Former president George W. Bush and his wife have returned to Texas and are living full-time in Dallas, site of Laura's alma mater, Southern Methodist University -- not coincidentally the big winner in the presidential library sweepstakes.
Exploring Dallas -- The Conspiracy Museum, which was a slightly off-kilter look at the JFK assassination and other possible conspiracies, lost its lease to a sandwich shop and, despite promises, hasn't regrouped. Dallas Aquarium at Fair Park is currently closed for renovations, slated to reopen in 2010.
Where to Stay -- The highly anticipated Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, 2121 McKinney Ave. (tel. 214/922-0200), opened in Uptown; its on-site restaurant, Fearing's, has nabbed even more attention than the hotel. Dallas's longtime standard-bearer for luxury, Mansion on Turtle Creek, 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd. (tel. 888-ROSEWOOD [767-3966]), has joined the Rosewood chain of hotels and resorts, though to Dallasites it's still just the Mansion. When the Mansion's celebrity chef, Dean Fearing, left , the hotel gave the well-regarded restaurant's decor and menu a thorough makeover. Stoneleigh Hotel & Spa, 2927 Maple Ave. (tel. 800/921-8498), underwent an even more thorough renovation, completely revamping the 1923 Art Deco hotel and converting it into one of Dallas's chicest properties. The popular and business traveler-friendly Bradford at Lincoln Park has become Hyatt Summerfield Suites, 8221 N. Central Expwy. (tel. 866/974-9288).
Where to Dine -- With his eponymous new restaurant in the new Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, Fearing's, 2121 McKinney Ave. (tel. 214/922-4848), has stolen some of the thunder from fellow Southwestern innovator Stephan Pyles, who opened his own downtown restaurant a couple of years ago. For now, Fearing's, named New Restaurant of the Year in 2008 by Esquire magazine, is the magnet for Dallas's movers, shakers, and impossibly beautiful people. Meanwhile, the restaurant Dean Fearing helmed for 2 decades underwent a massive makeover, name change, and reorientation of the menu; it's now called, somewhat awkwardly, Mansion Restaurant at Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek, 2821 Turtle Creek Blvd. (tel. 214/443-4747). The dress code is relaxed, a New Yorker runs the kitchen, and the food is as stellar as ever, if not better. Il Solé, long an Italian mainstay of the Dallas dining scene, went under, as did Rouge, a cool and theatrical Spanish place.
After Dark -- The city's incredible $340-million Dallas Center for the Performing Arts, which will include Sir Norman Foster's Winspear Opera House and Rem Koolhaas's Wyly Theater, is scheduled to open in 2009. The new Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak (tel. 214/670-3320), hosts a wide variety of Latin-oriented dance, music, theater, and art. Among the bemoaned live music and nightclub deaths: Trees, Club Clearview, Gypsy Tea Room, and Deep Ellum Blues. Seeking to take their places in almost one fell swoop are the Palladium, 1135 S. Lamar St. (tel. 972/854-5050), and House of Blues Dallas, 2200 N. Lamar St. (tel. 214/978-2583), a 60,000-square-foot complex.
Where to Stay -- The Omni Fort Worth (tel. 800/THE-OMNI [843-6664]), a massive luxury hotel (614 rooms) was slightly delayed and will now open in early 2009.
Where to Dine -- Tim Love, of Lonesome Dove Western Bistro fame, sold his restaurant Duce, lost his New York City restaurant, and rebounded by opening the wildly popular Love Shack, 110 E. Exchange Ave. (tel. 817/740-8812), a funky, informal place with sloppy but haute cuisine burgers in the heart of the Stockyards. The excellent restaurant in the boutique Ashton Hotel, 610 Main St. (tel. 817/332-0100), changed its name to 610 Grille (from Café Ashton). The owner of Dallas's Daniele Osteria opened the excellent, relaxed Brix Pizza & Wine Bar, 2747 S. Hulen St. (tel. 817/924-2749), serving authentic New York and Italian pies.
