Two new winter getaways: Sun and fun within reach in Texas and California destinations
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:31 PM
As if we needed any excuse. Heading south for a week — or a month — of blue skies and sunshine, is not unheard of for us web-footed Puget Sounders. But this past November’s record rains ended any pretense for justification. We’re outta here!
A little warmth, a touch of blue sky, another hour of daylight, a chance to don my new Tommy Bahama surf shirt — it all added up to an earlier-than-usual need to hop an airplane to a southern clime.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing not to like about Palm Springs, Scottsdale or Maui this time of year. It’s just that, well … I’ve been there, done that. If you’re like me, and want to visit some less-traveled sun spots, then consider two that were worth the trip for me: South Texas and California’s Sierra Foothills of Tuolumne County.
Let’s start with a visit to the “heart of Texas” — Austin, San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country, with its capital of Fredericksburg. Here’s the scene. It’s mid-November, 9 a.m., and I’m sipping my latte at a table for one along San Antonio’s Riverwalk. I’ve found a sunny corner of the sunken waterway between the surrounding hotels and restaurants, and I’m enjoying the sight and sounds of the ducks taking their morning baths in the river just beyond my reach. I turn to the weather section of the San Antonio paper and smile. Seattle’s high: 48 degrees. San Antonio’s high: 83 degrees. It’s a good day to be in Texas, that’s what I’m talking about!
San Antonio’s sights are just right for a one-day stay. The Riverwalk is like a secret, pedestrian-only, sunken thoroughfare that connects most all the major attractions of the city. And it provides more than four miles of paved walkways for power-walking weight watchers. It’s a wonderful concept.
I emerged from the Riverwalk to savor the historic pre-Republic architecture of the old courthouse, city hall and the several wonderful churches of old San Antonio. All are within a couple of blocks of the Riverwalk.
But the crown jewel of San Antonio is the Alamo. If you like history, plan to spend two or three hours at this site. The National Park Service schedules free lecture tours throughout the day, and the volunteer docents are everywhere to answer questions in the multi-building complex.
The capital of Texas, Austin, is an hour-and-a-half north of San Antonio, and has quite a different feel. While San Antonio is mostly a military town with army and air bases surrounding the city, Austin is a free-wheeling and funky university town to the core. Want proof? A city park — Hippie Hollow — is the only nudist, clothing-optional swimming center in the state.
Austin rocks, and its volcano of restaurants, bars, night clubs and dance halls make it a very fun place, especially for adults. I booked a room at Carrington’s Bluff B&B, and innkeeper Phoebe Williams took me and another out-of-town guest to several of Austin’s hotspots. Bring your dancing shoes when you come to Austin.
Carrington’s Bluff B&B is one of the best-run B&B’s I’ve ever enjoyed, and last year it was named “Best in Austin.” Its location five blocks from the University of Texas campus makes it central, yet it enjoys a quiet residential tone. Phoebe reports that hardly a week goes by without hosting musicians, actors, or visiting speakers and scholars.
Austin is home to many notable museums. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum is the main repository of the Lone Star State’s story. On the UT campus, the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum is worth two hours. The Texas Governor’s Mansion offers tours. Also in Austin is the O’Henry Museum at his former home, and anyone who has read his short stories with their classic twist endings will enjoy this tour. Outside of town is the Jourdan-Bachman Pioneer Farm, a living museum where costumed interpreters explain rural life in 19th Century central Texas.
Should you visit Austin in the hot months between May and September, you’ll want to take your swimsuit and head to Barton Springs in Zilker Park. This massive, three-acre natural pool is fed by 27 million gallons of pure spring water every day, and the pulsing feel of the springs is tonic, not to mention the constant 68 degree water. On warm days, you’ll find everyone from legislators to Willie Nelson cooling off here. Robert Redford learned to swim at Barton Springs when he was 5 and visiting an aunt in Austin.
Austin borders Texas’ beloved “hill country,” and while hills to Texans are knolls to Washingtonians, the Hill Country is LBJ Land and home to one of the really interesting small towns in America — Fredericksburg. An hour-and-a-half drive west of Austin puts you at the birth site of Texas’ first President, and the Lyndon Bains Johnson western White House. “The Ranch” is worth the stop; it is halfway between Johnson City and Fredericksburg on State Route 290.
Budget four hours for the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The visitors center has several films, a working farm freeze-framed in 1900-1918 costuming and farming with lots of animals and memorabilia. The $3 bus tour of the reconstructed farmhouse where LBJ was born is included, as is the gravesite where he and his family are buried.
Because Ladybird is still living and occupying the ranch house on weekends, the tour doesn’t enter the LBJ Texas White House, but the tour explains everything, from the pool that was built to allow LBJ to stave off a second heart attack (he didn’t swim a stroke but took phone calls while cooling off in the pool) to the show barn where he raised champion steers. While the tours depart throughout the day, I recommend taking the last tour of the day so that you can see the impressive number of deer, antelope and buffalo that roam the property.
The town of Fredericksburg was founded by Germans who immigrated to central Texas and were welcomed by the Spanish who held the land before Mexican independence. Today Fredericksburg is prosperous, has clean air and big skies, and is the town in Texas where lots of people hope to retire.
The town is also the Christmas center of Texas, since so many of the wooden tree ornaments, nutcrackers and cuckoo clocks came from German roots. I can say this: It’s the most shopping I’ve ever seen in a square mile with no chain designer stores. Art, antiques, unique furniture, gifts -- this town is made for shopping.
