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A new wave of hotels, wineries, and restaurants is transforming this rural region into a cultural oasis.
TEXAS IS KNOWN for being bigger, louder, and more boisterous than perhaps any other place in the United States. And right in the center of the nation’s second-largest state, in the heart of Texas Hill Country, residents are creating an oasis of wineries and distilleries.
Located in the Edwards Plateau at the intersection of West Texas, Central Texas, and South Texas, the Hill Country has long been revered for its strikingly beautiful landscapes, diverse wildlife, and rich food culture. The emergence of nationally recognized wineries and distilleries has transformed the area, making it a coveted vacation area. My sister Jennifer and I — born-and-bred Houstonians — recently visited for the first time, eager to explore the region through its new bars, wineries, and restaurants.
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Like many great journeys in Texas, my Hill Country trip started in Austin. The city’s hotel scene boasts a range of options, from the luxurious, wellness-driven Miraval Austin Resort & Spa to the LINE Austin, a sleek contemporary boutique hotel. A historical-site enthusiast, I decided to enjoy a restorative evening at the Driskill Hotel, which has been a fixture of the city’s downtown for more than 100 years. On Friday morning, Jennifer and I walked a few blocks to experience breakfast at The Grey Market, the fast-casual Austin extension of Mashama Bailey and John O. Morisano’s The Grey restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. It’s part marketplace — filled with local treats and trinkets like Native Texan pilsners and books from Black, Southern chefs — and part diner. I enjoyed a gently spiced hash and eggs to start the day, while Jennifer chose the Low Country Breakfast of grits, eggs, and bacon. Then, with more than 150 miles of driving ahead of us, we decided lunch would be road-trip tacos from Veracruz All Natural, an exceptional taco truck owned by sisters Reyna and Maritza Vazquez. We grabbed our brown bag filled with fish and migas tacos and set our sights on our first major stop: Desert Door Distillery.
Known for its innovative approach to distilling sotol — a Mexican spirit made from the Dasylirion Texanum shrub — Desert Door Distillery is delightfully Texan. Located in Driftwood, just half an hour outside Austin, it’s the first major sotol distillery in the country. Wood-paneled walls feature local artwork, and small limestone rocks and longhorns showcase Desert Door’s love for the region’s bounties. After touring the property, Jennifer and I, along with other visitors, piled into the tasting room, eager to enjoy liquor samples and cocktails. Over a bottle of Texas’ iconic ranch water cocktail (made with sotol, of course), co-owner Brent Looby, a native Texan and U.S. veteran, explained some of the spirit’s wonders, which replaces tequila in most of the distillery’s beverages.
“We find people enjoy the spirit because of how smooth it is and that crisp taste you get,” Looby told me. “But it’s also about recognizing the beauty of the resources around us and bringing our Texas identity to the spirit.”
After the distillery, we made our way to Johnson City’s Walden Retreats. Nestled along the cliffs of the Pedernales River, Walden Retreats boasts immaculate luxury camping accommodations in a dreamy oasis of serenity. Having never camped before, I was a bit nervous about sleeping in a tent, but the hotel’s safari options offer a balanced mix of outdoor pleasures and comforting amenities, like a full kitchen, a reading room, and an outdoor grill. After a deep sleep, Jennifer and I enjoyed coffee on our porch, overlooking the sparrows flying above the river. Though we could’ve stayed for days, the rest of the Hill Country was calling us.
It’s easy to assume Texas is solely the land of barbecue, tacos, and beer. These are indeed integral to the state’s foodways, but at wineries like Lost Draw Cellars, it’s abundantly clear there’s much more to behold. Just minutes from downtown Fredericksburg, Lost Draw Cellars had the feel of a true community institution. Our enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable host, Roxey Sowell, presented us with wine tastings ranging from a 2020 arroyo rosato to a light 2019 tempranillo. Most memorable, however, was the reserve sangiovese. With rich notes of cherry, the wine blew us away — so much so that we placed an order for bottles that weren’t even available yet.
“We want this experience to feel comfortable and relaxing,” said Sowell. “Frankly, isn’t that what wine is all about?”
Afterward, we ventured onto Fredericksburg’s Main Street. The kitschy antique shops and cafes lining the street gave us a good opportunity to rehydrate and explore one of the oldest cities in Texas. Alongside 110 posh guest rooms, the forthcoming Albert Hotel on Main Street boasts a cabana-lined sunken pool, a spa, and a 3,600-square-foot meeting and event space. The spring 2023 opening will almost certainly increase tourism in Fredericksburg. But shops like Big Pop’s Popcorn Company, the Amish Market, and San Saba Soap Company demonstrate the city’s commitment to maintaining the quaint, small-town character that has long made it such a lovely day-trip destination.
