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Written by Lori Moffatt

In January issue of Texas Highways, which we’re putting to bed before the Thanksgiving holiday, my colleague Nola McKey suggests an action-packed 2012 itinerary for those of you who adore a good festival.

I’m particularly interested in the upcoming Whooping Crane Festival in Port Aransas (February 23-26)—not only because I love Port A, but also because I admire the birds’ tenaciousness and survival skills. After all, while whooping cranes are still on the state and federal Endangered Species List, their flock size should reach record levels this year. Once numbering only 21 birds in the entire planet, whoopers in 2012 are expected to number somewhere around 290, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Tom Stehn.

Texas’ winter flock of whooping cranes spend the summer in northwestern Canada, at Wood Buffalo National Park, and usually travel to Texas through a migration corridor that crosses over the Texas Panhandle and the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Then the birds head south, where their flight path takes them over Waco, Austin, and Victoria before arriving at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in November.

A quick phone call to the refuge just now confirmed their arrival, and the numbers are looking good, folks. The park official with whom I spoke said they hadn’t conducted a formal survey yet, but they’re estimating that 75% of the population has already arrived, with more trickling in every day. They’ll stay in Texas through March or April, depending on weather conditions.

I’m fascinated by the fact that it’s possible (not likely, but possible nonetheless) to spy these birds during migration—perhaps even in the skies above Austin. They tend to migrate in small groups of four or five birds, and they often stop at wetlands environments or agricultural fields en route to the coast. While they resemble sandhill cranes, whooping cranes are larger—more than four feet tall (the tallest birds in North America!)— and are solid white, except for black wing tips that are visible only when they’re flying.

I hope to get to the Port A region sometime this winter to see them. See arannwr_0081www.fws.gov/southwest/refuges/texas/aransas/

Last weekend (November 12-13) was the first weekend of the newly expanded, bigger-and-better East Austin Studio Tour, which invites the public to tour more than 145 artists’ studios throughout East Austin over two weekends. It’s the Tour’s 10th anniversary, and it’s amazing to me to think about how it’s grown from a grassroots effort with 28 studios on tour to this year’s veritable art party.

City Park (Dallas, TX), 2008, by David LeonardI made it to a few stops last Saturday, including the home painting studio of my friend David Leonard, who paints cityscapes, landscapes, and industrial settings. See his painting at left, titled City Park (Dallas,TX), which he completed in 2008. I admire his work because he somehow marries a photorealist’s attention to detail with the warmth and vibrancy of an Impressionist. His work is frequently featured at Austin’s Davis Gallery, but it’s fun to see his works in a home setting, and to study where and how he works.

That’s part of the appeal of the tour for me—to witness the art-making process and setting of each artist. So I’ll hit the streets again this Sunday, spend a little money to support artists whose works grab me, and no doubt find inspiration in details both large and small. See www.eastaustinstudiotour.com.

I took a vacation day recently to celebrate a milestone with my husband, and we decided to play tourist in Austin. First, we took the dogs to the new hike-and-bike trail that wends through the city’s growing Mueller neighborhood, where local artwork embellishes the trails, and where botanists with the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center have helped restore a swath of native prairie grassland. Then, intrigued by the promise of more public art, we ventured downtown to the swinging 2nd Street District, where we browsed the shops, checked out the new Violet Crown Cinema (finally! an art cinema downtown!), and spent a rewarding few hours exploring the artwork found throughout Austin’s beautiful, limestone-and-copper City Hall, which was designed by architect Antoine Predock. (The angular, copper “armadillo tail,” which juts above 2nd Street, “literally shouts ‘Here I am!’” according to architect Phil Reed of the local firm Cotera +Reed.)

Modern architecture aside, what a surprising treat this art collection is. This is the 7th year that City Hall has hosted its year-long People’s Gallery exhibit—a collection of more than 150 visual artworks by local artists. The program, part of the city’s Art in Public Places initiative, is designed to encourage public dialogue and the understanding and enjoyment of visual art, and I’d say it accomplishes that goal. Edgy sculptures, contemporary paintings, intriguing photographs, and mixed-media pieces galore are displayed in the hallways, foyers, lobbies, and meeting rooms throughout City Hall, and we enjoyed admiring them as we moseyed through the warmly lit building. (There’s free parking in the City Hall Parking Garage, too; validate your ticket at City Hall or at most 2nd Street District shops and restaurants.)

The People’s Gallery Exhibition 2011 remains on view through January 12, and you can cast your vote for the People’s Choice Awards through December 30.

Marian Haigh's sculpture "jackrabbit," wood-fired stonewareMarian Haigh's sculpture "jackrabbit," wood-fired stoneware

See www.ci.austin.tx.us/cityhall/gallery.htm.

