Deep in the heart of Texas

Huddled in the open-air, flat-bottomed boat cruising the San Antonio’s noted River Walk, my friend Bess and I can’t believe the December weather. As a committed Texan, she’s determined to convince me that temperatures around 34 F are rare in her beloved town of SA, known for 300 days of sunshine annually and averages of 68.8 F. But here she is, bundled in an overcoat, scarf and mitts, while I – the hardy Canadian – have layered a vest over my T-shirt and topped it all with a hooded raincoat. We press closer together for warmth as the boat slowly cruises the three miles of river 20 feet below street level. Flagstone pathways connect shops, restaurants, hotels, galleries and pubs. Now the number 1 attraction in the city and one of the most popular destinations in the entire state, Paseo del Rio only came to be after a devastating flood in 1921. Faced with threats of burying the river for use as an underground storm drainage, a group of determined women fought to create this magnificent tree-shaded promenade.

Tonight, strands of more than 100,000 coloured Christmas lights illuminate the towering 200-year-old cypress trees lining the waterway. Couples, families, tourists and dog walkers wind their way along the paths, stopping to check out menus posted outside dozens of restaurants, peer in shop windows and inhale the sweet aromas drifting from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Our half-hour boat cruise passes under 35 stone bridges; through the open-air Arneson River Theatre with rock-ledged seating on one side of the river, a stage on the other where opera, flamenco and clog dancing are performed; and in front of the three-storied glass-walled Rivercenter Mall, which boasts more than 125 stores, restaurants and theatres.

After the cruise, Bess and I make a beeline for the warmth of Dick’s Last Resort, noted for its staff’s predilection for insults, its rowdiness and its truly Texan attitude – No rules! More interesting, in my opinion, is its location: directly on the River Walk in the basement (formerly the laundry room) of the world-class Nix Hospital. Because of the building’s sharp angles, it appears two-dimensional from the River Walk. After devouring a huge platter of nachos laden with chili tequila queso and sour cream and quaffing a few draft beer, we head back to the paths, climbing behind the Arneson River Theatre to tour La Villita, the cobblestoned little village that was one of San Antonio’s original settlements and today is home to artists, artisans and craftsmen.

All the fresh air has built up our hunger. Dinner at Caliza Grille in the Westin Riverwalk begins with lemon-scented lump crab cakes with roasted tomato chutney and mango coulis. To accompany the house-smoked pork tenderloin with shiitakes and apricot-onion comfit, I enjoy my first taste of Texan wine – a cabernet sauvignon from Becker Vineyards in nearby Fredericksburg and I’m practically asleep before my head hits the pillow.

As promised, the next day dawns sunny with the mercury pushing past the 65-degree mark. Like most tourists, the first destination I have on my agenda is the Alamo. It is surprisingly smaller in reality than as a symbol of heroism and ultimate sacrifice. The 1836 slaughter of 189 defenders by the Mexican army of 1,800 galvanized the Texans in their battle for independence from Mexico. Six weeks later, Sam Houston and his volunteers defeated the Mexican army with the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo!” The remains of the heroes of the Alamo lie in a marble coffin in the San Fernando Cathedral, where General Santa Anna had flown the flag of no mercy at the start of the siege. For the next 10 years, the Republic of Texas enjoyed its independence before joining the United States of America. But the state has never lost its sense of self-reliance: it is rare to see the American flag without the readily identifiable Lone Star state flag flying nearby, and the slogan “Don’t mess with Texas” still resonates.

Next to the Alamo – originally known as Mission San Antonio de Valero, one of five Spanish missions in the area – is the historic Menger Hotel, supposedly the oldest hotel in continuous operation west of the Mississippi. But the Menger is best known for its Rough Rider bar, where future president Teddy Roosevelt recruited his hard-fighting, hard-drinking men for his campaign in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

At the Alamo Visitor Center at the Menger Hotel, I catch the hop-on/hop-off Alamo Trolley for a 60-minute tour that includes Hemisfair Park, Institute of Texan Cultures and Mission San José – a perfect way to plan the rest of my visit. By now, I need an art and museum fix, and San Antonio has plenty to offer. First stop: the McNay Art Museum. Opened in 1954, the McNay was the first museum of modern art in Texas, offering French paintings of the post-Impressionist and early school of Paris era, including Seurat, Pissarro, Cézanne and Gauguin as well as Picasso and van Gogh. For more contemporary art, I move on to the Blue Star Arts Complex, housed in a group of warehouses in Southtown, showcasing international folk and modern art.

