How can a native New Englander describe Texas? It's big. Real big. With a width of 800 hundred miles and a length almost the same distance (790 miles), the Lone Star State is bigger than all of New England, and several other states combined. Take Big Bend National Park in the southwest, for example. The park is bigger than the state of Rhode Island. And this one state contains four of the eight Physiographic Regions that make up North America: the Coastal Plain, the Interior Lowlands, the Rocky Mountain system, and the Great Plains. Like a country unto itself -- in fact it's the only state to enter the Union as a free nation -- Texas transports wide-eyed tourists into another world. From the beaches and barrier islands on the east to the mountains in the west, from big cities in the north to the charming Mexican border towns in the south -- and little pockets of surprising historic sites in between -- Texas welcomes visitors with an 800-mile grin.
STATE TOURIST INFORMATION: (800) 482-9292
Check it out . . . Seen a lot of state tourbooks in our travels. Texas has, by far, the best. First, it's the ONLY state tourbook we've seen that lists cities and towns in alphabetical order. For some reason other state tourbooks categorize cities by counties or regions, ignoring the fact that out-of-state visitors are unacquainted with the counties or regions. Second, it provides cross-reference coordinates to locate the city on the state map. Third, it offers usable information about each town, i.e., a brief historical or topographical note as well an alphabetical listing and description of all the sites to see within that city or town. Other state tourbooks provide only brief information about the cities or sites, saving room on the page instead for paid advertiserments. Not so with Texas. This is a bonafide tourbook, chock full of valuable information. Hats off to the Texas Tourist Bureau!
Manicured. That's the first impression we get of Austin. All neat and tidy. No litter. Big boulevards; shady sidewalks. A pedestrian friendly city with plenty of green space. Formerly called Waterloo, the town was renamed after the Father of Texas, Stephen Austin, when it became the state capital. It's a college town, too, so there's lots of unusual cafes and shops to browse through. The city that claims to be the "Live Music Capital of the World" substantiates that claim with plenty of clubs playing blues, country-western, jazz, Zydeco, and rock tunes that roll out its doors and onto the sidewalks of Sixth Street. Visitors have plenty to do, much to see and will have no problem finding their way around this beautiful city on the Colorado River.
Texas Statehouse (512) 463-0063
Massive. Commanding. Dignified. And . . .pink. Constructed from local "Sunset Red" granite, the Texas statehouse emits a cheerful pinkish hue. Contrasting the pink is a black wrought iron fence that encircles the capitol complex; each black picket is topped with a gleaming gold Lone Star. Enter through the star-studded black gates to a huge checkerboard walkway called the "Great Walk" that leads visitors past the many statues, monuments, and fountains to the front doors of the capitol. Not just any doors, either. No sir. These are Texas doors. They're enormous. And exquisite. The wooden doors and their unusual frames and valances are carved in rich, smooth cherry, mahogany and walnut. Even the door hinges are special. About the size of a Michelin Tourbook, these brass hinges are emblazoned with the words "Texas Capitol." In fact, they sell replicas of these hinges as souvenir bookends. Inside this magnificent capitol is the classic rotunda that reaches up four stories to 218 feet, leading to an 8-foot Lone Star in the center.The famous Lone Star comes from the flag of the Texas Republic, when the state was its own free nation from 1836-1845. Interestingly, when Texas joined the Union as the 28th state, it started a new row of stars and thus was the "Lone Star" once again.
Tip: Don't miss the Agricultural Museum on the first floor where you can see samples of Texas crops and farm tools. The room also offers a quiet and restful haven from the bustling crowds in the halls of the capitol.
Capitol Visitor Center (512) 305-8400
Southeast of the capitol building is the Capitol Visitor Center, housed in the historic 1857 General Land Office, the oldest state building in Texas. For more than 60 years maps were drafted here by hand from the pens of such men as author O. Henry, who drafted maps with interesting lines before drafting stories with surprise endings. You may tour the building and catch a 22-minute film on the history, design, growth and restoration of the capitol. A fascinating tale.