[caption align="alignright" width="263" caption="Pyracantha #132 by Stella Alesi"]

Pyracantha #132 by Stella Alesi[/caption]

Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth

Blue Scales Yellow Stamp, by Jennifer Chenoweth
As fall’s first cool front pushed dramatic clouds into the skies above downtown Austin on Thursday night, I made my way through a well-behaved crowd viewing paintings, collages, and sculptures at the new W Hotel offices of Gensler, the global architecture firm that has designed hundreds of sleek structures in places as far away as Shanghai and Istanbul.

Since art, architecture, and community often meld together, it makes sense that Gensler chose to host the official launch party of a new endeavor called Generous Art, an online art gallery that envisions art purchases as community-oriented transactions. Conceived and brought to fruition by visual artist and entrepreneur Jennifer Chenoweth, Generous Art works like this: When a site visitor purchases art, the retail price is divided among the artist (40%), a nonprofit organization of the buyer’s choosing (40%), and the gallery itself.

More than 20 Austin-area artists are currently on board, including Virginia Fleck, who creates colorful and intricate collages from plastic bags and other recycled materials; Stella Alesi, a realist painter focused on the life cycle of birds, lizards, plants, and other life forms; Wells Mason, a craftsman currently fascinated with blurring the line between sculpture and furniture; and Emily Moores, whose stark yet evocative charcoal-on-paper works resemble Japanese woodcuts. Beautiful stuff.

This thought has stayed with me all day: Art, beauty, and community—all intangible concepts worth nurturing, whenever and wherever we find it.

Chef Monica Pope at Revival Market, a grocery, butcher, and charcuterie in the Heights. Photo by Julie Soefer.Chef Monica Pope at Revival Market, a grocery, butcher, and charcuterie in the Heights. Photo by Julie Soefer.

A few years ago, I had the good fortune to participate in one of Houston’s first “Where the Chefs Eat” Culinary Tours, a collaboration between some of the city’s most adventuresome chefs and the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau—both groups who sought to elevate the city’s reputation as a world-class food town. Instead of visiting some of Houston’s many well-regarded “fine dining” spots, we explored a half-dozen or so casual and/or family-owned joints that the chefs frequent when they’re not cooking in their own restaurants. We toured the kitchens, met the owners, traded recipes and stories, and generally had a blast—feasting on veritable banquets of barbecue, Thai entrees, Indian dishes, and interior Mexican specialties—with professional chefs to guide us in our exploration of new cuisines, ingredients, and preparations.

The only downside to the tours? They’re so popular that they sell out quickly. So I was excited to receive the 2012 tour schedule and to learn that the three-year-old program has grown to encompass more tours, more chefs, and more restaurants. Another interesting element: Proceeds from the 2012 tours will benefit the new Foodways Texas organization (www.foodwaystexas.com ), which opens to public membership in 2012 and whose mission is to “preserve, promote, and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.”

Tickets for the first tour—January 22’s “Chinese New Year with Chefs Chris Shepherd and Justin Yu” —go on sale December 1, followed by opportunities to join tours such as “Late night Bars and Bites with Chefs Seth Siegel-Gardener, Terrence Gallivan, and Bobby Heugel and Kevin Floyd,” “Oysters with Chefs Mark Holley and Jonathan Jones,” and many others. New additions for 2012 include farm tours, explorations of coffee and dessert, and a look-see at citywide Day of the Dead celebrations; popular “repeats” include explorations of barbecue, street food, Southern comfort food, and Vietnamese cuisine. See www.houstonculinarytours.com for a full run-down.

pinot-gris-544I’m learning to love wine. A few years ago, a friend organized a series of wine-tasting parties based on recommendations from Master Sommelier (and SMU graduate) Andrea Immer Robinson’s book Great Wine Made Simple. As we progressed through the first chapters—learning to differentiate between light-bodied and full-bodied styles, identifying characteristics of “The Big Six Grapes” (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz), and building a vocabulary of “flavor words” like tannic and oaky—I began to think about how the pleasures of drinking wine encompasses not only taste, but also tradition, history, agriculture, geography, chemistry, geology, and travel. Robinson, now one of fewer than 20 women in the world who have been made Master Sommeliers by the Court of Master Sommeliers, makes the wine world approachable and fun. After all, her own education began while she was a college student in Dallas, when she took a wine-tasting class at The Grape, a popular restaurant on Greenville Avenue.

