The Texas Hill Country is that area between San Antonio and Austin where the flat plains give way to rolling hills with small towns that were founded in the 19th century by settlers from Sweden and Germany. We toured around this area last year, finding things that seemed strange and unusual to our European eyes, even though we share a common language (well nearly). Here are some of the things that we enjoyed on our drive around the Texas Hill Country;
Texas Barbecue and a slice of pie
In England a barbecue would probably mean sausages and burgers cooked over smoky charcoal, but we found that in Texas it means something quite different. At Black’s BBQ in the town of Lockhart, they’ve been serving real Texan BBQ since the 1940s, using only the finest beef brisket marinaded and cooked slowly over oak chippings for 12 hours until it is meltingly tender and delicious. We queued up for our salads and sides then piled the plates with slices of brisket which was sold by weight and settled down at the red checked tables to enjoy, surrounded by hunting trophies and sporting photos. Afterwards we got a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour to feel the heat of the ovens and learn more about how the brisket is carefully trimmed and cooked for that authentic BBQ taste.
Driving back to the Interstate 35 we stopped for something sweet at the Texas Pie Company in Kyle which we easily recognised from the huge slice of cherry pie on the roof. Their slogan is “Life’s short, eat more pie” and with delicious flavours like fudge pecan, lemon chess and strawberry peach to choose from we didn’t need any encouragement. On the wall was a picture of chief pie-maker, Julie Albertson, who uses her grandmother’s recipes to create 18 different pie flavours, with individual sizes as well as the classic 10 inch size. You’ll find home-made pies like these in many local bakeries and diners – it’s a taste of Texan home cooking.
Tubing and Blue Bell ice Cream in Gruene
We passed through the German settler town of New Braunfels and stopped on the outskirts at the smaller historic district of Gruene. A popular local pastime, especially in the sweltering heat of the Texas summer, is to go rafting or tubing on the Guadalupe river that flows through the area. Although it was a little early in the season we hired our tubes at Rockin’R, right by the river and opted for the tubing as we were advised that there wasn’t really enough water in the river for rafting. The company owns a number of camp grounds along the river so you can drift downstream and then they will arrive in the van to give you and your tube a lift back to the starting point. It took an hour and a half drifting along to reach the pick-up point and we took a good look at all the fabulous houses along the banks as well as the river turtles sunning themselves on logs in the river. There was the occasional small set of rapids to get the heart pumping, but nothing too challenging, just enough for a few whoops of delight.
After we dried off and returned our tubes, we took a look around Gruene Historic District which has plenty of cafes, antique and souvenir shops and a nice old fashioned drug store serving Blue Bell ice cream, as well as a famous Honky Tonk Dance Hall. We stopped for a bite to eat at Cantina Del Rio, a colourful Mexican cafe with a deck overlooking the river where we enjoyed some excellent tacos and fajitas.
The Cowboy life at the Silver spur ranch
Further west, we headed for Bandera, another small town with big ambitions that proclaims itself to be the “Cowboy Capital of the World”. Our mission was to get into the Cowboy spirit with a trail ride at the Silver Spur Ranch, one of the many Guest and Dude ranches in the area. While the ranch accommodated guests who would stay up to a week and get to try other cowboy stuff like sitting around the camp fire, learning lasso skills, or even a rodeo, we just went for an hour’s ride into the Hill Country State Natural Area. It wasn’t nearly long enough, even though my city legs were aching afterwards, but we enjoyed our time on the horses who were very gentle with novice riders like us.
Huntin’ Shootin’ Fishin’ at Cabela’s
While staying in San Antonio, we had spent a day on Picosa Ranch and were recommended to stop at Cabela’s, on our drive north to Austin. This enormous warehouse store has everything that the enthusiastic hunter or lover of the great outdoor might need, with a camping section upstairs, but it was a real eye opener for us on the Texas gun culture. First thing was the big sign asking you to check your gun in at the door and then the entire wall of the warehouse given to guns of all shapes and sizes. My 19 year old son was absolutely thrilled that there was a stand where he could just pick up and try the feel of a real gun and there was almost a theme park feel to some parts of the store, such as the central display of stuffed animals with details of where they were shot and by whom. In another side room there were displays of more stuffed animals with a model of a hunter who would start talking to you when the button was pressed. For a family from the city who would never go hunting this was definitely one of those “only in America” moments.
The Alamo and a cycle to the Spanish Missions in San Antonio
The city of San Antonio is the southern border of the Texas Hill country and the home of The Alamo, one of the unmissable attractions in Texas. The Alamo is what remains of the chapel and the buildings of the old Spanish Mission, one of several in the area, and has a huge significance in the struggle for Texan Independence from Mexico. This is where, in 1836, a couple of hundred volunteers made a last stand against the Mexican Army led by General Santa Anna and although they were all killed, the episode became a turning point in the war of Texan Independence with the rallying cry of “Remember the Alamo”. The monument is not as large as you might expect considering its fame, but the attraction is free and the chapel and the long barracks contain plenty of information about the history with several courtyards and pleasant gardens.
After visiting the Alamo we hired bikes from the shop behind the Visitor Centre and cycled along the river bank, through the historic King William district overlooked by old mansions and greenery. Gradually the river widened to become Mission Reach, with a cycle path that takes you all the way to the other Spanish Missions that lie just outside San Antonio. Eventually the path took us to Mission San Jose, known as the “Queen of Missions” for its size and beauty, with a church with a carved stone facade that was under restoration and a working water mill where there was a demonstration on grinding grain. On the way back, we stopped at the Blue Star Brewing company where you can see the big steel brewing containers behind the bar although I ordered a refreshing glass of iced tea.
The Texas Hill Country has plenty more to offer in vineyards, interesting small towns and beautiful wild flowers and is ideal to tour by car for a few days, stopping at anywhere that looks interesting. You can also combine it, as we did, with stops in the cities of Houston, San Antonio and Austin for a holiday that takes in the best that Texas has to offer.
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