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Written by Texas Highways

Green Vegetarian Cuisine extends its earth-friendly philosophy beyond its menu to encompass recycled furniture and an on-site herb garden. (Photo by Veronica Zaragovia)

By Veronica Zaragovia

Wherever I travel, I enjoy discovering restaurants where tourists don’t normally go. And in my adopted hometown of San Antonio, I like to explore outside the boundaries of downtown to find restaurants that don’t stretch my budget while providing an authentic sampling of local flavor. Here are a few of my favorites.

The Friendly Spot

Though only a short walk or quick trolley hop from the heart of downtown, this pecan-shaded hangout on the northern edge of the city’s historic King William District offers a relaxing ambiance that stands in stark contrast to the hustle-bustle of the tourist district. While there’s climate-controlled indoor seating in the back, most visitors sit outside in a garden facing South Alamo Street, lounging in retro shellback lawn chairs beneath two mature pecan trees twinkling with tiny white lights, the 750-foot Tower of the Americas rising in the distance. Kids play on swings and monkey bars, well-behaved canines lounge beneath café tables, and adults relax and converse over beers and Mexican-inspired menu items such as quesadillas, nachos, roasted corn, and tangy jicama salad.  And on most Wednesday nights, patrons gather for outdoor movies on a 16-foot inflatable screen.

 “We re-imagined the old Texas ice-house tradition of the neighborhood gathering spot,” says owner Jody Newman. “At any given time, you’re likely to find hippies and hipsters, newborn babies and grandfathers, couples with dogs, and college students.” Befitting the Friendly Spot’s ice-house inspiration, beer is a big draw here: Newman’s husband, Steve, oversees a beer menu of more than 200 bottled varieties and some 25 taps—many devoted to such Texas breweries as Rahr & Sons out of Fort Worth and Blanco’s Real Ale.

The Cove

Northwest of downtown and only a few blocks from the main campus of San Antonio College, The Cove offers the seemingly disjointed combination of a carwash, coin laundry, beer garden, and restaurant serving sustainable, organic, and locally sourced food. Somehow, though, it works: Order at the counter from an extensive menu of burgers, sandwiches, salads, and desserts, then choose between the indoor dining room packed with long, communal tables and the outside courtyard, where children cavort on slides and a miniature rock-climbing wall.  (A ping-pong table here attracts kids of all ages.) On most evenings, bands perform on the indoor stage while customers quaff beer and visit around the neon-lit bar.

Owners Lisa and Sam Asvestas opened The Cove in 2001, originally serving a limited menu of hot sandwiches and ice cream. In 2003, though, Lisa adopted a motto of “Eat well, live well,” after studying a type of Indian holistic medicine called Ayurveda, which teaches balance in life and the importance of consuming healing and nourishing food. Today, all of The Cove’s meats (beef, bison, lamb, and chicken) come from Texas producers who avoid hormones and antibiotics; vegetables are all organic, and oils are non-hydrogenated.  Not that The Cove sacrifices flavor: Items such as chicken-poblano soup and warm beet salad with goat cheese might not surprise health-conscious diners, but hearty burgers like the Blue Bison Burger or the award-winning Texas Burger (piled high with refried beans, corn chips, grilled red onion, and avocado) could debunk any preconceived ideas of health food in an instant. 

 Green Vegetarian Cuisine

Brothers Chris and Mike Behrend practically grew up in the restaurant business, for many years helping run the city’s popu-lar Lulu’s Bakery and Cafe, a place famous for its behemoth chicken-fried steaks and three-pound cinnamon rolls. But a few years ago, concerned about both the planet and their expanding waistlines, the duo became vegetarians and opened Green, the city’s first fully vegetarian and kosher eatery. 

Collard-green wraps stuffed with pecan hummus and assorted vegetables, quinoa nachos, tofu stir-fry, and vegetarian “neatloaf” share the menu with fried pickles, eggplant parmesan, and avocado eggs Benedict—but the Behrends’ respect for the planet isn’t limited to the kitchen. Reclaimed booths and tables, salvaged fencing materials, a recycled ice machine, and local art on the walls honor the brothers’ green philosophy, as do the restaurant’s water-collection system and organic vegetable garden, from which cooks harvest kale, spinach, broccoli, collards, and herbs. For dessert, don’t miss the bakery case, where platters of vegan cookies and artfully iced cupcakes (blackberry-vanilla! Lemon-ginger-agave!) tempt vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike.  

