Up & Coming By Jonathan Hermann

Head for the Hills

TEXAS HILL COUNTRY IS LOADED WITH CHARM

It's all the best parts of Texas rolled into one. Unique big cities and warm small towns. Authentic Tex-Mex restaurants and world-class wineries. Cafe-lined main streets and chic boutique galleries. Massive state parks and roadside historic sites. It's the Hill Country - 10,000 square miles of rolling hills, mammoth lakes and undulating grasslands between San Antonio and Austin to the east, Concan to Junction on the west - and it is definitely worthy of your time.

Originally settled by Germans - their language still heard in small towns like Boerne and New Braunfels - the Hill Country has long been a favored getaway among Texans, but now their little-big secret is getting out, attracting visitors from across both the states and the seas. It's not hard to see why. This big region with a big heart has something for everyone: outdoor adventures for families, wineries galore for romance and enough art and culinary delights to keep everyone in high spirits. Read on to discover the many ways the Hill Country will absolutely charm you whenever you are ready to safely travel beyond your home state.

soft pretzels


BIG CITIES, SMALL TOWNS AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

While the sprawling countryside defines Hill Country, it's the wide range of cities and towns that keep people coming back time and time again. Most visitors begin their journeys in San Antonio - home to the Alamo, River Walk and the Pearl District - or Austin - where 'weird' became cool thanks to South by Southwest, bat tourism, a raging art scene and some of the best breweries this side of the Mississippi. Those two you know about. It's the other, smaller towns that make Hill Country truly shine. Places like Fredericksburg, where the German heritage is so prevalent, bratwurst and homemade sauerkraut are often on the menus. Not only an amazing place to spend Oktoberfest thanks to authentic pretzels and The finest German beer, but the town's quaint Main Street is lined with attractions, such as the Pioneer Museum and the National Museum of the Pacific War, as well as enough local art galleries to earn Fredericksburg the honor of "Top Five Western Art Towns" by Southwest Art magazine.

Mixing its German culture with rowdy cowboy flare, New Braunfels is about as laid back of a Texas town as you can get. In fact, locals particularly love to lay back on floats and lazily drift through the center of town on the Comal River, a scenic, spring-fed river that stays constantly warm all year long. If that doesn't float your boat, then the town's Historic District surely will. Here you can get your boot scootin' boogie on at the oldest continually operating dance hall in Texas, discover European antiques and watch expert potters in action.

If your tastes lean more to ratatouille than schnitzel, head to Castroville, aka the "Little Alsace of Texas." History buffs flock here to tour the Landmark Inn State Historic Site, a functioning B&B since the 1850s; gawk at the Romanesque-style architecture of the 1870-built St. Louis Catholic Church; and explore the Steinbach House, a structure that was built in the Alsace region of France in the early 1600s, and then transported, beam by beam, furniture and all, to Castroville in 1998 as a gift to the locals.

caves


MORE THAN JUST HILLS

If Hill Country lacks in one way, it's in adjectives. "Hill" is just not a strong enough word to convey the scope of natural beauty contained here. Expansive lakes and fast-flowing rivers add the proper amount of watery fun. Rock-sculpted valleys and winding caves bring out the true flavors of the old west. Twelve state parks and six protected state natural areas make exploration a breeze. In short, bring your camera and your hiking shoes.

To properly break in those hiking shoes the Hill Country way, first head to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Fredericksburg. Its namesake is a massive pink granite batholith - a large intrusive igneous rock on par with Half Dome at Yosemite - rising 425 feet high, providing sweeping views of vale below. Stay there long enough and you might discover why it's called "Enchanted" - the dome makes a distinctive crackling noise as it heats up during the day and cools off at night.

The views are just impressive below the earth in Hill Country, thanks to an intricate system of caves that thread like rock-hewn veins beneath the rolling hills. While Longhorn Caverns in Burnet and the Natural Bridge Caverns in Comal County showcase amazing geologic formations, if you only have time to visit one, then head to the non-aptly named Cave Without a Name in Boerne. This underground treasure includes six unique formation rooms, including the gothic-looking Queen's Throne Room. Be cautious as you tour these caves, for you may absentmindedly lean back and awaken a sleeping bat. They might give you a fright, but they're completely harmless.

friends enjoying wine


VINEYARDS FOR MILES

It seems that everything is bigger in Texas. At over nine million acres, the Texas Hill Country is the second largest American Viticultural Area in the country, second only to the Upper Mississippi River Valley AVA that stretches across four states. In this slice of Texan paradise alone, you'll find more than 50 wineries taking advantage of the dry climate to produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Syrah of outstanding character.

Many of those are connected on the Texas Wine Trail, hosting tastings and tours and proudly showing off their newest releases. The wineries span across the Hill Country, making for easy day trips from San Antonio or Austin. Highlights include Becker Vineyards, home to massive fields of wildflowers that definitely improve the view, and Driftwood Estate Winery, which sits on a bluff overlooking a sweeping valley.

The following hotels provide the ideal home base to launch your exploration into Hill Country. Plus, you'll enjoy the bonus amenities available through SELECT.