Written by Lori Moffatt
With triple-digit heat already here in Austin (and lingering), I'mm semi-obsessed with swimming pools, so I smiled when I spied the Texas-shaped pool at Amarillo's Big Texan Motel, the lodging companion to the famous Big Texan restaurant, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (If you haven't heard of the Big Texan's free 72-ounce steak dinner, the mother of all big-food challenges, here's the skinny: You have to eat the whole thing, plus a slew of sides, in less than an hour.)
I don't think I could make a dent in that steak, but I sure can see myself doing a few laps from Amarillo to Brownsville.
Know of any other great hotel pools? Let's come up with a "Best-Of" list!
I recently made a quick trip to Houston to take care of some medical appointments, which got me thinking about the idea of â€œhealth travel,â€ or even the vague concept of â€œsecondary travel.â€ For example, even if my main reason for visiting a city is to catch up with family, see a hotshot out-of-town specialist, or to attend a work conference or other event, I do try to squeeze in some recreation. In Houston, I try to visit a museum or gallery, a favorite shop, and a restaurant or bar Iâ€™ve been hearing about. This time, I joined up with two longtime Houston friends to check out El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, the new (yet old-school) Tex-Mex restaurant dreamed up by food writer/historian Robb Walsh and restaurateurs Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd. I had heard raves about the cheese enchiladas with chili gravyâ€”that classic Tex-Mex comfort-food concoction served with orange cheese, lard-laden (and I mean that in a good way) refried beans, and Spanish rice. Well-deserved raves! Tart margaritas and a salvaged dÃ©cor from the shuttered El Fenix Restaurant completed the experience. Iâ€™ll look forward to future visits once I can fit into my jeans again.
When I visit the Bayou City, I often stay with friends, but this time, I tried an experiment. I had heard about travel websites like www.lastminutetravel.com and www.hotwire.com, which offer unsold hotel rooms at steeply discounted prices, and I decided to give lastminutetravel a try. Hereâ€™s how it works: You go to the site, pick your city and general area, plug in your dates, and the website finds available rooms. In my case, I found a â€œfour-star hotelâ€ in â€œdowntown Houstonâ€ for $95. The site provides photos of the hotel, and a list of amenities, but you donâ€™t learn the name of the hotel until youâ€™ve booked the room. (This makes sense to me: While the hotels want to sell their unsold rooms, they donâ€™t want to advertise that theyâ€™re willing to drastically undercut their rack rates. And be aware that after you reserve the room, you canâ€™t cancel or change your reservation.) For my one-night stay, this worked beautifully: My hotel turned out to the Hyatt Regency, where rooms normally start around $180 per night. The hotel has a great rooftop pool, and its central location proved perfect for exploring on foot. When I returned to the office, I poked around these sites to see what other hotel deals I could find in Texas: I pretended to want to book a room four days out, and I turned up a â€œfour-starâ€ hotel in Galveston for $96 and a â€œthree-starâ€ hotel in downtown Fort Worth for $68.
Have you tried these sites for Texas travel? Care to share your experiences?
Upon its debut in 1965 as host to an exhibition game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, Houstonâ€™s Astrodomeâ€”lauded by fans as the â€œEighth Wonder in the Worldâ€â€”nabbed a spot in the record books as the worldâ€™s first multi-purpose domed stadium (not to mention the birthplace of AstroTurf). Alas, the once-regal Dome now rests in the shadow of the much-larger Reliant Stadium at Reliant Park; the Astros left the Dome for Minute Maid Park more than a decade ago.
But city leaders are debating the Astrodomeâ€™s future, and the options are numerous: Demolish it and install a green-space plaza? Keep the shell and convert it to a multi-use venue, perhaps with an attached hotel? Create a mega-venue with a planetarium and an institute devoted to engineering and mathematics? What do you think should happen with the Astrodome? Weâ€™d love to hear your thoughts and memories. (You can see the current options being considered, complete with artistsâ€™ renditions of how redevelopment might look, at http://www.reliantpark.com/feedback.)
