H Texas Opens the Door to Seven Charming Travel Spots
Planning a vacation, but not sure exactly where you want to go? Houstonians are fortunate; we have endless possibilities for vacation opportunities. There are fantastic day trip options and the entire state of Texas boasts some of the most versatile environments on earth. Additionally, we are centrally located with two convenient airports with an endless number of flight possibilities both domestically and abroad.
Often we get caught in a routine that becomes boring and predictable, even when planning a vacation. With the busy lifestyles of couples and families, many don’t take the time to research the possibilities.
H Texas has done the work for you. We have selected and reviewed seven distinct destinations. We are confident that at least one,, hopefully more, will appeal to you, your significant other and your family. You might even discover one that is a perfect place to send your mother-in-law!
Let H Texas be your travel guide – all you have to do is pack your bags!
A Journey Through Heaven On Earth
By Rick McMillen
The heart of Texas is a mere 150 miles from Houston. It is conveniently located for those who wish to escape the proverbial concrete realties of the mass, aggressive and abundant activity of Houston. Pack your bags, toss them, the kids and the family pet in the car, even at $4 dollars a gallon, the trip to tranquility is only $30.
I have lived in Houston for 30 years and I am absolutely amazed by the number of friends and associates who have never really been to the heart land of Texas. The Hill Country, a plethora of natural attractions, basically has it all for those who love and need a rhetorical fix on Mother Nature. Experience the forests, deserts, plains and mountains. There are numerous lakes and rivers and you can simply sit back, relax and enjoy or swim, fish or raft. The winery’s, restaurants, hotels and hidden resorts beckon your arrival and the days can be full, enjoying the bounty or relaxed, perfect for late morning sleeping, long siestas and romantic evenings.
Our first visit was a family camping trip to one of the larger reservoirs. As we began to enter the Hill Country, I recall the reactions from our three children. They were in awe of the hills, the foliage, the endless ranches of long horned cattle and the long, long stretches with no homes in site. I looked at my wife, we both grew up in the mid-west farmlands, and we realized that they had never experienced the natural beauty that was exploding in front of their little eyes.
Their passion for what they were witnessing and the week long events of swimming, fishing, hiking and camp fires are still remembered and are now being recreated with their own little ones.
For those who do not want complete solitude, there are the quaint, lazy towns of Bandera, Fredericksburg, Gruene, Kerrville and New Braunfels and many others that all offer great shopping and fantastic restaurants. Many of these small towns have their own, small museums or are only miles from historical locations and monuments. (Take a peek at page 48 and see the local listings of some of the best BBQ locations, right there, in or near the Hill Country.)
We are blessed to be Texans with so many amazing places to visit and an unlimited number of things to do and experience within our very own borders. But it is the Texas Hill Country that truly stands out as one of the best parts of this great state we call home. In fact, when we get to heaven, we may just be surprised to find it looks a whole lot like the Texas Hill Country.
The Inn at Dos Brisas
By Laurette M. Veres
The chef at Dos Brisas has what the chef in all of us crave: a full garden to source ingredients. Only an hour and a half from Houston, the Inn at Dos Brisas welcomes you with private casitas, individual golf carts, and equestrian facilities. The Spanish mission style grounds, on 300 acres of Texas hill country, provide a splendid escape from bustling city life. Each casita comes equipped with a golf cart so guests can explore the grounds and learn about herbs, spices, vegetables and more.
The night H Texas visited many Houstonians were on property for a special garden party. The mobile five-star restaurant embodies the farm-to-table trend with organic gardens and wines, creative interpretations of haute French cuisine.
A Modern Wonder of the World
By Laurette M. Veres
Considered by some to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, Jordan is the most progressive of its neighbors. This nation, whose landscape you may recognize from Lawrence of Arabia, is also home to one of our world’s modern wonders, Petra.
