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Written by Texas Highways

castle 4Something amazing, and in fact, quite regal is hidden in Bellville, a tiny town roughly halfway between Austin and Houston. Though primarily known as the seat of Austin County, this not-so-sleepy small town (pop. 4,000) has recently distinguished itself for more than its governmental function.

HillCountryDwelling2June Naylor’s story on the new Midland Hotel in Hico urges you to make tracks to experience the inn’s hospitality. Once you’re settled into the Hamilton County town, there’s plenty to do and see and eat right outside the hotel’s front door. Here’s a look at some of downtown Hico’s offerings.

WhartonArtwork3503Wharton is the kind of town that invites you to relax on a wraparound porch with an old friend, sip an iced tea—or something stronger—and reveal some secrets. At least that’s what I wanted to do when visiting for a weekend last spring, standing on the front porch of Wharton-born playwright Horton Foote’s childhood home, peeking in at all the old photos on his mantel, and then looking out at the blossoming azaleas and old oak trees that adorn the front yard.

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Natives and visitors love New Braunfels for its crystal-clear rivers and the thrilling slides of Schlitterbahn. And while these top tourist attractions are great reasons to go tripping, there’s much more to this German burg than many people know. I decided to take a trip to this Texas-style Bavaria and see what I could uncover.

Hico617On trips to the Hamilton County town of Hico over the years, I’d wondered why the handsome 1896 Midland Hotel building had remained sorely neglected. An imposing corner building at the center of a charming vintage downtown, the two-story brick landmark had clearly been a showplace in its heyday.

bikingwithbirds 617Not a half-hour into my daylong adventure, in the middle of a prairie of sea lavender and leatherleaf, I stopped my bike in wonder. A few dozen yards from the pavement, dozens of sandhill cranes comingled with a flock of ivory snow geese, completely ignoring my entrance into this unspoiled coastal scene.

pho nomenal 617About 10 miles north of the town of Palacios and Matagorda Bay, the scenery along Texas 35 begins to change. Nondescript coastal scrub morphs into something greener, and the air begins to carry a faint salt tang. To the east, colorful farmhouses punctuate verdant pastures where cattle graze beneath fluffy cloud formations. To the west, rows upon rows of neatly manicured crops—mostly corn but also soybeans and sorghum— glisten in the afternoon sunlight, like a blanket of green leaves covering the soil beneath.

SylvaMaes617I knew the first time I pulled up to Sylvia Mae’s Soul Food in Jacksonville that there was more than meets the eye. Sylvia Mae’s, which occupies a ramshackle, metal-sided building with red trim and a lopsided front porch, isn’t fancy. But it’s not supposed to be: Owner Sylvia Jones envisioned it as a soul-food sanctuary, and one
visit will make you a believer.

aquarium 617

On the deck of the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, on a bright afternoon this spring, a group of school kids in matching red polo shirts pressed their noses against the glass to spy river otters playing in the artificial stream that courses through Otter Creek. The otters slid and skittered in the water, occasionally posing for snapshots as the children pointed and laughed at their antics. Nearby in the aquarium’s 400,000-gallon saltwater Dolphin Bay exhibit, a pair of playful Atlantic bottlenose dolphins surged and dove, competing for the visitors’ attention. Later, trainers stopped by with fish for the tricksters, who leapt and danced for treats.

Carmen Tafolla 300 617Nearly every year since 1932, the Texas Legislature has named a State Poet Laureate to honor significant contributions in the field of poetry. In 2015 that distinction went to San Antonio native Carmen Tafolla, a celebrated Chicana literary figure. Just three years prior, Tafolla was named the very first poet laureate of San Antonio, where her family has resided since the 1700s. Tafolla published her first poetry book, Get Your Tortillas Together, in 1976 and cemented her reputation with collections such as Curandera (1983), Sonnets to Human Beings (1992), Rebozos (2012), and This River Here: Poems of San Antonio (2014).

TxQuiM 04 2Who needs to get on an airplane to dance with a foreign culture? Between Houston and Austin, a 90-minute drive from each, is Fayette County, “the cradle of Czech immigration.” In the 19th century, Czech immigrants settled in pockets around Texas—just follow the kolaches—but the concentration of new arrivals in Fayette County created a rich Czech tradition that persists today in the region’s music, food, and culture.

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