There’s lots of good wine and rolling hills, but not so many cowboys in scenic Texas Hill Country.
By: Robin Soslow
FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS—Pedalling by pastures in the chilly crease of dawn, I’m spirited along by chirping birds and sun rays silhouetting trees and distant peaks. On this 44-kilometre journey north to a massive bald batholith dubbed Enchanted Rock, I’ve bypassed straight-shot Highway 965 in favour of loping eastward on my steel steed on Lower Crabapple Road. The reward: grazing cows, horses and deer leaping crossbeam fences.
Those Texas Hill Country inhabitants would appear again, in a completely different context.
The scenic detour was suggested by Lisa Nye-Salladin, a racer who runs Hill Country Bicycle Works. She’d invited me to join her training group’s “leisure” ride, but anyone who takes “easygoing” literally would be blinded by their dust. Much obliged, but I’m a lone rider who wants to sightsee, I explain. “Just remember,” she cautioned,” you’ll have LOTS of hills. BIG hills.”
Locals issue this “Really Big Hills!” alert because visitors to this rugged land between San Antonio and Austin often assume molehills, not mountains. Texas may lack cloud-piercing peaks, but its heart is crossed with steep climbs — climbs that reward cyclists with sights, sounds, smells and sensations unknown to cocooned motorists.
While my sister goes wine-spotting by car, I pedal the hills in search of intoxicating views.
The blissful solitude en route to Enchanted Rock is punctuated simply by birdsongs, frequent gear- clicks and occasional ker-thunks over metal guards embedded in the road to discourage straying cows.
￼￼￼Eventually, I encounter another cyclist pumping up the steep grade I’m descending. “Is this the way to Enchanted Rock?” I instantly regret interrupting his tough ascent.
This being Texas, the gentleman dismounts, smiles and unspools directions for navigating a tricky tangle of cowpaths. Name’s Bill Phillpotts. He warns of blindman’s curves on an unavoidable stretch of Highway 965.
The financial executive relocated here after biking cross-country seven times and deciding it had the perfect mix of scenic and challenging byways. The vineyards that began budding in the 1970s along Route 290 east of Fredericksburg inspired his second career: giving wine tours by limo-bus. “There are now 40 wineries within a one-hour drive,” he says. (The Texas Wine Trail will celebrate the harvest all October with Texas Wine month.) “Texas wine is getting better all the time, much of it comparable to the wines of California.”
No wonder my sister moved here.
While motorists travel faster, bicyclists enjoy close-ups of limestone cliffs, trickling creeks and fields of wildflowers and stallions. Upon reaching Enchanted Rock, I scrabble up the 130-metre-high granite dome past hardy flora and descend through boulder passages. The view’s sensational in every direction.
My westerly return alternates thigh-burning ascents with rush-inducing descents past dusty mined landscapes, pastures and scrub. Entering Fredericksburg, I saunter into a hole-in-the-wall called Becky’s for a tall glass of fresh-squeezed beet juice. “Do cowboys come here?” I ask. Not many, Becky smiles. “They usually go for the wine. We’re seeing more motorcyclists, though.” There are many breeds of roughriders.
Settled by German immigrants in 1846, Fredericksburg now serves up fine wines and cuisine flavoured by peaches, pecans and peppers. The octagonal Vereins Kirche town hall turned heritage museum anchors Marktplatz, the central square.
City slickering’s easy since I can hitch my bike to any pole. Original stone and timber-framed fachwerk structures now house wine-tasting rooms, a bed ’n brew (beers instead of breakfast), farm-to-table restaurants, and a World War II museum recently renovated with remarkable sense-surround exhibits.
The most unexpected pleasure is the Hill Country-inspired art. At RS Hanna Gallery, landscapes depicting rugged terrain and serene cow pastures feel familiar from my bike routes. Owner Thad Hanna confirms I did indeed pass some of them. He loves cycling here: “Gillespie is the only county where so many roads winding through beautiful areas are so well-paved and well-maintained.