Exploring Fort Worth -- The Cattle Raisers Museum closed its independent location in 2007 and will reopen as part of the Museum of Science and History in late 2009.
After Dark -- Club closings include Ridglea and Vine Wineroom, the Black Dog Tavern, and the Wreck Room. Try as it might, Pete's Dueling Piano Bar, 621 Houston St. (tel. 817/335-PETE [335-7383]), a sister piano-cum-karaoke bar of establishments in Dallas and Austin, will have a hard time filling the void.
The city is only now beginning to feel the effects of the national economic slowdown. As long as the price of oil was in the stratosphere, the local economy, still anchored by oil production and refining, kept churning along. But alas, no longer. Yet the city has a lot going for it that will cushion the blow. Local businesses are still sufficiently dynamic to support moderate housing construction, and recovery from the damage caused by Hurricane Ike has meant keeping contractors busy and insurance money flowing in. Signs of the damage wrought by the hurricane are vanishing in the central city and will hardly be noticeable by the spring of 2009. On the coast, it's a different story.
Where to Stay -- There's a large surplus of hotel rooms in the downtown area, and as a consequence, normal prices for downtown hotel rooms have fallen considerably and promotional rates, even for some luxury hotels, are everywhere. Visitors are well advised to shop around.
The most recent addition to the hotel scene is Hotel ZaZa, 5701 Main St. (tel. 888/880-3244), opened much later than anticipated but worth the wait. It weds the ideal location of the old Warwick Hotel, at the center of the Museum District in the most verdant part of the city, with the flair and enthusiasm of a boutique hotel.
Where to Dine -- The small restaurant 17, 1117 Prairie St. (tel. 832/200-8888), in the Alden-Houston Hotel, has changed chefs again. And with each change of chef, this restaurant actually seems to be improving. The new chef, Wes Morton, hails from Louisiana and has been cooking at well-known restaurants on both coasts. His work is impeccable. Indika, 516 Westheimer Rd. (tel. 713/524-2170), has moved into the Montrose area from its original location in the far west suburbs. This move is good for visitors, who can now explore a bit more of Houston's dynamic restaurant scene without leaving the city's core.
Galveston -- It's hard to tell what the ultimate effects of Hurricane Ike will be on Galveston and the coastal communities along Galveston Bay. The storm came ashore in September 2008 and all but destroyed the beach towns of Bolivar Peninsula, on the eastern side of the mouth of the bay. It will take years for these communities to come back, if at all. The damage to Galveston, protected as it was by a seawall, was extensive, but was mainly flooding. Ike's impact in this case might be mainly economic in that it will encourage many local businesses to relocate, ultimately shrinking the local economy. The extensive renovation of the historic East End district, a product of years of work, is now at risk. In worse condition are the tracts of beach houses on the island's western side. These, which lie beyond the seawall, were exposed to wind and water. Many are of light frame construction and have lost roofs, walls, and porches. The beaches on this side were severely eroded.
South Padre Island -- This resort city was hit by Hurricane Dolly in July 2008. Dolly was considerably milder than Ike, causing less than a tenth of the damage. The city is fully up and running and ready for the annual onslaught of college kids for spring break.
Renovation to the city's Main Plaza, also called Plaza de las Islas, has been completed. It has made the area fronting San Fernando Cathedral and the Bexar County Courthouse both an urban green space and a social space for the city's denizens. Meanwhile, the extension of the River Walk in both directions from downtown continues at a measured pace.
Where to Stay -- The Columns on Alamo has changed hands and names. The new owners are making extensive changes to the King William Manor, 1037 S. Alamo (tel. 800/405-0367), including an outdoor pool and newly landscaped grounds.
Where to Dine -- The well-known chef Andrew Weissman, owner of Le Rêve, opened a small restaurant around the corner from his first restaurant. Sandbar, 152 E. Pecan St. (tel. 210/222-2426), serves the freshest seafood you're going to get anywhere. Open for dinner only.