I stayed at Tim and Connie Gikas’ Town Creek Bed & Breakfast. Tim is a master chef, extremely inventive, and his breakfasts are the best and most unique I’ve sampled in years. He also has a coffee roasting business, with coffee that is off the charts.
Finally, one other very good reason to visit Fredericksburg is most unlikely. It is the hometown of one of the greatest fighting sea-admirals in naval history — Admiral Chester Nimitz. Today the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg covers six acres with 60,000 square feet of buildings and more than 40,000 WWII artifacts. It tells the story of the war in the Pacific in its entirety, with poignant stories from the homefront, from the Japanese perspective, and certainly described the courage and intelligence found on both sides of the battles. This is a first-rate museum experience.
Tuolumne County and California’s Sierra Foothills.
For those who drive to the Palm Springs or Arizona sun, I found a stop-over that deserves a couple of days or more. And for people who just want to get on an airplane and go somewhere different, Sonora, “The Queen of the Mother Lode,” just might be the place. The flight into Oakland Airport is a quick two hours, and getting a rental car was easy at this convenient destination. From Oakland, the drive into Gold Country takes a little over two hours.
The best reason to visit this corner of California’s foothills is that it is the gateway to Yosemite. Yosemite is open and drive-able 365 days a year, but I’m told that it is particularly photogenic in winter and early spring, which is also when it is least crowded.
Wine is another reason to visit Tuolumne County. Ironstone Winery is a must, if only to see the largest pure gold-leaf nugget in the world. It was taken out of the hills near the winery located in the mining town of Murphys. The wealthiest man in the county and possibly all of California is John Kautz, who outbid the Louvre for this more-than-40-pound gold nugget.
Kautz’s Ironstone Winery also features a luxuriant walking garden with ponds, a cultural museum, an unusual jewelry shop and display, a deli and lots of good wine. My wine expert friends Tom & Gretchen Seifert, old Mercer Islanders themselves, tipped me off to this wine region as their favorite “comer” in the West.
History lovers will want to spend a few hours wandering the streets of Columbia, an old mining town that has been extremely well-preserved and features a self-guided walking tour, stagecoach and horseback rides, gold panning, a theater with excellent local talent and references to the many Hollywood movies set here. Today Columbia is a state historic park, and park rangers provide free information, yarns and insight.
Sonora, the county seat of Tuolumne County, is rated as one of the 100 best small towns (under 50,000) in America. Its early California storefronts are alive with commerce, including some top-notch antique, art and designer shopping. It’s a cute town, with a classic turn-of-the-century courthouse, and collection of churches, especially the St. James Episcopal Church, built in 1859, and probably California’s oldest and most picturesque.
For the adventurers, Sonora lies between two of the most famous whitewater streams in the West — the Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers. One or two-day raft trips can be enjoyed upstream in areas that remain unspoiled.
There’s one other very significant reason to visit these foothills — the Groveland Hotel. This country inn of 17 rooms has been lovingly restored and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The owner-innkeepers Peggy and Grover Mosley spent more than $1 million to make this the absolute finest inn in the Sierra foothills and perfectly located on State Route 120, the road from the Bay Area into Yosemite.
The atmosphere in tiny Groveland, at 3,000 feet is clear, clean air with lots of California sun, perfect for days of fly-fishing, hiking, biking, river rafting, horse-riding and golf. The main idea, however, is to develop a good appetite, because the Groveland Hotel has won the Wine Spectator Magazine’s coveted Award of Excellence every year since 1998. Its wine collection is tops for all the restaurants of the county, and Peggy Mosley’s encyclopedic knowledge of wines perhaps is at the top as well.
Two other good B&Bs are The All-Seasons Groveland Inn, just up the street from the historic Groveland Hotel, and Big Creek Meadow Ranch about five miles towards Yosemite. Innkeepers Carl and Ann raise 200 head of sheep at Big Creek in this high-country meadow. The site was the primary overnight stop for 19th century Yosemite visitors, including Teddy Roosevelt.
IF YOU GO:
South Texas and the Hill Country
¡ In Austin, Texas: Carrington’s Bluff B&B: Call toll-free at 888-290-6090 or at www.carringtonsbluff.com. Phoebe Williams is an excellent innkeeper who makes sure you’ll enjoy your stay.
¡ Fredericksburg Visitors Bureau: Call toll-free at 888-997-3600 or at www.fredericksburg-texas.com. In the heart of the Hill Country, with loads of B&Bs, shopping, museums, LBJ, and Texas wildflowers.
¡ The National Museum of the Pacific War: On the Web t www.nimitz-museum.org. Located in Fredericksburg, Texas.
¡ Town Creek B&B: Call toll-free at 877-777-6848 or on the Web at www.fredricksburg-fun.com Tim and Connie Gikas make incredible breakfasts.
California’s Sierra Foothills
¡ Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau: For information about anything in their central corner of the Sierra Foothills and Gold Country, call toll-free at 800-446-1333 or at www.TCVB.com
¡ The Groveland Hotel: Call toll-free at 800-273-3314 or at www.groveland.com. The finest dining and wine cellar in the Foothills and reason to go out of your way anytime you visit the Sierras.
¡ All Seasons Groveland Inn: Call toll-free 800-595-9993 for this Gold Country Lodging a few steps away from the Groveland Hotel’s dining room.
¡ Big Creek Meadow Ranch B&B: Call 209-962-1942 or at www.bigcreekmeadowranch.com. Carl and Ann run a working ranch in a beautiful high-country meadow with tons of history.