Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Twelve Seasons of Austin


As we rapidly approach vacation season, I would like to offer a little tourist information about my hometown of Austin and the nearby Texas Hill Country. This candid insider’s viewpoint includes a few places and activities of interest, including a few details traditional sources may accidentally on purpose neglect to mention. You can find the latest commercial hotspots in several print and online publications, most notably The Austin Chronicle. All of these things have been part of the landscape for years, some for decades. The Highland Lakes are emphasized because it’s that time of year, but as the title implies, Austin and The Hill Country offer many fine year-round getaways. All choices and descriptions are solely the opinion of the author. Your mileage may vary, and I mean that literally.

The best thing about Austin is the weather and the worst is the traffic. This was true the first night I drove into Austin in 1977 and it is still true today. Some people, particularly those who do not enjoy 100-degree days and occasional floods and hailstorms, may disagree with my opinion of the best of Austin, but I seriously doubt that anyone who has visited or lived here will question the source of the area’s Achilles heel. The reason for the weather is that I-35 seems to be a dividing line between the East and the West, not only of Austin or of Texas, but of the whole country. East of I-35, all the way to Beaumont, is little different geographically from Alabama or Mississippi. Bastrop, the town you might consider to be the easternmost exurb of Austin, experienced one of the worst wildfires in U.S. history during the Draught of 2011. What was burning was the tall pine forest that begins on the northeast side of Bastrop, similar to the pines that populate the Southeastern U.S. West of I-35 begins to look more and more like West Texas with every mile you travel westward. The Texas Hill Country includes most of the terrain west of Austin and north of San Antonio. The Highland Lakes chain is composed of a series of dams on the Colorado River, from the huge Lake Buchanan located in the sparsely populated area far northwest of the city to the tiny Lady Bird Lake that lazily cuts the city in half. South Austin is generally the diverse section that brought the city its nickname of The Live Music Capitol of the World, while North Austin has boomed toward Dallas with the relatively conservative corporatism of Round Rock and Cedar Park. Technically most of the live music has always been played on Sixth Street, a few blocks north of the river, but who cares? The image of each part of town has stuck tightly over the decades. The temperature ranges between 60 and 90 more often than not throughout most of the year. Twenty-degree changes throughout the day are very common; 50-70 in winter and 80-100 in the summer. Yes, Maybelle, that’s an overnight low of 80, but remember the humidity is relatively low, too. It may not be at Phoenix levels, but it is much drier than Houston only 150 miles eastward. Although ice storms occasionally freeze the city like a Popsicle covered in fender-bent cars, this occurs only about once every third or fourth winter. The possible months for continuous 100-degree days are June, July, August, and September. Believe it or not, this is more likely to occur in September than in June. Cloudy or rainy days are few and far between year round. Snow? Whazzat?

Austin is a town of the car culture. There is a commuter train line that runs north-south, and there are various buses and cabs available, but overall, this is very much a town in which most everyone does his or her own driving. If you are flying into town and renting a car, consider a convertible. Unless you happen to hit one of our rare periods of inclement weather, you will probably have plenty of opportunity to enjoy topless motoring. If you are driving your own wheels you will be cursing the traffic before you even hit your first destination. The problem is that the metro area is humongous and it continually outgrows its road system. More specifically, my opinion has always been that the city fathers continually sell out to the developers. In other words, they allow the corporatism to go hog wild, and then they decide more or wider roads are needed! By the time they get around to doing something about the problem, the traffic in the afflicted area invariably is already clogged up like an old drain. Then the flow of traffic becomes obstructed even further while seemingly endless road development projects are underway. Lanes are added and toll roads are constructed, but new freeways are never built. Austin is probably the largest single-interstate metro area in the USA! Here is the sum total of Austin’s major highways. I-35 is the busiest freeway 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week that I have ever seen. Loop 1/Mopac, which is not a loop but a straight north-south strip with three lanes in each direction, runs from far South Austin to far North Austin. U.S. 183 curves through the city from Cedar Park in the northwest down to Bergstrom International Airport in the southeast portion of the city, and finally, the new Toll Road 130/45 follows a similar path as 183 and features toll prices some would call high. The distance totally across the metro area approaches one hundred miles without an inch of east-west freeway! You can go across the center portion of town on 183 or Highway 71 in the southern part of the city, but these are your only choices. The key phrase here is center portion. Highway 71 connects at Mopac with U.S. 290 West a few miles out to Dripping Springs, but the freeway portion of 71 East turns into an endless parade of traffic lights east of I-35. With only a handful of flyovers connecting the few freeway interchanges, massively backed-up left turns to enter the major roads at many points are very common. Do you see why the worst thing about Austin is its traffic congestion? Now let’s move on to the fun stuff, the reasons people have been coming to Austin for decades.