Taco Taco

In 1998, longtime restaurateur Helen Velesiotis opened Taco Taco in the upscale neighborhood of Olmos Park, and since then, the line of people waiting for one of the eatery’s 50 seats during business hours (7-2 daily) has rarely slowed. The draw? Fluffy, handmade flour tortil-las encasing fillings of fresh eggs, bacon, and cheese; “puffy tacos” with chicken and picadillo; chicken soup fragrant with oregano; crispy comal-fried pork chops; crunchy chilaquiles; and dozens of other items that Velesiotis prepares with care.

Taco Taco has won numerous accolades over the years, including kudos from such magazines as Bon Appétit, Texas Monthly, Details, and Southern Living, but Velesiotis claims that love is the secret to her success. That, and a few secret ingredients. “I make my salsa every morning with roasted tomatoes, chiles de arbol, vinegar, salt, and garlic,” she says, “but I do have two secret ingredients I can’t tell you.”

Velesiotis makes between 2,000-3,000 flour tortillas daily, with her handmade corn tortillas (thick, earthy, and flecked with toasted bits from the comal) coming in a close second. For newcomers to Taco Taco, Velesiotis recommends the chilaquiles for breakfast (a scramble of eggs and corn tortillas with a splash of salsa) or, for lunch, the popular “Taco Norteño,” a tortilla of your choice filled with beef or chicken, jack cheese, sliced avocado, and charro beans, which are baked to give them added complexity.

Velesiotis, who was born in Greece but moved to San Antonio in 1972, has traveled extensively in Mexico, but she insists San Antonio has the best tacos in the world. “And we have the best tacos in San Antonio,” she adds with a chuckle.

After a massage, dinner, and a garden stroll, stay overnight in one of the Herb Farm’s new cottages. (Photo courtesy Fredericksburg Herb Farm)

The Fredericksburg Herb Farm expands with lodging and a renovated restaurant   Text by Ramona Flume

In the mid-19th Century, German farmers scattered throughout the Hill Country would gather their families on weekends and travel by wagon or horseback to Fredericksburg, where they would attend church, shop, trade goods, and see relatives and friends. Because the trip couldn’t be accomplished in one day, they constructed small “Sunday hauses” in which to stay overnight.

Today in Fredericksburg, there are hundreds of B&Bs and cottage rentals inspired by—some even housed inside of—these historic Sunday hauses. So when I learned that the new owners of the Fredericksburg Herb Farm, a four-acre property just four blocks south of the town’s bustling Main Street, had expanded the farm’s offerings to include overnight lodging in a modern interpretation of the Sunday Haus tradition, I decided to make the short drive from Austin to spend the weekend.

As soon as I pull into the parking lot, I spy a row of 14 one-room cottages, connected by crushed-granite paths and framed by flowering jasmine vines like a scene from a postcard. Each has a small covered porch, twin rocking chairs, and oddly, a mailbox. I entertain the idea of moving in permanently. The new owners, Dick and Rosemary Estenson, seem to have thought of everything.

“They all have their own mailboxs?” I ask Rosemary. “Yes,” she says, smiling. “And if the red flag is up, that means I’ve slipped in fresh fruit or croissants for breakfast or other little treats.”

I soon realize that the Estensons’ vision for the Herb Farm surpasses the simplicity of those historic utilitarian cabins. My cottage has a king-size bed, flat-screen TV, high-speed Internet, a cozy recliner, and a spacious shower. Earthy tones of tranquil greens and rich browns run throughout the space, with framed images of rosemary and basil hanging on the walls and bay windows looking out onto lush floral, herbal, and vegetable gardens.

And luxury isn’t limited to overnight accommodations here at the Herb Farm. The Estensons have transformed the property—formerly a restaurant and herb garden opened in 1985 by Bill and Sylvia Varney—into a veritable one-stop-shop of Hill Country comforts designed to pamper the modern-day traveler. For not only is there now lodging, but also a renovated restaurant and bar, a spa, a gift shop, and gardens to enjoy.

I follow Rosemary past a 20-year-old Vitex tree, a Texas native whose lilac flowers perfume the paths connecting the Herb Farm’s cottages to the new spa. We pause here and there as Rosemary pulls out weed seedlings sprouting amidst native and exotic flowers. Many of the plants here have medicinal or cosmetic uses, she tells me, including the cheery pink flowers of the perennial soapwort plant, which were used by early American pioneers to make laundry powder and soap.

Eventually, we make our way to the two-story, stone silo, which houses the Nature’s Spa—a 5,000-square-foot facility with an infrared sauna and multiple treatment rooms. (Later that day, after enjoying an herbal hot-stone massage, I would sit in the sun-soaked lounge, lulled by swaying sagebrush and goldenrod as if I were in some sort of reverse greenhouse.)

