the long-awaited showpiece of the cultural district that’s sprung up on the site of the famed Pearl Brewery. Built from the bones of the 1894 brewhouse, the eight-story Emma is a lavish labor of love (and private capital) that misses zero opportunities to tout its history or arouse your “must Instagram immediately” impulses.
As you snap away at the grand chandeliers fashioned from bottle labelers and the brewing vats in the ballroom, you get the distinct sense that New York–based designers Roman and Williams had a ball repurposing the many excavated relics. If the hotel’s namesake, Emma Koehler—who kept the brewery afloat through Prohibition after her husband was murdered by one of his lovers—were to check in, she’d hardly believe that the old cellar is now Larder, a gourmet market and coffee shop, or that the fermentation tanks have been fashioned into private banquettes in the Sternewirth bar, or that the city’s see-and-be-scenesters are filling chef John Brand’s farm-minded Supper. Aside from my room, a vaulted-ceiling beauty with exposed brick and plaster walls, my own preferred corner was in the library, a quiet guests-only haven that I’d slip off to each evening, presumably to read one of the 3,700 titles available to borrow, but inevitably to take a few more pictures. Opened November 2015; 146 rooms; starting at $350; thehotelemma.com
Hotel Saint George
Marfa may corral an inordinate number of tourists relative to its size, but the mythically remote West Texas town doesn’t exactly court them. Shops and galleries keep erratic hours, procuring a meal often requires reservations and/or boundless patience, and finding a place to stay can be fraught with “no vacancies.” With this in mind, local businessman Tim Crowley, the Houston expat behind the Marfa Book Company and the Crowley Theater, decided it was time to resurrect the spirit—and utility—of the historic Hotel Saint George.
Erected on the same site, Crowley’s brand-new Hotel Saint George has the clean, gray lines and simple structure of Donald Judd’s eighties-era concrete boxes—Marfa’s original tourist attraction—installed nearby. It also has all the provisions a windswept traveler could want. My two friends and I found ample space in our deluxe king room, even with the extra twin bed we’d requested, and a perfectly framed view of the Presidio County Courthouse. We also found ample sustenance—lamb meatballs! Grilled blue prawns!—at LaVenture, helmed by chef Allison Jenkins, formerly of Austin’s acclaimed LaV. A more casual eatery and a pool are in the works across the street, and from the excited snippets I overheard from guests buzzing through the bright, airy lobby, it seems the Saint George will more than meet demand—and will likely further stoke it. Opened March 2016; 55 rooms; starting at $165; marfasaintgeorge.com
High Hill Farm
The 75-acre spread was overgrown with hardwoods when Jason and Sharon Romano first spotted the plot that would become the Piney Woods retreat of their dreams. Since 2013, they have been steadily transforming their new homestead—nestled off a county road near Overton, about twenty miles southeast of Tyler—into a “greatest hits” compilation of their favorite vacation destinations. The first three pastel bungalows that have gone up, unfussy and outfitted with small private yards, are as sunny as those in Seaside, Florida. The pool, set into an emerald lawn, and the vineyard, with its sloping rows of black Spanish grapes, could be direct imports from Napa’s sophisticated Carneros Inn, while the Napoleon Bar pays homage to the Romanos’ favorite New Orleans watering hole. At their 48-seat restaurant, Côte, chef Erin Willis serves locally sourced, Southern-by-way-of-France feasts. High Hill’s own imitation-worthy delights came into full view when I climbed onto an orange ATV for a ride into the property’s deliberately less-manicured reaches. Beyond a stately tree line of white oaks and redbuds, I followed hiking trails that wend around three natural springs and open onto clearings set aside for skeet shooting, an obstacle course, and champagne-laden sunset picnics. Though the proprietors’ vision is still unfolding (read: construction is ongoing), I’d seen enough to know I’ll be adding High Hill to my own list of “must return to” destinations. Opened September 2015; 3 bungalows (so far); starting at $245; highhillfarm.com
In the 1850’S, a band of German settlers came upon a particularly lovely stretch along Cypress Creek in the Hill Country and decided to throw down stakes. They called the place Camp Comfort in homage to the state of physical ease that we still spend our lives, and certainly our vacation savings, in pursuit of. A similar enchantment came over me as I surveyed the same stretch of creek from the porch of my tin-roofed cabin at the new Camp Comfort, a very truthfully named B&B. What was once the town’s first social club, complete with a bowling alley, has been transformed into a rustic retreat where the summer-camp adventures of youth get a second wind.