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend a wine-tasting event at Austin’s Barr Mansion and Artisan Ballroom, a beautiful event site in northeast Austin that is the nation’s only certified organic event facility. A two-story clapboard Victorian home anchors the site of a former farmstead, and past a series of native-plant gardens and sprawling oak trees (a Certified Wildlife Habitat), a modern, glass-and-cedar ballroom (recently rebuilt after being destroyed by fire last year) hosts events for up to 600 people.

This particular tasting, hosted by the Loire Valley Wine Bureau, offered opportunities to sample an array of delicious varietals from France’s Loire Valley, which benefits from the temperature-moderating influence of the Atlantic Ocean. There are some 65 appellations (wine-growing regions) in the Loire Valley, and the primary grapes used include Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and a grape called Melon de Bourgogne, which lends itself to crisp, dry whites.

Since one of my favorite varietals is Sauvignon Blanc—a grape used in Texas wines produced by Fall Creek Vineyards, Spicewood Vineyards, and other Texas producers—I was particularly interested in exploring the differences in style between French versions (often made in the Sancerre appellations) compare. This, I learned, is a classic “Old World/New World” comparison.

Seems to me that Texas Sauvignon Blancs, like their New World siblings from Australia and New Zealand, seem slightly effervescent and bright, while the French Sancerres seemed creamier, with an expressive floral nose and a still-spritely mouthfeel.

I enjoyed chatting with an aspiring sommelier named Justine Langston, who currently buys wine for the small wine-bar chain Crú and will be sitting for her Sommelier Certification exam in October. Langston told me that in Europe, wine-drinking is rarely intimidating, and is in fact transcends all classes of society. The days of snooty sommeliers in America is over, she assured me.

In a room filled with so many outstanding French wines—some from vineyards that date back hundreds of years—I couldn’t help but wonder how the young Texas wine industry compares. One vendor told me that the difference wasn’t necessarily a difference in quality, even as he acknowledged the challenges of growing certain varietals in Texas simply because it gets so dang hot here. So we grow the ones that DO perform well here, he said—much as vineyards do the world over. The difference, this fellow told me, is more a result of scale. Texan growers simply cannot produce as much wine as large vineyards in France, Italy, Chile, and Spain, for example—and so in general, a high-quality Texan wine costs more than a comparable bottle from more-established wine-producing regions. Any thoughts on this, wine folks out there?

I don’t mind paying a few extra dollars to support a local industry. But I still like to experience how a style is made in other parts of the world—to compare, contrast, and become more knowledgeable. It’s a fun endeavor, and one of the few educational paths where repeating a lesson is encouraged. Cheers.

[caption align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Dramatic clouds"]

Dramatic clouds[/caption]

Mavis Staples takes us there

Mavis Staples takes us there
the bike zoo

the bike zoo
A great weekend all around! Were you there? What was the moment that stood out for you? On the third day, I finally figured out how to maneuver through the streams of people, which reminded me of water rivulets making their way down a windshield on a rainy day. At some point, you just have to jump in and go with the flow.

Stevie Wonder may have stolen the show on the second night of ACL, but the glorious rain that came earlier in the day—which inspired smiles and celebration even as festival-goers got drenched—ushered in the most surprise. After all, it hadn’t rained (significantly, anyway) in Austin since May. Temperatures modulated and energized the crowds. Fall is in the air!

Once again, the smooth operations of the festival impressed me. Even as the park teemed with people, the mood was easy and accommodating. Props to fest organizers C3, who continue to make improvements to the festival’s operations and addressing concerns. This year, we found increased shade structures, additional free water stations (courtesy of CamelBak), and numerous opportunities to assist organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and statewide firefighting squads. It’s always great to feel philanthropic while you’re having fun.

Aside from the music, there’s a lot going on at ACL. What other festival, for example, offers such a wide variety of dining options prepared by upscale restaurants? And I’m not talking about turkey legs and corn dogs. Local flavor rules here. ACL’s food court, “curated” by Chef Jeff Blank of Hudson’s on the Bend, offers options such as pork-belly sliders with pickled onion ($6 by Odd Duck Farm to Trailer), oyster tacos with chile-honey aioli ($8 from Garrido’s), crispy artichoke hearts ($6 by Bess Bistro), steak frit sandwiches ($7 by Aquarelle), and truffled macaroni-and-cheese ($7 by Lonesome Dove Western Bistro out of Fort Worth. I’ll admit I found it amusing to see bikini-and-boots-clad fans sprawled on the grass eating meals they might normally enjoy by candlelight in a restaurant.