January is a relatively quiet month for boating, golf, or sightseeing without the crowds. The annual Boat Show in the Austin Convention Center is usually held in January. One of the issues that makes the boat show useful if you are even considering a boat purchase is that most of the boat dealers are scattered far and wide throughout the lakeside areas. You can put a lot of miles through the nauseating traffic just going from one dealer to another, many of which are located along Ranch Road 620 on the northern edge of the city proper. Even with its congestion and seemingly endless traffic lights, you will want to cruise this road at least once for its scenic views of Lake Travis and pathway over Mansfield Dam.

February is about as quiet as January, but possibly with a little warmer weather, combined with a lesser likelihood of sporadic inclement weather. This would be a good month for a cruise out to the Horseshoe Bay Resort on Lake LBJ for a few rounds of golf. There are several courses in the area and some are particularly elegant and scenic. Golf packages are offered with weekend stays at the resort, however the prices are not cheap.

March is when the Mexican Freetail Bats begin to arrive from Mexico, usually in the latter part of the month. Since global warming kicked in, it has become difficult to predict the exact dates the bats, the floods, or the draughts might arrive. The South by Southwest festival has taken over the month of March in recent years. This monster just gets bigger and bigger every year. Unlike the bats or the weather events, SXSW explodes all over town every March. The most important advice I can offer if you want to attend next year’s SXSW is to lock down your lodging and transportation (particularly lodging) as soon as possible. Everything books solid way in advance for all the days of SXSW. That means not only downtown hotels, but suburban motels, local apartments, and even rental houses.

April is the most reliable month to take a Bluebonnet Tour in The Hill Country or visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin. Marble Falls and the surrounding areas show an increase in motorcycle traffic every year about this time. The weather is nearly perfect in the early spring for motorcycle touring. The top eatery in Marble Falls is the Blue Bonnet Cafe, established in 1929, where breakfast is served all day. Stop there anytime, but the Southern Pigout Breakfast is the specialty. (I just made up that name. It’s all good at the Blue Bonnet Cafe.)

May is a time when you can still visit the Wildflower Center in Austin or possibly still see wildflowers in The Hill Country, depending on the year, but mainly it’s a time to hit the lakes before the boom begins Memorial Day Weekend. With any luck, the rains have already arrived and Lake Travis has enough water to launch a boat from its many ramps. In draught years, the only ramps open may be the multiple lanes at Mansfield Dam. If that is the case, I would prefer to just stare at the wildflowers, but if you don’t mind crowds, let ‘er rip! You can follow the lake levels at the LCRA website. Anything less than 660 feet in elevation for Lake Travis and you may as well go watch the wildflowers or got to Schlitterbahn. Most boats can barely be launched at that level on the upper areas of Lake Travis. Even when you get in the water, you have to watch out for a submerged rock taking out your propeller. (I knew jet boats were good for something!) If you like cold water, you can launch onto Lake Austin, but you are likely to find a crowd there, too. Lake Marble Falls is a small, rather quiet lake, but watch out for low levels there, too. The only boating done on Lady Bird Lake in the middle of the city is kayaking and an occasional nighttime boat parade for spectators. Lake LBJ an hour northwest of the city offers no-hassle constant levels year round, although there are few public ramps and only one major one on the Austin side. Granite Beach at the edge of Cottonwood Shores, just east of Horseshoe Bay, offers a public ramp, boat and personal watercraft rentals, dry-dock boat storage, a full-service marina, a boat dealership, and a waterpark in a quiet cove of the lake. The only negative I can say about Lake LBJ is that you can ski on very little of it only some of the time. There is not a tall bluff on the south side, as there is along most of Lake Travis, and the southern breeze keeps the lake somewhat choppy most of the time. Most of the boating activity on LBJ consists of towing tubes, cruising near the shoreline and drooling over the many vacation homes of millionaires, or just roaring up and down the lake on jet skis or in various types of boats. These include fishing boats in the lower LBJ area, but the more serious fishing is upstream a few miles near Kingsland. On most any weekday that is not a holiday, even in midsummer, you can just float with the current, which most of the time seems to be overcome by the stiff breeze that blows unanchored boats upstream, and just moo through the quiet like a contented cow.