Next door to the spa, in an historic rock house dating to the 1890s, the Farm Haus Bistro serves up eclectic French- and Hill Country-inspired cuisine courtesy of Executive Chef Asa Thornton. Thornton relies on the gardens here for many of the vegetables and herbs on the bistro’s menu, including tomatoes, leeks, mustard greens, hibiscus flowers, and kumquats. Menu items change seasonally, and might include such dishes as shrimp risotto, escargot-stuffed puff pastry with smoked-tomato butter, herb-encrusted amberjack with thyme-tomato coulis, or braised pork shank with a purée of white truffles and potatoes. In addition to revamping the cuisine, the Estensons—whose other ventures in Fredericksburg include the Airport Din-er, Hangar Hotel, and the Fredericksburg Brewing Company— have updated the historic building with such additions as a stylish full bar, a wine-tasting room for private events and parties, and floor-to-ceiling windows, which allow guests to admire the gardens while they dine.

And the herb gardens, found just behind the bistro and lovingly maintained by a team led by head gardener Donna Newberry, provide more than edible inspiration. Amidst rows of basil, sage, spearmint, cilantro, parsley, and thyme, a tall slippery elm provides a bit of shade, as well as habitat for birds and other creatures. Newberry tells me that she has seen zone-tailed hawks and both Western and Eastern gold-finches flitting in and out of its branches in springtime. But the restaurant and spa are the garden’s primary beneficiaries.

“I always encourage people to plant herbs as close to the kitchen as they can, and to plant things they love to eat,” Newberry tells me. “My purpose is simple: Chef Asa tells me what he wants to cook and if I can grow it, I do.” And she encourages not only patience but compassion, saying, “Everyone’s garden goes through rough patches or periods of neglect. But if the garden has purpose, it will be beautiful.”

Visitors can also purchase their favorite herbal essentials—oils, lotions, shampoos, and candles made with such plants as cypress, rose geranium, and spearmint—next door at the Poet’s Haus gift shop. As I wander through the cottage shop on my last day, thinking of gifts I could bring to friends and family back in Austin, I stock up on aromatic bluebonnet lotion, lavender candles, spearmint shampoo, and eucalyptus-mint shaving gel. I remember the shopping done by those early German settlers and smile that my own Sunday-haus adventure has come full circle. But while I’m sure the wagons of the early German settlers were full with goods and supplies after a weekend spent in Fredericksburg, I bet their bags didn’t smell as lovely as mine do.

 

The Littlefield Memorial Fountain testifies to George W. Littlefield’s legacy at the University of Texas–Austin. (Photo by Stan A. Williams)

University of Texas officials floated a proposal in late 2011 to move the UT System offices from five downtown-Austin buildings to a spectacular, waterfront site a few miles away, resurfacing the battle between two UT regents who have been dead for decades.

This North Texas town offers an abundance of family-friendly attractions 

Bubble windows throughout the Sea Life Grapevine Aquarium allow visitors to peer closely at fish and other marine life. (Photo by Michael Amador)

By Jennifer Babisak

When Republic of Texas President Sam Houston wanted to make peace in 1843 with 10 Native American nations in order to open up Texas’ northern frontier to settlement, he held the treaty negotiations at a place known as Grape Vine Springs. Settlers began arriving in 1844, and the site evolved to become the city of Grapevine. (The name probably derived from the area’s plentiful wild Mustang grapes.) Since hosting those peace talks, Grapevine has blossomed into a popular destination for wine lovers, attracting adults for weekends of wine tasting and browsing among the shops that line historic Main Street. The recent debut of a host of kid-friendly attractions, however, has transformed Grapevine into an entertainment hub for all ages.

When my husband, Matt, and I heard that venues such as Legoland, Sea Life, and Great Wolf Lodge had opened their first Texas locations here, we put this North Texas town on our family’s must-visit list. And on a crisp, fall weekend, we rounded up our three youngsters (Caleb, 7; Madi, 4; and toddler Esther) for a surprise-filled, weekend getaway.

Entertainment options abound at Great Wolf Lodge, including a massive indoor water park with nine slides.

Catering to Lego-loving Caleb, we make a beeline to Legoland Discovery Center, a 35,000-square-foot attraction located within the confines of the behemoth Grapevine Mills mall. Dubbing itself “the world’s biggest box of Lego bricks,” with more than 2 million of the colorful plastic pieces on-site, Legoland juxtaposes activity areas—such as areas for building vehicles and racing them down a test track—with adventure rides like Kingdom Quest, in which a chariot whisks laser-gun-equipped children through medieval-themed rooms as they seek to rescue an animated “captured princess.”

