A Toast to Texas History

Every drop of Shiner is brewed in Shiner

South of Flatonia and Moulton on Highway 95 lay a magical land where beer is made—Shiner. To that place two thirsty companions and a designated driver traveled.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But the first grumblings of hunger appeared as we approached the little village of Moulton. It was hard to believe the locals when we were told that one of the best restaurants around was Klosel’s Steakhouse. After some hesitation, we stopped for lunch en route to the little brewery in Shiner and gave it a shot and what a pleasant surprise. The food was truly amazing and good value. Great atmosphere and friendly service! We have eaten here numerous times over the years and have always been impressed with their food and staff. Particularly love their chicken fried steak—and desert.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Brewery is on the right as you enter town—you can’t miss it. The best time to go is during the week when the Spoetzel Brewery comes to life. My fellow pilgrims that day were Winter Texans like myself.

The Spoetzel Brewery, founded in 1909, brews Shiner Beer with the pure artesian water that’s flowed beneath the ground there for centuries.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1909 the residents of Shiner, Texas, didn’t strike gold. They struck water. And shortly thereafter they learned that they could turn that water into some pretty tasty beer. Today, they still brew every drop of Shiner with the same pure artesian well water that’s wet the town’s whistle for more than a hundred years. They say some things never change, to which we say “Prosit!”

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Decisions! Decisions! At the time of our previous trip the brewery gave each visitor tokens (wooden nickels) for four complimentary beers. Well, they weren’t quite full beers. They’re more like six ounces but they’re nice for trying new flavors. During our most recent visit they charged a small $5 fee. Just happened to have unused tokens in my pocket from previous visits to which we said “Prosit!”

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there is something deeply satisfying about drinking Shiner from the tap knowing it was brewed less than 100 yards away. Prosit! That’s what ought to come out of your mouth before the refreshing goodness that is a free beer goes into it. It’s a toast that means “good health.”

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I started out with Shiner’s new rose ale. It tasted like someone poured a Shiner in a glass that had a little red wine left in it. But it wasn’t bad. The next three were White Wing, Fresh Hop IPA, and Prickly Pear. The brewery recently introduced a new beer to the market, a Belgian white named, appropriately, White Wing. Brewed with orange peel and coriander, White Wing replaces Shiner Hefeweizen as a permanent, year-round option.

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original tin brewery was founded in the center of an Austrian, German, and Czech farming community near the railroad tracks on the banks of Boggy Creek. A group of Shiner businessmen interested in appealing to new Bohemian settlers established the original stock company known as the Shiner Brewing Association in 1909. After a few years of disappointing results they hired Spoetzl who purchased the brewery in 1915. With Prohibition, Spoetzl turned to producing ice and “near beer.”

Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can’t have Shiner without Bock. Spoetzl releases three year-round brands, about eight seasonal, and four Brewer’s Pride beers every year. Bock remains a favorite. Brewed since 1913, the flagship brand began as a seasonal brewed for spring then became a year-round offering in 1973. Shiner Bock now accounts for over 80 percent of the total Shiner volume.

Friday’s Fried Chicken © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After our visit to the Spoetzl Brewery we stopped for dessert at Friday’s Fried Chicken. Don’t let the name throw you off. They have a full menu and a bakery. Friday’s named after the Patek family (Patek means “Friday” in Czech), offers some of the best fried chicken south of the Colorado River—along with those Bohemian delicacies known as rosettes, kolaches, and a variety of delicious pies including pecan. I saw several customers with full meals on their table ranging from chicken to beef to salads. Friday’s Fried Chicken is about a half mile from the brewery on the left as you head into town.

Saint Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the way out of town we stopped by Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church, a towering cathedral that has anchored Shiner since 1921. Boasting a Romanesque revival style of architecture and stunning stained glass windows imported from Germany with a magnificent mural of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and an imposing square tower, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Saint Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

For a quart of ale is a meal for a king.

—William Shakespeare

Absolutely Best Road Trips in Central Texas

For barbecue, the outdoors, and small-town vibes

As t-shirts and bumper stickers are quick to remind you, Texas is big. Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, though, are strategically placed for day trips.

