NORTH TEXAS GETAWAY
This Trip’s a Big Hit
Rangers Baseball & Six Flags, Arlington
From the baseball diamond to full-service hotel treatment, this vacation has all the bases covered.
For a fun and easy weekend getaway with kids, sometimes you need to look at the obvious. That’s what my family ended up doing five years ago, and now it’s a summer tradition for my siblings and me and all our children. Our annual summer trip to Arlington includes a Texas Rangers baseball game—complete with fireworks—and a nonstop day at Six Flags Over Texas. Combine those treats with the ease of staying at a full-service hotel, and the whole family has a weekend to look forward to as soon as the school year ends.
Part of the excitement of this trip for my children is sleeping in a hotel. Whether staying on a Texas beach or in the middle of the Metroplex surrounded by pavement, each child has unique traveling habits. The oldest picks an area in the room and designates it off-limits to everyone else, neatly arranging her clothes, iPod and any other travel accoutrements. My middle one appropriates one available drawer for clothes and immediately dons a bathing suit, anxious to jump in the pool. The third and youngest stares out the window scanning the new view. The higher up we are, the longer he stares.
As frequent visitors to the area, we have tried several of the hotels, but we keep returning to the Sheraton Arlington Hotel (formerly the Wyndham) because of its proximity to all the activities that we schedule. Once you pull into the hotel’s parking lot, you can forget about driving and depend instead on shuttles. The hotel also has a pool for kids, with most of the water only a few feet deep. Hotel employees are poolside to deliver food so parents can keep a watchful eye on their swimmers. And outdoor movies often are shown on the side of the pool house after the sun sets. Book rooms early, because the most popular weekends fill up fast.
The Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is within walking distance. We usually purchase a row of about 15 tickets in the “cheap seats” so we and others in our extended family can get the best view of the fireworks display that follows a weekend game. If you need to stretch your legs, walking around inside the stadium will provide you and your kids with a multitude of activities and food choices.
Of course, we carve out one full day for Six Flags. The park has rides and entertainment for all ages. An occasional indoor show will cool you off long enough to re-energize you for the next big ride. And bragging rights will go to anyone brave enough to endure the newest thrill ride!
Tip: Bring sunscreen.
Cowboys Make Work Play
Bar H Dude Ranch, Clarendon
The Western ethos endures on the Rolling Plains.
A round the first of June, when sunflowers blanket the prairies and the grass is still green, ranchers on the Rolling Plains round up their cattle as they have done for more than 100 years.
Since 1992, the Bar H Dude (and it ain’t the traditional definition of “dude”) Ranch in Clarendon, about 60 miles southeast of Amarillo, has been inviting guests to help with its spring cattle drive. As Caroline McIlvenna, a blood analyst from England who has been coming to the roundup for 16 years, says, “This is a proper working ranch.” No placid, nose-to-tail trail rides here.
And just who in the heck is attracted to a vacation of action, adventure and hard, hot, dusty work in the Panhandle? Spring roundup 2008 enticed two Brits, two Germans, two retired New Jersey policemen, a carpenter from Georgia and a group of nine longtime friends from Delaware and Maryland, including a pathologist, an architect and an international environmental consultant, who call themselves the Segunda Vida (second life). The entire group—all men except for McIlvenna—was composed of smart, successful people who were ready to kick over the traces of sedentary life and saddle up for adventure. Guests come to the Bar H from around the world, Thailand to Switzerland and everywhere in between.
The guest cowboy or cowgirl should be up for an exhilarating challenge. No pampering here. The desire and ability to ride a horse for several hours a day figures in, too, as does a love of the outdoors and Western heritage.
I gotta admit that I am a city slicker and usually ride on one of those English-style, postage-stamp saddles. But I loved Princess, my ranch horse du jour, who took me everywhere safely while still watching out for her 4-year-old son, Whiskers, who was also working the roundup. Did I say Princess was also expecting? Sweet, sweet girl. When it came to the hard, hot work, I practiced my excellent observation skills by happily sitting on the fence and watching the branding.
