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Kingsland’s Antlers Hotel

Written by Joan Upton Hall.

Discovering The Antlers Hotel at Kingsland by accident is about as likely as finding a four-leaf clover. You can only get there by a ranch road, and the trains that once made it a popular resort haven’t brought passengers on a regular basis since the 1920s.

The 1901 Antlers, which looks like an antebellum plantation house, still stands next to the rails. The Austin and Northwestern Railroad built it to serve its business passengers, such as cattlemen and “drummers” (traveling salesmen who at one time literally drummed up business by beating on a drum). Excursion trains out of Austin also brought guests to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and nearby Crescent Lake without having to give up modern conveniences: The Antlers had gas-lights and a telephone in the lobby (lavatories in each room and running water would come later), though none of that “faddish” electricity. Guests could also take advantage of a barbershop, a game room, a bathhouse with hot water, and a fine restaurant.

When not busy swimming, fishing, or boating on the lake, hotel guests could sit in rocking chairs, basking in cool breezes on the wide verandas that graced both floors, front and back. From the back, they could see the sparkling water of the Llano and Colorado rivers merging into the lake. Granite outcroppings, wildflowers, and prairie grass lined the lakeshore. On the hotel grounds, a large pavilion hosted activities for guests and towns-people alike—frequent dances, picnics, religious revivals, and traveling chautauquas that brought plays and other entertainment.

The resort’s reputation spread, and C.F. Smith, the restaurant’s chef, wrote in his diary, “We cater to high-class visitors from Austin…Houston…San Antonio…and Fort Worth.” Up until 1905, Smith and his wife, Sarah, who was the pastry chef, served contented hotel guests as well as campers from nearby Campa Pajama, who often telephoned to order lunches from The Antlers’ kitchen. (The Smiths showed the ultimate pride of place when they named their son Antlers.)

But when automobile travel began to displace passenger trains, people stopped patronizing railroad hotels like The Antlers, and Kingsland nearly became a ghost town. Then, in 1922, a fire destroyed much of the town, but fortunately, The Antlers was spared. That same year, Austinite Thomas H. Barrow, whose family had vacationed at the resort during its heyday, bought it for the private use of his family and friends, and his descendants enjoyed it for the next 70 years.

By 1993, the property was for sale. Barbara and Dennis Thomas of Austin bought it, renovated, and reopened The Antlers in 1996. It is now listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is a Recorded Texas Historic Landmark. Today’s Antlers Hotel overlooks the sandy banks of Lake LBJ, which was created in 1950 when the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) built Wirtz Dam on the Llano River. The Thomases moved other historic structures—including several railroad cars, in tribute to the hotel’s early history—from the area to the grounds and restored them.

The Antlers’ current innkeeper, Jay Littlepage, says this complex welcomes about an even mix of couples seeking a romantic getaway, families looking for a comfortable recreational site, and retreat groups wanting to take in the local attractions after business meetings. Situated on 15 acres with lawns, gardens, and orchards, The Antlers also makes a one-of-a-kind place for special events like weddings and reunions.

Tall American elm trees and pink rambling roses on the front fence bring you to The Antlers’ front door. Inside, the original train bulletin framed on a wall and a large potbellied stove recall an earlier time. Glass doors lead to the rear veranda, where brick paving surrounds an old cistern and an icehouse. From there, you can follow a nature trail to the cabins or go straight to the lake, where four docks extend from the 1,500-foot waterfront. An 1870 log cabin, where guests can escape the sun, sits near the boat slips. Nearby, another dock makes an especially nice spot to swim or fish.

The Antlers’ accommodations include ritzy suites in the hotel, casual cabins, railroad cars (yes, you can stay in them), cozy rooms for two, and the Orchard Lodge, which has space for eight. Framed newspaper articles, old photos, and artifacts in the lodge and the hotel lobby document area history, including information about Martin D. King, Kingsland’s founder, who purchased the town land in 1877.

Antiques and plush bedding adorn all of the rooms and suites, which also boast beautifully polished wood floors and distinctive appointments. For example, the Writer’s Suite has a collection of Texana books, and the Drummer Suite has a small kitchen. Living rooms in the suites, which include sleeper sofas, are large enough to seat eight to 12 people.

Railroad buffs can spend the night in the 1880s McKinley Coach, named in honor of President William McKinley, who took a cross-country tour of America and stopped in Austin about the time the hotel opened. Three cabooses, once crucial to the operation of a train but obsolete by the 1980s, are also available for sleeping. Dennis Thomas bought these collectors’ items at auction, and they rode the rails for the last time from Illinois to Kingsland. Their observation cupolas remain in place, and each car is refurbished to a high level of comfort and luxury with a queen-size bed and bunks.

