If you were to play word association and someone said New York, what’s the first thing that springs to mind? The Statue of Liberty? The Chrysler Building? The Empire State? I’m guessing the majority of you said one of those three iconic landmarks or one of the other places, buildings or shops that New York is equally famous for. Let’s try California. How many said surfing or beaches or Napa Valley or blondes? Exactly. Now. Shall we try Texas?
What did you get? Cowboys? Oil? JR Ewing? Rednecks? An overly friendly cheerleader called Debbie? Relax. It’s not a test. While other bits of the US give you positive associations, Texas doesn’t. This is either a shame because the truth is so far removed from the reputation that its dizzying, or marvellous because it means you’ll ignore the variety of what the state has to offer, the surprisingly short flight time and the deals by the likes of Continental Airlines, and continue to spend long weekends in New York and Vegas instead. And the rest of us will still be able to get a reservation at Fearings in Dallas or a chauffeur-driven 1961 Cadillac to ferry us around Austin.
America is not so much a union of states as 50 different countries that (mostly) share the same land mass. The same applies to Texas. Every destination is undeniably Texan but frequently bears little resemblance to the next major city or town. Attempting to give the state a blanket definition is as useful as reviewing London after a weekend in Hull. To get the full picture, you have to travel.
With Continental offering daily flights there from Heathrow, Houston is going to form most people’s first impression of Texas and it’s a good one. Well, eventually. What it initially brings home is the sheer size of the state. Everything, they say, is bigger in Texas and that certainly applies to Houston. Currently the fourth largest city in the US, they’re expected to overtake Chicago and move up to third this year. Reaching downtown from the airport takes a good 40 minutes of freeway driving and its all undeniably Houston.
It’s a city of incredible contrasts, with the cloud-reaching skyscrapers masking a thriving, pleasantly walkable Museum district (with 18 museums, galleries and other places of interest), and restaurants as diverse as The Grove (think modern US with some surprising ingredients), the Strip House (gently burlesque-themed but with perhaps the best steak I’ve ever eaten) and The Breakfast Klub [sic] for all your early morning fried catfish needs. Happily, even after a fine nights sleep in the comfort of the gently modern Alden Hotel (think The Met, and you won’t be far off), my body clock was still more on UK time so fried chicken, waffles and catfish didn’t seem such a quantum leap. But hey, whatever the hour, if it’s good enough for Beyonce (and, I imagine, our outsized Texan restaurant columnist), it’s good enough for me.
It’s also a good introduction into the variety of Texan cuisine. Yes, steak and fried stuff plays a major part, but game is readily available and delicious and the seafood is first-rate, which shouldn’t come as a surprise when the state has a coast but yet, somehow, does.
The notion of Southern hospitality is well documented and, pleasingly, it’s not a cliché or an exaggeration. I’m slightly sick of people telling me how great US customer service is compared to London, as I’ve had worse experiences in NY than anywhere. There are no such qualms here. Everyone at the Alden and second hotel, the similarly excellent St Regis – greeted us by name but not in that corporate, we’ve been told to so we do it automaton style. Maybe it’s the accent (and oh! The accent) but the welcome and the assistance always seemed genuine and, as the next few days would prove, it was only going to get better.
If that makes Houston sound like the least of the destinations, that’s certainly not the intention. For an enormous city, it’s a place that oozes humanity. It’s just that, like everywhere you go in Texas, it has its own unique charms.
A few hours of (very flat) driving brought us to San Antonio, one of the states quirkier delights. Whilst Houston sprawls, San Antonio manages to compact many good things into a surprisingly small area. The town is split by a river, which local businesses have exploited to fine effect, with restaurants, bars, shops and a River Walk that connects most of them.
San Antonio has a sense of history that Houston, even with the excellent Space Center tour, cannot quite match. There’s one very obvious reason for this: The Alamo. As you spiral out from this cradle of Texas liberty, San Antonios development and Mexican influences are easily traceable. History and a sense of culture define this charming city, from The Alamo a fascinating place to tour via the Menger Hotel where Teddy Roosevelt rode in to recruit the Rough Riders to even our hotel, the Omni La Mansion, and its blend of modern comforts with more traditional stylings.
The importance of local history is possibly best summed up by the marvellously eccentric Mi Tierra cafe and bakery. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, the outside is dedicated to Dia de los Muertos, that charming Mexican celebration of dead ancestors and the importance of their lives. The inside is… well, barking mad, frankly. Initially, there’s the dazzling array of cakes to take in, and then you notice the Christmas decorations which remain up all year round and, best of all, an ongoing, elaborate mural that pays tribute to the founders, Pete and Cruz Cortez, their children and grandchildren who run Mi Tierra to this day, and other celebrated Mexicans.
From San Antonio, its a relatively short trip to Austin (or slightly longer if you stop to enjoy the exchange rate at the impressively designer-heavy Prime Outlets Mall in San Marcos).
Austin is… astonishing. As well as being the States capital, it’s the best example of Texan diversity you can find. You can stand opposite the impressive Blanton Museum of Art on the edge of the enormous university campus, and savour almost everything the city can offer. Over there, the bigger-than-Wembley stadium, home to the University’s football team, the Texas Longhorns. Over there, the rolling hills that makes Austin so popular with walkers. Turn the corner there, and you’ll be looking downtown to the retro stores, the fantastic gourmet lunch truck trailers (imagine Joel Robuchon doing takeaway) and a few of the city’s 400+ live music venues. And up there, the hospitable southern delights of the Mansion at Judges Hill, a charming, comfortable and luxuriously appointed boutique hotel.
It’s very hard to dislike a city that has adopted Keep Austin Weird as its slogan. Thanks to this philosophy, Austin remains resolutely free of the sort of shops, chains and designer labels that has turned so many other places into identikit destinations. It’s a remarkable achievement by any city’s standards: to manage it in the state capital, alongside the occasionally jingoistic Longhorn supporters is incredible.
All human life is here including, if I had my way, me. I used to say that New York was the only place other than London I could live with perhaps Toronto as a plan b. That’s no longer the case: Austin now tops my list by some considerable way. Austin has the joys of New York, that city’s sense of individuality and local passion, combined with the feeling of community you find in Toronto. It also has a better music scene than the two combined (and better barbecue but that’s not important right now) although the Cadillac transportation by Vintage Rides of Austin may have added to my bias. However, I’d defy anyone not to have their heart melted by a trip between excellent (and packed) blues bars in a car that iconic, listening to some of Al Green’s finest on the stereo.
While Austin best encapsulates the diversity of Texan life, the state as a whole is remarkable, and completely undermined every one of my expectations. From extreme luxury (as you’d expect of a region mostly built on oil) to the fun and the frivolous, via the pride and passion in local history and culture, this all too brief tour showed that everything is possible in Texas, and in a style that can rival just about anywhere in my experience. That indeed may by the biggest thing about Texas: the quality of life.
As well as celebrating the traditional, Texas and here’s a line I never thought I’d write about the home of that former president feels like a forward thinking, multi-cultural state. If Tony Bennett did indeed leave his heart in San Francisco I can’t help but wonder whether that’s only because he didn’t visit Texas first.