When it’s time to eat, it’s difficult to make a choice in this city. Mi Tierra in Market Square has been offering authentic Mexican food restaurant 24/7 since 1941. It still attracts locals and visitors – and no wonder: it feels like a party you don’t want to leave. Guenther House, a 1860s home in the King William Historic District, is a museum, store and restaurant. Here I enjoy my first taste of biscuits and gravy – freshly baked flaky giants served with chicken gravy and dishes of jalapeno jelly, peach preserve and blackberry jelly – in a room designed in the Art Nouveau style of the ’20s. At Boudro’s on the River Walk, I sit riverside while the server prepares guacamole in a cast-iron bowl at our table (the secret in its smoothness may be the squeeze of fresh orange juice) before I dig into the bistro’s renowned blackened prime rib.

I’m so entranced by this jewel of a city I hate to move on, but my plans are to head to the Hill Country. Fredericksburg, about an hour’s drive northwest of the city, had caught my interest as soon as I heard about its wineries – fifth largest producer in the U.S. – and its Germanic roots – Germans in the Wild West?

Fredericksburg offers a warm Willkommen. Apparently, Texas was seen as a great opportunity for German noblemen in the mid-1800s, who hoped to avoid political and social unrest in their country. The venture was floundering when John O. Meusebach arrived, founding the town of Fredericksburg in 1846 and signing a treaty with the fierce Comanche in 1847. In exchange for $3,000 of gifts and a welcome into town, the tribes agreed not to interfere with the settlement. As the only American treaty never broken with natives in history, it is still celebrated today at the Founders Day and Inter-tribal Powwow each May. A statue of the treaty agreement stands in the town’s square and is so powerful I felt I would disturb the negotiations if I so much as sneezed.

The one-roomed Sunday house with a loft reached by an outside ladder is unique to the Fredericksburg area. Assuming the new farmers would live in town and farm their 10 acres in the country daily, the developers gave each settler a small town lot as well as their out-of-town acreage. However, the town lot soon became the “Sunday house,” with the family working their land during the week and returning to Fredericksburg on Saturday to shop and entertain, then sleep in the loft and attend church on Sunday before returning to their acreage later that day.

Main Street in Fredericksburg could be a set from a Western, but the signs declare otherwise. Vereins Kirche Museum on Markt-platz, restaurants extolling German fare, the upcoming Kristkindl Market are reminders of the town’s heritage. At the Fredericksburg Brewing Company, I’m welcomed with a “How y’all doin’?” and told the special of the day: beef patty on pumpernickel with a side of sauerkraut. I sample four of the pub’s award-winning beers while I tour the biergarten and learn about the Bed & Brew – rooms above the restaurant that, instead of breakfast, include beer.

I visit the National Museum of the Pacific War, the only site in the continental U.S. dedicated to the Pacific battles of World War II. Originally housed in the Nimitz Hotel, owned by the grandfather of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the six-acre site is surprising. From Pearl Harbour and displays of Allied and Japanese aircraft and tanks to touching letters of soldiers to loved ones at home, the museum’s mission is: “To inspire our youth by honoring our heroes.” As I felt at the Alamo, I’m overwhelmed by emotions I didn’t expect. I know more about the war in Europe than I do about that in the Pacific; my husband, not I, devours documentaries about the planes, boats and tanks used in the war; his father signed up underaged and served for years on a frigate in the North Atlantic. But the little I know about the Pacific theatre is augmented before I leave. The Veterans Walk of Honor and Memorial Walls bring a quietude I didn’t anticipate; the Japanese Garden of Peace is an unexpected juxtiposition of war and hate and – oddly – respect. I leave the Nimitz Museum with a sense of peace and sorrow for the lives lost on both sides.

In the countryside around Fredericksburg, 16 wineries are set amid fields of lavender, peach trees and grazing cattle. The Texas Wine Trail is the best way to explore their offerings. Special events happen throughout the year, including a wine and wildflower trail, a harvest wine trail and a holiday wine trail. I head off to visit Becker Vineyards, housed in a 19th-century stone barn. Next to the winery is a log cabin, furnished as a bed and breakfast. (Fredericksburg has the most unusual varieties of B&Bs to suit any taste.) Becker Vineyards boasts the largest underground wine cellar in Texas, and its wines are highly respected across the state.

I sample more of its wine at dinner at the Cotton Gin Restaurant and Lodging, which offers accommodations in rustic cabins with upscale amenities set in a compound of water ponds, herb gardens, a windmill, tank house and blacksmith shop. The restaurant celebrates local produce and offers only Texan wines – more than 60 of them.

My whirlwind visit to Texas leaves me wanting more – more time to explore the towns, restaurants, wineries. The stereotypes I had held about the Lone Star State have been shattered by my experiences here. Warm-hearted people with a great sense of pride in their history, a friendliness that welcomes everyone.

I still haven’t see cowboys, longhorns on Cadillacs or shotguns on pick-ups trucks. Maybe on my next visit.

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