Below Jordon’s capital Amman is the Dead Sea. From the Dead Sea you travel several miles to reach the ancient city of Petra. Photographs cannot portray the magnitude of size, colors or beauty, and it’s hard to select words to describe Petra. Recently added to the list of new seven modern wonders of the world (New7Wonders Foundation), its majesty is best witnessed at a slow pace.
Entrance to the city is through the Siq, a natural narrow gorge more than a mile long. The path is lined with beautiful, soaring cliffs on both sides; you walk on cobblestone roads that are thousands of years old. Much has been written about this area and the ancient Nabataeans whose 2000-year-old settlement is the most popular attraction in Jordan.
The view walking through the Siq is unbelievably gorgeous, yet pales in comparison to the first work of art you will see, the Al-Khazneh (Treasury). This meticulously crafted monument is more than five stories high and was hand carved out of sheer, dusky pink rock. It was created as a tomb and has been unbelievably preserved for our viewing pleasure.
Everybody stops. In fact, I feel it is impossible to ignore the beauty of Al-Khazneh and keep walking down the path. It feels like a movie set and, in fact, it was. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, it was the entrance to the final resting place of the Holy Grail. While tourists take in the massive monument, street vendors mingle with the crowd selling postcards and trinkets. Some are selling camel rides, or at least photographs of you on the beasts.
As you continue walking, more tombs become visible and the vast expanse of space is revealed. There are hundreds of elaborate rock-cut tombs with intricate carvings throughout this national treasure. The tombs were carved to last. Further exploration uncovers a Roman theatre and more beautiful carvings. Missing are the homes for the city’s residents. They are long lost to earthquakes and age.
A set of steep steps leads up to an old meeting area that was once a Byzantine church. The range of colors on the ceiling of the church is so vast it seems unreal at first, but these beautiful colors exist in nature.
There are no automobiles allowed here. It’s a strenuous walk back. If you can’t make it, there are plenty of horse-drawn carriages for the handicapped, elderly and tired. As you make the mile long trek back, you can’t help but to begin dreaming of your next day at the Dead Sea.
The Jordan Valley Marriott Resort & Spa is an oasis in the dessert. The meticulous lobby welcomes weary travelers and provides a welcome reprieve from the desert heat. Three resort pools create a serene and relaxing setting for your picturesque walk to the Dead Sea. You’ll need the provided plastic shoes to protect your feet from the sharp rocks as you descend to the base and get an up close look at the crystal, clear sea.
The sharp and uneven rocks make it difficult to keep your footing as you near the water – enter with caution. The water is like none you’ve entered before. The Dead Sea is so full of nutrients and salt, it creates buoyancy beyond all oceanic experiences. When you sit back, the water is so buoyant, it’s like you are sitting in a tube floating down the Guadalupe. Trying to get vertical is a challenge, but once you do, you don’t have to tread water to float perfectly upright.
Many people come here for natural treatments and the medicinal benefits of the mud. The Dead Sea mud is said to have healing powers to cure diseases, rashes and arthritis. Each morning the staff harvests mud into terra-cotta buckets. It’s a blast to cover yourself in the mud and wait for it to dry. When the mud washes off, your skin is tight and soft, making the long trip to Jordan worth every frequent-flier mile you’ve earned.
Hotel Matilda in San Miguel de Allende
By Laurette M. Veres
You’ll feel like you’ve entered an art gallery when you walk in the Hotel Matilda in San Miguel de Allende. This new, boutique hotel offers first class amenities, a fabulous spa, great food and amazing artwork.
The City of San Miguel is known for art schools and attracting international, budding artists; pottery, textiles and contemporary art boutiques are all over this UNESCO-protected city. The Matilda seeks to capture this artistic essence with clean lines and smooth surfaces framed by strategically placed works of art – reminiscent of an art gallery. In fact, the famed Diego Rivera painted the hotel owner’s mother in San Miguel when she was a young girl. Her name is Matilda and a replica of this painting hangs in the main lobby.