At the Bar H Dude Ranch, everyone who is game gets in on the action. That includes chasing breakaway cattle, herding cattle over rough terrain and branding. A German dental surgeon practicing in Britain helped vaccinate calves. Robert Hyberg, a retired informational technologist who worked for IBM, had never ridden a horse prior to taking lessons in February but proved to be a great hand flanking calves. Flanking calves—bringing a squirming, resistant, 200-pound calf to the ground by hand for branding—takes strength, timing and coordination. It’s all in a day’s work.
While seated on the corral fence watching the young cowboys, ages 11 to 15, wrestle calves during branding, I said to Bill Wilson, a working cowboy who’s been cowboying for 40-plus years, “Those young guys make work play.”
Then, just like in TV Westerns, the lean and leathery Wilson slowly turned around and softly said, “All cowboys make work play.”
That sense of joy and the love of the work bonds the working cowboys and the guest cowboys. Both take pride in a job well done. Both enjoy testing their skills. Both are modest about what they do. All true hands take pride in the work, the gear and the horses. And, no matter his skills, no real cowboy brags. He lets his work speak for him.
Roping is an art. I watched one cowboy after another efficiently and smoothly select a calf from a group of two dozen milling around in a small pen and then rope the chosen one. No fuss, no muss. A good roper must strive for the economy of motion that would make a Zen master proud. Old-timers prided themselves on a simple toss of the rope and never throwing a rope “without catch” (missing). Once the calf was roped, a team of working and guest cowboys laid it down for quick branding, vaccinating, ear tagging and castrating. The idea is to be smooth, fast and efficient so that the calf is up and back with the others ASAP. The calves are the ranch’s inventory, and harsh methods are not good for the ranch’s investment.
Of course, no working cowboy starts the day without a cowboy breakfast. Sausage from the ranch’s own pigs, biscuits baked over an open fire in a Dutch oven, and gravy and eggs cooked in skillets the size of wagon wheels start the day. All food is consumed with lightning speed as the sun rises.
And what’s for dinner? Masses of fire-cooked food. The steaks are hand-cut from the ranch’s own beef. Tender and crisp calf fries—yes, they’re what you think they are—start the meal. They are simply the best I’ve ever had thanks to a sauce with horseradish, Tabasco and ketchup made by Doc Bryant, father of rancher Dee Dee Hommel. Baked potatoes cook over the open fire so that the skins are deliciously hot and crunchy. Homemade peach cobbler finishes the feast.
If you are game for eating a cowboy breakfast at 5:30 a.m., being saddled up for the roundup by 6:30 a.m., and working until time for a late lunch, siesta and quiet time for practicing roping skills and telling stories, you, too, can learn the art of making work play. Shoot, even if all we do is herd our computer mice and round up e-mails, we, too, can learn this lesson from the cowboy culture.
The Bar H Dude Ranch also offers nature tours, bird-watching, including for the lesser prairie-chicken, horseback rides through beautiful country and hunts for game including wild turkey, quail, pheasant, wild hog, deer and bison.
Tip: If you plan on horseback riding, spend some time in the saddle before your trip.
Where: Clarendon, 60 miles southeast of Amarillo
Cost: $85-95 daily, $540-630 weekly
SOUTH TEXAS GETAWAY
A Shore Thing
From fishing and bird-watching to playing in the waves, visitors are hooked on this hot vacation spot.
When my car tires bump over the metal plank and onto one of the ferries that transport visitors from Aransas Pass to Port Aransas, I am exhilarated by the tang of the salt air and the sight of dolphins playing in the ferry’s wake. Five minutes later I am on Mustang Island.
I’ve seen prettier places and more dramatic coasts, but for enjoyment and convenience, Port A is right for this Central Texan. It’s accessible, has relatively reasonable food and accommodation costs and grows just enough each year to keep the visit fresh. When I was on a tighter budget and had friends who sailed, the historic Tarpon Inn was just the ticket. Within a block of the harbor, the two-story Tarpon Inn has been catering to people who love the sea since 1886. Franklin Delano Roosevelt stayed here on a fishing trip in 1937.