The Legoland Discovery Center features miniature versions of many Metroplex landmarks. (Photo by Michael Amador)In the Miniland area, more than a million bricks take the shape of well-known Dallas-Fort Worth landmarks. Artisans at the Lego workshop in Windsor, England, spent eight months planning and building this miniature version of the Metroplex. (Everything is built to 1:30 scale, which is proportional to the height of a Lego minifigure as compared to that of an average human.) The 80-inch-tall replica of the Texas Star Ferris Wheel revolves just like its 200-foot counterpart in Fair Park. The Lego version of Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, filled with spectator and player minifigures, took 352 hours to build.

Just outside Miniland, Caleb rushes to pose with a seven-foot-tall Lego version of the Dallas Mavericks’ star power forward, Dirk Nowitzki. Cal Walsh, Legoland’s Master Model Builder, tells me that Lego-Dirk originally resided in Nowitzki’s native Germany. After the Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 NBA Championship, Walsh used 4,000 yellow bricks to construct a replica Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy, which stands alongside Lego-Dirk. Madi, our resident diva, delights in the pink-and-white Princess Parlor, where she takes to the karaoke stage and belts out tunes to her heart’s content.

Only steps away from Legoland, also in the mall, the underwater world of Sea Life Grapevine Aquarium awaits. With an emphasis on conservation, Sea Life has enacted successful seahorse-breeding, seal-rescue, and turtle-rehabilitation programs. Inside the 45,000-square-foot aquatic attraction, a “quiz trail” outfitted with maritime-themed questions leads visitors through 30 displays containing more than 5,000 sea creatures.

Palm trees, cabanas, and strands of brightly colored lights lend a tropical feel to the Stingray Bay area, where the barb-tailed creatures entertain guests from their ocean tank. Here, as in all Sea Life exhibits, a sign denotes the rays’ endangered species rating (ranking them on a scale from Endangered to Least Concern); the cownose and blue spot rays are listed as Near Threatened.

In the Shark Walk area, we stand atop a glass platform and look down upon the eerie, gray world of the much-feared creatures. A salty-sea smell fills the air as the sleek predators glide beneath our feet. On one wall, diagrams explain the anatomy of a shark; we’re amazed to learn that some species grow and lose thousands of teeth in their lifetimes.

Another display showcases the largest collection of jellyfish in the nation, which pulsates with ethereal beauty. The cnidarians (the term “fish” is actually a misnomer since the creatures lack vertebrae) entwine their hundreds of stringy tentacles as they float serenely through the water, many of them emitting a gentle glow that illuminates the tank.

The Freshwater Swamps area houses native Texas fish, which swim among moss-covered rocks in large tanks. The residents here include species familiar to Texas anglers, such as crappie and bass (including Texas’ state fish, the Guadalupe bass).

Later, in search of local flavor, we stop for dinner at Tolbert’s, the Southwestern restaurant cofounded by journalist and historian Frank X. Tolbert Sr., who also cofounded the Terlingua Chili Cookoff (now known as the Original Terlingua International Championship Chili Cook-off). Not surprisingly, the restaurant is famed for its Original Texas Red. We take our seats in the midst of a festive atmosphere—the restaurant’s flatscreen TVs broadcast the opening strains of “The Star Spangled Banner,” as Game 3 of the Rangers World Series run begins in the nearby Rangers Ballpark. Matt goes for a bowl of the famous chili while the kids and I opt for less spicy fare, choosing classics like grilled cheese and chicken strips.

Next, we make our way to Great Wolf Lodge, where the children step into the five-story atrium of the North Woods-themed resort and discover the most extraordinary lodging experience of their young lives—a water park inside a hotel! Though our room is comfortably appoint-ed with cozy, cabin-inspired decor—metal lamps take the shape of moose and bears, and pine planks form the bed’s headboard and nightstands—we spend little time there. Instead, we take in Great Wolf’s plentiful entertainment options.

Pajama-clad children flock to the nightly storytime in front of the three-story, stone fireplace. A plethora of kid-themed shops includes Scooops Kid Spa, which decks youngsters out in fluffy pink robes, pampers them royally, and tops off their spa experience with a scoop of ice cream. We make countless trips up the six-story staircase to reach the Bear Track Landing water park’s nine slides, and later grab inner tubes for a relaxing float in the wave pool and lazy river ride.