June usually offers a good swimming and boating season before the water gets bathwater warm and the Fourth of July hordes swarm the lakes. June is often the best month for tubing in the area, since this is when the rivers might be flowing the fastest before the long summer dry months slow them down. Slow, gentle tubing is offered in San Marcos, but the hot action is in the New Braunfels area on the Guadalupe and Comal Rivers. If you visit San Marcos, be sure to allow a little time to tour the beautiful campus of Texas State University. If you are going for the serious tubing near New Braunfels, expect serious crowds, and possibly a bit of rowdiness. The ever larger crowds have made the local news in recent years, mostly over noise and alcohol issues. However, if you have never been tubing before, you owe it to yourself to try it at least once and New Braunfels is the place. Be sure you have sunscreen, water to drink, and appropriate shoes. I highly recommend slip-on deck shoes since you can easily take them off after the initial launching and they offer adequate protection from the rocks. This advice applies to all boating and water activities in the area. These clear waters come at a price: most of the bottoms are quite rocky.

July is the time for midsummer crowds and hot, hot suntan action, but multiple fireworks displays on Town Lake and Lake LBJ offer a once a year thrill. Austin has traditionally presented a big fireworks extravaganza over Town Lake, not far from the bat show emitting from beneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. The Austin Symphony generally adds the soundtrack. Far fewer people are aware of another display happening an hour west of the city in Horseshoe Bay. This one is actually at least two separate shows, sometimes on the same night, but on consecutive nights in other years, mostly depending on the day of the week the holiday falls. The more spectacular of the two is presented by the Blue Lake subdivision of Horseshoe Bay and the lesser one is done near the HSB Resort. The Blue Lake show is shot from the edge of the lake and can be seen from many different vantage points from the hilltops common to the area. Although the HSB show is not placed quite as perfectly for hilltop viewing, both or either can be viewed from the water, and this is one unique advantage if you have access to a boat. The second advantage is that there are so few crowds and so many viewing locations available. Sometimes even a third, smaller display is going on at the same time! For a quiet, uncrowded vacation spot, Horseshoe Bay is a fun place!

August is the peak season for seeing the most bats fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge. The little winged moms have their babies in June and July, so by August everybody is ready to fly out to catch his own bugs. You may not fully believe that this is the largest metropolitan colony of these bats on this continent until you watch them fly out from underneath the bridge at sunset. The event can continue for nearly an hour, and we’re not talking a few bats a minute, either! There can be up to 1.5 million of them during peak season! The Boat Drag Races on Lake Marble Falls are the second reason to thumb your nose at the heat and visit Austin in August. Book yourself a room way ahead of time in one of the hotels along the waterside or up on the bluff overlooking the lake. All the rooms of the LaQuinta on the hill, for instance, face the lake. Marble Falls is one of the central hubs for the many motorcycle tourists that flock to the area for its curvy roads and pleasant scenery.