Under new owners, the Tarpon Inn has been spiffed up with fancy bed linens. No in-room telephones or TVs, however. The best recreation is rocking in the shade of the first- or second-floor veranda or walking over to the harbor to see the boats come and go.
In recent years, friends and I have rented a condo unit or two at Gulf Shores Resort Condominiums for special occasions such as the Fourth of July, Christmas or New Year’s. Usually I’m not a fan of multistory condo buildings. But the redeeming quality of Gulf Shores and dozens of other nearby condos is immediate access to the beach. (Of course, this being Texas, you don’t have to rent a room to go to the beach. Just park right on it, by golly, and stay for a day.)
It’s fun watching people fishing, flying kites, running their dogs, throwing Frisbees, picnicking and tanning. Walking on the beach in winter and lying in a big king-size bed, looking out at the Gulf of Mexico through the wall-to-wall window of a tastefully appointed sixth-floor condo unit, are my favorite vacation pastimes. Meanwhile, others in my party are playing Scrabble, visiting the shops, supervising children on the beach, seriously fishing and scouting the fish market for a great dinner in case the fishers come back empty-handed.
At dawn or twilight, bird-watching is great at several sites. I like the wooden walkway and elevated viewing area next to the water treatment plant. You’re likely to see pelicans, marsh hawks, American bittern, roseate spoonbills and lots of ducks. Port Aransas is on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail with 350 species of resident and migratory birds. There’s usually an alligator on view at my favorite lagoon, as well as nutria, which make a chilling mewing sound like an abandoned baby in the reeds.
You can sign up for a half-day boat ride north to view whooping cranes at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge when the giant, endangered birds are in winter residence. Or you can drive about 10 miles south to the Padre Island National Seashore, where there are spring and summer season releases of newly hatched Kemp’s ridleys, the most endangered of all sea turtles.
On the mainland to the north are the charming artists’ enclaves of Rockport/Fulton and to the south is Corpus Christi, the “Sparkling City by the Sea.” But these other cities are for other visits. There’s more than enough to do poking around Port Aransas.
Tip: Try not to return via ferry on the Sunday afternoon of a holiday weekend. Long lines are no fun.
FYI: Make a point to dine at the exquisite Venetian Hot Plate, (361) 749-7617, where you have to reserve a helping of lasagna on Saturday nights because the dish is so popular. For a full listing of food, lodging and fun, go to www.portaransas.org.
Where: Central Texas Gulf Coast, 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi
Cost: The beach is free just like a state road.
CENTRAL TEXAS GETAWAY
Follow the Crowd
In Fredericksburg, you learn to walk sideways on the weekends.
That observation by a downtown business owner applies to anyone trying to navigate through the throngs of visitors who descend on this Hill Country town on the weekends, where there is such an array of things to do and see, one could easily feel overwhelmed.
For decades, fans of history, nature, food, shopping or simple leisure have found fulfillment in this community founded by German immigrants in 1846. Approaching Fredericksburg from Johnson City brings you past the LBJ Ranch and through Stonewall, home of peach orchards and vineyards, with roadside fruit stands and wineries worthy of a stop.
Both the Becker Vineyards and Torre di Pietra wineries, just off U.S. Highway 290, offer product samples, but that’s not all. Torre di Pietra regularly features live music, and Becker sports a bed-and-breakfast and a lavender farm. In town, several shops offer tastes of locally produced wine, and one new vintner, D’Vine Wine, makes small batches of young wine, low in sulfites, in the back of the store. Try the chocolate port—yum!
Along Highway 290 east of town, swappers and bargain hunters alike gather on the third weekend of the month for the Fredericksburg Trade Days, a huge market featuring hundreds of vendors and acres of antiques, flea market bargains and more. Across the highway is another shoppers’ haven—Wildseed Farms, which claims to be the largest working wildflower farm in the country. Besides seed from more than 90 varieties of wildflowers, you can find decorations and implements to suit even the most well-provisioned gardener.
