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.
From the March 2012 issue.