Exploring San Antonio -- The Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave. (tel. 210/824-5368), has completed an ambitious expansion that nearly doubles its gallery space. The new addition is modern and airy, yet somehow doesn't detract from this museum's intimate feel. The design makes use of natural light, filtered and adjusted to match the needs of any particular exhibition.
Where to Stay -- A remarkable new property, opened in December 2008, is Hotel Saint Cecilia, 112 Academy Dr. (tel. 512/852-2400), with 14 large, ultraplush rooms, featuring stereos with turntables (and a large vinyl collection in reception) and handmade Swedish mattresses. It's located near Austin's hip South Congress Avenue.
Lake Austin Spa Resort, 1705 S. Quinlan Park Rd. (tel. 800/847-5637), won top honors on Condé Nast's list of favorite spa resorts for 2008. It is indeed a beautiful property and is a favorite with both visitors and locals.
Where to Dine -- Las Manitas, a famous restaurant in downtown Austin, closed its doors for good, a victim of development. Another well-known restaurant, Mother's Café & Garden (tel. 512/451-3994), a vegetarian restaurant in Hyde Park, has reopened. It suffered heavy fire damage in 2007, and has come back strong, with a more attractive dining area. Cipollina, 1213 W. Lynn (tel. 512/477-5211), reinvented itself as a small neighborhood Italian bistro with reasonable prices and fine dining based on local ingredients.
Exploring Austin -- In the summer of 2008, a fire, deliberately set by unknown delinquents, seriously damaged the Governor's Mansion. The mansion was closed for remodeling at the time of the fire, and the governor and his wife were living elsewhere. The fire caused extensive damage to the structure of the mansion, but the furnishings were largely spared because they had been moved off-site for the renovation. So far, there is no target date for reopening.
Shopping -- Tesoros Trading Co. (tel. 512/447-7500), the large and entertaining import store, has relocated to South Austin, at 1500 S. Congress Ave., where it's part of the engaging restaurant and shopping area that has grown up on this stretch of the avenue.
El Paso -- A slick new El Paso Museum of History, 510 N. Santa Fe St. (tel. 915/351-3588), opened downtown in 2007, and is a great improvement over its predecessor on the city's east side.
Across the Rio Grande in Juárez, 2008 was one of the worst years for drug violence in history. While tourists have not been a target, it is especially important to remain vigilant and to travel in a group if you do cross. Also, passports are now required for reentry into the United States from Mexico.
Del Rio -- La Hacienda, 330 Pecan St. in Pecan Street Station (tel. 830/774-7094), and The Herald, 321 S. Main St. (tel. 830/774-2845), are relatively new restaurants that have emerged as local standouts.
Big Bend & Guadalupe Mountains National Parks
Big Bend National Park -- Homeland Security policy continues to ban the tradition of park visitors crossing the Rio Grande into adjacent Mexican villages.
New lodging options abound in Terlingua Ghost Town, including the ruin-turned-romantic getaway La Posada Milagro, 100 Milagro Rd. (tel. 432/371-3044), and the newly restored Holiday Hotel, behind the Terlingua Trading Company (tel. 432/371-2234). The proprietors of the Holiday have also been restoring numerous houses in the area for overnight guests.
Carlsbad Caverns National Park -- Southern New Mexico has a new area code: 575.
The Panhandle Plains
Amarillo -- Opening in late 2008, a solid new hotel is the Hilton Garden Inn, 900 I-40 W. (tel. 800/321-3232).
After a complete renovation, the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame & Museum, 2601 I-40 E. (tel. 806/376-5181), reopened in 2007 -- the project was more than worth the wait.
In Vega, 35 miles west of Amarillo, a fun new restaurant opened in 2007: the Boot Hill Saloon & Grill, 909 Vega Blvd. (tel. 806/267-2904).
Lubbock -- A new winery started up in 2008, McPherson Cellars Winery, 1615 Texas Ave. (tel. 806/687-9463). There is a major new hotel in the works, the Overton Hotel & Conference Center, on 4th Street just east of University Avenue (tel. 806/776-7000), slated to open in fall 2009.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.