by Lee Foster
What is the number one leisure destination when y’all travel down to howdy with the folks in Texas?
The answer is a Texas-size tale of travel because Texas is the third most prominent leisure travel state in the country.
Texas’s number one vacation destination is the San Antonio region, with 26 million visitors per year. If you plan to visit Texas, put San Antonio at the top of your list. Both the city and the nearby Hill Country have several appealing features.
San Antonio deftly mixes its ethnic traditions and its attractions. The essence of the city is its cultural mix, a German-style sausage in one hand and a Mexican Margarita in the other. Much of the early settlement of Texas was by Germans, which is a surprise to many visitors. But even more dominant is the Hispanic ethnic contribution. With about 59 percent of the 1.3 million residents being of Hispanic origin, San Antonio is sometimes called “the northernmost city in Mexico.” Main attractions include the River Walk, the Alamo, and the popular Hill Country outside of the city.
San Antonio: The City
When in San Antonio, the seventh largest U.S. city, be sure to see:
*The River Walk. The genius of the city planners, who turned a potential drainage ditch into a meandering masterpiece of landscaped urban design, should be commended. The San Antonio River is the focal point of a downtown public life as vital as that in any American city.
Along the River Walk, which is several miles long, you’ll find a cluster of hotels, among them the elegant, older Omni La Mansion del Rio and the modern Grand Hyatt. Restaurants, such as Boudro’s and Zuni Grill, line the waterway, which presents a continuing parade of small, colorful barges ferrying people through the river area. Barge trips can also be a lunch or dinner outing on the boat, catered by various River Walk restaurants. In the evening, if your barge passes the Arneson Theater, you’ll see the stage on one side of you and the audience on the other.
Serious shoppers in the River Walk area delight in an immense Rivercenter Mall, with stores such as Collectibles, carrying everything from Old West memorabilia to signed baseballs.
*The Alamo, just off the River Walk. The Alamo, a shrine to American pride, is especially lovely at night when the facade is lit up, but the interior and museum are open only during the day. Although a careful study of history would reveal a cloudier picture of motivation, the clarifying power of myth asserts that 189 Americans gave their lives here in defense of precious liberty threatened by an alien force. In actuality, the event occurred in the context of a Mexican revolution, with the Texas frontier rebelling against Mexico. The defenders of the Alamo, including the now enshrined American heroes, finally succumbed to the superior manpower of Mexico’s Santa Ana in a decisive battle in 1836.
As an orientation to the Alamo, be sure to see “Alamo: The Price of Freedom,” a movie at the Imax Theater in Rivercenter. This 45-minute docudrama begins with the arrival of William B. Travis on February 3, 1836, in San Antonio, and tells the story of the defenders, who chose to die rather than surrender at the Alamo.
Few Americans realize that the Alamo was originally a Franciscan mission, part of a chain of Missions that Spain founded in Texas prior to the development of similar missions in California. Besides the Alamo, you can visit four other missions in the San Antonio area. The four other missions form the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park. The San Jose y San Miguel Mission is the “queen” of these missions, with a marvelous carved stone façade and elaborate visitor center. The Sunday mariachi mass is a colorful event here. Concepcion Mission is noted for its original murals. San Juan Mission still has its bells. Espada Mission is an intimate place with especially lovely carved wooden doors.
*The crafts of La Villita and market flair of Market Square/El Mercado.
La Villita, or “little town,” is an arts and crafts cluster of shops set in historic, small houses. A glassblower pursues his craft. Weaving, stained-glass work, and fine art can be perused.
Market Square or El Mercado, a San Antonio market area since the 1800s, is a large, outdoor and indoor market (indoors is air-conditioned) with many shops, artisans, and restaurants. At the Mercado the landmark restaurant is Mi Terra, which offers fine Tex-Mex meals and an extraordinary mural reminiscent of Diego Riviera’s “Dream of an Afternoon in the Alameda Park” in its main dining room. In the Mercado, it is said, girls called Chili Queens first served up a dish of beans and meat that became known as chili con carne.
*Three major cultural entities: the Institute of Texan Cultures, the Witte Museum, and the San Antonio Museum of Art.