The Grapevine Vintage Railroad takes passengers from downtown Grapevine to the Fort Worth Stockyards. (Photo by Michael Amador)After such active pursuits, we welcome the next day by sinking into the forest-green cushions of the Grapevine Vintage Railroad. The 1953 GP-7 diesel locomotive pulls a string of 1920s Victorian-style coaches on the 21-mile trip from the Cotton Belt Depot, in Grapevine’s historic downtown, to the Fort Worth Stockyards. We lounge in air-conditioned comfort, taking in the sites through the four-foot-tall windows that line the entire length of the coach. The train rolls along at a gentle clip, offering a relaxing departure from the hustle and bustle of highway travel. Esther presses her face to the window in delight as we chug past rollerbladers, golfers, thick swaths of trees, and fields of cattle. The train grinds to a halt at a junction, giving the conductor the opportunity to ask passengers geography-trivia questions like “What’s the longest river in the U.S.?”

Upon returning to Grapevine, we walk to nearby Main Street Bread Baking Company. The European-style bistro dishes out sandwiches served on fresh-baked bread along with soups and salads. We admire the tarts and cakes in the dessert case, but start with hearty bowls of tomato-basil soup, crisp baguettes, and banana crêpes featuring a chocolate-hazelnut filling. My husband and I save just enough room for a parfait glass of plump strawberries swimming in a brandied cream sauce—a dessert that echoes the sweet memories of our family’s weekend together.

The Fort Worth Botanic Garden can anchor a weekend’s exploration of the Cultural District

Inspired by the Gardens of Villa Lante in central Italy, the Rose Garden features a series of terraces and fountains. The roses bloom in spring and fall. (Photo by Geoffrey Crewe)

By June Naylor

The promise of spring’s color and fresh light, as winter finally fades away, brings me to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden a lot these days. The daffodils wave their yellow heads and a multitude of pink blossoms seem eager to sweeten the lengthening afternoons, and I find myself counting my lucky stars—yet again—that I live less than a mile from this beloved escape.

Since opening in the 1930s, the 110-acre sanctuary has served as one of the city’s most visited outdoor retreats. Sitting halfway between the Fort Worth Cultural District’s renowned cluster of art museums and award-winning zoo, barely five minutes west of downtown, the garden serves up a sense of revival, particularly at this time of year.

From March 3 through April 8, thousands of tropical and native butterflies will be released into the garden’s conservatory as part of an exhibit called Butterflies in the Garden.

If there’s time for an hour-long ramble, my decision lies in figuring out which part of the Garden—there are some 20 areas, including more than a dozen different gardens—to explore. On those unpredictable March and April days that may or may not turn up warm, I relish a slow stroll through the Garden’s conservatory, a 10,000-square-foot glass building filled with exotic color and tropical texture, including cacao, coffee, and banana trees.

As I wander the path through the conservatory’s dense rainforest foliage and past its waterfalls, accented by bromeliads, ferns, and palms, my eyes drink in a palette of pink, orange, and lush greens. I’m transfixed by the faded purple of the flamingo flower and the magenta of a fuzzy chenille plant.

To facilitate discoveries outdoors, I pluck a map from the information desk. Following the stone walkways that snake through the various gardens, I like watching a mom photograph her daughter on a first birthday in front of flowering shrubs, and a boyfriend capture his girlfriend’s sweet smile from a stone bridge.

On warmer days, of course, I’m sharing my haven with others hungry for the fresh air and blooms. In late spring, schoolteachers wrangle restless students onto the Texas Native Forest Boardwalk, found in the Garden’s central section. In the densely shaded reaches, kids play interactive games on permanent panels made with natural materials, designed to teach them about conservation and natural history as they explore a swath of wild parkland filled with native trees and shrubs. Another permanent installation is a large panel called Egghead Quiz, detailing birds living in the Garden, complete with photos of birds’ nests and different eggs behind glass.

On sunny afternoons, there’s inevitably a bride posing for a portrait in the legendary Rose Garden, where thousands of roses bloom in spring and fall. Found at the south end of the Botanic Garden and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Rose Garden features handsome stone terraces that serve as the backdrop for hundreds of weddings each year.

Also in the southern reaches of the Garden, the serene Japanese Garden claims plenty of its own fans. Constructed in the 1970s and secluded within a bamboo-lined perimeter, the Japanese Garden unfolds from a central pagoda to reveal orderly plantings flanked by cypress-lined koi ponds. More than 4,000 guests attend a Japanese Garden Festival in the spring and again in the fall for Japanese-inspired food, art, and dance programs.

