by BILL BARTLETT*
The first thing to know about Texas when planning a visit is its size. Texas is big. Really big. At 696.2 km2 it is larger than France (547.5 km2). But it has less than half the population – 29 mm compared to 67 mm. Like the land itself Texans are by nature large, meaning large on life, big on action. They don’t see many obstacles to getting things accomplished and some non-Texans take offense to this optimism. But underneath an often wild spirit they are generally soft-hearted and compassionate, neighborly and folksy even if not chatty.
Not all Texans are cowboys by any stretch and the Marlboro man image is more legend than reality. Yet there are plenty of horses and cows in Texas. More than 11 million! To this day horses are regularly used to herd cattle and tend to ranches.
The second thing to know when traveling around Texas is the need for a car. Unlike Europe there is virtually no inter-city rail and certainly none of the high-speed variety. On the other hand, speed limits in Texas are as much as 137 kph and regularly 120 kph when outside urban areas.German drivers will feel right at home on Texas roads. Petrol is under €.44/liter as compared to €1.57 in Italia for example making travel by car fast, fun and affordable.
Can you visit Texas in 7 days? Yes. You could also spend a month and only discover a portion of it. 10 days is preferable, 14 better. Most Europeans and Asians arrive in Dallas to start their touring. Africans and those from Latin America generally arrive first in Houston. I am fortunate to have been in Texas many times, perhaps 30 or more visits. In reconstructing an ideal itinerary, I start in Austin, the Capitol.
Travelers can arrive in Austin non-stop from London, Paris and Frankfurt or connect easily via 9 USA gateway cities. My preference is always small, boutique hotels and in Austin that would be Hotel Ella.
(Austin's Capitol photo Bill Bartlett)
Every trip to Austin should begin with the impressive State
Capitol building, a gem of 19th century architecture. Situated on a
garden hill, it provides stunning views of the city and the soaring, modern
skyscrapers. It is both the seat of power for the State and a history museum
with free admission for the daily 30 to 45-minute tours.
Very nearby on the grounds of the University of Texas is the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. LBJ was the 36th US President who succeeded John F. Kennedy. The buildings include a full-scale replica of the Oval Office. Frequent tours are about €10.
Bicycling is a great way to get to many of Austin’s most popular and interesting places. Bike sharing is wildly popular. In the afternoon I would drive (bike actually) to Lady Bird Lake. Here you can canoe, kayak, trek or stay on your bike for miles of scenic riding. Or take a lake cruise. The lake is actually a reservoir on the mighty Colorado River formed by dams at either end.
I make the ‘lake’ my center point from which I can navigate to and from the surprising beauty and landscape of Austin. Texas is perceived as flat with miles of prairies. Not so. It’s hills are enchanting offering shade, color, privacy, and hidden treasures.
(Austin photo Pixabay)
From the lake, Barton Creek is a must-see. 327 hectares and nearly 13 km long, it is lush with vegetation, sheer cliff walls, and refreshing swim areas; or trek the many excellent trails. It is in Zilker Park where you will find Barton Springs Pool, a natural, spring-fed pool that year-round is 20 degrees C.
Zilker Park in the heart of central Austin, is a beehive of activity featuring a miniature train ride, disc golf, volleyball and many cultural and entertainment events. Zilker Botanical Garden (10.4 ha) within the greater Park is a place I try never to miss. There are several gardens within the gardens – Japanese, Rose, Prehistoric among them. And arguably one of the best displays of native plants in Texas. Surprisingly, there is no café but lovely picnic areas.
You will be enticed to climb Mount Bonnel, all 236 meters. That may be high for Texas hills. For the rest of us, a smirk is ok. Often considered Austin’s premier tourist attraction I find it a waste of time. I much prefer to be at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum, the Blanton Museum of Art or the Elisabet Ney Museum. If you are inclined to walk the steep, 102 steps to the top of Bonnel then you are nearby the Laguna Gloria sculpture garden, small but enchanting.
(Hill country photo Bill Bartlett)
One does not come to Austin without experiencing its music and food. Just find your way to 6th Street and let your senses guide you. Whole books have been written on Austin nightlife. I can hardly cover it here.
Onto San Antonio a city impossible not to love. And getting here, detouring slightly through the Texas hill country, is itself a special treat full of glimmering streams and mighty oaks. Plus, the cowboy culture. This is Texas we’re talking about. So, let’s first stop in picturesque Wimberley, high on my list of places I want to visit. And let’s get to Jacob’s Well, a thrilling but potentially dangerous pool, 30 m deep. It is entrance to 4 submerged caves including the State’s second largest, and one whose opening is so small as to require divers to remove their tanks. I will be happy just to take photos. Hey, no sharks!
For more adventure, it’s the 2-hour zipline course with 10 separate lines from 45 to 275 m spanning 1.6 km.This I will be doing gliding over canyons and creeks. Afterward I’m sure I will try one of Wimberley’s 8 wineries. Yes, that’s correct, vineyards and winemaking in the heart of Texas. Don’t snicker. It’s not Europe or California but friends assure me that I will be pleasantly surprised, delighted in fact, if only for the surrounding nature.
(Bandera photo Bill Bartlett)
Bandera, my next stop, is one I look forward to. Small in size,
only 800 or 900 persons, but big in reputation as the “Cowboy Capital of the
World”. Founded by Polish immigrants from Silesia who built St. Stanislaus
Catholic Church that still stands as one of the oldest in Texas. The
quintessential Texas town was the starting point of the Great Western Cattle
Trail in the years 1860-90 with thousands of cows and horses moved yearly to
rail lines hundreds of miles north. Thus, the cowboy legacy.
Bandera - the Spanish and Polish word for flag - is the main town for Bandera County, an area 2,000 km2, made up of 6 distinct recreational areas rich in cowboy heritage and flush with rivers, lakes and clear streams, the kinds seen in western movies. My only overnight was at Amah’s Cabin at the Silver Spur Dancehall Ruins. The town is a treasure of cowboy legend and culture.
In San Antonio I am met with a beautiful city, one with deep American history and lore, yet tall, modern and vibrant with a multi-cultural composition. Nearly everybody’s first stop, mine included, is River Walk, a world-renowned urban waterway that attracts 13 million visitors a year. Hotel Valencia is a good choice for being at the center of it all. Hotel Havana however is where I check in.
(San Antonio photo Pixabay)
Then I board the Go Rio narrated boat cruise for a short, only 35 minutes, informative highlight tour of the river. During the 4 km ride I get a perspective not possible from the street. Here I prioritize the things I want to see while in San Antonio. From the water I pick out San Antonio Museum of Art, the farmers market and food at Pearl Brewery, Arneson River Theater, an historic open-air performing arts center with an eclectic mix of music and Aztec, a 1920’s landmark building of major motion picture significance.
From the boat I have decided that I cannot miss the 300-year old La
Villita Historic Arts Village
for my gallery fix that includes some of the best imported Mexican folk art in
America. I also learn that I can skip the Love Lock Bridge, just as one can in
Paris’ Pont des Arts.
(Part 1 - follows)
* BILL BARTLETT (Bill is Managing Director of Cascade Travel & Photo in Central Oregon. Texas is the first of a series of 4 articles for foglieviaggi. Bill has traveled to 58 countries on 6 continents. His travel focus is history and architecture. Look for Alaska – the Last Frontier to appear soon)