Austin: A capital idea for a weekend away

The Texas State Capitol’s sunset red granite dome shimmers pink at sunrise. It’s a glorious September morn in Austin, just 85 miles from the Alamo City, but a world away when it comes to the style, attitude and terrain of this town. Best of all, it feels distant, different and fresh — so Austin is a great weekend getaway destination. It’s a quick drive, so gasoline prices aren’t an issue, and it’s close enough that you can leave work on Friday and arrive in time to dine at one of Austin’s fine restaurants. Yet it’s different enough from home that you get the sense that you’ve really escaped. When I was in my 20s, I would drive into Austin, cross what was then called Town Lake, and think, “I’ve never had a bad time in this city.” To me, Austin was a bright white canvas splashed with color: the blue waters of Barton Springs, the green hills of Bee Caves, yellow sunsets over Lake Buchanan, the Red Hot Chili Peppers rocking the Cactus Café on campus and the orange glow of winning lights on the University of Texas Tower.

I lived in Austin for several years before heading back to San Antonio, and while I can no longer say I’ve never had a bad day there, I can say I’ve had some of the best times of my life in Austin. So I was eager to revisit my old stomping grounds with my husband for the weekend. They say you can never go home again, and in a way, they’re right. While I was delighted to see so many places I remember with fondness, I was astounded to behold myriad changes Austin has undergone in recent years. Places where I’d hear live music on Saturday nights, like Antone’s and the Continental Club, were all as I’d remembered. However, I was shocked by the number of high-rise condominiums jettisoning into the skyline and huge tangles of highway cloverleaf configurations at every turn. This Austin was not the same laid-back posthippie haven of the ’80s. No, the times, they are a changin’, and Austin has changed with the times.

I am no longer at an age when I’m inclined to sleep on a friend’s couch in the college-kid-utopian Hyde Park neighborhood. I now look for lodgings with an atmosphere that speaks “comfort,” not “commune.” Although it is located near what is technically known as “West Campus,” a stone’s throw from the University of Texas, the accommodations at the Mansion at Judge’s Hill bear no resemblance to college housing. With an elegant dose of historic Texas charm, the Mansion at Judge’s Hill is a distinctive small hotel off MLK Boulevard. Timelessly elegant, this turn-of-the-century estate greets guests with imposing stone columns and glittering leaded-glass windows. With hand-carved oak and brass double doors and stately antiques, “The Mansion” is home to one of Austin’s premier boutique hotels and restaurants.

Opulent, yet affordable, its wellappointed rooms and suites are housed both in the mansion and in a separate two-story brick structure surrounding a garden patio with an old New Orleans feel. So after a fabulous four-course meal with special wine pairings the night before, we celebrated the cool breezes of the early morning hours by drinking coffee on the broad veranda off our second-story room and watched the city come to life. Just up the street from “The Mansion” is the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, whose mission is to tell the story of Texas with three floors of interactive exhibits, a special-effects show in the museum’s Texas Spirit Theater called The Star of Destiny, and Austin’s only IMAX Theatre, featuring the film Texas: The Big Picture. There’s a café, too, with indoor and outdoor seating. A division of the State Preservation Board, the museum, which was created through the work of former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, has something of interest for visitors of all ages.

The Austin Museum of Art presents contemporary exhibitions of works by international, national and local artists downtown on Congress Avenue near the historic Paramount Theatre. The Austin Museum of Art Laguna Gloria, housed in a historic villa on Lake Austin with beautifully landscaped grounds, is home to 20th-century and contemporary American art. The George Washington Carver Museum pays homage to Austin’s African-American heritage and features four galleries, a theater, a dance studio, museum store and library. There’s also the Mexi-Arte Museum and the Mexican American Cultural Center. My kids have always loved the fascinating Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum — with a model of the Oval Office recreated inside. Also popular are the Neil-Cochran house and the O. Henry Museum, the Texas Memorial Museum, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum and, of course, the worldrenowned Harry Ransom Center, home to some of the world’s finest cultural archives, 30 million literary manuscripts, a Gutenberg Bible, the Watergate papers, the world’s first photograph and a Gone with the Wind collection. However, my favorite museum, the Elisabet Ney, is tucked away in the trees along a creek in the Hyde Park neighborhood just north of UT. Originally the home and studio of a German sculptress, the museum houses Ney’s original home furnishings and enormous traditional sculpture pieces in smooth white marble. Ney’s sculptures are also on display at the Texas State Capitol, and, of course, no trip to Austin would be complete without a visit to the capitol building and grounds. The architecture is impressive, and standing inside the capitol rotunda is awe-inspiring. There is much to see and do if you don’t mind heading out-of-doors. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center southwest of town is a delightful place to spend the morning visiting its public gardens, sweeping meadows and woodlands and getting to know some of the plants and flowers native to Texas.