Here, the best road trips in Central Texas.

Historic Kerrville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note that, in 2020, it’s imperative to check websites and social media updates beforehand to ensure that your destination is open and accepting visitors at the time you arrive. Many state parks and public areas require passes beforehand or impose a strict limit on the number of guests allowed at any given time even during normal circumstances.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hill Country

Call it kitsch appeal, call it hokey, but the Texas Hill Country is one fantastic region. There are the little German towns in the center, like Kerrville and Fredericksburg, and dozens of other small towns nestled in the rolling hills. There’s canoeing, rafting, tubing, and kayaking along the numerous rivers, and LBJ Ranch and Luckenbach. When Waylon Jennings first sang about Luckenbach, the town in the Hill Country where folks “ain’t feelin’ no pain,” it instantly put this otherwise non-place on the map. The population is about 10, and all that’s here is the old General Store, a town hall, and a dance hall.

Blanco River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For beautiful scenery and cool water

When you think of a relaxing vacation near water, Texas may not be the first place that comes to mind. But Central Texas is peppered with a number of watering holes, lakes, rivers, and creeks that help soothe the intensity of the summer heat, as well as hikes and trails galore.

McKinney Falls State Park near Austin © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Within the Austin city limits, you have Barton Springs, Bull Creek, and Shoal Creek and their associated greenbelts as well as Lady Bird Lake. But if you’re looking for something a bit more off of the beaten path, head out a little farther into the Texas countryside to explore these alternative options.

San Marcos River at Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Float down the San Marcos, Comal or Guadalupe rivers

Since the summers get real hot in Central Texas, be well-prepared for this aspect of reality. That being said, relaxing outdoor activities—and floating down a gentle river is a popular summer pastime. There are actually are three major rivers popular for floating in this area. There’s the spring-fed San Marcos, which is located in the town of San Marcos exactly halfway between Austin and San Antonio; the short, spring-fed Comal, located in New Braunfels a little south of San Marcos; and the Guadalupe.

San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve never gone tubing before, here’s what to expect: You’ll be sitting in a giant inflatable tube with your friends. Many float rental places offer string you can use to tie your floats together into a large raft. You’ll start upstream at the rental facility’s dock, float down to a certain stopping point, and then the facility will bus you back to your starting point.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hike at Enchanted Rock

One of Texas’ most frequented state parks this scenic area near Fredericksburg boasts 11 miles of trails and a namesake 425-foot granite centerpiece. It is a massive pink granite dome that formed when molten rock solidified beneath the surface more than a billion years ago. The summit of Enchanted Rock is easily accessed via the park’s Summit Trail. Arrive in the morning avoid the crowds. Remember to bring solid hiking boots—conquering the rock’s peak is the equivalent of a 30-to 40-story stair climb. 

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Kayak at Blanco State Park

A river runs through this 104-acre green oasis making Blanco State Park a perfect destination for a relaxing afternoon of kayaking. Calm waters and an easily accessible watercraft launch site (complete with handrails) mean that even first-timers can easily rent a single or double kayak and take in the lush greenery that borders the mile-long stretch of the Blanco River. If desired, bring along your tackle box to enjoy some fishing as well. Choose from a full hookup camping site or site with water and electricity. Or reserve a screened shelter overlooking the river.

Guadalupe River State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Guadalupe River State Park

Guadalupe River State Park is a great spot for a scenic adventure in the Great Outdoors. Many folks come here to swim but the park is more than a great swimming hole with beautiful scenery and colorful history. On the river, you can swim, fish, tube, and canoe. In the dog days of summer, you’ll want to beat the heat and kayak or canoe the Guadalupe River which boasts the 5 mile Guadalupe River State Park Paddling Trail.

Guadalupe River State Paek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While on land, you can camp, hike, ride mountain bikes or horses, picnic, geocache, and bird watch. Explore 13 miles of hike and bike trails. Camping is the way to go, here with 85 campsites offering amenities like picnic tables, outdoor grills, fire pits, and water, and electricity.

