The limestone canyons, clear springs, underground lakes and rolling granite landscape of the Texas Hill Country are not what come to mind when most people think of the Lone Star State. Indeed, the Hill Country Visitor Guide Online (www.hill-country-visitor.com) contends that south central Texas is like another state altogether -- a 14,000-square-mile oasis in the midst of the mostly dry, flat scrub plains, desert, prairie and panhandle regions. In March and April, when the Hill Country roadsides wear glorious cloaks of fiery red and periwinkle blue, it's floral coat manifesting spring all around makes it one of the best U.S. destinations for a fly-drive getaway.
The term "wildflowers" is a slight misnomer, in that the roadsides have bloomed with a concerted push from the Texas Department of Transportation, since Lady Bird Johnson's Highway Beautification Act became state law in 1965. The DOT says it annually disseminates about 5.6 billion seeds of some 30 varieties -- including Indian paintbrush, phlox, black-eyed Susans, primrose, and the quintessential state flower, the bluebonnet. The most concentrated profusion blooms in the Hill Country -- loosely bordered by the loop of scenic highways between Austin and San Antonio and San Marcos and Fredericksburg. Most agree that the best time to visit is April, especially for bluebonnets, but the color show begins as early as mid March. In March, the DOT will resume operation of its Wildflower Hotline, to tell you where to find the best color at any given time (tel. 800/452-9292; www.dot.state.tx.us).
Historic San Antonio makes the best point to begin the two-day scenic drive through equally historic communities such as Gruene, Fredericksburg and Boerne. Settled by Germans in the late nineteenth century, these towns have managed to defy the haphazard sprawl that prevails in most of the state. Another good point of entry is Austin. The capital is 40 miles off the official Wildflower Trail, but it's home to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (tel. 512/292-4100; www.wildflower.org), founded by Lady Bird and actress Helen Hayes in 1982. And if you're visiting in mid March, you can catch the esteemed SXSW (South by Southwest; www.sxsw.com) music festival while you're there, from March 16 to 20.
Southwest Airline's Internet-only ongoing "Systemwide Sale" (tel. 800/435-9792; www.southwest.com) is the cheapest means of getting to the Hill Country before the bloom is off the primrose, so to speak. Through June 6, you can fly anywhere on Southwest's routes for $39 to $149 one-way, with a fourteen-day advance purchase by February 3. From March 15 to March 22, for example, fares to San Antonio are $99 one-way from Baltimore, Chicago or Seattle. Likewise, one way to Austin is $99 from Providence, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and many other cities. You have to fiddle around on the website's route map to figure out how Southwest navigates your desired itinerary. From New York, for instance, Southwest flies to San Antonio or Austin only from Long Island Islip, for $99. You can either schlep to Long Island or fly from La Guardia or Newark to Houston Hobby for $99, where you can catch a $39 fare to Austin or San Antonio, through Southwest's Texas sale. Total cost round-trip without taxes: $278/. Taxes can range from $12-$30 per flight.
To access the map, click special offers on the Southwest home page, then Systemwide Sale, then Southwest Cities. Southwest covers most regions of the U.S., though some city pairs require an extra connection. The map and fare-finder are very quick and easy to operate, but these great offers expire Thursday, February 3, so don't delay.
The cheapest car rental rates, for March 15 to March 22, are from Enterprise Rental (tel. 800/261-7331; www.enterprise.com). From the San Antonio airport, an economy car is $117 a week ($165.15 total). It's slightly higher from the Austin airport, at $121.95 a week ($183.61 total).
America West's New Year Sale (tel. 800/327-7810; www.americawest.com) affords low rates to Austin from the Western states. Los Angeles and Oakland to Austin are $99 one-way with 14-day advance purchase; from Seattle, it's $104; and $119 from Eugene. Fares are good for midweek travel through May 11, if booked by February 3. Taxes and fees up to $34.40 round-trip may apply.
American Vacations (tel. 800/321-2121; www.aavacations.com) is promoting rooms in a number of fine hotels in San Antonio and Austin for less than $100 a night for midweek arrivals. The cheapest deal is in the capital: The AmeriSuite Austin North Central, near the University of Texas, is $40 a night for a suite through November 15. The Hilton-owned Doubletree Austin is $76 a night for the same period. The best value for your money is in San Antonio: Through November 15, rooms at the AAA four-diamond Omni San Antonio Hotel are only $66 a night. The Radisson Resort Hill Country, are $94 a night from March 27 through May 26.
Good maps and a listing of accommodations along the Wildflower Trail are available from the Texas Hill Country Wildflower Association (tel. 866/839-3378; www.tex-fest.com) or the aforementioned Hill Country Visitor Guide Online. Contact Texas Highways for a copy of their annual wildflower issue (tel. 512/486-5823; www.texashighways.com), published each year in April. You may also want to contact Texas Monthly (tel. 512/320-6952; www.texasmonthly.com) for a copy of their best barbecue issue, as a number of the best pits are in the Hill Country.
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