In between the banana-yellow vintage Ford out front and the tire swing near the creek out back, a mini-compound rings a gravel courtyard. There’s a row of four rooms, two stand-alone cabins, a vine-covered pergola shading picnic tables and grills, and a stage. And then there’s the communal Social Hall, which dates to 1870, where breakfast is served and board games and homemade cookies are available for the taking. I sank into an Adirondack chair by a crackling fire pit, set my glass of wine on the tree-stump side table, and got to jotting down all the thoughtful particulars worth writing home about: the $5 s’mores-making kits (proceeds go to the local library), the porch chairs draped with plaid Pendleton blankets, the air-jet tubs, the Tivoli radios, the morning muffins and jams. Twirling the pencil I’d lifted from my cabin, I noticed its inscription—“Want better, not more”—and knew I’d found a place that embodied that sentiment exactly. Opened January 2014; 4 rooms, 2 cabins; starting at $205; camp-comfort.com
St. Anthony Hotel
“Absolutely fireproof” read the ad announcing the opening of San Antonio’s St. Anthony Hotel in February 1909. “#Texas JewelReborn” read the hashtag announcing its reopening last fall after a multimillion-dollar overhaul. Luckily the update was triggered not by a great conflagration but by new owners, who’ve returned the hotel to its former glory. Despite several good decades that saw dozens of A-list guests (John Wayne took up residence while filming The Alamo) and a host of headline-making soirees (Grace Kelly turned heads when she attended a fashion show), the ten-story icon had grown more shabby than chic until a local company bought it in 2012.
Thirty months of tweaks later, the St. Anthony—located just blocks from the Alamo—is once again a black-tie affair. As I strolled across the lobby’s original Calacatta marble floors and caught sight of my road-weary self in one of the many gilded mirrors, I felt a little underdressed. That didn’t stop me from commandeering one of the velvet-domed chairs in Peacock Alley, the grand parlor where crystal chandeliers dangle above plush emerald carpets, or sitting a spell in the revamped St. Anthony Club. Spiffing up a bit did feel required, however, for dinner at the new Rebelle restaurant and drinks at the glitzy Haunt Lounge. In the morning, I wandered up to the Sky Terrace, a rooftop perch that echoes the Spanish Colonial architecture of San Antonio’s missions and is steadily booked for parties and events. And just like that, St. Anthony’s dance card is filled once again. Renovated 2013–2015; 277 rooms; starting at $239; thestanthonyhotel.com
I laughed out loud when I read that Abilene’s Sayles Landmark aims to be a sophisticated corrective for those times when “the doily-clad museum house just won’t cut it any longer.” But I came closer to crying tears of gratitude when I stepped inside the grandest B&B I’d ever seen, nary a doily in sight. Built by Judge Henry Sayles in 1889, the 3,500-square-foot Queen Anne Victorian home has been reimagined top to toe by its current owners, Terry and Laura Browder.
