Hop in the car. Roll down the windows. Turn up the music, and drive. Weekend getaways can be the perfect solution for a hard week. With so many options within a couple of hours drive of Houston, you can take a break every weekend and explore the Lone Star State. So, grab your keys, and let?s go!
Have a grape time
You don?t have to fly to California to discover a little taste of the wine country. That?s right. Just a little more than an hour from Houston is the Messina Hof Winery in Bryan-College Station. This beautiful estate boasts year-round events to please the palate and tantalize the tongue. Plan your own wine-tasting event with family and friends by simply arriving at the winery anytime. A mere $5 allows you to sample four different wines, keep the glass and learn about local wine. Enjoy the view on the patio as you overlook grapevines, a gazebo and a lake.
Any time is a grape time to head out to Messina Hof. We recommend visiting during harvest, from mid-July through most of August. You can join in the fun by attending one of many harvest events.
The grape stomp starts promptly at 8:30 a.m. each Saturday and Sunday of the five-week harvest. You have to arrive early in the morning, but you get a 30-minute talk from the winemaker himself as he fills you with neat tidbits and prepares you for the day.
Next, you’ll head out to the vineyards. Learn to discern a good bunch of grapes from a bad one, and don?t eat too many ? you might explode. Our group went through about six rows, cutting the bunches from the vine. That?s just enough to make you appreciate your office job. All the while, the winemakers walk around and chat you up. You dump your grapes into a big bin, and then they are loaded into the stomping machine.
Take part in the winery?s tradition (since it is in Aggie country, after all) and do the ?Lucille Ball? during the annual grape stomp. Then, you step out and put your footprints on a commemorative T-shirt. Rinse your toes, tour the facilities and enjoy a tasting.
Lunch follows, as do classes in wine pairing. A quaint bed and breakfast is also a great option. Those who stay enjoy vintner dinners which feature menus that change according to the wines. If you like what you sample, be sure to pick up ?The Ultimate Wine & Food Pairing Cookbook? written by the owner, Merrill Bonarrigo.
A day in Bryan-College Station isn?t complete without a visit to the Chicken Oil Co. And don?t just ask an Aggie, ask anyone who?s been to College Station. This dose of Texana is sure to awaken the senses ? if the Freddy?s burger doesn?t do it for you instead.
Want more than a burger? Just down the street is some of the best barbecue we?ve found. Owned and operated by Cody Whitten, a friend of the magazine, the full-service options at J. Cody?s Steaks & BBQ leave even the most discerning tastes satisfied. Don?t forget to try Mom?s secret corn casserole recipe. Try as we might, Cody?s is just not parting with the secret.
A river runs through itA day spent on the river has got to be better than a day spent anywhere else. Period. Just two hours and 15 minutes away from Houston (if you don?t stop), it?s almost a straight shot on I-10 to the Texas Hill Country. If rivers like the Guadalupe ran through Houston, truly, we?d never have to leave.
The Guadalupe River has many entry points. We suggest catching it in the quaint town of Gruene, rather than college-student-laden San Marcos. You must reserve early at the Guadalupe Outpost to ensure a riverside room. Start your day at the Gruene River Co., where you can rent tubes (they say ?toobs?), kayaks and rafts. If cold beer, warm water and string bikinis suit your fancy, take this trip any weekend during the summer. It?s as though every fraternity and sorority in Texas has made this a rite of passage. Much like Houston?s famed rodeo trail ride, the river is literally a traveling cocktail party.
Bringing the kids along? Opt for a weekday to avoid the crowds. Kayaks are a great way to enjoy nature and see more of the fish swimming below. Three- and five-hour floats are available; and if the river is low, it can take a bit longer.
Down the street from the Gristmill is the new Gruene River Grill, and it?s fabulous. The rustic mill interior is the perfect setting for a chef who isn?t afraid to use salt, spices and sauces.
Watch out for the extra-hot chicken chipotle ? not for the faint at heart. A house special, the ribs Hawaiian style fall off the bone; and the tilapia doesn?t taste fishy at all and comes with a crawfish sauce that is to die for. By our standards, the best item on the menu is the roasted veggies, which are so tasty we had to ask for seconds.
Gruene Hall, one of the oldest dance halls in Texas, is a historic landmark to be enjoyed by all ages. The entrance is a venerable hall of fame to everyone cool in country and Texas music. Guests are greeted while passing through the historic doors with a panoramic scrapbook of past guests who played. Heavy hitter George Strait played here for eight years before his Ace in the Hole band went national. (The picture on the back of his first album was even shot here.)
This hangout is a great family establishment ? limited to only beer and wine. The cute teens outnumbered and outdanced the adults two to one. Put the kiddos to bed and head to Saengerhalle or the River Road Icehouse for more live music and a friendly vibe.
I?d rather be on the beach
Texas beaches are rough ? mostly unkempt and muddy. Surely this is your impression if you?ve only been to Houston-centric beaches like Bolivar and Surfside. The good news is that all of that changes when you go south to Matagorda and on down to Mustang Island. Head past Corpus Christi to South Padre Island, and you?ll discover the true Texas Riviera.
It?s at least a six-hour drive from Houston; a great idea is to fly to Brownsville or Harlingen. This brings you to within an hour of the Laguna Madre?s sandy beaches.