At nearby Artisans’ Attic, C.J. Latta is painting a stunning acrylic of horses. The equine models reside at her fifth-generation family ranch — which I’d passed on the way to Enchanted Rock.
To find wild animals, I take a zigzagging roller-coaster route past grazing cows, costumed bull sculptures and craggy rockfaces to Old Tunnel Wildlife Management Area. April through October, thousands of Mexican freetail bats fly at dusk from an abandoned railroad tunnel, blanketing the skies for several amazing minutes.
One attraction appeals to both my wine-slinging sister and me: a Fredericksburg festival featuring local award-winning wines and produce from homegrown herbs to roasted-raspberry chipotle sauce.
“Have you been here for Hell Week?” asks a woman who notices my bike helmet. She’s referring to the annual Hill Country bicycling event.
“No, I just ride for fun.”
“You ride those big hills for ‘fun’?”
“Well, here’s my shortcut.” She holds up several bottles of wine.
Tenderfoot. Just like my sister.
Robin Soslow is a freelance writer based in Daytona Beach, Florida.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING Texas Hill Country is in central Texas. Fredericksburg is 92 kilometres north of San Antonio International Airport and 112 kms west of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
DINING Cabernet Grill: Chef Ross Burtwell prepares tantalizing seasonal dishes from market-fresh local ingredients and Texas heritage foods. The dizzying array of entrees ($18-$30) is matched by the all-Texas wine list. Located in Fredericksburg’s fanciful Cotton Gin Village, where you can lodge in rescued and restored 19th century log cabins. cottonginlodging.com. Hondo’s: About as local as you can get, this Fredericksburg joint serves up big, spicy “doughnut” burgers ($7.25-8.95), red and green chili enchiladas ($7.50) and supersized portobello mushroom sandwiches ($8.95). Hot local music for dancing off the calories. hondosonmain.com. Mamacita’s: This Kerrville stop serves tasty under-$10 Mexican lunch specials perfect for carb-craving cyclists. mamacitas.com
DRINKING Pedernales Cellars: Sip varietals enriched by local soil after touring the geothermal- cooled cellar in Stonewall. Local bands play there. pedernalescellars.com. Grape Creek Vineyards: A roadside bell-tower marks this Fredericksburg-area Texan-meets-Tuscan villa. Try the Bellissimo, Mosaic and other award-winners. grapecreek.com
SLEEPING Fredericksburg Herb Farm’s Sunday Haus Cottages: 14 cottages ($179-$239 per night) patterned after “Sunday homes” built by the area’s German settlers when coming to town for church and supplies. Pets welcome. Bistro, gardens, spa and garden shop on site. fredericksburgherbfarm.com Gastehaus Schmidt: Central site for Hill Country lodging in town and in the country from B&Bs to novel accommodations from an original school house to a jailhouse (still with bars). $95-$225 per night, double occupancy. fbglodging.com
TOURING Texas Wine Trail: 2012 Texas Wine Month Trail Celebration all October. $20 ticket includes one to three complimentary tastes at 32 wineries and bottle discounts. texaswinetrail.com. Texas Wine Tours: Daylong tour in luxury limo-coach including guide, tastings and tours at five wineries, and lunch ($149 per person). texas-wine-tours.com. Fredericksburg Food and Wine Fest, Oct. 27: Cooking and wine pairing demos, specialty food booths, music and 100 regional wines for tasting and purchase. $20 ticket includes six wine tasting tickets and souvenir glass. fbgfoodandwinefest.com
BIKE RENTING Hill Country BicycleWorks: Road, town and hybrid rentals $28 per day, $145 per week; great source for routes and group rides. Locations in Kerrville and Fredericksburg. hillcountrybicycle.com
WEB SURFING visitfredericksburgtx.com
USA Travel: Cycling Through the Hills of Texas Wine Country – The Star; Robin Soslow, 10/4/12