They clearly have an uncanny knack for repurposing antiques in clever ways: a church pew fashioned into a bed, a section of a hundred-year-old iron cemetery fence that’s now a staircase banister. Each room—there are two downstairs, four upstairs—has its own theme, a decorating scheme that usually makes me shudder but is done here to masterful effect: the bathroom in the Judge’s Chambers has walls “papered” with the bindings of leather law books, and the spacious Luxe boasts a claw-foot tub and a Victorian bed with a fourteen-foot-tall headboard. I was in awe. I was also well fed: there was a homemade “welcome” pound cake waiting for me in the kitchen and an elaborate hot breakfast, served either in the Gentleman’s Parlor or on the terrace by the pool. It all added up to the type of subtle splendor that made me feel simultaneously spoiled and right at home. Opened November 2014; 6 rooms; starting at $195; sayleslandmark.com
Hotel Van Zandt
Austin is booming, as you’ve heard, and Rainey Street is the happening hood that best encapsulates the city’s sea change. The once-quiet residential stretch, which spoons I-35 near the banks of Lady Bird Lake just south of downtown, has become the kind of uber- (and Uber-) concentrated string of backyard bars and cocktail bungalows that fulfills visitors’ fantasies of a city shimmering with youthful vigor. And now those hopeful future Austinites can lay their heads—or just continue their booze cruise—at the Hotel Van Zandt, a sixteen-story, post-slacker utopia in the middle of it all. Here, living room–like nooks and deep leather couches double as co-working spaces. Just off the lobby, Cafe 605 sells homemade granola bars, quinoa salads, and Antone’s T-shirts. There are USB charging ports and Bluetooth speakers in the rooms, and the whole place is wired with super-speedy fiber-optic Internet connections. Meanwhile, free loaner bikes and doggy beds and cold beer at check-in are doled out like necessities. Though its name is also a nod to Republic of Texas diplomat Isaac Van Zandt, a generous hat tip is given to his great-great-grandson Townes and the homegrown music scene that influenced the talented troubadour. Go ahead and drop a Townes classic onto the record player in your suite or, at Geraldine’s, sip a Willie’s Cup (a whiskey, sage, and hemp-seed-milk cocktail wrapped in a red bandanna) while bands croon every night from the corner stage. The Van Zandt may be a harbinger of the “new” Austin, but it’s still a place where you can respectfully revel in the countercultural cool of the city’s bygone generations. Opened November 2015; 319 rooms; starting at $239; hotelvanzandt.com
South Congress Hotel
When it was announced a few years back that the beloved food-truck commune on Austin’s South Congress Avenue was being disbanded to make way for a hotel, the pushback came faster than you can say “petition.” “It’s always sad to see something that’s a part of Austin’s identity get torn down for something generic,” lamented one resident. I understood the fear, that some out-of-touch developer would plunk down a garish high-rise that would harsh SoCo’s laid-back vibe.
Fortunately that’s not how the story has played out. A humble three stories, the locally owned South Congress Hotel fits seamlessly into the neighborhood. Its white-brick exterior—a bit like a Soviet-era Khrushchyovka apartment building—purposely keeps a chill profile. (Even its name is unobtrusive!) But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to behold. With three restaurants, three boutiques, a coffee and juice bar, and a nail salon, the South Congress is a microcosm of its namesake street’s native cool. Perhaps that’s why the newcomer already feels like it’s been around a while—and why I wanted to linger, both in my room, a luxe modernist cocoon with a cheeky peekaboo shower and a dedicated Wi-Fi network, and in the open-to-all-comers common areas. Without realizing it, I logged several hours by the Palm Springs–mod pool, which has sight lines to downtown, and in the lobby bar, a sectional-strewn hideaway where I spied several fellow Austinites co-opting the long wooden tables as their satellite offices. One of the marks of a good hotel, after all, is that the locals don’t stay away. Opened September 2015; 83 rooms; starting at $289; southcongresshotel.com
The Gage Hotel