It would be poetic, I think, if I were to effuse that Iâ€™ve been fascinated with mobiles since I was an infant gazing at one dangling above my crib. But in reality, my introduction to mobiles came in grade school, thanks to a hippie art teacher who smelled of patchouli and patiently taught her ham-handed students how to make dancing (if lopsided) sculptures from twigs, painted acorns, and twine. I thought of her this morning when I read about the Nasher Sculpture Centerâ€™s exhibition of the works of Alexander Calder (1898-1976), whose first kinetic sculptures were dubbed â€œmobilesâ€ by colleague and friend Marcel Duchamp. (Interestingly, fellow experimental artist Jean Arp called Calderâ€™s stationary artworks â€œstabiles.â€)
The Nasherâ€™s show, Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy, runs through March 6. Along with more than 30 of Calderâ€™s works, the exhibition also highlights seven contemporary artists who were influenced by Calderâ€™s creative reuse of materials, hands-on production methods, and explorations of form, balance, color, and movement.
I canâ€™t think of a more pleasant place to experience Calderâ€™s graceful sculptures. With its spare and light-filled interior galleries and al fresco sculpture garden filled with beautiful and thought-provoking installations, the Nasher makes artworks accessible and relevant to lifeâ€™s experiences. So I know that when I next make it to Dallas, and when I walk amongst the mobiles as they rotate on gossamer threads, Iâ€™ll be back in art class, surrounded by classmates with braces and awkward hairdos, assembling sculptures from garden flotsam. The weight of one acorn could throw the whole thing off-balance. Alter one variable, and the whole project shifts. Could I have known back then that a mobile could be a metaphor for life itself? For more on the Nasher, see www.nashersculpturecenter.org.
Iâ€™m not really a football fan. Those are fighting words, I realize, in some parts of Texas, where pigskin rivalries divide families, coworkers, and even strangers in line at the grocery store. I do look forward to the Super Bowl every year (so Iâ€™ve marked my calendar for this yearâ€™s 45th anniversary game up in Arlington on February 6), but thatâ€™s mostly because itâ€™s my annual excuse to eat lots of Velveeta-and-Rotel queso.
So for those who know me well, itâ€™s always a surprise that I adore the television show Friday Night Lights, that sleeper quasi-hit show that won raves from the critics but never really took off with television audiences. My non-expert opinion is that it suffers an identity crisis: Most people think of it as a sports drama, whereas truly itâ€™s a story about relationships, and itâ€™s perhaps one of the of the most authentic depictions of small-town Texas since Larry McMurtryâ€™s The Last Picture Show.
It doesnâ€™t hurt that the show is set in Austin and surrounding areas. Thereâ€™s the Continental Club! Franâ€™s Hamburgers! The Landing Strip of all places! That megalachurch near my house! Itâ€™s fun to try to figure out where each shot was filmed.
Location-spotting: This, along with the curious charms of actor Bradley Whitford (you know, the guy who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and Danny Tripp on the rollicking Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) is what drew me to the new Fox buddy-police-comedy The Good Guys, which is set in Dallas and filmed in Dallas. The plots are gossamer-thin, but Whitford plays a pratfalling rogue Texas cop with gum-smacking panache (with Tom Hanksâ€™ son Colin as the straight-guy sidekick). Never mind; the true star of the show is Dallasâ€”sleek office buildings and tony downtown restaurants, Fair Park in all its Art-Deco glory, rough-around-the-edges barbecue joints along Riverside (formerly Industrial)â€¦. I wonder if Dallasites have the same fun trying to identify filming locations for The Good Guys as I do for Friday Night Lights.
A few years ago, as I swam laps at the YMCA in Austin, I came up for air to find a sickly beagle circling the pool, watching me. Somehow he had wriggled between a break in the fence andâ€”I like to thinkâ€”decided Iâ€™d make a fine new owner. First, though, I had to nurse him back to health, and for that, I have Animal Trustees of Austin (ATA) to thank.