At the Institute of Texan Cultures you’ll see elaborate displays on the 26 ethnic groups that contributed to the state’s heritage. The main surprise to many visitors is the prominence of Germans in the historic development of South Texas. A half day could be spent orienting yourself to the people of Texas at this site. Especially intriguing in the early story of the Texan Native Americans are the surviving red paintings of large shamanistic figures found at a site known as the Twin Panther Cave.
Likewise, the Witte Museum, which emphasizes natural history, offers a good orientation to the state geology, flora, and fauna. A visitor gets a sense of the immense grasslands and pine forests of the state, the huge reservoirs of water in the limestone aquifers, and the mountainous southwest portion of Texas.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, located in a former brewery, houses a famous collection of Mexican folk art donated by Nelson Rockefeller. The folk art includes utilitarian, recreational, and ceremonial artifacts. Ceremonial masks of Mexico in the collection are particularly poignant. Equally important in the Museum holdings is the Avery Brundage Collection of ancient Far East and Near East art. Gazing at a 4th century B.C. ceramic dish from Iran gives the viewer an appreciation for the universal impulse of all cultures to create beautiful objects.
*And More! Before leaving San Antonio for an excursion in the country, several other city pleasures should be mentioned.
Brackenridge Park, a 340-acre green strip, offers hiking and biking trails, plus an elaborate Japanese Garden. At the outstanding Zoo, sometimes rated only a notch below the great zoos of San Diego and St. Louis, whooping cranes hatch successfully in captivity.
At the Southwest School of Art, located in a former girls’ school run by the Ursuline nuns, you’ll see weaving in progress and observe ceramic and other arts for sale.
The handsome limestone houses of German pioneer families in the King William Historic District are among the most fashionable and historical residences in the city. To glimpse the interior of such a house, stop at the Steve’s Homestead, 509 King William Street, and immerse yourself in the 19th-century milieu. For a B&B lodging in the historic area, one good option is the Jackson House/Nobles Inns, 107 Madison Street.
For a tour de force of Texas paraphernalia, proceed to the Buckhorn Bar and witness the vast collection of horned, finned, and feathered trophies, plus such oddities as chairs made of horns.
Two signature Texas items of clothing, cowboy hats and cowboy boots, can be seen and purchased in stores devoted to them. Paris Hatters has a huge collection of summer hats, made of straw, and winter hats, fashioned from wool, as well as beaver and rabbit fur. Luchesse Boots in the Quarry Market, a shopping center outside of town, offers an exquisite selection of hand-made high-end boots. Pages could be written about the nuances of quality in hats and boots.
San Antonio is a major military city, especially for air bases. If you drive through Fort Sam Houston, you can see the apartment where a young officer named Dwight Eisenhower and his bride Mamie made their first home.
Throughout San Antonio there is a strong sense of historic preservation. The city’s Conservation Society, started in 1921, has preserved many older buildings and restored them for modern use. One of the most spectacular of these efforts was moving the 3.2 million pound Fairmount Hotel, a 1906 architectural masterpiece, to a new home six blocks away. In other cities such a building would have disappeared courtesy of the wrecker’s ball.
One mode of transit in San Antonio makes getting around part of the fun. The Via San Antonio streetcar system consists of reproductions of rail streetcars that traveled the area in earlier times. The price is low and the routes are ample. Downtown, the King William District, and El Mercado are just a few of the sites you can explore, using this open-air mode of transit.
Sea World of Texas, largest of the Sea World facilities, surpasses the company’s San Diego, Florida, and Ohio parks. Sea World shows killer whales, dolphins, penguins, and gardens. The Steel Eel is its celebrated stomach-churning “hypercoaster.” Sea World’s Aquatica is an 18-acre aquatic park with up-close animal experiences, including a family raft ride through an underwater grotto.
Among the city’s gardens, the Lucille Halsell Conservatory at the 38-acre San Antonio Botanical Gardens is a treat. This elaborate Conservatory, with a half-acre under hail-proof glass (remember, you’re in Texas), is designed to show flora as diverse as alpine miniature flowers, flourishing in their chilled soil, to giant Saguaro cactus, in its own climate-controlled cactus room. Facilities include a fern room, with computer-controlled misting devices, plus a palm room, with Texas-size mature palm trees.