Tip: Pick up your free Texas tourbooks here and a free poster of Texas wildflowers that's not only beautifully photographed, but very informative and entertaining.
Check it out . . . The Gift shop sells unique Texas gifts, including the brass hinge bookends mentioned earlier.
Old Bakery and Emporium (512) 477-5961
Across the street from the front door of the state capitol and off to the side of the Governor's mansion is a tiny, shady park dedicated to former Texas governors. Along a little brick walkway are plaques describing the administration of earlier Texas governors. Look for the plaque of Governor Miriam Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas (1925-1927), and the first elected woman governor in the US. Her husband had been governor before her but had been impeached. The plaque about this pair is very interesting. At the end of the park you'll run smack into the side of an old brick building. Go around to the adorable front door and enter the Old Bakery and Emporium. It's a quaint little coffee shop in a historic old building that sells baked goods, sandwiches and handmade crafts from local senior citizens.
Scholz Garten (512) 474-1958
"The Oldest Restaurant, Biergarten, or any type of business in Texas," claims the menu of this 133-year-old establishment. A year after the Civil War, August Scholz, a German immigrant and Confederate veteran built this public bar and cafe across the street from the southeast side of the old statehouse (now the new statehouse). It soon became a favorite spot for state legislators, and later, for students from the nearby University of Texas campus. Backroom political dealmaking and frontroom football game watching adds local color and flavor to the German and Texas bill of fare.
Zilker Park (512) 478-0905
Open to the public free of charge, this gargantuan city park, with a miniature train running throughout, features a Nature Center, an Herb Garden, a Rose Garden, an authentic Japanese Garden and a replica of a pioneer log cabin. The Taniguchi Japanese Garden is particularly interesting as it's designed in the form of a traditional oriental garden -- tiny arched bridges, statues, ponds, waterfalls and stone walkways -- but is filled with Texas plants. The garden is also noteworthy as a brilliant example of philanthropy at its best: in a labor of love Mr.Taniguchi single-handedly built this garden, plant by plant, stone by stone. Next time a friend shrugs his shoulders and asks "What can one man do?" The Taniguchi Japanese Garden is one answer.
Check it out . . . While walking through the gardens, notice the fragments of decorative architecture here and there. Remnants from the wrecking ball embellish the gardens throughout the park. What appears to be a gazebo in the Rose Garden, for example, is actually an old cupola recovered from a torn-down building. A stone archway in the Herb Garden is actually a window frame salvaged from a demolished 19th century mansion.
What Lexington is to the nation's history San Antonio is to Texas history: the line drawn in the sand. The fight for freedom against a mighty army and insurmountable odds. Freedom fought, liberty won, San Antonio is nevertheless still steeped in Spanish culture. Five Spanish missions along the San Antonio River -- including the Alamo -- attest to Spain's indomitable presence in the 1700s, and the language, cuisine and music wafting through the streets today keeps the heritage alive.Will Rogers once proclaimed San Antonio "one of America's four unique cities." What makes it different from other cities is its festive flair . . . from the top of the 750-foot Tower of Americas, to the subterranean, umbrella festooned Paseo del Rio and canal boats, to the Mexican shops in Market Square . . . San Antonio is more than "unique," it's full of colorful romance.
The Spanish Missions
The Alamo (210) 225-1391
Probably the most famous building in Texas, the Mission San Antonio de Valero was erected in 1724 as a home, a church and a fort to the Spanish missionaries, their Indian converts and a band of Spanish soldiers. In 1794 the mission became a fort to Spanish Calvary who nicknamed it the Alamo (Spanish for cottonwood). In 1836 it served as the fort and ultimately the mass grave to 186 Texans, including William Barret Travis, Davy Crockett, and Jim Bowie, who valiantly held back Santa Anna's troops of 4,000 men in the famous 13-day siege of the Alamo. Now a shrine and a museum, the serenity of its hallowed ground dominates the city square. Amid blinking traffic lights honking cars, and crowds of jaywalkers, this quiet and solemn remembrance to incredible heroism sits in stoic isolation on a patch of green.