Hiking and biking along miles of lushly lined trails along Lady Bird Lake, swimming in “the sacred waters” of Barton Springs, picnicking at Zilker Park, climbing Mount Bonnell, canoeing on Lake Austin and driving along the twisty curves of Ranch Road 2222 that take you to the lake country west of the city, you’ll fall in love with the hills, rivers and lakes of Austin. The Highland Lakes is a system of six lakes north and west of Austin created from the Colorado River. Town Lake, recently renamed Lady Bird Lake, flows through the middle of the city. So kayaking, sailing, water-skiing, paddle boating and other water fun are a big part of weekends for locals and visitors. One of the most beautiful stretches of Lake Austin, near Loop 620, northwest of downtown, is home to the Lake Austin Spa Resort. For the ultimate splurge, guests can spend a week or just a weekend being pampered at one of the “No. 1 Spa Destinations in North America,” according W to a recent survey of Conde Nast Traveler readers. It’s like having your own multimillion- dollar lake lodge compound with a Provence-inspired dining room and lobby area and world-class facilities, spa treatments, programs, pools and cuisine.

During our visit there, we ate delicious healthful foods, enjoyed walks along the water, spent time in our own private hot tub, enjoyed the two outdoor (and one indoor) pools, watched DVDs in our rooms at night on a large flatscreened television, and spent the day being scrubbed, wrapped, massaged and pampered in the spa. Steam rooms, saunas, yoga classes, informative lectures and personal training are all there for the taking. Best of all were the views of the lake in the early morning and the brilliant stars at night. I can’t imagine a more magnificent way to enjoy a weekend on the lake in Austin. Another fabulous weekend spa getaway can be found at the Barton Creek Resort & Spa. With prices to rival reasonable hotels in town, this Bee Caves-area enclave is home to a AAA Four-Diamond luxury hotel. Spanning 4,000 acres, the resort boasts some of the region’s most breathtaking views. With 303 guest rooms and suites furnished in elegant Texas style, it is also home to a variety of recreational options, including the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked resort golf courses in Texas, a luxurious spa, a full-service fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools, a miniature golf course, a fully supervised children’s program and four extraordinary restaurants. It’s also home to an award-winning conference center.

While both the Barton Creek Resort and Spa and the Lake Austin Spa Resort offer overnight accommodations, day spa services are also available, as well as individual spa treatments, like facials and massage, and salon services such as pedicures, manicures, hair and makeup. Fitness equipment, heat saunas, steam rooms, whirlpool, showers and more are also available to visitors at both locations. Besides the Lake Austin and Barton Creek resorts and spas, The Crossings is also worth a visit. A leading wellness resort and leadership retreat center, The Crossings offers unique individual and organizational programs. Its mission is to provide experiences in a learning environment that expand awareness and support conscious choices by individuals, organizations and cultures in the work of transformation and renewal. With overnight, weekend and day spa options available, the Crossings offers serene retreat resources on the outer northwest edge of Austin near Cedar Park. Not far from the Lake Austin Spa Resort is the Oasis Restaurant and Bar, with 40- plus decks overlooking Lake Travis. Here, guests applaud the sunset each evening, sip on frozen drinks in pretty colors and eat juicy hamburgers. Nearby is the exquisite Hudson on the Bend restaurant, with Texan-style haute cuisine, including wild game and fine wines.

A favorite spot just down the road near Lakeway is Ciola’s — a surprisingly authentic New York-style Italian-American restaurant. Other Austin favorites are the Salt Lick Barbecue (south of town in Driftwood), the County Line for barbecue, Manuel’s on Congress Avenue, Jeffrey’s in Castle Hills and La Fonda San Miguel off North Loop from the “MoPac” highway. But everyone knows that Austin isn’t known for its museums and restaurants as much as it is for its music. Called “The Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin is perhaps best known for Sixth Street, the home of live music venues, restaurants, pubs, bars, comedy clubs and coffee houses. And while this street is central to the Austin music scene, it isn’t the only game in town anymore. Nightlife is hopping around Fourth Street and Second Street downtown — with clubs like La Zona Rosa and The Ginger Man, coffeehouses like Halcyon and many others keeping late-night hours. For some of the best jazz in town, the basement digs of the Elephant Room on Congress Avenue are still the place to hear Austin’s finest talent. This area is also home to fashionable art galleries and boutique retail spots. And if you’re willing to jump in the car and drive a few miles, the club and restaurant scene on South Congress is so popular that it’s now called “SoCo” (with its intentional nod to New York’s SoHo neighborhood).

Austin got on the national/international radar as THE hottest music and film mecca in large part because of the popularity of its South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) and SXSW Interactive Festival, both of which take place in March. The conference’s roots go back to 1987, and today it draws crowds to rival the Sundance Film Festival. Fifteen years ago, my husband and I had our first date at an intimate solo concert at Esther’s Follies on Sixth Street. The show featured the legendary Texas performer who penned Mr. Bojangles — Jerry Jeff Walker. Before the show, we had a drink in the ultra-elegant piano bar in the lobby of the historic Driskill Hotel on Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. I’ve always thought of that night as the epitome of a “good night out in Austin” date. Had we heard the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughn at Antone’s, it couldn’t have been better.

On the last night of our glorious weekend-in-Austin getaway, we recreated that moment with a stop at the Driskill Hotel lobby for a glass of champagne. As we toasted one of the most beautiful towns in Texas, we could only recall good times shared in Austin.

Author: Janis Turk

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