Let the cool kids have Marfa, I thought, as I sat on my private balcony at the Gage Hotel, 55 less-hyped miles east, in Marathon, which has been a restful way station ever since the railroad tracks were laid here in 1882. It was that same year that a former ship captain, Albion E. Shepard, bought land nearby and, thinking the plains bore some resemblance to those in Marathon, Greece, so named the budding settlement. I mention all this because it was his old home I’d taken up residence in, a white, two-story Colonial built in 1890 that’s gotten a full face-lift from the folks who run the Gage. The Captain Shepard House has become my favorite hideaway, with its five rooms reminiscent of a cattle baron’s dream retreat and its long, two-room carriage house out back, complete with an inviting porch, wooden rockers, and views of the green, green lawn (okay, so it’s synthetic grass). That’s why I’m hesitant to tell you about its quiet nooks and peaceful parlors. Or to reveal the improvements made elsewhere at the Gage, like the spiffed-up historic rooms and new private baths in the original building and the game lot outside complete with sand volleyball, bocce, horseshoes, and a chess board with toddler-size pieces. All of this is in addition to the 12 Gage restaurant, White Buffalo Bar, and ice-cold pool that, like an unexpected windfall, I’d really rather keep to myself. Renovated 2012–2015; 45 rooms; starting at $99; gagehotel.com
The Cell Block
In Clifton, about 35 miles northwest of Waco, folks pay good money to get thrown in the slammer. Hidden down an alleyway painted with vibrant murals, the town’s thirties-era two-cell jail has been turned into a quirky one-bed, one-bath clink of one’s own. When Kaye Johnson bought it in 2014, the little big house had fallen into disrepair, having held its last inmates—most of whom had had too much to drink—in the seventies. The sheer novelty of getting to say you’ve spent a night behind bars (the original steel doors are still in place) is a draw in itself, but Johnson has gone out of her way to make sure you’ll be doing time in style with all the amenities of a high-end hostelry—and then some. A small library of prison-related albums has been left out by the record player (“I hear the train a-comin’, it’s rolling round the bend . . .” ), and you can pass the time by the fire pit on the rooftop’s “prison yard” while playing 42 with handmade dominoes. In lieu of breakfast, there’s booze: a bottle of Clifton’s own Red Caboose wine and an unmarked flask of hooch (it’s Balcones Distilling whiskey). Detainees, who are encouraged to snap a “mug shot” with the instant-film camera, are lucky there’s no law against penal puns. “We’re getting ‘released’ today with great sadness,” wrote a couple from Puerto Vallarta in the “cell log” notebook. “Must think of another crime so we can get sent back here soon!” Opened May 2014; 1 cell, er, room; starting at $225; stayatthecellblock.com
What’s on the market for all you airbnb’ers.
Corte del Norte, Marfa
Designed by the folks behind Garza Furniture, this two-house property (you can rent either or both) is the minimalist haven of a West Texas pilgrim’s dreams, complete with stock-tank pool. cortedelnorte.com
Curlew Casa, Rockport
Yes, the average rate is $929 a night for this five-bedroom coastal palace, but it sleeps fourteen and is outfitted with a hot tub, fire pit, kayaks, and a private boat slip. luxury.homeaway.com/vacation-rental/p614459vb
Green Acres, Elgin
With two roomy yurts, a fire pit, a barn kitchen, hammocks, a trail, and cute critters (alpacas!), this glampers’ paradise outside Austin is ideal for city folk hankering for a country weekend. greenacresatx.com
M Streets Guest Cottage, Dallas
This renovated 1937 charmer, which has a galley kitchen and a sleeping loft, could be your cheerful, if cozy, home base and is only blocks from lively Lower Greenville. airbnb.com/rooms/3676585
Montrose Bungalow, Houston
A three-night minimum stay is required for this Craftsman-style home in vibrant Montrose, but you’ll want to extend your visit to enjoy the roomy kitchen, backyard deck, and porch swing. airbnb.com/rooms/8541471
The Vintage Round Top, Round Top
Near the small town’s antiquing epicenter, this light-filled, 2,700-square-foot home, which sleeps six, will inspire your own DIY daydreams with its creatively repurposed decor. thevintageroundtop.com