6/12/2012

Texas for Travelers

                                          The Alamo

To my devoted readers out there, stateside, who are wondering why I am including all this stuff the natives already know about, and why I've put a lot more "Texas" content on this blog- the simple fact is, I've been looking at my stats. I have readers from all over the globe- imagine that! and my most popular blog entries involve topics particular to Texas, especially geography, travel, culture, cuisine, and stuff like that. I think people are reading this blog not just bc of my title, but maybe to help them plan a trip here. To that end, I am going to offer my opinion and advice as to where you should go and what you should do if you are visiting this strange foreign country. Note: I don't get endorsements from anyone, and I took the ad feature off this blog bc it was just cluttering things up and a waste of time.This is a general overview, only...I have specific bog postings, with more details, on individual locales/topics.

First off, if you are visiting Texas for the first time, you need to be forewarned about the vast distances in this state- larger than France-and how to get around from place to place. Just remember: "Public" transportation in this state generally means airports/airplanes to fly you from one city to another. A few cities (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas only) have limited rail systems for commuters, but hey! this isn't Europe. Don't expect to hop on a train, go someplace, get off, walk around, see the sites, then hop back on a train and go somewhere else. You will have to rent a car to visit any place that is not in a major city- and probably most urban places even if you stick to major cities. Our infant public transportation systems are designed to move folk from the suburbs to the central core downtown area, and back, during work day hours, only. Many rail stops are not linked to tourist sites, and do not run on weekends or at convenient late night hours. I just experienced this with a dear friend visiting from New York, who wanted to stay with me in Denton, but be able to use the local rail public transportation to go back and froth to Dallas and Ft Worth, and be able to stay out late and eat dinner, then return "home" in the evening. While we are all darn excited to have a train at all that comes out this far, it did not run after the typical commuter rush hour, and does not go to Ft. Worth. So be prepared and plan to rent a car, unless you have friends who live here and will loan you one of theirs or drive you around.

The next most important topic for planning a visit to Texas is : when ? Our summers are harsh and last 6+ months of the year. I cannot emphasize this enough. It is typical and normal for daily temps to be in the high 90's from March through October, the 100's -110's from June through September, in most of the state. I liken it to Provence or Rome in August if you have ever been to those places. If you have never lived in this sort of climate, you cannot be mentally prepared for what it is like, even if you think summers are "hot" wherever you are from. My sister-in-law (who lives in the Mid-Atlantic East Coast) came to visit us the first time with a suitcase of what she considered to be summer weight turtlenecks and pants. We had to take her shopping to buy more suitable clothes. She about fainted when we took her to the local public pool to cool down on a day it was 112 degrees. The water in the pool was 99 degrees and there was no shade. A few years back I was driving through the old historic downtown square in Denton and saw a German family - mom, dad, two little kids- standing in a dazed and confused manner, on the sidewalk at about 3 in the afternoon. I figured they were lost and pulled over, rolled down my car window and asked if I could help. Turns out they were on the verge of heatstroke and needed me to guide them to a place with air conditioning and cool drinks. They were so prostrate they couldn't think what to do or where to go next. So my first advice is : come in the winter, spring, or fall. Our fall and spring are what passes for summer in most places of the northern hemisphere. Our winters are like Florida or California- mild.

If you must visit in the summer, June is better than July and August. Pack thin, sheer, lightweight light-colored cotton or linen clothing. Shirts, shorts, dresses, swimsuits. All indoor (and some outdoor!) spaces will be air conditioned (much stronger/colder than what passes for a/c in Europe) and can be chilly if you are not used to it - so bring a thin sheer lightweight sweater or jacket. If you are not used to this weather, pretend you are going on a safari in Africa- you will need a hat to block the sun, sunscreen, a bottle for water, good walking shoes, etc. I have been to touristy spots such as NASA or the Alamo and seen folk from all over the world sweltering and sick from the heat. If you are used to carrying a fan, do so. Be prudent : Go to outdoor places (the Alamo, Sea World) in the early morning or late at night. Go to indoor places (museums, etc) during the mid-day or late afternoon.

If you plan to visit Texas as a first -timer, or for a short time only, I would start with San Antonio/ Austin in the spring time. (Of course it all depends on what you want to see and do, and what your interests are. I will break down each region by typical and not-so-typical things to do.) One note: all Texas schools, both public/private lower (elementary, high) schools and colleges/universities, take a  week long "spring break" sometime in March. During these weeks (often "rolling", in the sense that a million people/schools will be off one week, and a different million people /schools off the next), typically beaches and resorts in the southern half of the state will be jam-packed. Book hotels before Christmas to get a room. It will not be hot enough to swim at that time, but will be a pleasant temp to walk around. Texans also typically take time off/holidays at Christmas and in the summer, but often flee the state. In the winter, we go skiing in Colorado-New Mexico, and in the summer to anywhere on the globe that is cooler than Texas!

San Antonio

See the Alamo, an old Spanish mission which Texans consider their most sacred site. Sure it's indoors, but the line to get in is outdoors, and can be long at peak times. Dress for the outdoor weather. It is within walking distance to the River walk ( pictured below), a pretty area with restaurants and hotels. All in walking distance of each other. San Antonio is also home to Sea World and Six Flags, a zoo and an old home historic district; you will need a car to get to these places on the other side of town. Day trips from S.A. are : Mission Tours ( historic old Spanish churches), Texas Hill Country (beautiful rolling hills with wild flowers in the spring), some local caves, grottos, San Marcos (See Road trips: Schlitterbahn on this website), Johnson City, Luckenbach, Blanco State Park- Places with historic ranches, presidential homes open to the public, scenic outdoor locales. You will need a car for all this. I have blog postings on this topic that include hotel and restaurant recs.