Whereas most of the gardens receive visitors during daylight hours, nighttime attendance heats up from early June until July 4th, when thousands of guests show up for Concerts in the Garden. Cosponsored by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, this extravaganza finds couples and families alike spread out on blankets to hear live music in nearly every genre from classical to rock, and to watch the fireworks show that caps every performance.

Sunday brunch tends to be the busiest time at The Gardens Restaurant, a lunch spot found in the Rock Springs building near the Rose Garden. After brunch, I’m likely to seek out some of my favorite sculptures among the 19 pieces situated throughout the Garden. More often than not, I wind up beneath a canopy of pecan and oak trees, scribbling in my journal at the base of a tall, monolithic limestone piece called Celestial Jazz.

The sculpture that moves me most, however, is the Charlie Company Memorial, which lies at the southwest corner of the Garden, just beyond the Japanese Garden. I admire the somber simplicity found in an arrangement of heavy limestone columns (rescued from a demolished old mansion on nearby Summit Avenue), which represent the brotherhood of soldiers who served in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry and the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Vietnam War.

When summer gives way to fall, I enjoy watching the leaves change color as the temperatures cool again. That’s when chubby squirrels with plush tails play chase, rushing up to the tops of soaring trees, where they shell pecans high overhead, hurling green husks to the ground. On a serene Wednesday afternoon, those squirrels—and thousands of migrating monarch butterflies—might be my only company. And that’s a bit of bliss, right in my own backyard.

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For some, the idea of spending time in Huntsville conjures up images of a striped jumpsuit, two matching metal bracelets, and a uniformed escort who definitely isn’t a tour guide. But for those who visit voluntarily, Huntsville makes for one incredible day trip. 

After a strenuous day paddling or rafting the Rio Grande, participants in Far Flung Outdoor Center’s river trips enjoy a meal with a view. (Photo by J. Griffis Smith)As a longtime Texan and adventuresome traveler, I’ve enjoyed a long fascination with the Chihuahuan Desert region of far West Texas, with its rugged terrain and spiked branches of red-tipped ocotillo reaching to sprawling blue skies. I have always wanted to experience the Big Bend by floating the Rio Grande through the weathered, limestone walls of Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park, but the stars have never aligned—until recently.

Photo copyright: The Daytripper with Chet Garner

In Mineral Wells, something is definitely in the water—something ”Crazy” that once turned this north-central Texas town into an international tourist destination. Feeling a bit crazy myself, I set out for the day to immerse myself in Mineral Wells.

In September 2010, the author explored I-35 from Austin to Dallas. Here, he heads south.

Riley’s Tavern in Hunter offers pool, shuffleboard, live music, and character to spare. The tavern opened in 1933. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