Tip: Before visiting the shrine see the IMAX film, "The Price of Freedom," a dramatization of the siege of the Alamo. The IMAX theater is located at the Rivercenter Mall.
Mission San Jose (210) 932-1001
Established in 1720, the San Jose y San Miguel de aguayo Mission, "The Queen of the Missions" is so called because it's one of the best-restored missions depicting the life of the times. The entire compound, including the outer walls, the granary, the Padre's room, the Indian dwellings and the soldier's quarters, show how the inhabitants lived, worked and worshiped together. One of the most exquisite stone carvings in USA is the Rosa Window on the south facade of the church.
Tip: On Sundays Catholic mass is held every hour from 8 a.m. to noon in the mission's charming old chapel. The noon service is the well-known Mariachi Mass where musicians and singers light up the church and lift the congregation into a unified spirit of peace and harmony. Don't miss it. And get there early; they turn the crowds away when the chapel is full.
Mission San Juan Capistrano (210) 229-5734
Nestled in rural splendor amid ruins of a larger church that was never completed sits this small, unassuming chapel built in 1731 and restored in 1909. Inside the chapel of clay-tiled floors underfoot and heavy wooden beams overhead are simple statues, Stations of the Cross, and a humble altar, all hushed in a whisper of the past. The mission also displays artifacts and religious icons from the Spanish colonial period.
Mission Concepcion (210) 229-5732
Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion de Acuna is said to be the oldest unrestored stone church in the U.S. The remaining buildings of this mission: the church, the sacristy and the convent date back to 1731.The massive church with its twin towers and cupola is noted for its fine acoustics.
Check it out ...Many of the missions were originally painted in festive colors. At Mission Concepcion you can still see their faded colors and patterns.
Tip: Don't miss the rough hewn stone steps leading up to the President Father's room which overlooks the grounds and the inside of the chapel. Note the window with it's stone windowseat and scalloped valance.
Mission San Francisco de la Espada (210) 627-2021
Founded in 1690 this little mission was moved to its present location in 1731. The smallest local mission, it's best known for its unique archway, its 3-foot thick stone walls, and one of the last Spanish aqueducts in U.S.
Personal Note: Don't know if it's the huge clay pots bursting with colorful plants, the windchimes, the variety of birdfeeders that attract a crowd of tiny, feathery flutterers with their chorus of peeping voices, or the sheer simplicity of this humble mission, but it quickly became my favorite.
Paseo del Rio (RiverWalk) (210) 270-8748
Twenty feet below street level in the heart of downtown San Antonio is the Paseo del Rio, or the Riverwalk, a Venicelike atmosphere of water taxis, gardens, shops and outdoor cafes. Walk the scenic walkway or take a water taxi and mildly sail through San Antonio. You can get on and off at various points to further explore sites that catch your eye.
La Villita (The Little Village) (210) 207-8610
Along the Riverwalk is La Villita. Once home to settlers who lived on the outskirts of the Alamo, it's now a restored old Mexican village of narrow streets, patios, fountains and adobe houses that contain shops, art studios and quaint little "tucked away" restaurants.
El Mercado/Market Square (210) 299-8600
The history of Market Square goes back to the early 1800s when Mexico ruled this area. Chili con carne, the State Dish of Texas, was invented here over 100 years ago and sold by "Chili Queen" street vendors. Today the square includes a Farmer's Market featuring Mexican imported crafts, some open-air restaurants, and El Mercado, the largest enclosed Mexican marketplace in the country.
King William District (210) 225-5924
King William District, settled by German merchants in the 19th century, is the first designated Historic District in Texas. Most of the homes have been restored, including the Steves Homestead, a German Second Empire mansion open to tourists. Filled with period furniture, it shows another side of San Antonio: the lavish Victorian lifestyle of the German merchants who came to this area after Texas became a state.