Austin

An hour north from S.A. by car  is Austin, the capitol of Texas and home to UT. This is an old-new city with a modern semi-conductor industry and a fabulous music counter-culture. The SXSW (pronounced "south by southwest") indie music fest is in March, and tickets sell out before Christmas. The Texas capitol building is historically interesting, (taller than the US capitol) and there is a Texas History Museum you can tour. Guadalupe Street is "the drag" where a few old hippies still hang out from the 60's. Sixth Street is a vibrant bar and restaurant scene.Road trips include; more hill country towns, looking at bluebonnets ( in March-April), Lake Travis (great restaurant: The Oasis on Lake Travis- incredible views), Bastrop. I have a specific blog posting on these topics.


                                         San Antonio River walk

South Texas
This is only for the true Texas enthusiast, and I would not rec it for a short trip. You must have a car to get to/see these places: 1)The King ranch -one of the oldest, largest, and most famous ranches, still in existence as a working ranch, and they do have tours, 2)Goliad - this is where Texas history really begins. Fabulous mission and presidio. Beautiful countryside. Nearby towns on the way ( Gonzales, etc) great for antiquing. 3)"The Valley" large agricultural region that flows south of S.A. to Mexico border. When I was a kid, people used to go to Mexican border towns and shop (furniture, silver, ceramics, veggies, booze, crafts) but with drug cartels encroaching, I wouldn't do that these days unless I were a native and could blend in. 4)Corpus Christi - Pretty little coastal city with a great aquarium and nice beaches. However, the best beaches are at 5)South Padre Island- entrance near the Mexican border, at southern tip. Beautiful beaches, but in recent years, over-built with condos and touristy restaurants. Avoid during March unless you enjoy being surrounded by millions of drunken semi-nekkid college kids.6)Lockhart- several restaurants here claim to be home to Texas BBQ. You can sample them all and decide for yourself. 7)Brenham/College Station- home to that other great Texas University, Texas A &M. A charming little downtown with B&B, and the Antique Rose Emporium nearby.

Houston

Houston would be my second choice for the out-of-town traveler with only a short amount of time to spend in Texas. You can see all that is modern in Texas (NASA space center, the oil industry, world class medical center, a fabulous museum district) and much that is old and charming in Texas ( historic homes, great restaurants, lovely parks and gardens, a zoo, some world class universities.) Spring comes early to this coastal town, and most things are blooming by late February.The humidity is always 100%, but that means the temp is rarely over low 90's, so you chose your poison. Hurricanes a common feature, generally in Aug-Sept. Road trips from Houston: Galveston (has a historic old section, and great Christmas and Mardi Gras festivals). Coastal regions nearby are world class for winter bird watching. Big Thicket - dense piney woods in east Texas.

                                          Houston

                                          NASA Space Center

But where are the cowboys? The wild wild west you ask? Well, the real versions of that stuff exist on real people's farms and ranches, way out in the middle of nowhere, sprinkled throughout the state and are not generally open to the public. I am unaware of any theme park that is configured like the wild, wild west or some one's ranch....You can shoot exotic game on special big game ranches - I'm not endorsing any particular provider, just providing info so you can search the internet for yourself. If you really must have an old west experience for the kiddies, then I rec Ft. Worth.

Ft Worth

This city, "where the west begins" has an old-timey part of downtown with some log cabin looking stores and a herd of long horns that walk up and down the street each day. This is a good place to go for those sort of photo opps. This little city is a gem, home to a great zoo,  a fabulous museum district, and a world class opera festival that hosts both traditional and cutting edge performances each May.

Dallas

Although I call it home, I would not call it interesting to the outsider. I see it as hot and flat and ugly, with wind that blows year round. Maybe there is some appeal that I just don't get. Lots of folk come here to see the grassy knoll and the Sixth Floor Museum that tells about the day JFK was shot. We have great sports teams: the Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, the Mavericks. Like all Texas cities, we have lots of shiny glass sky-scrapers and lots of miserable crawling freeways with too much traffic. Six Flags, museums, parks, flower fests, music fests, a zoo - like anywhere else. Personally, what I like about Dallas is this: it has some of the best fashion and house wares/furniture shopping outside of NYC and LA (due to the fashion mart, a wholesale source for the fashion industry) located here. Retail is king ! I prefer the variety of Tex-Mex food in DFW, (enchilada based, versus the fajita base of Houston) but that may be bc I grew up with it so it tastes like home to me. I think, overall, Houston has better restaurants, clubs, and an overall more interesting urban vibe. Day trips from Dallas: east Texas, a heavily forested region that is known locally for dairies, produce, small towns, and lakes. People often have their summer homes here. Historic towns include Tyler, Nacadoches, Caddo Lake. Shreveport or Oklahoma border towns if you like gambling.

West Texas

This region is not for the casual traveler. It is far flung, remote, desert-like, sparse in terms of towns and people. Many counties may have only one small town, if any at all, in them. You can drive ( at 70-80-90+ mph) for hours and never find a roadside gas station, restaurant, hotel/motel, or store. It will require research and planning on your part to figure out, in advance, where you will stay/eat/buy gas each leg of your trip through this area.  If you want to drive across America, and swing through some spots of local interest, I rec: Cadillac Ranch ( photo below) outside Amarillo; Palo Duro Canyon (similar to the Grand Canyon) outside Lubbock; Marfa ( famous for its "lights", an unexplained astral phenomenon), the Guadalupe Mtns and Big Bend National Park ( really, in south west Texas). Just keep driving and you can add White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns, and other famous sites in New Mexico to your tour.


                                          Cadillac Ranch

Friends out there reading my blog: Please add your own suggestions to this posting under comments. I don't claim to have a lock on Texas tourism.

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