While the art is great, the spa experience is the highlight here. As soon as you check-in, a young lady comes to your room to massage your head and shoulders. It is a perfect way to relieve tension after the 1 1/2 hour plane ride to San Miguel de Allende. The welcome massage is just a hint of things to come.
The Spa Matilda, just below the flowing water of the infinity pool, offers their signature treatment: the Hammam Ritual. This is a private steam experience customized to each individual that consists of eucalyptus-scented towels, a body scrub and clay mask. The tiled steam room has a towel-covered bench made to resemble the heated benches at the traditional Turkish Hammams. Steam before a body treatment opens pores and begins the cleansing process. This is the best steam area we’ve encountered. It’s private and customized to individual needs – down to the blended soap.
Next, comes the 15-minute clay mask treatment. This stimulates circulation, accelerates cell growth and prepares the skin for further treatment. You can remain in the Hammam up to 45 minutes. (I make it about 30, but I do step out a few times to refresh with a eucalyptus scented wet towel.) Time in the Hammam prepares you mentally and physically for the forthcoming treatment; just the right mood for a massage.
Part Thai massage and part deep tissue, the techniques used are evidence of superb training. It’s not just a massage; most of my muscles are stretched, pushed, stretched some more and then massaged, delivering the utmost in therapeutic and restorative healing.
Executive Chef Bernard McDonough has the run of the kitchen. His strong belief in fresh, organic, locally grown ingredients did not lead him to San Miguel. In fact, when he arrived at Hotel Matilda, fresh ingredients were not easy to come by. Through a creative partnership with Via Organica, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote healthy eating, he is now able to source heirloom tomatoes, baby vegetables, lettuces, herbs and more. When he couldn’t find good cheese for his bar-favorite sliders, he teamed up with goat herder and native Cristina Gerez. Now McDonough has a cheese cave to age his home made artisanal cheeses. With this assortment of fresh ingredients, the menu is eclectic, creative and simply delicious.
Continental has direct flights to Leon. From there, it will take you about an hour and 20 minutes to get to the Hotel Matilda. But, for the artwork alone, not to mention the local ambiance, amazing spa and excellent cuisine, the drive is well worth your while.
Editor’s note: Hotel Matilda’s owner has some Houston ties. In fact, Harold Stream’s first foray into the hotel business was in the early ‘70s when he purchased the Warwick from the Mecom family. Eventually, John Jr. purchased it back and today it’s the Hotel ZaZa.
Watercolor Inn & Resort
By Laurette M. Veres
Grab your favorite gal-pal and head to the Beaches of South Walton, a collection of 15 eclectic beach communities on the Florida coast. The weekend H Texas visited, the 30A Songwriters Festival was in progress. Imagine: emerald green water set to music. We bee-bop from event to event along beautiful Highway 30A, officially designated Scenic Highway.
The Florida coastline is ecologically significant and home to the largest concentration of rare, coastal dune lakes in the world. The 15 lakes have been identified as globally extraordinary with similar ecosystems found only in Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand and the Northwest Pacific Coast of the United States. Unlike sand dunes in Texas, you cannot walk in the brushy beach-lining areas. The one exception is at Grayton Beach State Park. This is one of the few places you are allowed to explore a dune and study its structure. Murray Balkcom of Walco Eco Tours leads an informative tour and explains the area’s bio-diverse ecological communities. When you see brush at the top of a sand dune, many times, that is really the top of a tree!
Along Scenic 30A there are many lodging options. We check into the WaterColor Inn & Resort. This award winning, 60-room, boutique hotel sits on the beach and allows you to take in all the beauty with panoramic views of the water, large balconies and our favorite feature: ocean views from the shower. (Save your shower for the morning; you must enjoy this luxury by the light of day.)
Comfortable conversations flow in WaterColor’s intimate lobby and bar, a unique setting reminiscent of your best friend’s living room. Off the lobby, the library offers a relaxing spot to enjoy movies, books, magazines, today’s paper and more. And, each evening you are greeted with homemade cookies.