TH Deal: Find hotel specials

By Anthony Head

Despite the growing number of large retail stores filling in the gaps between bigger Texas cities, countless curious diversions still draw sightseers along the state’s main highways and interstates. In fact, no matter where I’m driving—even when I’m in a hurry—it’s hard to resist the urge to slow down, pull off the road, and check out another one-of-a-kind attraction.
For example, take the 60-mile stretch of Interstate 35 between San Marcos and San Antonio: Traveling south, and taking exit 205, I follow the frontage road to the Clawfoot Bathtub Warehouse, tucked between a Knights Inn and a Red Roof Inn. Inside a 1950s mission-style church building, owner Scott Walker refurbishes antique tubs; he also designs and handcrafts new luxurious tubs from copper, cast iron, wood, and stainless steel. Each piece becomes a work of art, especially with Walker’s custom-made claw feet and fixtures like faucets, standpipes, and shower rings from throughout the world. The Warehouse is not a thing of beauty: It’s an artist’s studio with spare parts, tools, and yet-to-be-finished bathtubs sharing space with gleaming, one-of-a-kind tubs (not to mention dog beds for Walker’s five resident companions).
Why bathtubs? “In the mid-1980s, I refinished bathtubs for hotels, and the job took me all over the world,” says Walker, who is a font of arcane bathtub and plumbing knowledge. “I started to love bathtubs, especially the antiques. There’s so much history and craftsmanship in a classic tub. It became like gold fever. I had to have every one I could find.”
Because Walker is running out of room inside the warehouse, he often displays his tubs outside, which makes his business easy to find. I resist (for now) the urge to redo my bathroom and soldier on.
Continuing south on I-35, crossing the Comal County line, I take Exit 196 and follow winding FM 1102 about a mile until I roll into downtown Hunter, home of Riley’s Tavern. There’s no missing Riley’s, as downtown consists of a handful of buildings—and one of them is the bar’s own Creek Side Cottage, a 1930s B&B that sleeps six. With its pool tables, shuffleboard set-up, neon beer signs, band posters, and long wooden bar decoupaged with local ads, photos, and newspaper clippings, Riley’s looks like it has been here darn-near forever. As it turns out, Riley’s just about has: The building dates to the mid-1800s. Though it may not be the oldest bar in Texas, its former, longtime owner James Riley took possession of the first state-issued beer license after Prohibition collapsed in 1933.
For current owner and guitarist Joel Hofmann, who took the reins in 2004, the bar’s history is even more personal. “It’s a place I started going to when I turned 21, and my folks used to go in there, too,” he tells me. “In the end, it was a music decision. If I owned a music venue, I could play whenever I wanted. And I could help other musicians, too. So I bought the bar.”
There’s live music (blues, country, rockabilly, Americana) here almost every night, the staff treats just about everyone like they’re regulars, and the drinks are cheap and cold. The 16-foot cement guitar sculpture out in front was donated by Louisiana Hayride veteran Leon Carter, and it’s Hofmann’s current favorite furnishing. Me? I like sitting at the far end of the bar beneath an autographed photo of Chuck Norris, who watches over this landmark and keeps the peace until it’s time to go.
Back on the road again, it’s nearly impossible to miss the billboards adver-tising some of the better-known attractions in the area, like Schlitterbahn Waterpark and Natural Bridge Caverns. Right off Exit 182 in New Braunfels, though, signs herald Animal World & Snake Farm Zoo. Opened in 1967 (as simply “Snake Farm”), this was formerly a true “roadside attraction” (with all the connotations such a designation suggests). New owners took over about three years ago, however, and continue expanding and upgrading the facilities.
Manager Robin McKeown accompanies me out back to see the 16 American alligators lounging in the afternoon sun. There are several acres of animal habitats and more than 600 individual animals. “There are misapprehensions from some first-time visitors about what’s on the other side of our doors, but we’re no longer classified as a ‘roadside attraction.’ We’re a zoological park accredited by the Zoological Association of America,” she says.
Every day there are bats, large cats, tarantulas, and wolves to see up close, plus lizards and other reptiles living inside the herpetarium. “I’m a mammal and bird person myself,” McKeown admits, “so I’m excited about our six species of lemurs. We also have a lot of the crazy venomous snakes, like king cobras, black mambas, and taipans. But obviously we’re not exclusively about snakes anymore.”
Nutty confections abound at Texas Pecan Candy in Schertz.  (Photo by Kevin Stillman)Finally, road trips (even the short ones) are always better with something good to eat. After arriving in Schertz via Exit 175, I discover the Texas Pecan Candy shop, which is nearly overshadowed by a gas station, diner, and a Walmart store. In-side, owner Bonnie Palmer and manager Julianna Lavulo greet customers while managing the various stoves and ovens that fill the shelves with cookies, cakes, fudge, nut candies, and other confections.
“The store has been here more than 20 years, but I bought it about 12 years ago,” Palmer says. “It’s the best job I’ve ever had. My dream was always to have a bakery with antiques, and now I’m living my dream.”
The shop sells sturdy Polish pottery, cookie cutters, vintage Mexican serving bowls, Texas-themed home decorations, and knickknacks ranging from bells and vases to salt and pepper shakers and photo frames. Behind the glass cases are drums of Fredericksburg ice creams; platters of apple strudel, pecan-lemon squares, chocolates; flavored pecans; and Texas-shaped pralines. Palmer says the kitchen usually gets going early every morning, churning out delicious snacks for everyday occasions and special, made-to-order treats for whatever holiday comes next on the calendar.
Palmer wouldn’t let me out the door without tasting a delicious sugar cookie. Even though I’m just a few stops from San Antonio, the just-baked flavor inspires me to turn around, point the car north, and start looking for more great attractions on the other side of the road.

One of artist Jesse Treviño’s most visible pieces of public art, a nine-story mosaic mural titled Spirit of Healing, enlivens the side of Christus Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital. (Photo by Kevin Stillman)

Driving northbound on I-35 through downtown San Antonio affords a clear view of the city’s Christus Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital, where a nine-story, tiled mural called Spirit of Healing features an image of a young boy holding a dove while an angel watches over him. For San Antonio artist Jesse Treviño, who completed the mural in 1997, the intricately tiled artwork expresses a simple and enduring sentiment.

(Photo courtesy The Daytripper with Chet Garner)

You can’t blame Texans for flocking lakeside during our blistering Texas summers. However, we shouldn’t be so quick to forget our lakes when the weather turns colder. During chilly months, Texas reservoirs take on a completely different personality. I set out in the brisk air to explore Lake Buchanan, or as the locals say, “Lake Buck-anan.”