September is a good time to visit Schlitterbahn with smaller swarms of kids than during the official summer months. We don’t have a Six Flags or a Disney park in Central Texas, but what we do have are thousands and thousands of large inner tubes. Schlitterbahn is a tubing-based water park in New Braunfels, 45 miles southwest of Austin, down I-35. Schlitterbahn is usually open from May through September, but only on weekends at the beginning and end of each annual schedule. As with Six Flags, unless you enjoy standing around a lot between rides, try to avoid the prime dates such as holiday and midsummer weekends. The most unusual ride at Schlitterbahn is the namesake, in which a person sits on a board suspended in midair until at the blast of a horn a mechanism suddenly drops it to the water and the rider rapidly slides across a pool like a skipped rock. Although there are numerous high-speed tube slides at the park, most adults will particularly enjoy the long, more leisurely inner tube floats.

October is usually the last month for swimming and boating on the lakes. Reliably one of the best adult Halloween celebrations in the country is held annually in the extensive bar scene on Sixth Street. It may not be San Francisco, New York or New Orleans, but neither is the weather! In some years The Texas Book Festival is presented on the last weekend in October. Laura Bush founded the annual event in 1995 and it seems to get bigger every year. The festival in tents set up on streets near the state capitol draws 40,000 visitors annually, according to the TBF website. Senator Obama spoke to a standing room only crowd in The Capitol and signed his book The Audacity of Hope at the 2006 TBF.

November sometimes hosts The Texas Book Festival on the first weekend of the month. The best time to visit is Saturday morning while the weather is cool and the crowds are sparse. November is usually the last month on the lakes, and a nice quiet one at that. Some Yankees may actually enjoy the slight chill in the air. Boats go up and down the lake, even after the time of comfortable swimming has passed. The time to enjoy Austin for its mild winter weather and many indoor entertainments is on the way. The new Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 track debuts its first race this November. With a current expectation of 120,000 visitors, the first F1 race is expected to become Austin's #1 tourist event.

December’s legendary Austin events include the huge Christmas Tree in Zilker Park and the Trail of Lights just across the street. Kids of all ages enjoy getting falling down drunk under the tree at least once! Leave the alcohol at home where it belongs, kiddies. Just hold out your arms, stare upward at the yellow swirls of lights that intertwine with the multi-colors, and spin around slowly until you fall down. The Trail of Lights used to be drive-through entertainment until the event became such a big deal that it had to be turned into a strictly pedestrian affair. If you don’t like traffic congestion, avoid the whole area whenever you see the lights on. These days much of the crowd is even shuttled in like cattle from a remote parking area, yet it is still Traffic Congestion Central on Barton Springs Road every Christmas season.

Although Austin is known as a town of hot sun, warm nights, live music, and its progressive tech culture of what I call Silicon Valley South, the area appeals to those with  wide-ranging tastes, and varied entertainment pursuits year-round. The proximity of its lakes and the unexpected (for Texas) beauty of the nearby Hill Country open up vistas of imagination. Classic and muscle car owners and enthusiasts informally meet in several large parking lots throughout the metro area, most along I-35, on weekend nights of fair weather. Check the schedules for more details. All the shopping, bars and eateries you might seek can be found in Austin. There is so much more to Austin than bragging about its current job market boomtown status!

Dudley & Bob on KLBJ-FM 93.7 will entertain you 6-10 a.m. weekdays. KLBJ is the classic rock FM station that has been serenading the legendary city of music for decades, but the mornings are reserved for a little homegrown Austin humor. Hint: if you are a right-winger whose drawers are a little snug, you might prefer the usual conservative rants emanating from KLBJ-AM talk radio right down the hall.

If the good old boy in your party is whining about too many foo-fooey drives and too much hippy-dippy music, just drop him off at Cabela’s in Buda with a credit card and return to retrieve him in a few hours. He will be entertained. I know it’s just an outdoor sporting goods store, but you have to experience it to believe it. Huge aquariums of local game fish and exorbitant, museum-quality animal displays enrich the 185,000-square-foot store. Take the Niederwald exit off I-35 South in Buda. You can’t miss it. You can tell you are approaching something big by the size of the parking lot.

