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Tourist towns that treat you right

When budgets get tight, luxury vacations to exotic destinations become harder to swing. But in a state as big and varied as Texas, finding a weekend getaway is as easy as opening the map. Small and big towns offer reasonable prices, friendly folks and many one-of-a-kind attractions. Just in time for warmer weather, here are five places that would love to have you for a visit.

BANDERA
Fun in the saddle and off the trail

Any town that bills itself as the Cowboy Capital of the World darn well better have cowboys and horses around, and Bandera doesn’t disappoint. Pickups and folks in jeans and muddy boots populate Main Street, local restaurants serve steak and barbecue, and shops stock cowboy duds and décor. Best of all, dude ranches crowd the south side of town like hungry livestock around a hay bale, and would-be cowpokes can choose from a variety of price ranges and amenities.

My family once took a foreign exchange student to Flying L Guest Ranch for a real taste of the West, in style. The villas, designed by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright, feature separate living and sleeping quarters, fireplaces and Western décor. Ranch meals highlight Hill Country cuisine, and creek-side barbecue dinners come complete with sunsets and entertainment such as singing and roping demonstrations. Our horseback ride along a pretty creek ended with rodeo games that included retrieving ribbons from the horns of mighty quick little goats. A swimming pool and water park, petting zoo and 18-hole golf course helped keep everyone busy. The only amenities that aren’t included in lodging are horseback riding, golf and lunch.

The smaller, quieter Running-R Ranch abuts the Hill Country State Natural Area, 5,000 acres of rocky hills, grassland, creeks and oak groves. A former working ranch donated to the state on the condition that it be left as natural as possible, the park offers some of the best hikes in the state, in my humble opinion—from a steep climb to the top of Twin Peaks, 1,760 feet high with a panoramic 360-degree view, to a six-mile loop through varied landscapes and past a tranquil pond, and a short jaunt along scenic West Verde Creek to a genuine swimming hole.

Equestrians from across the state come for the trails, bunking in group camping areas equipped with stalls or the old ranch house and barn. The rest of us can stay at the Running-R, where horses are provided, along with wranglers to lead rides to the natural area. These fellers also joke, sing and answer questions about the ranch, the horses and the countryside. A night’s stay at one of 14 oak-shaded cabins includes a two-hour ride as well as swimming, campfires, hayrides, table tennis, horseshoes and mountain biking. We watched the sun set from our porch before hitting the hay in handmade cedar-post beds. Breakfast and lunch are also included with lodging. For dinner, guests can fire up one of the ranch grills, but we opted to chow down in town at the OST Restaurant and Busbee’s BBQ, with a little pre-prandial shopping to boot.

Bandera’s other signature feature is the cool, green Medina River. Cottages at the River Front Motel face the river and are a short walk from Main Street. An afternoon spent tubing the cypress-shaded Medina is just the ticket for soothing a saddle-sore body. Several operators rent tubes and kayaks and provide shuttle service for floats of various lengths (and even provide pickup and dropoff at some dude ranches). When water levels drop too low for tubing, a dammed area in Bandera’s City Park remains deep enough for floating, and pedal boats can be rented there. The park has picnic tables and grills as well.

Running-R Ranch: (830) 796-3984, www.rrranch.com

Flying L Guest Ranch: 1-800-292-5134, www.flyingl.com

River Front Motel: 1-800-870-5671, www.theriverfrontmotel.com

Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-364-3833, www.banderacowboycapital.com

CORPUS CHRISTI
Find more than sand at this beach city

For a beach destination, Corpus Christi provides excellent options as well as a convenient, mid-coast location.

Corpus Christi Beach, north of downtown and on the west side of the bay, feels like a small beach town and is great for a quick sandy fix loaded with extras. We opt for one of the beachside hotels; ground-floor rooms at the Quality Inn & Suites lead right onto the beach, and the pool at the Radisson overlooks the action on the sand and the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, just a short stroll away. Five self-guided tour routes of this World War II-era aircraft carrier cover roughly 20 percent of her 16 decks and include shows at the MEGA large-
format theater. The ship offers a flight simulator, café and store, too.

Also within easy walking distance, the Texas State Aquarium showcases more than 300 species, mostly from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Highlights include an offshore rig and Flower Gardens exhibits, jellyfish tanks, dolphin shows (with a viewing area for watching the action underwater), sea otters, rescued sea turtles and the Hawn Wild Flight Theater, where owls, hawks, falcons and other impressive birds strut their stuff. Between the aquarium and hotels lie several blocks of seafood restaurants and shops. After a hearty meal of Gulf shrimp followed by an ice cream cone, we fell asleep to the sound of waves and the glow of the Lexington’s neon lights.