Before Trains, Planes and Automobiles: Hochheim's Stagecoach Inn recalls the 1850s

A way station for travelers in early Texas, the Stagecoach Inn lay along the Austin-Indianola stage road. Find it today off  US 183, near Hochheim. (Photo by Michael Amador)

By Nola McKey

Tucked away on a backroad in the northeast corner of DeWitt County lies a remnant of early Texas. A two-and-a-half-story structure built of stone from the banks of the nearby Guadalupe River, the 1856 Valentin Hoch Home stands amid rolling blackland prairie dotted with live oaks and pecans. The secluded setting makes it easy to imagine Valentin Hoch, a German immigrant and stone mason, stopping at this spot and saying to his children, as reported in family histories, “Here we shall build our home.”

Not long after the house was completed, it became a stagecoach stop, one of the way stations that made travel across Texas possible in the days before railroads. An article by Mike Cox in the Texas Almanac states that 31 stage lines were operating in Texas before the beginning of the Civil War. “Those were the major transportation routes of the day,” says local historian Doug Kubicek, “and the stops along the way like Hoch’s place —which became known as the Stagecoach Inn—were crucial. They offered a place for drivers to change horses and for travelers to have a meal and sometimes spend the night. One of their most important functions was mail delivery. Places like the Stagecoach Inn really opened up the interior of Texas for settlement.”

According to Bob Brinkman, an architectural historian and coordinator of the Texas Historical Commission’s Historical Markers Program, several things make this site special. “The house is a testament to Hoch’s craftsmanship and practicality,” he says. “ I’m amazed every time I see it how well it’s integrated into the landscape: He sited it on a hill among a grove of trees so that it could catch the prevailing breezes.

“But the other reason it’s one of my favorite sites is because the story of the Hoch family is so interesting,” adds Brinkman. “Like many immigrants, they endured great hardship and tragedy, yet they eventually made a good life in this new land.”

An account by Valentin Hoch’s great-granddaughter Mildred Allen Duhon describes the family’s voyage from Germany to America: “Just days before they left … , the youngest child … became ill and died. In the fall of 1845 the family ... began their journey. On their way to America, another child … died and was buried at sea.”

Soon after the ship anchored at Indianola (then called Indian Point), Hoch’s wife also died. Duhon wrote, “It was said that she died of either scarlet fever or cholera, but others say she died of a broken heart.”

Details about the whereabouts of Hoch and his remaining four children for the next two years prove sketchy, but in February 1848, Hoch purchased 45 acres of land near the Guadalupe River, the family’s eventual home site. According to accounts by Duhon and other family members, Hoch spent several years quarrying the stone and assembling the materials to build the house.

He was still building it when a neighbor told him about a woman named Johanna Flemming who had come to Indianola and recently lost her husband. Desperately needing someone to help look after his children, Hoch went to Indianola to see Flemming, who had two small children of her own. When he returned, he brought all three with him. Valentin Hoch and Johanna Flemming married on August 18, 1854; their union resulted in four more children.

An inscription in stone over the east entrance reads “V. Hoch 1856.” Other lintels bear dates of 1857 and 1866, indicating that Hoch completed the house in stages. The attic was designated for the boys, the second story for the girls, and the bottom floor for the adults. They stored food and supplies in the cellar, including wine that the family made from mustang grapes gathered along the river.

The home lay along an old freight trail, and the government soon awarded contracts to Hoch for mail delivery. According to a Recorded Texas Historical Marker placed in 1964, the home “served as an inn on the Austin-Indianola stage road. While drivers changed four-horse teams, the passengers welcomed the chance to enjoy the inn’s food and hospitality.”

Doug Kubicek says there’s tangible evidence that the home was on a stage route. “The first time I went out to the site, I nearly fell on my face in the wagon ruts on the east side of the house—they’re still two to three feet deep in places,” he notes.

The Stagecoach Inn sparked settlement in the area. The community of Hochheim (Hoe-hime, meaning “Hoch’s home” in German) grew up around it and today lies six miles west of Yoakum. Three generations of Hochs lived in the house, which remained in the family until 1899, when it was sold to rancher Valentine Bennett. His descendants restored it in 1954, earning several awards. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

A local insurance company acquired the property in 2000 and established the Hochheim Historical Foundation to serve as the Stagecoach Inn’s caretaker. Restoration efforts continue through the foundation, whose aim is to preserve the site as a German heritage center.

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