When the rain subsided, I spent some time checking out the arts offerings. The variety here reminded me of a marriage of Austin’s Cherrywood Art Fair, Armadillo Christmas Bazaar, and South Congress’ First Friday funkiness. Drive-by-Press offered silkscreened T-shirts, Bolsa Bonita had an assortment of kitschy and ironic bags printed with hirsute Tom Selleck images, Rokoko’s imaginative ceramics, dresses by SOLA, $25 straw cowboy hats by Texas Headgear, leather-and-metal cuffs by LeighElena jewelry, scarves by Pangea, and wood-mounted prints of Austin scenes by Austin Art Garage. Most vendors were local, though a few came from as far as Chicago. The owner of Souldier, who was here from the Windy City for her 5th year at ACL, tells me her recycled-seatbelt headbands, bags, and guitar straps sell well at ACL, and that bands such as My Morning Jacket, Iron and Wine, TV on the Radio, and Fleet Foxes all use her guitar straps on stage.

So the line blurs once again. Art and music. Bring on the fun.

Walking through the festival grounds at Zilker Park, especially after the sun started to dip and the crowds thickened in anticipation of Austin Music Festival headliners Kanye West and Coldplay, it was easy to imagine myself a mere ant in an army of 40,000 other beings. It was an instant reminder of my small place in humanity. For a moment I felt flustered by the crowd. Then bam—more music, a chance encounter with a friend, a sight that made me laugh—and the mood turned in an instant. As a friend put it, ACL is not the minors. What it is, at least to my mind, is an instant submersion into what makes Austin such a tight community.

As I gear up for Day Two of the bash, I’m reflecting on yesterday and how seamless ACL operations seemed to be. Early in the day, we experienced our first indication of the solidarity of Austin --that joyous moment when skies finally opened up and rained (a short burst, yes, but water all the same) while crowds throughout Zilker shouted in glee and surprise.

The burn ban is in effect this year, and several donation stations for statewide volunteer firefighters reminded us of the wildfire risk. Still, some dedicated smokers (of ciggies and wacky tabac alike) were lighting up—but amazingly, I spied not a single discarded cigarette butt. At least they’re being responsible, which is the whole point of the ban. In a related note, festival organizers have made what I consider a brilliant business to keep the grounds litter-free: at several stations throughout the park, you can pick up a green trash bag, then meander the grounds picking up stray cans and other recyclables; when the bag is full, you can redeem it for an ACL T-shirt. Neat incentive that makes sense all around.

The festival’s food options (more on that in other post) are well known for their diversity, quality, and local vibe—with renowned restaurants like Olivia and Hudson’s creating rave-worthy noshes. But I’m also pleased to find the eclectic array of Austin shops and artisans selling their creations—again, reinforcing the sense of community. We’ll explore that aspect in greater depth today and tomorrow.

On-the-fly conversations with festival-goers, performers, and even a police officer working the event further underscored the community theme. Chilean-American singer Francesca Valenzuela (a knockout with tremendous pipes and a solid pop sensibility) told me that one thing that’s different about US audiences (and Texas crowds in particular) is that we’re open and supportive of new musical experiences. And the cop with whom I chatted told me with a big grin that he loves the people-watching. He confessed that he was on board to escort Kanye West and his entourage to the stage later that night—but that he wasn’t star-struck. After all, he’d heard Kanye was a prima donna. (Anyone care to dispute that?)

Biking to Zilker Park was a breeze. I hauled my bike on the back of my car to a spot near the Lady Bird Lake hike-and-bike trail, and popped over in a flash. Pedestrians and bikers on the trail were all smiles, hauling camp chairs, soft-sided coolers, umbrellas, and blankets to the site. “See you there!” we’d shout as we passed each other—strangers united by the promise of music, food, art, sweat, and celebration.

We’re posting photos to our Facebook page and tweeting all day (as long as the WiFi holds out, anyway), so follow TH on FB and on Twitter.

See you there.

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!Big Texan pool

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I recently made a quick trip to Houston to take care of some medical appointments, which got me thinking about the idea of “health travel,” or even the vague concept of “secondary travel.” 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 I’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 gravy—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 décor from the shuttered El Fenix Restaurant completed the experience. I’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. Here’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 “four-star hotel” in “downtown Houston” for $95. The site provides photos of the hotel, and a list of amenities, but you don’t learn the name of the hotel until you’ve booked the room. (This makes sense to me: While the hotels want to sell their unsold rooms, they don’t want to advertise that they’re willing to drastically undercut their rack rates. And be aware that after you reserve the room, you can’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 “four-star” hotel in Galveston for $96 and a “three-star” 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, Houston’s Astrodome—lauded by fans as the “Eighth Wonder in the World”—nabbed a spot in the record books as the world’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 Astrodome’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? We’d love to hear your thoughts and memories. (You can see the current options being considered, complete with artists’ renditions of how redevelopment might look, at http://www.reliantpark.com/feedback.)

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