For a bigger serving of sand and surf, head to Mustang Island State Park, south of Corpus Christi Bay across the Intracoastal Waterway. The park’s stretch of beach ends at a jetty popular for fishing. On a recent visit, we clambered over the giant granite blocks to the end, where small sea turtles and schools of fish swim in the green water, and watched a skilled angler land a string of nice trout. The sheltered area is nice for swimming, and showers at the park bathhouse meant we could clean up afterward and stop at our favorite seafood restaurant, Snoopy’s Pier. It sits right on the water under the causeway to the island, making for great boat, bird and dolphin watching.

Padre Island National Seashore is the Thanksgiving feast of beach fixes: It’s more than anyone could possibly consume, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun to try. Its 70 miles constitute the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world. The Malaquite Visitors Center includes exhibits and touch displays, a bathhouse, park store, water fountains and covered picnic tables. Follow the boardwalk to Mala- quite Beach; campsites here include 24-hour access to showers and toilets. Primitive camping is allowed anywhere along the rest of the island (permits required, available at the visitor center). The beach between mile posts 0 and 5 is maintained for driving, but after that, it’s strictly four-wheel-drive. My oldest daughter and I once borrowed an FJ Cruiser and went as far as mile 40. Except for the occasional hard-core angler and mile markers every five miles, we saw nothing but deep sand, seashells, tall dunes, deer tracks and, on our way back, a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle.

These sea turtles enjoy quite a bit of fame at the National Seashore, where researchers collect eggs from nests along 80 miles of beach, incubate them in a lab and release hatchlings. The public is invited to many of these summer releases, and one of my all-time favorite things remains the sight of dozens of palm-sized hatchlings scrambling over sand hills and seaweed mountains into the waiting surf. Call the hatchling hotline, (361) 949-7163, for release dates.

USS Lexington Museum on the Bay: (361) 888-4873, www.usslexington.com

Texas State Aquarium: (361) 881-1200, www.texasstateaquarium.org

Mustang Island State Park: (361) 749-5246, www.tpwd.state.tx.us/mustangisland

Padre Island National Seashore: (361) 949-8068, www.nps.gov/pais

Corpus Christi Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-800-766-2322, www.corpuschristicvb.com

ROUND TOP
Small town packs a big cultural punch

The tiny town of Round Top enjoys widespread renown for, of all things, performing arts. How did this happen? Distinguished pianist James Dick, dreaming of a summer place where young musicians could receive intensive training and put on performances, founded The International Festival Institute at Round Top in 1971. He acquired 6 acres occupied by an abandoned school building in 1973 and began to populate the land with historic buildings, one by one. Early orchestra performances were held on an outdoor stage. Construction of a spectacular, 1,100-seat concert hall proceeded on a pay-as-you-go basis, with concerts held inside the walls before the building had a roof, floor or seats. Now complete at last, the acoustically and aesthetically beautiful hall forms the centerpiece of the institute, grown to 210 acres with artists’ residences, practice rooms and dining facilities. Extensive landscaping, including herb and rose gardens, invites lingering, and beautiful stone walls, towers, walks and other surprises encourage wandering the grounds.

“It is all open to the public. You can come and take a tour or just walk around,” says Alain Declert, program director. Events happen year-round and include a Theatre Forum and Choral Festival in November, the Nutcracker Ballet in December, guitar festivals, poetry readings, symphony performances and forums, culminating in the Institute’s raison d’etre, a six-week-long summer music festival. The 39th season coming this summer promises works by Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Brahms, Beethoven and others, performed by an orchestra of 85 musicians chosen by auditions across the country back in January and February. Tickets can be purchased for the entire festival or individual performances, even by spur-of-the-moment visitors, says Declert: “We always have tickets at the door.”

Round Top’s population barely breaks 80, and its location on State Highway 237 miles from a major thoroughfare keeps traffic light. So most businesses in town open only on weekends and for the area’s spectacular twice-a-year antique events. Time it right, though, and enjoy shopping that runs the gamut from European linens to cigars, wine, art, soap and jewelry. Royer’s Round Top Café on the square is known for its pies, and Klump’s Restaurant, across from the tiny Chamber of Commerce office, bucks the weekend-only policy, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Popular with locals, thanks to a folksy charm and hearty food, Klump’s dishes up barbecue at noon on Saturday, catfish on Friday night and specials every Sunday.

Across the square, Henkel Square Museum Village re-creates 19th-century Texas German pioneer life and architecture. Thursday through Sunday, enter through the apothecary building for self-guided tours of the eight restored homes, barn, schoolhouse and church, encircling a large open space where reenactments and other events often take place. The town’s name, incidentally, comes from an early stagecoach stop, a house with a round top.