Threadgill’s represents the heart of traditional Southern specialties with a unique Austin history. Think chicken fried steak or a platter of catfish with black-eyed peas and mashed potatoes… umm-umm good. The menu is varied, but these are my favorites. Threadgill’s is not the place to start a new diet! The original Threadgill’s on North Lamar once hosted Janis Joplin in the early days of her all-too-brief career. The walls are covered with photos and mementos of Threadgill’s extensive history as one of the earliest successful Austin honky-tonks, dating back to the 1930’s. There have never been but two Threadgill’s restaurants, and in this case, I even prefer the newer one on West Riverside. The north location is a treat to experience the first time, but it is located a little distance out of the action of most Austin entertainment and the line to get a table can be long. The South location is an excellent choice when you are planning to visit the bats who fly out from underneath the Congress Avenue bridge practically next door or Zilker Park just a little distance west.

The Salt Lick represents the traditional family-style Southern barbeque as well as any I have ever experienced - in any state or locale. Located out in the sticks near Driftwood, southwest of the city, The Salt Lick is always worth the drive! The original Salt Lick is located near the intersection of FM 1826 and RR 967, quite distinctly out in the middle of nowhere, about thirty minutes west of Buda or south of Dripping Springs. New branches have recently been opened in Round Rock and Bergstrom Airport, but the Driftwood location still has all the charisma. The Salt Lick serves its authentic Texas BBQ in several rambling, rustic, country buildings with no frills. Alcohol is not served and you must pay in cash, but even a simple meal of purely meat and bread will put a broad smile on your face!

The County Line barely makes this list because this is not a restaurant guide and BBQ is already represented by The Salt Lick. However, The County Line is the original, high-quality sit-down barbeque purveyor actually in the city. Although the company has recently branched out to several locations in far away cities, the original County Line is on Bee Caves Road with gorgeous Hill Country views on the north side. The second Austin location is near Lake Austin with a large deck over Bull Creek. Of course if you can score a table with a view, that’s a plus. The County Line menu is more varied and a bit more expensive than that of The Salt Lick. If you really must experience Texas BBQ, I strongly recommend visiting at least one or the other, and I prefer the original locations of both, although my favorite is clearly The Salt Lick.

Conan’s Pizza was the original deep dish pizza parlor on The Drag, the nickname for the commercial district that borders the UT campus with a few blocks of Guadalupe Street that strongly cater to UT students. Conan’s is now located on West 29th Street, just a few blocks northwest of The Drag. Two other locations in North and South Austin serve up much the same ambience. Unlike a few other classic eateries mentioned here, the branch locations are equally recommended in all respects. Frank Frazetta’s classic paintings, as in Conan the Barbarian, line the walls at all locations. Go in with a big appetite and try the Veggie Supreme or the Savage. Although I am deeply a Southern boy who doesn’t care much for Chicago snow or traffic, I have never eaten a better pizza than a Conan’s. Of course your tastes may vary.

El Mercado has been chosen to represent the multitude of Mexican restaurants in Austin because it has been a fixture of South Austin for more than twenty years, its prices and service are reasonable, and its extensive menu is delicious. The original location is still on South First Street and branches are now available in Central and North Austin.

The Kerbey Lane Cafe is the established premier sensitive-and-aware breakfast restaurant. This quaint little restaurant has been a fixture of the weekend late breakfast crowd since 1980. Although the small chain of five outlets serves appropriate meals all day, its claim to fame is clearly its deliciously innovative breakfast menu. The four newer locations each have a design and decor unique to itself, but the little old converted house on the actual Kerbey Lane holds all the charisma. Expect a line at prime time.