The cars, like the cabins, all have TV/VCRs and kitchens. Don’t let the rustic exterior of the cabins fool you. The air-conditioned interiors have good beds and plenty of seating. Some of the old structures were moved in, but others are original to the property, such as the railroad crews’ bunkhouse, remodeled as a duplex.

Kingsland’s original depot, lost in the 1922 fire, has been replaced by the historic 1880s Muldoon Depot, which now serves as an antique and gift shop for The Antlers’ guests and visitors. The original ticket windows remain, and a couple of steps lead up to what used to be cargo rooms, elevated for easy loading onto the train.

Directly across from The Antlers is the Chariot Grill, housed in an early-1900s Queen Anne-style home and offering “Texas Gourmet with a Traveling Twist.” Originally built in Round Rock, the house had to make way, in the late 1990s, for a shopping center on Interstate 35 and the new Texas 45. In a faux-dilapidated state, it had appeared in the 1974 horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Mr. and Mrs. George Nalle of Austin, collectors of Victorian buildings, bought it and resold it to the hotel, which moved it to Kingsland to renovate it for its new function as a restaurant.

Now fully restored, the home’s varnished-wood staircase, high ceilings, transoms, and bulls-eye molding take guests back to the building’s gracious past. Rooms on either side of the staircase are set up for dining, and the entire second floor is an open area for parties.

Executive chef and general manager Karolyn Beck, and executive pastry chef Heather Wally-Weaver, say their aim is to elevate “down-home favorites to approachable fine-dining,” with entrées such as “The Kingsland Express,” a Nolan Ryan-endorsed beef sirloin. For breakfast, items include eggs benedict, waffles, and biscuits and gravy. The home-style breads alone are worth the trip, whether you’re a hotel guest or a traveler hungering for special cuisine.

Innkeeper Jay Littlepage loves the food and his job. “How else could I live on this beautiful property and have a hand in maintaining a piece of history, too?” And history it is. Guests report feeling as if they’ve stepped back in time—without having to give up modern comforts.

If you yearn to take a break from the ordinary, venturing off the main roads to The Antlers resort just might be that four-leaf clover you’ve been looking for.

THE ANTLERS HOTEL is at 1001 King St. in Kingsland. From Texas 29, at the intersection of Fuzzy’s Corners, between Llano and Burnet, turn south onto Ranch Road 1431, and go 5 miles to Kingsland. After crossing the railroad tracks, turn left on King St. Call 325/388-4411 or 800/383-0007; www.theantlers.com. The site has docks for fishing, boating, and swimming. Boat slips available to guests; boat and jet-ski rentals available nearby. Conference room for 25. Special events welcome. No pets; no smoking. Some rooms wheelchair accessible. Rates: Historic Antlers Hotel rooms and suites: $120-$140. Cabins and cottages: $120-$220. Rail cars: Caboose, $110-$120, McKinley Coach, $130-$140 (inquire about seasonal rates and charges for extra people).

The Chariot Grill, on The Antlers Hotel grounds. Hours: Thu 5:30 p.m.–9 p.m., Fri-Sat 8:30-11 and 5:30-9, Sun 8:30-2 and 5:30-8. Call 325/388-4280.

Orange Blossom Deli and Coffee Shop, front corner of The Antlers property, serves sandwiches, fresh baked goods, and beverages. Hours: Mon–Fri 10–3. Call 325/388-3929.

Kingsland Area Attractions

Kingsland sits in the middle of the triangle formed by Llano, Burnet,and Marble Falls. Besides shopping, the towns have events year round; go to www.highlandlakes.com/events.htm.

Longhorn Cavern State Park is 7 miles east of The Antlers on Park Rd. 4. Learn the cave’s history, from prehistoric times to its dance-hall days. Call 877/441-CAVE; www.longhorncaverns.com.

Packsaddle Country Club 18-hole golf course is 3 1/2 miles west of The Antlers. Go south on RM 2900, turn right on River Oaks Dr., and right on Skyline Dr. Call 325/388-3863.

Vanishing Texas River Cruise is about 45 minutes away. Take Texas 29 east to FM 2341, and drive 14 miles to the road’s end. Tour Lake Buchanan and the Colorado River Canyon in an enclosed boat with observation decks. Cruises are presently restricted to the lake, because of low water levels in the river. Call 800/4RIVER-4 for information and reservations; www.vtrc.com.

Wineries

Fall Creek Vineyards, 1820 CR 222 in Tow; 325/379-5361; www.fcv.com.

Lost Creek Vineyard, 1129 RR 2233 in Sunrise Beach; 325/388-3753; www.lostcreekvineyard.com.

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From the April 2007 issue.

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