Texas Hill Country: The next Napa?
There's more to do in Hill Country than chase wildflowers
By Cassandra M. Vanhooser
The first bluebonnet blooms usually appear in March and reach their peak in mid-April.
Don't forget your manners when traveling the bluebonnet trails this year. A glorious patch of wildflowers can certainly be intoxicating, but it's possible to enjoy the blooms and be respectful of others at the same time.
No trespassing. The state's prettiest country roads often meander through open ranch land. Keep in mind that it's illegal to trespass on private property, even when there are no fences blocking your path.
Be prepared to stop. Roads will be jammed during peak blooming season. Watch out for the other guy, and you'll avoid costly accidents or injuries.
Don't pick the bluebonnets. Feel welcome to admire the scenic vistas from your car or bike, but don't walk in, sit in, or drive in the flowers.
Visit a few Web sites for help pinpointing the best blooms -- before you hop in the car.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, http://www.wildflower.org
Texas Department of Transportation, http://www.dot.state.tx.us
August E's: 6258 U.S. 290 East, Fredericksburg; (830) 997-1585 or http://www.august-es.com
Cafe 909: 909 Second Street, Marble Falls; (830) 693-2126 or http://www.cafe909.com
Cuvee Wine Market and Bistro: 342 West Main Street, Fredericksburg; (830) 990-1600 or http://www.cuveewine.net
Hill Top Cafe: 10661 North U.S. 87, Doss; (830) 997-8922 or http://www.hilltopcafe.com
Mac and Ernie's Roadside Eatery: Williams' Creek Depot, Farm Road 470, Tarpley; (830) 562-3250 or http://www.macandernies.com
Navajo Grill: 803 East Main Street, Fredericksburg; (830) 990-8289 or http://www.navajogrill.com
Benini Foundation Galleries and Sculpture Ranch: 377 Shiloh Road, Johnson City; (830) 868-5244 or http://www.benini.com. Open by appointment.
Eyfells and Eyfells Foundation: 9068 U.S. 290 East, Fredericksburg; (830) 990-9309 or http://www.eyfellsandeyfells.com.
Debra Goldstein Fine Art: 111 North Nugent Street, Johnson City; (830) 868-0221 or http://www.goldsteinfineart.com.
Photography Is Art Gallery: 414 East Main Street, Fredericksburg; (830) 990-1330 or http://www.photographyisart.net.
Gridiron Gallery: 112 East Main Street, Llano; (325) 247-3013 or http://www.galleriesofllano.com.
YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
(Southern Living) -- Texans consider seeing the bluebonnets abloom in the Hill Country a true rite of passage. For those of us merely passing through this time of year, the experience borders on pure joy.
Named for their tender bonnet-shaped petals, the flowers grow wild in the Lone Star State. Try as they might, experts can't always predict their exact arrival. Most years, the first blooms begin to freckle the roadsides and meadows in March and reach their peak in mid-April, though it's not uncommon for the blooms to last into May.
Finding the best blooms is akin to sport in Texas. Most locals will direct you to their favorite spots if you ask politely. The tourism folks will sell you maps that illustrate loops and trails that have been fruitful in the past. Or you can do what we did -- just get in the car, and explore at will.
In addition to bluebonnets, you'll also find those things that are quintessentially Texas -- barbecue joints, dance halls, and small towns filled with quirky characters. But we found some surprises. All across the region, sophisticated restaurants take Texas cuisine to new heights. Vintners plant new wineries every year. Well-established artists are generating a groundswell of interest in cutting-edge art.
So gas up your car, and head to the Hill Country. While you're following the trails where the bluebonnets grow, take some time to explore these unexpected pleasures.
Land of wine and wildflowers
"The Hill Country really sparkles this time of year," Richard Becker muses as he surveys the fields at Becker Vineyards near Stonewall. Even on this sleepy Monday, a steady stream of visitors drops by the tasting room to sample the dozen wines made here. It's a testament to the popularity of the Hill Country Wine Trail that features area wineries.
Visitors can pick up a brochure or visit http://www.texaswinetrail.com/ for a map and directions to the wineries. On April 21-23 and 28-30, the wineries will host a special Wine & Wildflower Trail celebration.
Because the Hill Country is one of the fastest growing wine-producing regions in the country, some believe the area is on track to become the next Napa Valley.
"That remains to be seen," cautions Richard. "It all depends on the quality of the wines we're able to produce. Right now, our wines taste really good, but only time will tell if we can consistently produce excellent wines."
A new taste of Texas
The Lone Star State has long been synonymous with barbecue, burgers and beer halls. But fresh produce and regional ingredients are now finding their way onto menus.
Locals and visitors alike embrace Cuvée, a wine bar, market and bistro that opened in Fredericksburg three years ago. Although the menu features some 300 wines, with 50 served by the glass, owner and sommelier Len White makes affordability a priority. "Anyone can get you a great bottle of wine for $100," says Len. "I try to get people interested in different kinds of styles of wine in the $18 to $28 range."
The market is a find for travelers too. The ever-changing gourmet takeaway menu features delights such as chicken-and-truffle lasagna, smoked beef tenderloin salad and roasted tomato soup. Len's wife, Stephanie, makes fresh-baked bread and homemade pastries and offers an array of cheeses, meats, and patés.
August E's has the look and feel of a great old Texas establishment, but the menu is nouveau Texas. The chink-and-mortar train depot was transported from Greeley, Colorado, and reconstructed about 5 miles east of Fredericksburg. On the back, there's also a westward-facing terrace that features a bar and two outdoor fireplaces.
You can get the traditional inch-thick aged Prime rib eye, grilled to perfection over a mesquite fire. But the menu also boasts Asian-inspired dishes such as the restaurant's signature Saigon Spring Rolls and Vietnamese-style mixed grill with duck, short ribs and garlic shrimp stir-fried with jasmine rice.
Unique crop of galleries
The Hill Country's vast skies and wide-open spaces seem to inspire the creativity in all of us. Recently, there's been a rising interest in fine art. In 2005, Italian artist Benini and wife Lorraine launched a series of events called Arts Encounters at their 140-acre ranch east of Johnson City.
On the last weekend of each month, the couple hosts noted artists from around the world and invites the public to attend free of charge. If they call ahead, visitors are also welcome to visit Benini's 14,000-square-foot gallery or drive through his Sculpture Ranch.
Debra Goldstein opened her contemporary art gallery in a restored turn-of-the-century limestone building in Johnson City.
"It always surprises me when people come in and go, 'Wow! What's this doing here?' " she confesses. "It's like it doesn't belong here. I think fine art belongs everywhere."
Goldstein admits it took locals a while to warm up to her gallery, Debra Goldstein Fine Art, but now she feels very much a part of the community. "This is a church-going town," she says. "There are more churches here than there are restaurants. But on Sunday afternoon, if people have visitors in from out of town, they bring them here to show off the gallery."
The Hill Country is a haven for cycling enthusiasts. A vast network of paved farm roads links ranches and creates a perfect surface for road riders. The region's abundance of natural areas also offers many opportunities for mountain bikers.
You can bring your own bike or rent one from Hill Country Bicycle Works, with locations in both Fredericksburg and Kerrville. They'll even help you map out a route that matches your ability. A new Web site points road cyclists to six challenging routes. They also post notices for local group rides that welcome visitors.
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