Six Flags Fiesta Texas is an amusement park and entertainment extravaganza, attempting to capture the essence of the Lone Star state. Fiesta Texas is a kind of sister park to Nashville’s Opryland, defining the spirit of the region. You can immerse yourself in a Mexican fiesta, a German village, a country-and-western venue, or 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll. Besides these attractions, you can also cool off in the water. Kids enjoy a thrill ride appropriately called The Rattler, billed as “the highest and fastest wooden roller coaster in the world.” Six Flags SkyScreamer is a swing ride 20 stories high, swinging guests in a 98-foot circle at speeds up to 40 mph.
Outside San Antonio: Texas Hill Country
Outside San Antonio is the Texas Hill Country, an oak-covered and well-watered terrain that has produced such notables as Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The main travel pleasures in the Hill Country are a visit to a ranch, such as the YO Ranch near Kerrville, and exploration of the historic German towns, such as New Braunfels. If the weather is hot, cool off with an inner tube float down the Guadalupe River.
A tour of the YO Ranch offers visitors an only-in-Texas experience. The ranch was started by a Captain Shreiner, who once marched as many as 400,000 longhorn cattle north from Texas along the Chisolm Trail to Kansas. Guides are ex-cowboys who delight visitors with their Texas version of the American language. This working ranch is huge, fully 50,000 acres (or 100 square miles) and its owners raise Texas longhorn cattle. In fact, the YO has the largest herd of registered longhorns in Texas. One popular experiences at the YO is the “photo safari” caravan. The visitor sees many of the 36 species of exotic animals, which are bred here for viewing. Fourteen of the species can be hunted. Some endangered species are raised here for release back into the wilds in their original habitat. The YO has the largest exotic game ranch program you’ll find in the U.S. Four generations of the Shreiner family have owned and managed the ranch.
A visitor can lodge at the Ranch, if desired, or stay at the YO Hilton, an upscale hotel with a lobby full of trophy mounted heads. Food at the ranch or at the Hilton tends to emphasize exotic meats. The meal might start with venison sausage squares topped with jalapeno jelly and then move on to Axis deer or Blackbuck steaks.
After the YO, browse the Cowboy Artists of America Museum in Kerrville. Here the major artists in this subculture of American art present their work. You can see paintings of such notables as Howard Terping, one of the cowboy artists whose creations command the highest prices.
The historic German settlements of the Hill Country are the other major travel experience here. Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels led the first settlement party in 1845.
Start with a visit to the New Braunfels historic district. Drop in at the Baetge House, built in 1852, and the nearby Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture, showing what German craftsmen created on this frontier. In New Braunfels you can lodge at the Prince Solms Inn, an historic bed-and-breakfast filled with antiques.
Another historic German town, Gruene, boasts the oldest honky-tonk in Texas. You can lunch casually here at the Gristmill Restaurant, taste wine at the Guadalupe Valley Winery, inspect a few of the 25 antique stores in the area, and lodge at the Gruene Mansion Inn. Gruene is special because it was a unified, small town guided historically by one patriarchal individual.
On hot days in the Hill Country, you can join Texans for a cool float in inner tubes down the Guadalupe or Comal Rivers, especially at Landa Park, which is also a good picnic area with a small train, lawns, and mammoth oak trees. Another cooling option is the Schlitterbahn Water Park, which includes a Texas-size water chute allowing a 45-minute run.
Tips for Texas Travel
If you are going to San Antonio, here are two tips to make your trip more enjoyable:
*Coordinate a visit, if possible, to include a city festival. There is a major 11-day city festival, called Fiesta, held each April. Plan ahead, however, for lodging and dining reservations at this busy time. Another special festival is the September 16 celebration of Mexico’s rejection of Spanish rule. It would be difficult to imagine a more authentic immersion in the special Texan/Mexican culture of the state than an evening of tejano, salsa, and merengue music at Guadalupe Plaza during this celebration. A further time of merriment is the November Wurstfest amidst the Germans in New Braunfels. As one New Braunfels person said, “The dance hall at the Wurstfest is body to body people, so thick you couldn’t stir them with a stick.”
*The heat of summer in San Antonio is considerable. Spring and autumn would be a more agreeable visiting time for most people.
When a traveler adds up the city and Hill Country pleasures of San Antonio, it’s easy to comprehend why the area is the biggest travel destination in America’s largest state among the contiguous 48.
San Antonio: If You Go
For further information, contact the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visitsanantonio.com.