A few miles down the road, structures from the 1800s constitute Winedale village, a division of the Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin. A German community cultivated grapes here in the late 1800s. Houston philanthropist Ima Hogg purchased the land, part of Stephen F. Austin’s original colony, and donated it to the university in 1965. Each July and August, the site hosts Shakespeare at Winedale, plays presented by university students in a 19th-century barn converted to an Elizabethan theater. Other programs go on year-round, and the visitor center is open weekdays, with docent-led tours available by prior arrangement. Otherwise, visitors may stroll the grounds without entering the half-dozen historical structures and enjoy the small lake and picnic area.

If the small-town charm and highfalutin activities make it hard to leave, no problem. The rolling hills around Round Top harbor dozens of bed-and-breakfast establishments. Examples include Anderson’s Round Top Inn, with rooms in five different settings just off the square, and historic Knittel Homestead Inn in nearby Burton, which includes a parlor to relax in and hot breakfast each morning.

The International Festival Institute at Round Top: (979) 249-3086, www.festivalhill.org

Henkel Square Museum Village: (979) 249-3308, www.texaspioneerarts.org

Winedale: (979) 278-3530, www.cah.utexas.edu/museums/winedale.php

Anderson’s Round Top Inn: 1-877-738-6746, www.andersonsroundtopinn.com

Knittel Homestead Inn: (979) 289-5102, www.knittelhomestead.com

Round Top Chamber of Commerce: (979) 249-4042, www.roundtop.org

AMARILLO
On the plains, art and history collide

“It just crept into my hands, honest,” reads a diamond-shaped sign in a yard on 10th Street. “The world is full of shipping clerks who have read the Harvard classics,” reads another, next to a barbershop just north of downtown. These and dozens more enigmatic postings, scattered randomly across Amarillo, sprang from the mind of artist and philanthropist Stanley Marsh 3. During a five- or 10-year period—he didn’t really keep track—Marsh provided the signs to anyone willing to have one. That included, apparently, residents of high- and low-brow neighborhoods alike, as well as a variety of businesses.

Marsh says his inspiration came from bits of country-western songs, poems, pithy quotes and other phrases, rearranged as he saw necessary to fit within the diamond and be readable from the road. Looking for the signs while navigating the town is something of a treasure hunt; Marsh won’t say how many there are, and listing locations would spoil the fun.

Easier to spot is the most famous Marsh installment, Cadillac Ranch, 10 of said cars buried nose down in a pasture on the eastbound side of Interstate 40. Bring your own spray paint or grab one of the cans usually lying around and add to the layers of graffiti covering each chassis, incontrovertible evidence of the deep human desire to leave a mark.

For much older evidence of that desire, head to Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument, part of the Lake Meredith National Recreation Area about a half hour north of Amarillo. On free tours of the quarries offered daily between Memorial and Labor days (by reservation only), explore the high-quality flint prized by ancient residents for toolmaking and trade and view some petroglyphs, a sophisticated sort of early graffiti. The Lake Meredith Aquatic and Wildlife Museum in Fritch includes displays on the flint and people who used it, along with two aquariums and dioramas of area wildlife, from bobcats to owls and eagles.

A new exhibit at the Don Harring- ton Discovery Center, Hunters of the Sky, focuses on some of the raptors seen wild in the area. The center also offers exhibits on bodies and space, a series of aquaria, a planetarium, temporary displays and a monument to helium, one of Amarillo’s significant natural resources. At the Botanical Gardens next door, visit a tropical conservatory and gardens. 

More conventional than Marsh’s signs, but also fun to search for, more than 90 fiberglass, life-sized horses decorated by local artists grace locations around town. Called Hoofprints of the American Quarter Horse, the project was sponsored by Center City of Amarillo and the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum. That facility takes a comprehensive look at this most Texan of breeds through interactive exhibits and historic and educational displays.

Historic Route 66 staggers across Amarillo, most of it unrecognizable as a former major route across the continent’s western half. But a smattering of retro motels remains, and the city dubbed roughly 12 blocks on the west side of town as the Route 66 Historic District, something worth wandering. A handful of antique shops, quilt shops and art galleries alternate with cafés, lounges, bars and diners, some looking much as they did in the famous highway’s heyday. Nettez House of Dessertz serves breakfast along with quiche, sandwiches and the like, and, of course, homemade cakes and pies, with meringue that would make Grandma proud.

The Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, a half hour south on the campus of West Texas A&M Uni-
versity in Canyon, claims to be the largest history museum in Texas. It houses more than 3 million artifacts, from fossils to working windmills, cars, blankets, guns and paintings. The People of the Plains exhibit shows how humans have survived in this area for 14,000 years, and Pioneer Town re-creates turn-of-the century life and includes what may be the oldest building in Texas. Bet it never had a Stanley Marsh sign, though.

