Denver, ya know I love ya, right? But there’s one need you just can’t fulfill. Nothing personal, purely a matter of geography… Colorado straddles the backbone of an entire continent, and Denver is the only large American city over 1,000 miles from a navigable body of water. This distinction, among many others, inspires me to love life here along the Front Range. But by spring, I crave salty ocean breezes in my hair, the sound of the surf, and digging my toes into the warm sand of a sunny beach. Call it a primordial urge to return to the briny depths, or just a desire to chillax in the sun. Tho’ I love ‘em in summer, the beaches of Cherry Creek, Aurora Reservoir or Chatfield in spring just won’t cut it! So I started Googling to find the closest beach to my front door on a tight budget. Surprisingly, I found three intriguing choices, all relatively equi-distant and requiring about the same amount of drive time: LA‘s string of Pacific beaches; Puerto Penasco in Mexico, on the Gulf of California; or Galveston, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico. Nixing Mexico due to an expired passport, and LA’s cold Pacific waters, I opted for the unknown Texas Gulf Coast. For a native Coloradan, this goes against every fiber of my mile high being; ever since the dinosaurs, Coloradans and Texans have feuded. I hesitated planning a trip to the Lone Star state, but found a great airfare (cheaper than driving) and decided to fly south to see if Texas has anything to brag about.
GALVESTON Landing in Houston, I rented a car and headed straight for the coast. Galveston is on my mind, and thankfully the trip was fast through the Houston sprawl. Crossing a playful bridge onto Galveston island, glimpses of shimmering gulf waters caught my eye and warmed my heart. Hmmm – o.k., maybe Texas does have something to offer. My list of must-see attractions included The Strand, historic mansions and neighborhoods, and of course the beaches. On all counts, I was pleasantly surprised, dare I say, even “smitten” by this slightly tawdry southern belle? Galveston is a sub-tropical garden, with a treasure trove of fascinating history and seaside attractions. Exactly what I needed to erase memories of cold winter days and snowstorms!
The shimmering gulf waters of Galveston.
PORT ARANSAS After a couple of days in Galveston, my wanderlust drove me to head further south along the coast to explore more. After a four hour drive through perfectly flat, green farm fields, and no frills small towns, I found Port Aransas. “Port A” to the locals, is a charming Texas island town with miles of sandy beaches, wildlife refuges and loads of kitschy fun. Spring along the Gulf Coast is temperamental, and a stubborn cool wind chilled my plans to sprawl in the sun on the soft sand. Though walks along the beach were pleasant, and wildlife viewing at area bird sanctuaries was rewarding, curiosity beckoned me to abandon the coast and head inland for new adventures. With flat, straight, well-maintained highways, and no severe winter freezes, driving in this part of Texas was fast and easy; another thing I had to grudgingly admire.
Port Aransas Marina
SAN ANTONIO I saw San Antonio slowly emerge out of the brush and cattle ranches, with a concentric necklace of highways that are easily navigated. Soon the towers of downtown appeared on the horizon, and signs led me to the geographic and spiritual heart of the city. My destination was the most famous single spot in all the giant state of Texas and its symbolic center.
The Alamo: A compound of historic structures, courtyards and gardens, the Alamo was packed with tourists from around the globe. Amazingly, there is no admission fee to tour any of the attractions! For two hours I wandered the grounds, enjoying the excellent museum that details the history of both the region and the battle. Touched and impressed by the story and history of this place, my appreciation grew.
The Alamo, San Antonio, TX.
The River Walk: Leaving the hallowed grounds of the Alamo, I craved something fresh and fun, and I found it in the nearby River Walk. Along with the Alamo, this is the most popular attraction in all of Texas, and at times it felt like the whole state was walking the narrow pathways with me. Along the scenic oldest stretches, filled with cafes and bars, it became an intimate experience, jarring and incongruous after speeding through the vast isolation of rural and semi-rural Texas. Possibly more than any other American urban space, excluding NYC subways, strolling the River Walk is a tango of strangers, rubbing against each other in a shared desire to get somewhere. Bad if you’re agoraphobic. Great if you crave energy and connection. I relaxed and went with the flow. Impossibly romantic, bordering on cute, I found the River Walk among the most compelling spaces of my travels in America, or even abroad. Like Santa Fe and San Francisco, it has a sense of place; but it is unique in its intimacy and density of experience. At night, it transforms into a magical oasis of dancing lights and mariachi songs. Once again, a Texan has caught my eye and I found myself reluctantly falling in love.
San Antonio’s famous River Walk.
A Night in old Havana: Among the many lodging options in central San Antonio, the Hotel Havana called to me with its quiet location overlooking a tranquil, more natural branch of the River Walk. with wooden floors creaking beneath my feet as I climbed to my room, my imagination convinced me that Hemingway would emerge from a room at any moment. My room was full of character, framed by plantation shutters. The bed and simple bathroom were well-appointed, and smelled of sandalwood and tobacco leaves. Old photos greeted me, and my dreams of a Cuban tropical fantasy felt true. Before turning in for the night, I grabbed a nightcap in the adjoining bar, Ocho, with its greenhouse conservatory architecture and wall that opens to take in the views and heady jasmine flowers of the River Walk below. I slept late and headed out for another day exploring San Antonio.
My room at Hotel Havana.
Ocho, next to the Hotel Havana.
The River Beckons: I wandered the River Walk, enjoying the lush foliage, dappled sunlight and many historic architectural details. Hokey, but irresistible, I took a ride on one of the colorful boats plying the waters. Pleasant and worthwhile, like the River Walk pathways, it can be a cramped and intimate experience with strangers. The boat guide plugged businesses along the way while also providing useful narration. The ride completed a scenic loop after 35-40 minutes.
History is Everywhere: Emerging from the subterranean watery world, I followed signs to the King William Historic District and was delighted by the narrow old streets lined by drop dead gorgeous old mansions and lush landscaping. Graceful old oaks stretched over the streets and created verdant tunnels, cool escapes from the sun. Many fine old homes are open for tours, but I prefered to roam the streets and ended in SouthTown, an artsy enclave in its infancy. Sipping a latte in a café, I pondered how this is a city full of history and attractions, yet lacking continuity. San Antonio feels like a city striving to become more than the sum of its parts. The pieces are there, and with strong leadership it is poised to become a truly great urban center.
A home in the King William Historic District, San Antonio.
The Last Resort:For my last night, I left the city to indulge myself in a resort experience at The Westin at La Cantera Hill Country. On the northern edge of San Antonio at the entry to the Texas Hill Country, La Cantera is carved into the limestone bluffs, the foundation of San Antonio, quite literally. The resort overlooks city lights and deep green, undulating hills. The place is grand yet comfortable with posh decorating, numerous restaurants, a spa and one of the best martini’s ever. Lush courtyards, pools and waterfalls beckoned me outside. An idyllic escape from reality, with resort amenities like golf, tennis, pools, spa and health club, I didn’t know what to do first.
Some of the pools at The Westin La Cantera Hill Country.
A view of the Hill Country from the patio of the Westin La Cantera Hill Country resort.
Not the rugged High Rockies of my beloved Colorado, the Hill Country’s rolling hills were beautiful and offered their own charms. Relaxing in the warm pools of La Cantera, I realized Texas had become a new place to me, full of surprising beauty both natural and crafted by man. Now I’m not saying I want to move there, but the Texas Gulf and San Antonio offers much to enjoy. Even to those of us who live in the most beautiful state of all. Some rivalries never really die!
Stay tuned for T. Ravlin Lyte’s experiences at San Antonio’s Fiesta 2013, coming soon.
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