As you drive into town, one of the first things that catches your eye is the distinctive facade that rises over the former Nimitz Hotel, now a part of the National Museum of the Pacific War. The museum, formerly named after native son and World War II Fleet Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, is a treasure trove of artifacts and information from the battle for the Pacific. On some weekends, historical re-enactors at the museum’s Pacific Combat Zone offer visitors a taste of what an island invasion might have been like with live demonstrations of weapons and tactics. Machine gun fire and explosions can be heard for blocks—but don’t be alarmed, they’re just blanks.
Lining both sides of Main Street west of the museum is what is known locally as the “golden blocks,” a collection of galleries, boutiques, gift shops, restaurants and watering holes sure to keep browsers busy and well fed. Park the car and join the crowds filling the sidewalks and ducking into candy shops and bakeries for a quick snack or cold drink. Venture west of the golden blocks to check out The Patio Shoppe, an acre crammed with pottery, ironwork, gifts, trinkets, furniture and one-of-a-kind items, where you can see something different around every corner.
Some of the newest kids on the scene are a symbiotic pair: a vintner, Water into Wine, which allows you to taste, then create your own custom vintage, next to a cheese shop, Fromage du Monde. One can purchase a hunk of cheese and go next door to find a complementary vintage—or start with the wine and pair it with a cheese.
If you want to hike away from people and off the sidewalks, a few miles north of town is Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, home to a 425-foot, 640-acre granite dome that beckons rock climbers. It’s surrounded by more than 1,000 acres of Hill Country scrubland on Big Sandy Creek, where campers and hikers can play. Making it to the summit of the billion-year-old dome is more challenging than it seems from the ground. A little closer to town is the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park, which has acres of green space and a popular golf course.
After the sun sets, a hearty German meal at Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn or the Aüslander Restaurant & Biergarten or a pint at the Fredericksburg Brewing Company, which features a variety of fresh, site-made brews on tap and some tasty pub food, could be your next move.
When you’ve satisfied your appetite, amble over to the Rockbox Theater, where a troupe of talented singers and comedians puts on a different production every week. The family-friendly show, heavy on classic rock ’n’ roll and country tunes, always features a tribute to the men and women of the armed forces.
Retreat for the night at one of the more than 100 bed-and-breakfasts and hotels in and around the city. They range from budget-minded cabins with kitchens to make your own meals to luxurious spa retreats with full breakfast service.
If, after a good night’s rest, it’s time to leave, head west down Main Street to see a message long delivered by residents to visitors in the first letters of the cross streets: Crockett, Orange, Milam, Edison, Bowie, Acorn, Cherry, Kay (Come Back).
Tip: If you’re planning to stay the weekend at an area bed-and-breakfast, consider making an advance reservation. Also, many area B&Bs require a two-night stay on festival weekends.
FYI: For more information, or a free packet of visitor information, e-mail the Chamber of Commerce at email@example.com or call (830) 997-6523 or 1-888-997-3600. Write to the Fredericksburg Convention & Visitor Bureau at 302 East Austin St., Fredericksburg, TX 78624, or visit its website, www.fredericksburg-texas.com.
Where: Texas Hill Country, 70 miles northwest of San Antonio
EAST TEXAS GETAWAY
In the Thick of It
Big Thicket National Preserve
The canoeing and viewing come easy in this national preserve of biological wonder.
I thought it might be hard to find a Big Thicket getaway for people like me who prefer not to hike long distances and don’t have camping equipment. But it turns out one can easily have a wonderful Big Thicket experience, including wheelchair-accessible trails, without working up a sweat— unless, of course, you go during the oppressive heat of summer. I traveled to deep Southeast Texas for three days in the glorious month of April. I spent all three nights at the Ethridge Farm Log Cabin Bed & Breakfast, a genteel blueberry farm outside Kountze, 20 miles north of Beaumont. Kountze is just south of the Big Thicket and 45 miles northwest of Orange, where I wanted to visit the recently reopened Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center.
Without any sense of hurry, I enjoyed a four-hour canoe trip down cypress- and tupelo-lined Village Creek, walked in four different units of the Big Thicket, ate beaucoup seafood and had a day in Orange at the Botanical Gardens and the Stark Museum of Art.