Lake Meredith National Recreation Area/Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument: (806) 857-3151, www.nps.gov/lamr; www.nps.gov/alfl

Lake Meredith Aquatic and Wildlife Museum: (806) 857-2458

Don Harrington Discovery Center: (806) 355-9547, www.dhdc.org

American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum: (806) 376-5181, www.aqhhalloffame.com

Panhandle Plains Historical Museum: (806) 651-2244, www.panhandleplains.org

Amarillo Convention and Visitors Council: 1-800-692-1338, www.visitamarillotx.com

JEFFERSON
Release your inner beau and belle

If only the tourists would play along and dress in period styles … shorts and T-shirts scream “wrong century,” but fortunately, town boosters welcome visitors in almost any attire.

Jefferson’s heyday was the 1840s when Big Cypress Creek was cleared for navigation and it became the state’s leading inland port, with paddleboats plying cotton and other goods downstream and returning with supplies to build grand mansions. The coming of the railroad to nearby Marshall in the 1870s signaled the end of Jefferson’s grand era. But the mansions are still there. So are two hotels dating from the 1850s, the Excelsior House and the Historic Jefferson Hotel. Both are said to be haunted, as are many other bed-and-breakfasts in the area. On a recent trip we encountered a couple who had stayed at a bed-and-breakfast where doors mysteriously opened and closed and lights came on by themselves. On Saturday nights, a human-guided ghost tour leaves at 8 from outside the Jefferson Historical Society and Museum at 223 W. Austin St. Other tours can be arranged via reservation.

The candlelight Tour of Homes held several weekends in December is a wonderful time to see a handful of specially decorated historic homes. But any time of year, one can take a walking tour, driving tour or horse-drawn carriage tour of Jefferson’s almost overwhelming historic district. Some of the homes that are not bed-and-breakfasts provide tours. One of the best is the House of the Seasons with its four-color glass cupola.

A walk down West Austin Street takes you past not only the two hotels but also the delightfully jumbled Jefferson Texas General Store. It has an old-fashioned soda fountain, vintage toys and posters, candies, jams, gimmie caps, books, cards—you name it. Fred’s Books on the Bayou, also on West Austin Street, is the antithesis of the chain bookstore. Ninety-year-old proprietor Fred McKenzie is the town’s pre-eminent historian and author of Hickory Hill: Family Stories of Race, Religion and Romance in an East Texas Town and Avinger Texas, USA. One can take an hour’s trip on the bayou with Turning Basin Riverboat Tours. Or get a ride on an actual paddlewheel steamer, the Graceful Ghost, on nearby Caddo Lake. Call before making a visit, because neither boat runs all year.

Jefferson’s variety of restaurants is surprising for a town of 2,000. Try Lamache’s Italian Restaurant in the Historic Jefferson Hotel. People brag about the lasagna, but we preferred the Roma del Mar. The restaurant has a warm atmosphere and an impressive list of seafood and other specials. Chef-owned Stillwater Inn Restaurant serves sophisticated French/American cuisine with fresh herbs and homemade stocks. The best breakfast in town, complete with dainty Orange Blossom Muf- fins, comes with the bed-and-breakfast package at the Excelsior House. You may not be as well dressed as the fine table setting of linen and silver, but the proprietors are happy to see you, nonetheless.

For your basic good grub, Jefferson’s House of Pies on East Austin Street serves pies, of course, as well as cornbread sandwiches with a selection of meats, including fried baloney, should anybody want it (maybe 1840s residents considered it a delicacy). And then there’s the Hamburger Store on the corner of North Market and West Lafayette. The store offers virtually every variety of hamburger ever conceived in a unique décor—the walls are covered with dollar bills posted by customers, many with messages penned on them.

There are simply too many wonderful bed-and-breakfasts to highlight just a couple in Jefferson. Go to the website of one or both reservation services and click to your heart’s content: Jefferson Reservation Service, www.jeffersonreservationservice.com, or Classic Inn Reservations, www.classicinn.com.

Candlelight Tour of Homes: www.historicjeffersonfoundation.com

The House of the Seasons: (903) 665-8000, http://houseoftheseasons.com

Turning Basin Riverboat Tours: (903) 665-2222, www.jeffersonbayoutours.com

The Graceful Ghost: 1-888-325-5459

Stillwater Inn Restaurant (reservations required): (903) 665-8415, www.stillwaterinn.com

Marion County Chamber of Commerce: (903) 665-2672, www.jefferson-texas.com

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Melissa Gaskill is a travel writer based in Austin.