As we made our way toward San Antonio, listening to fellow Houstonian Beyoncé’s newest album, “Renaissance,” we gazed upon the wide-open skies of West Texas, filled with endless views of lush, rolling hills, cacti, and roaming livestock. Our upbringing was rich and diverse, but driving through Central and West Texas gave us a new perspective on our home state. Many reduce Texas to political stereotypes, antiquated cowboy tropes, and the land of the wild, Wild West. Indeed, Texas is shaped by convoluted political dynamics, rooted in a sometimes fraught history, and influenced by immigrant communities from Latin America, West and East Africa, and Europe. It is these truths that define Texas’ identity: complex, rich, and diverse.
San Antonio’s name, arts and culture, and food all reflect the integral role Mexican Americans have played in the city. At Pearl, named for the Pearl Brewing Company property it occupies, there are dozens of restaurants, including Chilaquil and Mi Roti. Allora, Brasserie Mon Chou Chou, and James Beard–nominated chef Steve McHugh’s Cured highlight the wide-ranging cuisines available in the South Texas city. Hotel Emma is in the center of the district. It is named for Pearl Brewing owner Otto Koehler’s jilted wife, Emma, whose business acumen and steadfastness kept the brewery open through Prohibition and into the mid-twentieth century after her husband’s untimely death in 1914. After the brewery closed in 2001, developers transformed the area into the Pearl District, a striking hotel complex. Opened in 2015, Hotel Emma’s many amenities include a well-stocked library, two restaurants, and a refreshing pool with provisions from Chef Jorge Hernández. At one of the hotel’s bars, Sternewirth Tavern, guests can enjoy relics of the old brewery, including an elevator left over from the renovation and cast-iron fermentation tanks that serve as plush, intimate bar seats. Enjoy a glass of the floral, citrusy Three Emmas, named for the true story of three women involved in a notorious tale of sex, scandal, and murder in the Koehler family.
After an evening indulging in the hotel’s provisions, it certainly doesn’t hurt to take a walk. We set an early alarm to drive out to Enchanted Rock, a pink granite mountain and one of the state’s most prized national treasures.
Back at the Pearl, we rewarded ourselves for exercising during vacation at Bakery Lorraine, which offers an exceptional take on Turkish eggs, and a sleeper hit of roasted potatoes that were expertly seasoned and just hot enough for a summer day. Right outside, we chatted with local vendors at the Pearl’s weekend farmers’ market.
Near the city’s Far West Side at The Jerk Shack, Caribbean cuisine from Jamaican American chef Nicola Blaque takes center stage. Braised oxtail served with rice and peas, cabbage, and plantains might cause one to let out a cry that can only be incited by true culinary pleasure.
Downtown, more cultural offerings await, like the San Antonio Museum of Art. The third and fourth floors are particularly riveting and include artwork from Texans like Florence McClung and Latin American artists such as Roberto de la Selva and Miguel Linares. The museum also displays the vibrant, mesmerizing 2013 piece “David Lyon” by acclaimed artist Kehinde Wiley.
But true to Texas culture, a real journey starts and ends with a meal. Supper, housed in Hotel Emma, provides the perfect final flourish for a full trip across the Hill Country. The roasted smoked quail with pickled corn relish and a piquant potato puree was intriguing, but sweet memories of the crispy cauliflower and sprouts with caramel popcorn, chili honey, and Muzquiz-spiced peanuts will remain with me forever, a lasting memory of the surprising nuances of the Texas Hill Country.
Kayla Stewart is an award-winning food and travel writer. She is a columnist at The Bittman Project, and her work has been featured in the New York Times, Southern Foodways Alliance, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Condé Nast Traveler, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, Eater, Salon, Texas Monthly, and others.
Alice Gao was born in China and raised in New Jersey. Following college, she moved to New York City in 2010 to work in corporate consulting, but quickly left to pursue a full-time career as a photographer. Her work spans multiple genres, including still life, interiors, lifestyle, and travel. Her love of thoughtful design and appreciation for small details motivates Gao to travel the world in search of beautiful spaces and architecturally significant buildings, from which she draws inspiration. Gao holds a degree in economics and consumer psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Brooklyn with her partner and has a small still life studio in Williamsburg.
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