Before crossing the bridge, take the last possible right turn, and you will find the absolute best hot sauce this side of the Rio Grande. The dive is called Mexiquito. The service is down-home, with breakfast and lunch specials usually less than $5. The hot sauce is so good, you?ll be running back for more. And get there early to make sure you have a seat; all the fishermen in town will be there filling up for the day.
You may remember the Sheraton and the Radisson from your Spring Break days, or your credit-card receipts from your children?s Spring Break days. They are still the best bet today, unless you want to rent a condo or a house.
Bayside dining at Scampi?s, Amberjacks and Louie?s Backyard all provide a phenomenal view. The best is Amberjacks Bayside Bar & Grill for the quality of the food. But Louie?s is typically a crowd favorite, due to the unlimited crab legs and steak at the buffet.
Want Mexican food, but want to make sure that your margarita is top-shelf? Jesse?s Cantina & Restaurant?s sign boasts the best margaritas on the island. They are good, but are only in the shadow of their hot sauce.
Romance and adventure
After all these years, the San Antonio River Walk is still one of the most romantic spots in Texas. Owners of the La Mansion del Rio Hotel have opened the Watermark Hotel & Spa to rave reviews. Offering Old World charm in brand-new digs, this boutique hotel is the ultimate weekend getaway. The Watermark Hotel & Spa is a boutique hotel with service written all over it. With only 99 rooms, an attentive staff and the best dining on the River Walk at Pesca, you?re truly in for the escape you deserve.
The décor here scores maracas and piñatas above the fiesta-style establishments we?ve all grown accustomed to in San Antonio. Chef Jonathan Parker arrived from New York and is sending ripples up and down the river with the fresh catch flown in daily. The oyster bar greets you as you enter and sets the perfect tone for freshness and flavor. The grouper and king crab legs are both delectable, and the red snapper braised with French lentils and roasted to perfection, rivals the best any top-notch restaurant has to offer.
A casual stroll along the River Walk can be as crowded as Loop 610 during rush hour as the droves of tourists descend. So pull up a chair, order a cocktail and relax an arm?s length out of the bustle. It?s just enough space to people watch while avoiding the narrow walkways and way-too-eager-to-serve restaurateurs.
Tired of walking? Hail a river taxi and give your feet a break. The River Walk actually started with the San Antonio River, and the boat rides were created for the 1968 World?s Fair, as was the Tower of the Americas (which we heard has been purchased by Houston-based Landry?s). If the kids are in tow, San Antonio is the perfect destination. Force them to see The Alamo ? because every red-blooded American (especially Texans!) should. It?s a great place to experience history.
Other cool things the kids will love include Ripley?s Believe it or Not ? see the world?s tallest man and other really ridiculous human phenomena. Don?t miss Ripley?s Haunted Mansion, where you will actually hear the command: ?Hold on to the person in front of you, and don?t let go!? (What if you don?t like them? You?ll never make it through the house.)
And then there?s the Guinness Book of World Records, which is basically the book brought to life. Again, you?ll see the world?s tallest man, along with the man who?s eaten the most cockroaches.
Run, don?t walk, back to the Watermark and erase the memory of the world?s tallest man with a massage and facial at the spa. Sunday morning, skip across the river for the best Sunday brunch in town at La Mansion del Rio. H
Messina Hof Winery and Resort, 4545 Old Reliance Road, (800) 736-9463, www.messinahof.com ? Chicken Oil Co., 3600 S. College Ave., (979) 846-3306, www.dixiechicken.com ? J. Cody?s Steaks & BBQ, 3610 S. College Ave., (979) 846-CODY, www.jcodys.com
Guadalupe Outpost, 1273 River Terrace, (830) 625-7772 ? Gruene River Co., 1404 Gruene Road, (888) 705-2800, www.toobing.com ? Gruene River Grill, 1259 Gruene Road, (830) 624-2300, www.gruenerivergrill.com ? Gruene Hall, 1281 Gruene Road, (830) 606-1281, www.gruenehall.com ? Saengerhalle, 255 Saengerhalle Road, (830) 625-4255 ? River Road Icehouse, 1791 Hueco Springs Road, (830) 626-1335
South Padre Island
Mexiquito, 814 S. Garcia St., Port Isabel (956) 943-6106 ? Radisson Resort South Padre, 500 Padre Blvd., (800) 333-3333, www.radisson.com ? Sheraton South Padre Island Beach Hotel, 310 Padre Blvd., (956) 761-6551, www.sheraton.com ? Amberjacks Bayside Bar & Grill, 209 W. Amberjack St., (956) 761-6500, www.spadre.com/amberjacks.htm ? Jesse?s Cantina & Restaurant, 2700 Padre Blvd., (956) 761-4500
Watermark Hotel & Spa, 212 W. Crockett St., (866) 605-1212, www.watermarkhotel.com ? Pesca on the River, 212 W. Crockett St., (210) 396-5817, www.watermarkhotel.com ? San Antonio River Walk, (210) 227-4262, www.sanantonio riverwalk.com ? The Alamo, 300 Alamo Plaza, www.thealamo.org ? Louis Tussaud?s Plaza Wax Museum and Ripley?s Believe it or Not, 301 Alamo Plaza, (210) 224-9299, www.plazawaxmuseum.com ? Guinness World Records Museum, 329 Alamo Plaza, (210) 226-2828, www.guinnessattractions.com