Contrary to perception, Texas ain't just full of cattle ranchers, controversial political districts, insurance company headquarters, and barbecue pits. The state's hill country, for example, is a longstanding destination, thanks to its rivers, ranches and, more recently, wineries, great for quick weekend, fly-drive getaways or extended stays. Located literally in the heart of Texas, boasting 40 cities and towns in the 14,000 square mile area, Hill country should not be missed during the spring, locals says. Starting in March, the roadsides are coated with wildflowers -- so much so that the yearly occurrence warrants its very own Wildflower Hotline (tel. 800/452-9292; www.dot.state.tx.us), which will resume operations in March again. Every year, the state's DOT sprinkles more than 30,000 pounds of wildflower seeds -- nothing to sneeze at, of course, unless you have seasonal allergies. And for an overall look at the area, try this visitors' guide, Hill Country Visitor (www.hill-country-visitor.com), with a suggested list of lodging, activities, events, and more.
In terms of navigation, good starting points for exploring include the hip music-loving town of Austin; check with the city's Convention and Visitors Bureau for an overview (www.austintexas.org). Fly into Austin between March 10Â¿19, spend a couple days at South By Southwest Music Festival (http://2006.sxsw.com), a haven for up-and-coming bands and artists, and tour some wineries as you head west, northwest, or south, along the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail (tel. 866/621-9463; www.texaswinetrail.com). Vineyards are dotted from as far north of Austin as Bend and Fredericksburg, about 70 miles due west. Other towns to investigate include Gruene, New Braunfels and San Marcos. Or fly into San Antonio, south of Fredericksburg, and use that as a point of departure. Foodies might find the 21St annual Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival with its "Texas Tables" theme appetizing (tel. 512/-249-6300; www.texaswineandfood.org). Various culinary events such as demonstrations and talks will take place April 6Â¿9 at participating restaurants, cooking schools, hotels and wineries in and around Austin and the Hill Country. Many celebrity chefs from Texas, New York, California and Mexico, for example, will be on hand.
Expedia (tel. 800/397-3342; www.expedia.com) is offering some inclusive sales to Texas destinations for air plus three nights' hotel stay from $352 for Austin, although finding a hotel room during South by Southwest won't exactly be easy. From that same main page, scroll down for information on San Antonio:
- Air and three nights at the Hotel Contessa are priced from $580, based on Chicago to San Antonio travel, February 2Â¿5.
- The Hyatt Regency Hill Country, for example, is priced from $517 for three nights and airfare from Chicago for travel February 16Â¿19.
But you must search carefully, because prices will vary considerably, based on departure city and travel dates.
Hill Country Equestrian Lodge (tel. 830/796-7950; www.hillcountryequestlodge.com), about 10 miles from Bandera, is a 6000-acre working cattle ranch that offers a horseback riding vacation that is set to your own pace, not the ranch's. The lodge offers lessons, but its location, nestled in a valley adjacent to Hill Country State Natural Area, offers hiking, cycling and walking opportunities for those uninterested in horseback riding. Two types of accommodations are available -- private luxury cabins and luxury suites. The cabins have living and kitchen areas, a fireplace, and sleep up to six; the nightly rate is $110 per adult for first two adults; $83 for each additional adult and $44 for children 18 and under. The suites feature a queen room, kitchen, sunroom, and they sleep up to four. The nightly rate is $98 for adult single; $83 per adult, double occupancy and the same rate for children 18 and under. There is no fee for children 4 and under.
In San Marcos, the Crystal River Inn (tel. 888/396-3739; www.crystalriverinn.com) which dates back to 1883, is known for its package deals, including the popular Murder Mystery Weekends, including one March 17-18, and priced at $175Â¿$250 per person depending on room selection. You can do nothing here and enjoy the scenery -- check out the garden -- or if you need a little diversion, the San Marcos factory outlet stores are nearby.
If you're interested in historic little towns, make sure you visit Gruene, Texas, settled by Germans in the 1800s. Of particular interest is the Gruene Mansion Inn (tel. 830/629-2641; www.gruenemansioninn.com), which runs seasonal specials, including an "estrogen weekend getaway" (www.gruenemansioninn.com/specials/estrogen.htm) priced at $415 for weekends and $365 SundayÂ¿Thursday. The two-night package includes breakfast, a lunch and a dinner, and spa services at a local salon. (Gruene and New Braunfels are known for, among other things, antiques; hence, perhaps, the "estrogen" in the getaway.) Until May 25, regular rates range $155Â¿$245. For a sepia-toned look at Gruene (FYI: it's pronounced Green) and a listing of authentic activities galore (dining, music jams, gospel brunches, etc.), check out www.gruenetexas.com.
Sadly, Southwest Airlines (tel. 800/435-9792; www.southwestairlines.com) just wrapped up their systemwide sale earlier hits week, but because the airline often runs fare sales, we like to recommend downloading the airline's Ding! program, which alerts you when fares have been reduced. However, you must be a PC user -- the software won't run on Macs.
America West (tel. 800/235-9292; www.americawestairlines.com), too, frequently posts last minute and weekend specials, so if you make the choice to spontaneously fly to Austin, America West is a good place to check. You can't easily search current fare sales at a glance -- that's the only glitch. Instead, you must select an airport first and go from there.
If you're looking for a car rental, Budget and Enterprise were tied, based on Austin as the pick up and drop off location. Budget (tel. 800/527-0700; www.budget.com) had by far the lowest rates for compact car rentals ($220.72) for a four-day rental in mid-March (Monday-Friday), but rentals from the San Antonio airport were sold out online for many dates that month. Enterprise Rent-a-Car (tel. 800/261-7331; www.enterprise.com) also boasted a price of $220.72 for compact car for a four-day rental. The Enterprise at San Antonio's airport is considerably cheaper: Just $162.48 for a compact car for the same mid-March, four-day rental.
Head to our Texas Message Boards to discuss the Lone-Star State with fellow Frommer's travelers.