There are two ways to think about the Texas Hill Country. Physically, it spreads across the undulating Edwards Plateau, with Austin to the east and San Antonio to the south. Near the center is Fredericksburg, which was once the main show in these parts, but no longer. To get a feeling for the Hill Country in the second sense — the state of mind where cool mingles with tradition, and industriousness and idleness are equally esteemed values (depending on the time of day) — head out among the limestone knolls full of live oak groves and cypress-lined creeks, and to the gritty pin-dot towns built largely of native stone. Here you’ll find a delicious tension between rural and refined. Inns and restaurants are bringing a clever touch to Lone Star hospitality and mythology, and with the vineyards and boutique farms (lavender, olives), some people make comparisons to Napa Valley or even Provence. But those assessments ignore something fundamental: the Hill Country — being Texas at its finest — is like nowhere else in the world.
1. Water Music
For a dramatic Hill Country landscape, many visitors go to Enchanted Rock, an enormous meatloaf-shaped piece of granite outside of Fredericksburg. Pedernales Falls State Park (2585 Park Road 6026, Johnson City), just east of Johnson City, is less well-known but equally spectacular. Cutting through a shallow canyon, the Pedernales River tumbles down a series of limestone shelves, with the water collecting in turquoise pools among giant boulders. The soundtrack — the rumble of cascading water — is just as exhilarating as the view. Entry: $6 a person.
2. The Meat Master
At Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que (604 West Young Street, Llano; coopersbbqllano.com), one of the premier barbecue joints in Texas, let your fingers do the ordering. Stop at one of the pickup-bed-size grills on the front patio and point at your meat of choice. Mesquite-smoked brisket, cabrito, prime rib, pork ribs, sausage. Or all of the above. Inside, dig in at picnic tables surrounded by mounted deer heads — another reminder you’re in serious carnivore country. Dinner for two, $60.
3. Raise a Glass
The best night life is in Fredericksburg, and the choicest spot there is Lincoln Street Wine Market (111 South Lincoln Street, Fredericksburg; lincolnst.com), which maintains a Texas-big selection of 300-plus types of wine. The atmosphere is pleasantly unpretentious (especially for a wine bar); you may even find the owner, Sean Smajstrla, wearing a rancher’s Carhartt jacket. Every wine here is available by the glass, even those that go for $600 or more a bottle. On weekends, listen to live music on the patio. Wines by the glass start at $5; by the bottle, $20 and up.
4. Guten Morgen
On top of the strong Mexican influence throughout Texas, the Hill Country has an overlay of German thanks to the Old World immigrants who settled here starting in the 1830s. Get a taste of this heritage at the Old German Bakery and Restaurant (225 West Main Street, Fredericksburg; oldgermanbakeryandrestaurant.com). For breakfast, try crepelike German pancakes, potato pancakes or pastries like apple strudel; $20 for two.
5. Presidential Treatment
History buffs will love the expanded, superbly packaged National Museum of the Pacific War in downtown Fredericksburg, but to immerse yourself in the specific history and beauty of this part of Texas, head to the LBJ Ranch at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park (199 State Park Road 52, Stonewall; nps.gov/lyjo), off Highway 290 in Stonewall. The 36th president spent about 25 percent of his term at what was called the Texas White House, and it’s easy to see why. Your driving permit comes with a CD for your car that describes what you’re seeing as you meander around the 674 acres: Johnson’s reconstructed birthplace, the one-room school where he learned to read and his grave in the family cemetery. Following Lady Bird’s death in 2007, the park service has opened up part of the family home, where you’ll still find trappings of power among the late-’60s furnishings, like the presidential seal on the big man’s chair. A driving permit is free (pick it up at the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site, which confusingly enough is adjacent to the national park). A house tour is $3 a person.
6. Blanco Boffo
The geographic hub of Blanco — a town still geared more to working ranchers than tourists — is the imposing 127-year-old stone courthouse, recently featured in the Coen Brothers’ remake of “True Grit.” But the social hub is the Redbud Cafe (410 Fourth Street, Blanco; redbud- cafe.com), on the main square, where you can order everything from fat burgers to portobello sandwiches to Middle Eastern salads. Try one of the eight beers on tap from the Blanco-based Real Ale Brewing Company. On the wall is a chart left over from the building’s many years as a hardware store that recorded monthly rainfall levels from 1900 to 1999. Adjoining the restaurant is Brieger Pottery, which sells hefty but graceful stoneware made by Redbud’s owners, Jan and Jon Brieger (vases from $48), and products from the family lavender farm.