Along with other symptoms of neglect, my rescued beagleâ€”whom my husband and I named Oscarâ€”had an advanced case of heartworm disease, a dangerous disease that left untreated, leads to death. Treatment is expensive and grueling, but since I eventually adopted Oscar through a rescue organization called Austin Hound Rescue, I was able to take advantage of the mightily reduced treatment cost offered by ATA.
So Iâ€™m pleased to hear that â€œCelebrating Paws,â€ a new program offered by Lake Austin Spa Resort, not only benefits spa visitors who bring their canine friends but also donates 100% of pet guest fees collected throughout 2011 to ATA.
As part of the program, animal behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell will speak about the documented health benefits of pet ownershipâ€”including lower blood pressure and reduced stress levelsâ€”during spa stays February 2-6 and November 2-11, 2011.
McConnellâ€™s topics will include â€œThe Power of Pets: What Science Has to Tell Us about Our Love for Animals,â€ â€œAre You Thinking What Iâ€™m Thinking? Whatâ€™s Really Going on in a Dogâ€™s Brain,â€ and â€œThe Other End of the Leash: Understanding How to Communicate with Your Best Friend.â€
Other pet experts participating in the program include dog trainer Cara Shannon, who will lead classes in manners training and etiquette and author Susannah Charleson and her dog Puzzle (both members of the Metro Area K9 Rescue in Dallas), as well as canine photographers, massage therapists, and professional dog-walkers.
Iâ€™ll be honest: Oscar wouldnâ€™t stand for one moment for a pedicure, but a massage is another matter.
For details about canine programs at Lake Austin Spa Resort, call 800/847-5637; www.lakeaustin.com.
And now Iâ€™m curious: whatâ€™s the most indulgent thing youâ€™ve ever done for your dog?
With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, I’m wrapping up loose ends at the office while occasionally daydreaming about tomorrow’s feast. I’m particularly excited about Brussels sprouts, of all things.
I had dinner last week with Dallas friends who had read about Austinâ€™s ever-burgeoning trailer-food trend. â€œWas this going on elsewhere?â€™ they wondered. And had I explored many of the trailersâ€™ offerings? From what I understand, I told them, itâ€™s primarily an Austin thingâ€“at least in the sense that no where else has such numbers or diversity. Take your pick around townâ€”we have everything from chocolate-covered bananas and cherry-stuffed donuts to Cuban sandwiches and vegan chili.
And while Iâ€™ve enjoyed samplings from a handful of Austinâ€™s trailers, Iâ€™ve barely made a dent. Just this past week, though, I met friends on the outside patio of Shangri-La, an unassuming cocktail bar on East Sixth Street, a few blocks east of I-35. After a drink, our group cruised across the street for takeout dinner from a group of trailer-restaurants that have joined together as â€œThe East Side Drive-In.â€ (We could have dined on picnic tables scattered across the property, but instead we brought our dinner back to Shangri-La.) A few of us savored burgers and cheesesteaks; my husband had a BLT dressed up with basil from a trailer called â€œPig Vicious,â€ and I made a culinary score with a walnut-and-cranberry-studded tuna melt, made all the more unusual with a fried egg. Delicious all around.
Coming up on November 6 from 11 to 8, many of Austinâ€™s trailers (and there are at least 50 around town these days) will participate in the first annual Gypsy Picnic Trailer Food Festival, held on Auditorium Shores. Admission is free. Live music by Junior Brown, Guy Clark, Jr., and others will set the mood, and you can sample portions of various trailer treats for $3 or less. Check out the Web site at www.gypsypicnic.com, and if you go, tell us which tasty bits you like best.