A few attractions in the Austin area are obvious and some are unusual. Barton Springs Pool maintains a temperature of 68-72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, but don’t kid yourself, that water is cold, even in July! I’ve seen visitors from Yankeeland revel in the contrast of hot air and cold water, but once was enough for me. There are numerous outdoor concerts annually in Zilker Park, and many are huge events. Attendees are usually shuttled in from designated parking areas. The University of Texas campus has been attracting tourists for decades. The legendary library and infamous tower are notable. As you might expect, free parking spaces are as elusive as snowflakes in Austin. The local IMAX theater is located within the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum just south of UT. A few miles south down I-35, you can take an informal tour of the St. Edwards University campus for a gander at some elegant old architecture. Another sight to see is the reportedly haunted Pemberton Castle, at 1415 Wooldridge Drive in the Pemberton Heights neighborhood just northwest of the UT campus. Built in 1926, Pemberton Castle was featured in the forgettable 1994 Disney romp, Blank Check. The $2 million property was purchased in 2006 by famed Austin movie director Robert Rodriguez.

Mount Bonnell is one of the scenic highpoints of Austin. If you would like just a nice view of the city, try the Barton Creek Mall parking lot overlooking South Austin from just below Bee Caves Road. This is a good cityscape, day or night. One of the most scenic drives that every visitor should take is Lake Austin Boulevard from Mopac west to Scenic Drive along Lake Austin, and on up Mount Bonnell Road. The small mountaintop has steps running up the north side, but the views are on the south, facing Lake Austin far below and the television broadcast towers on the far side. You can take in the view in the daylight, but this is an opportunity to follow Scenic Drive along Lake Austin in the late afternoon so that you arrive at Mount Bonnell just before sunset. (Carefully examine a map to see how to make the connection from Lake Austin Blvd. to Scenic Drive via several short hops on small streets, and then repeat the process on the north end to connect with Mount Bonnell Drive. Just follow your nose, staying as close to the lake as possible. It’s easier than it looks on a map.) Then you climb the steps and watch the sunset. Just sit down on a rock and take in the ambience. Remember that if you have children with you, you may want to visit earlier in the day, before the young adults stake out a rock on which to smoke dope or make out. Otherwise, the sunset time is the best time to go. There is nothing wrong with visiting late at night for an intimate conversation in a cool breeze, either, but you will miss the captivating scenery of the Lake Austin area, where the stars live. You can take a much shorter, quicker route back if you want. Mount Bonnell is actually only about ten minutes west of Loop 1 at approximately 45th Street. I just sent you on the scenic route. I doubt you will be disappointed.

Many routes through The Hill Country provide panoramic views of Lake Travis. These are generally much longer trips further out into the hill country west of Austin. The major roads involved are Ranch Roads 620, 2222, and 2244. Loop 360, which is actually more of a north-south major highway with traffic lights, features the elegant bridge over Lake Austin. Although a tourist should enjoy this view, I strongly recommend the most off hour you can muster, such as 8 a.m. Sunday morning! The three ranch roads host a lot of traffic during primetime, too, but if you simply avoid the common rush hours, the driving will not be unpleasant. The best scenery on RR 2244 (Bee Caves Road) is west of 360 until it dead ends into Highway 71. You may wish to cruise out Bee Caves, turn right on 71, and connect with RR 620 a few blocks away. You can then return back to the heart of the city via Highway 183, Loop 1, or I-35, in that order. Here is a hint: all the good scenery will be over before you reach 183. Are you driving in circles? Good. You are experiencing some of the Austin area’s best scenery. All you really have to remember is that most of that scenery is found on Scenic Drive, Mount Bonnell Road, RR 2222, RR2244, RR 620, and Loop 360.

Floyd M. Orr is the author of Ker-Splash 2: The High Performance Powerboat Book and Timeline of America: Sound Bytes from the Consumer Culture, among others. He has resided in the area for more than three decades. Since he has not left the Austin metro area even once since 2000, he must like it.. except for the traffic.

See Also: Circuit of the Americas by Floyd M. Orr

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