Spanish Governor's Palace (210) 224-0601
This 10-room adobe building was the original seat of the Spanish government in the 1700s when King Philip V of Spain tried to colonize the area as a bulwark to French encroachment. Many Spanish governors lived and ruled here through the decades of the 18th century. Each room evokes a feeling from past Zorro movies. The hand-carved doors, grape arbors, and mosaic tiled patios imported from Spain are excellent exhibits of colonial Spanish influence.
HemisFair Park/Tower of the Americas (210) 207-8615
This city park and playground is dominated by the 750-foot spire, the "Tower of Americas," built to represent Achievement for the 1968 World's Fair. It's San Antonio's answer to Seattle's Space Needle. A glass-paneled elevator propels passengers through the air to the top of the building capped with a revolving restaurant, a lounge, and an outdoor observation deck.
Tip: Sunset is the best time to rocket to the top. The lounge (does not spin) is ideal for a quiet drink, nice music, and a great view of the city. We felt sorry for the people in the spinning dining room, one level below us, as they spun around like a pie plate on a stick, eating their meals while we stationary loungers above watched them eat and spin.)
Named after LBJs cattle-ranching ancestors, Johnson City is a sweet little town with a short and narrow Main Street lined with charming western-style antique shops and cafe-style restaurants. Off Main Street is LBJ's boyhood home, his elementary school, and his ancestor's farm.
Tip: The enormous Feed Mill Cafe on the corner of Main Street is a food processing plant-turned-restaurant.Very friendly people and fun food in a zany atmosphere. Live music on weekends. We finally got a chance to try Texas's famous chicken-fried steak and fried okra. Yum. And were treated to the upbeat sounds of "Zydeco Blanco" a great Zydeco band with personality-plus. (Zydeco music is a French/Caribbean/Blues type of music featuring guitars, bongos, accordions, and washboards.) Good old-fashioned foot-stompin' fun! We left the Food Mill full of stick-to-your-ribs food and stick-in-your-mind tunes.
LBJ National Historic Park (210) 868-7128
Johnson Settlement -- This is where LBJ's grandparents began cattle ranching back in 1800s. The farm includes an old chuck wagon display, a late 1800s stone barn, an old water tower and the original "dogtrot" cabin where LBJ's grandparents lived. The dogtrot cabin consists of two wooden structures with a connecting "dogtrot," or breezeway, that keeps the place cool in summers.
Boyhood Home -- Up the street from the Johnson's Settlement is the boyhood home of LBJ. This charming house with a white picket fence was owned by the Johnson City mayor before LBJ's parents bought it in 1913.
LBJ State Historic Park, Stonewall (210) 644-2252
Fifteen miles from the Boyhood home is the LBJ State Historic Park in Stonewall, featuring LBJ Birthplace and LBJ Ranch.
LBJ Birthplace -- This house was reconstructed under the direction of LBJ himself. It sits on the original foundation.
LBJ Grave -- from LBJ's birthplace take a short walk through a Pecan grove to LBJ's final resting place in the family cemetery. Many of Johnson's family members are buried here, situated between the birthplace and the deathbed of LBJ. (He died in bed at the LBJ Ranch.)
LBJ Ranch -- When LBJ was growing up in this area his aunt and uncle lived in what the Johnson family referred to as "the big house." LBJ always dreamed of someday owning this beautiful white mansion. The opportunity came in 1951 when his widowed aunt sold him the home.LBJ bought the house and purchased more land, enlarging the ranch to 2,000-acres. The majestic house became "The Texas White House" when LBJ became president. Here he retreated to escape from the pressures of Washington and to comfortably entertain friends and dignitaries -- Texas style.
This coastal side of this city is a pristine area of palm-tree lined boulevards hugging the shoreline of the bluejay-blue Corpus Christi Bay. The roads of this city terrace up a small a hill, like a multi-layered wedding cake. Accenting this picture of perfect peace is a 2-mile long white seawall, elegantly designed by none other than Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore. Most seawalls are gray, formidable, foreboding. But the seawall in Corpus Christi is inviting. Adorned with white gazebos and white park benches every block or so, the entire seawall is a sweeping white staircase gradually descending into the bay like a big swimming pool.