7. Strike Nine
The Blanco Bowling Club Cafe (310 Fourth Street; blancobowlingclub.com) is one of the few places in the Hill Country where German nine pin bowling is still played. By advance appointment with the bartender, you can try your skill on lanes that are throwbacks to pre- automated times. For $5.25 a person and a flat fee of $21 to cover the wages of a pinsetter (usually a local teenager), up to 12 people can bowl on two lanes for three hours. Follow your game with another treat: the cafe’s pies with meringue piled high like cream volcanoes. Choose from lemon, chocolate and coconut ($2.95 a slice).
8. Wine Time
These days wineries are almost as ubiquitous in the Hill Country as those ranch windmills that look like tall tin daisies. You can’t go to them all — and still expect to operate a car — so head to the two best. The wood-and-stone tasting room at Becker Vineyards (464 Becker Farms Road, Stonewall; beckervineyards.com) is surrounded by 46 acres of grapes and lavender; $10 for six samples. Grape Creek Vineyards (10587 East U.S. Highway 290, Fredericksburg; grapecreek.com) recreates Tuscany with beautiful stucco and stone buildings capped by red- tile roofs; the list of awards for its wines isn’t too shabby either; $12 for six samples.
9. Top of the Hill
Rose Hill Manor — a Georgian-style mansion that is more Deep South than Deep in the Heart of Texas — sits on a rise with expansive views over hayfields in the Pedernales River Valley.
When it comes to dining, Rose Hill Manor (2614 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; rose-hill.com) occupies another lofty position: the top spot around for an extravagant meal. The four-course menu ($45 a person) changes weekly, but always features stand-out dishes like an arugula, oyster mushroom and candied pecan salad; a creamy potato soup with braised pork bellies; pan-roasted sea bass with soba noodles; and low-country mud pie.
10. Willie Sang Here
Luckenbach, Texas (412 Luckenbach Town Loop, Fredericksburg; luckenbachtexas.com), isn’t just the title of the Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson anti-stress, anti-materialism anthem. It’s a real place off Farm to Market Road 1376 — a few old buildings including a general store and a dance hall in a clearing among the trees. If you stay a while — which you should since you’ll hear a lot of good Texas music every weekend — you’ll be glad that the only glitz comes from the party lights strung around the dance hall. After a night here two-stepping across the worn wood floor, you’ll feel you’ve hit on something genuine that can only be found in Texas, and you will be right. Dance hall admission prices vary by event.
11. No Postman Here
Along Hill Country lanes, you’ll see a few forgotten roadside buildings, and you might mistake the Welfare Cafe (223 Waring Welfare Road, Welfare) for one of these. But inside the 97-year- old clapboard structure is the best-all-around restaurant in the region (food, setting, service). Housed in the former post office and general store for the hamlet of Welfare, the cafe still has the mail counter in one corner of the dining room. For brunch, try the Welfare Benedict (paired with gulf shrimp and spicy hollandaise) or the crab, artichoke and goat cheese omelet. Sit on the wisteria-covered patio and take in the scene beyond the fence, where goats, donkeys, chickens and a white potbelly pig named Pee Wee roam. Brunch for two, $60.
12. Elephants and Antiques
In nearby Comfort — another spot with a reassuring abstract noun for a name — you’ll find a historic district packed with architectural wonders from the 1800s, many of them designed by the architect Alfred Giles. The crown jewel is the Hotel Faust, a magnificent two-story building made of stone block. Some structures have been converted into vibrant shops and restaurants. Visit High’s Cafe and Store (726 High Street; highscafeandstore.com) for goats’ milk soap ($5.95) or soy-based candles (starting at $9.95). Or step into the Elephant Story (723 High Street; the-elephant-story.com), which sells goods in the form of elephants (pewter pen holders, $180) and crafts from Asian elephant countries, like striped yam bags from Thailand ($25). Profits go to an elephant conservation fund. Finish off with a prickly pear cactus drink (nonalcoholic) and a game of washers on the patio set with red umbrellas at Comfort Pizza (802 High Street; 830-995-5959), a renovated stone filling station that bears a word across its awning that should sum up how you’ll feel at this point: “Comfortable.”
IF YOU GO
Hotel Faust (717 High Street, Comfort; hotelfaust.com), in a magnificent 130-year-old stone building, has eight suites — $120 and up — that have been smartly updated and include full breakfast.
For a more rural experience, rent one of the seven restored historic houses on 35 acres at Settlers Crossing Bed and Breakfast (104 Settlers Crossing Road, Fredericksburg; settlerscrossing.com). Cottages start at $195.
The New York Times – 36 Hours in Texas Hill Country; Jeannie Ralston, 5/16/13