Every year around mid-October, when I receive that much-anticipated invitation to my friendsâ€™ annual Halloween costume party, I scramble around to various Austin thrift stores (and then dig through my costume bin) to see what sort of ridiculous outfit I can come up with. The stars must be in alignment this year, because I just got word that Cirque du Soleilâ€”that Canadian-based, all-human theatrical circus that highlights grace and strength, with elaborate costumes, music, and setsâ€“is bringing its new insect-themed touring show, Ovo, to Frisco and Houston in 2011. (â€œOvoâ€ means egg in Portuguese.) I canâ€™t wait! Not only do I have inspiration for an over-the-top costume (though Iâ€™ll admit execution may be tricky), but Iâ€™m firming up plans to be amazed in 2011. Iâ€™m envisioning acrobats on giant spiderwebs, suspended over the stage. I canâ€™t help it, Iâ€™m a Cirque nerd.
And speaking of Halloween, El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the traditional celebration of life & death embraced by many Latin American cultures, follows a few days later, on November 2. Youâ€™ll find celebrations in San Antonio and other Texas cities with prominent Hispanic populations, so seek them out if youâ€™re of the mind to embrace the cycle of life and remember loved ones who have left this mortal coil.
In Houston, Lawndale Art Center (www.lawndaleartenter.org) celebrates El Dia de los Muertos beginning this Friday, October 22, with its 23rd annual Dia de los Muertos Gala and Retablo Silent Auction. One of Lawndaleâ€™s biggest fundraisers, the gala ($45) offers attendees the opportunity to bid on small artworks (retablos) created by well-known Houston and internationally known artists. The worksâ€”both reverent and irreverentâ€” will be on display through November 6 in the Lawndale galleries. Other Lawndale events in conjunction with El Dia de los Muertos include a community ofrenda (offering), during which guests are encouraged to bring a personal item to the community altar to honor departed loved ones (October 18 through November 6); a papel picado workshop on October 28, during which guests can learn the traditional art of Mexican paper-cutting; and a Family Day Fiesta on November 6, featuring performances by Mixteco Ballet Folklorico and the Houston Grand Opera.
How will you celebrate the season?
A few years ago, after writing a story on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, I got the gardening bug, big-time. And since the only lawnmower I owned (and still own) was a rusty push-mower, I decided to till up my water-greedy Saint Augustine grass and turn my lawn into a giant native-plant garden. And now that the plants have matured, itâ€™s a jungle of Lindheimer senna, agaves, Texas sage, butterfly bush, and dozens of other plants whose names I promised Iâ€™d never forgetâ€¦ but did. Iâ€™m not the most organized landscaper, itâ€™s true.
But in honor of the second annual Texas Native Plant Week (October 18-24), a commemoration sponsored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the National Wildlife Federation, and the City of Austin, Iâ€™m going to spend some time in the garden this weekend, trying to re-identify the plants that make me smile so often. They require very little care, and their blooms and foliage bring interest year-round. But what I most love about my little jungle is that it provides homes for all manner of bees, butterflies, praying mantises, toads, birds, anoles, and other interesting creatures. Never a dull moment out there.
Poke around the dedicated Web site, www.txnativeplantweek.org, to learn more about which plants and trees will do well in your part of Texas. Youâ€™ll find lists of native plant & seed providers, as well as recommended plants for any of the six regions of Texas, along with loads of other information.
In our November issue, we delve into the joys of traditional (and not-so-traditional) hot dogs, with a sidebar on New Braunfels' upcoming sausage celebrationâ€“Wurstfest-which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.The fest, which takes place October 29 through November 7, features live music and dancing fueled by lots of German sausage and beer.
And I just got word that the Wurstfest Association, the dedicated team of enthusiasts who have organized this popular event for the past half-century, will debut a 17 X 75-foot Wurstfest-themed mural on Monday, October 18, at noon. The mural, painted by local artist Brent McCarthy, is at 124 Elizabeth Street in New Braunfels, next door to the Circle Arts Theater. The unveiling party will offer a preview of the big Wurstfest bash, with live music and refreshments.
Hey, those Wurstfest folks know how to throw a party! (Practice your chicken dance now.) See www.wurstfest.com.