Complimentary bicycles make it easy to further explore 30A and the many beach communities. We hop on a bike and head east.
If you recall the tranquil town in the The Truman Show, you’ll recognize the colorful, cozy cottages used to create the movie’s setting at the Victorian community of Seaside. We nosh at Great Southern Café where Chef Jim Shirley blends international cuisine with Southern flavors. Fresh produce from nearby farms and fresh fish from the Gulf of Mexico are combined with flavors from around the world. Don’t miss Grits à Ya Ya, his version of shrimp and grits. Next door, the iconic bookstore, Sundog Books, is an interesting venue for entertainer Chely Wright while she performs an acoustic set for a packed house. We then mosey to a wine bar where we find Tim Nichols, writer of the song Live Like You Were Dying and many other number one musical hits, relaxing at the next table.
Continuing the course on 30A, we meet Allison Wickey, 2011 Artist of the Year, at World Six Gallery in Rosemary Beach. She offers a unique craft – Venetian plaster on large slabs of wood. We met her on a monumental day – reproductions of her work are now being shipped to specialty stores nationwide.
We spend each evening at Fish Out of Water, the fine dining establishment at WaterColor. Performances from Vienna Teng, Mat Kearney, Rodney Crowell, Chuck Cannon, Shawn Mullins, Gretchen Peters and many more fill our nights. We find ourselves purchasing CDs and vowing to learn to play guitar.
As with all good things, our trip comes to an end. But we take home with us lasting memories of the sea set to music and thoughts of returning to Watercolor Inn – same time next year.
By Rick McMillen
A little over 25 years ago, my wife and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary by traveling to the exotic island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We had a fantastic time and, during that trip, we experienced snorkeling for the first time in the warm Caribbean waters. What we discovered was an underwater world of incomparable beauty.
On the third day of the trip, we rented an 18-foot Boston Whaler and decided to follow a commercial charter boat to their favorite snorkeling location. (A local recommended we do this.) Using the hotel supplied snorkeling gear, we gingerly dropped into the water. We entered the moving, visual world of a Monet painting. We were hooked.
That trip turned us into mega fans of the underwater passion of snorkeling. We quickly realized, however, that frequent trips into the heart of the Caribbean were both expensive and time consuming. Naturally, research and common sense dictated that we find a location in the states that would allow for ease of travel, would be less costly than international journeys and could be done over a long weekend. The Florida Keys was the answer.
It is not easy to pinpoint an exact location to go for the best snorkeling; but this never bothers us as my wife and I have always enjoyed the freedom of finding our own path. Normally, we rent a car (convertible) and follow the incredible, scenic roads that lace throughout the chain of remarkable islands. At each cay, the locals are quick to give advice on where to go and, more importantly, where not to go.
The keys are an archipelago of 4,500 islands. The total land area is 137.3 square miles with the southern most tip, Key West, a mere 90 miles from Cuba. While the options are endless when it comes to snorkeling, you will find resorts and accommodations more complex. Plan well, know where you want to go and heed the advise of the locals. Naturally, there are a plethora of dive/snorkel charters that will take you to living, coral barrier reefs and endless other unforgettable locations. However, I strongly challenge you to go on your own and be the captain of your own ship and your own adventure. It will be an incredible experience you won’t soon forget.
Ritz Carlton Dragon Bay Raises the Bar in Grand Cayman
By Jo Barrett
Imagine a place designed around the water; a place where water is revered. Developer Michael Ryan believes life is meant to be experienced on the water. In his vision, you arrive at the airport, and a private boat whisks you to your home on the water. Within minutes of landing, you are cruising across that famous turquoise blanket that Grand Cayman is known for: Ocean, the temperature of a perfect bath; water where you can see your feet, and the colorful parrotfish swimming around them.