Tip: Lunch at the Lighthouse restaurant on the bay provides good food at a good price with a great view of Corpus Christi Bay and marina. We had seafood kabobs over rice pilaf, followed by a light and refreshing key lime pie.
Heritage Park (512) 883-0639
Texas history isn't just cowboys, ranchers, wildcats and wild Tennesseans. Peek into the past at the cross-section of other individuals from Texas history at this multicultural park of preserved Irish, Polish, German, Czechs and Greek homes.
PORT ARANSAS (800) 452-6278
Situated on Mustang Island, a small barrier island separating Corpus Christi Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, this small fishing village offers two sources of water for reeling in a good catch. Or, you can enjoy the fruits of the sea from one of the many oceanside seafood restaurants in this tiny port.
Check it out . . . The restored 1886 Tarpon Inn once had Franklin D. Roosevelt as a guest. And, Duncan Hines (yes, he was a real person . . . a food critic) spent his honeymoon here.
Tip: A free ferry enables drivers to do a complete loop tour of Corpus Christi, North Padres Island, Mustang Island and Port Aransas.
Texas has four of the 12 top birding sites in America, and Port Aransas is one of the best. Local and migrating birds are attracted to the wetlands and unique vegetation. In spring and fall, special humming bird pockets lure the elegant and elusive creatures.
Mustang Island State Park (512) 749-5246
Five miles of sandy beaches, sand dunes, sea oats and unusual seashells that bob in from the Gulf of Mexico make Mustang Island a beachcomber's dream.
In 1845 the Republic of Texas was a beacon to many European immigrants, particularly to land-starved Germans who were attracted to the rich soil of the springfed Comal River in the Hill Country of Texas. Led by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, a large group of German settlers established a community of homes, farms and shops in the tradition of their homeland. Today New Braunfels' shops, architecture, and street names retain this German influence. The Visitor's Center (800 572-2625) on Post Road offers literature on all the historic buildings and sites.
Tip: Sweeten your day with a stop at Naegelin's Bakery on 129 S. Seguin Avenue off the center of town, and pick up some traditional German pastries like Old-Fashioned Strussell Cake, Apple Strudel, Lebkuchens, Phefernuesse, and Springerle (shown here).We bought 'em all and ate 'em all in one afternoon.
Hummel Museum (800) 456-4866
During World War II, a quiet nun in the convent of a small German village lovingly brought hope and happiness to the world through her paintings, religious art, cheerful cherub figurines and her exquisite embroidery. Her name was Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel. She died a year after the war ended, just as her light and carefree art was becoming known worldwide. Selling for only a dollar during the War, her charming figurines are now collector's items worth up to thousands of dollars. The Hummel Museum in New Braunfels -- the only one in the country -- displays the world's largest collection of her original art. Three hundred works of art, many that have never been shown to the public before, are exhibited here in this one-of-a-kind museum.
Tip: At the gift shop, pick up a copy of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel's biography, "Sketch Me, Berta Hummel." If, like me, you've never been a fan of Hummels, you will at least be a fan of the artist after reading the life of this saintly woman.
OUR CAMPSITE IN TEXAS:
Traveler's World RV Park, San Antonio, TX (800) 755-8310
Swimming pool, jacuzzi, pool table, ping-pong table -- all free to the guests at Traveler's World. The park is adjacent to a golf course and a walking trail that follows the San Antonio River.Traveler's World RV Park is only a block away from the San Jose Mission, "The Queen of the Missions," and the closest RV Park to the downtown sites, including The Alamo. The roads are long and tree-lined, making it appear like a friendly neighborhood. The sites and facilities are well-maintained. Potluck dinners -- including a free Fish Fry every month -- are frequently held in the clubhouse. Craft Days and Game Nights make this an overall wonderful, neighborly place to stay. A 75-cent city bus to all the tourist sites in town picks you up and drops you off in front of the RV Park. Such a wonderful feature. And, oh yes, the in-house minister, Reverend Saint (his real name), holds non-denominational church services every Sunday morning.