The Big Thicket National Preserve is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, says U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, who recently introduced a bill to add as many as 100,000 acres to the present 97,000. That’s a worthy effort, because many forested areas that abut the preserve are being sold for development.
The Big Thicket’s complex biological diversity is a thing of wonder, whether you approach it intellectually through the excellent dioramas at the Preserve Visitor Center or just start walking or navigating one of the Thicket’s nine land units and six water corridors. The Thicket is a biological crossroads of international repute, with many different pristine environments coexisting cheek by jowl. Just naming them evokes the mystery and wonder of the area. Pine forest slopes and arid sand hills transition to sloughs and bogs and baygalls and black-water swamps. There are 300 bird species, 85 tree species, more than 60 shrubs and nearly 1,000 other flowering plants, including 26 ferns and 20 orchids.
My first priority was to glide in a canoe down Village Creek and soak up the birdcalls, the scents and the languid pace of the clear water. Three years after Hurricane Rita, which downed millions of trees here, you can see more sky than usual. My guide joked that the area could be called the Thin Thicket, but soon nature will come bounding back to make for a Thicker Thicket.
I had not expected to see white sand beaches on Village Creek, but they are finer than most saltwater beaches in Texas—great for picnicking, camping or just stretching one’s legs. The creek is mostly shallow, but there are many pools deep enough for swimming.
My second priority was to see carnivorous plants. The Big Thicket National Preserve has four of North America’s five species, but only two, the pitcher plant and the sundew, have trails dedicated to them. According to botanists, these plants grow in muddy bogs too poor in nutrition or too acidic for most plants. The carnivores need insects for sustenance. The sweet-smelling pitcher plant lures in its prey so deeply that the hapless creature falls into its sticky maw and is dissolved by enzymes. Mixed in with the tubular pitcher plants was another pitcher plant variety, the Texas trumpet, yellow and orchid-like on a spindly stalk with petals that serve as a bucket for catching seeds.
The Big Thicket sundew, about the size of a 50-cent piece, flat with many rosettes, could easily be overlooked. I wish I had taken a magnifying glass, because it is gorgeous up close. The pinkish-brown petals have hair-like tentacles with little sticky globs that sparkle like jewels in the sunlight. The creatures these wondrous flowers digest are microscopic.
Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center complemented the Big Thicket tour with an exceptionally beautiful bird blind looking out over a tranquil lagoon that serves as a rookery for cranes, egrets, herons and other water birds. High-grade binoculars are supplied, and there are even two video cameras providing close-up views of nests. Poor Shangri La has been through tough times. Timber baron Lutcher Stark set aside the 252 acres in the middle of Orange for the botanic specimens he imported from all over the world. In 1958, a freak snowstorm damaged his tropical paradise and, heartbroken, he let it revert to its natural state. In 2002, his foundation began revamping the formal gardens. Then Hurricane Rita struck three years ago, toppling native trees, wreaking havoc on the grounds and postponing the reopening until March of this year. Fortunately, rescued hardwoods and submerged bald cypress were used as building materials. The structures, designed by Lake/Flato Architects and Jeffrey Carbo Associates, are magnificently modern and earned the top rating from the U.S. Green Building Council.
Stark also founded the impressive Stark Museum of Art, which has fine Western art and Audubon prints, including five of the master’s double-elephant portfolios.
Tip: Take a daypack for water, sunscreen, bug repellant, guides and maps on your expeditions.
FYI: For more information, call the Big Thicket National Preserve Visitor Center at (409) 951-6725 or go to www.nps.gov/bith. For more information about Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, call (409) 670-9113 or go to www.shangrilagardens.org. For canoeing, go to www.fun365days.com/canoeing.php.
Interesting lodging is limited near the Big Thicket, although camping is available at the preserve and at Village Creek State Park. Try to get a reservation for Ethridge Farm Log Cabin B&B (The Cabin on Blueberry Hill is my favorite accommodation), (409) 246-3978, www.ethridgefarm.com, or Pelt Farm Bed & Breakfast, (409) 287-2279, both in Kountze.
Where: 85 miles east of Houston