Grand Cayman is unlike any island in the Caribbean. Famous for its sport fishing, powdery white Seven Mile Beach and Sting Ray City where tourists snorkel with large stingrays, Grand Cayman is, quite simply, a jewel nestled in the Caribbean. It boasts a spectacular year round climate, is relatively crime-free, and one of the few islands where the locals enjoy a high standard of living. There is not a huge economic disparity between guests and residents, and people usually live there because they want to be there. This means the island is safe and stable, with high standards of living, happy locals and, most significantly, a lack of restrictions on foreigners purchasing real estate, which is tax free. Grand Cayman has no sales tax, no income tax, no capital gains tax, no property tax and no inheritance tax. Heaven, you say? Interested in purchasing a vacation home? Not to worry. The local banks will generally lend between 50-75 percent of the property value to foreigners- which is a good thing for anyone considering purchasing island property in the newly open Ritz Carlton Dragon Bay community.
The Dragon Bay community and resort is a one-stop shop where everything is done well. Whereas other developments may offer a flagship golf course and mediocre spa, the Ritz Carlton manages every program impeccably. With a Greg Norman designed golf course, a La Prairie Spa, exceptional tennis center and one of the most awesome concepts for families traveling with children- a Jean-Michel Cousteau Eco-Adventure Family Program, the resort is truly a paradise.
The resort feels like a coastal community, which is exactly what developer Michael Ryan was shooting for when building the Deckhouses at Dragon Bay and Secret Harbour. The idea is not to simply provide a vacation home, rather, as Ryan says, the “platform for a community to come to life together.” He believes that a vacation home shouldn’t exist in a vacuum. That’s why the entire hotel, housing and resort development provides a community atmosphere. There are so many events the resort has to offer, such as the Taste of Cayman food and wine festival featuring world famous chefs, championship tennis tournaments with top rated players flying in from all over the world and, not to mention, fishing and golf tournaments.
Ambassadors of the Environment: One of the most exciting features of the resort for families involves dropping the kids off at what appears to be an old fashioned Caymanian home right on the property. Inside, there is no Xbox or Nintendo, or anything close to the world of electronics that kids have become so familiar with today. Instead, the program teaches kids how to respect nature, and enjoy a world outside of the electronic. Signs hanging around the house feature the principles of Jacques and Jean-Michel Cousteau: “Everything is connected,” “Biodiversity is good” and “There is no waste in nature.” The idea is to provide kids with such a good time they don’t even realize they’re learning.
Eric Ripert’s Blue Restaurant: For those of you who enjoy watching Top Chef and are otherwise enthralled by all things food and wine, the Ritz Carlton Dragon Bay features the top Michelin starred restaurant in the Caribbean. Chef Eric Ripert’s Blue Restaurant is utter perfection, and there is no reason to dine anywhere else. The fish tastes as though it was plucked from the ocean that very day and the fragrance from the accompanying sauces are enough to make one swoon.
Imagine a wine pairing that actually works; a symbiotic relationship to the food, and not a ‘best guess.’
Critics of Caribbean resorts often point to the poor standard of service by unprofessional locals. Not so at the Ritz Carlton Grand Cayman, where every staff member wears the type of smile as if they know they live in paradise, and are keeping it a secret. The pool bartender told me a story of how she combed through the trash to find the missing orthodontic retainers of an upset, nine year old girl. “My father’s going to kill me,” the girl explained, saying that she’d left her retainers on her lunch plate. The bartender found the retainers after sifting through the trash. This is the type of service we’re talking about – the above and beyond kind.
In short, Dragon Bay offers something for everyone. For couples, the atmosphere is romantic, particularly in the evenings where a night time beach walk is lit by torches. For families, the pool is extremely friendly, even providing diapers for baby bathers.
The Ritz Carlton Residence Club and Secret Harbour provide among the best value among Caribbean second home opportunities with entry level prices under $1 million dollars. Of course, there is also a $44 million dollar penthouse, but if you’re not an oil tycoon, opt for one of the gorgeous private homes of Dragon Bay.