Gruene Dance Hall © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gruene

In Gruene (pronounced like the color green), floating up and down the Guadalupe River on the weekends is a way of life. Gruene is designated a historic town by the state of Texas. Part of that history is musical. The oldest dance hall in the state of Texas (still in its original 1800s-era building) is most famous for its country concerts, but swing, rockabilly, jazz, gospel, and folk musicians (both up-and-comers and big names) take the stage, too. The likes of Willie Nelson, George Strait, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Lyle Lovett have all graced the stage at Gruene Hall, a true must-stop when you’re passing through. Limited seating is first-come, first-served, so give yourself plenty of time to grab a beer and find a seat on the benches in the back.

City Market BBQ, Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luling

Luling is home to some of the best barbecue in the Lone Star State, so prepare for a meat coma. City Market is one of Texas’s most-storied ‘que joints serving up only 3 meats—brisket, sausage, and ribs. Across the street from City Market is Luling Bar-B-Q—a relative new-comer since it’s only been open since 1986 (which still a long time to perfect their recipes!) Stop by for a second barbecue meal of moist brisket, smoked turkey, and tender pork loins!

Zedler Mill on the San Marcos River at Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To cool off on a summer’s day, head to this renovated Zedler Mill on the banks of the San Marcos River to splash in one of Texas’s best swimming holes. It’s got everything you need for a perfect afternoon—shade, water, and plenty of sun. If you’d rather paddle than swim, you can rent kayaks and canoes on site.

Schulenburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Schulenburg

Located at the intersection of Interstate 10 and US 77, Schulenburg may be best known as a reliable stop for a kolache fix. But with its roots in German and Czech settlement, this little town offers numerous cultural attractions including the Schulenburg Historical Museum, Texas Polka Music Museum, the Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum, and the spectacular painted churches. The area has the rolling hills and the beautiful bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes in the spring. Schulenburg is not the Hill Country and not the lakes but is nestled in between the hills. And not far from Austin, San Antonio, Houston, or Waco either. Schulenburg is halfway to everywhere.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church at Praha © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Painted Churches of Fayette County are a sight to be seen. Go inside a plain white steeple church and you will find a European styled painted church of high gothic windows, tall spires, elaborately painted interiors with brilliant colors, and friezes created by the German and Czech settlers in America.

St. Mary Catholic Church at High Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bottom line

While the tiny towns of Texas may not be very large, everything else is generally bigger from the distances you’ll be driving to the sheer amount of open sky you’ll see on the road. This shortlist of destinations in Central Texas is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

The Underrated Coast

So much more than the Redneck Riviera

Americans tend to forget they have a third coastline. Sure, they’re aware the Gulf of Mexico has beaches but they tend to lump those in with Florida which then gets lumped in with the Atlantic coast. And the whole rest of the coast from Alabama to Texas gets criminally overlooked. The Gulf Coast is much more than the “Redneck Riviera”, a label it’s long since outgrown. This is a land of magical swamps, remote white-sand beaches, artists, musicians, and colorful characters. And it is the best coastal road trip few have taken.

Ocean Shores © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beginning at the end of Florida in Pensacola, driving west to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain near New Orleans, you’ll skirt the turquoise waters of the gulf while dipping into lush marshlands and storybook small towns. You’ll discover a side of the south you never knew. Come along and see why the Gulf Coast truly is America’s most under-appreciated coastal road trip.

Although Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, and other areas took a major hit from Hurricane Sally, the area has begun to recover. Be sure to phone ahead for destination updates.

Near Orange Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flora-Bama (Florida-Alabama state line)

One of America’s top beach bars, The Flora-Bama Lounge is located uniquely on the Orange Beach, Alabama and Perdido Key, Florida line. About half an hour south of Pensacola this honky tonk has long been a landmark on its famous location. The Flora-Bama has five stages for live music and features bands of country, rock, dance, and beach music. Check back in during the annual interstate mullet toss in late April where competitors line up to see who can throw a fish the furthest across the state line.

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

After responsibly enjoying the Flora-Bama head west on Perdido Beach Boulevard about 10 miles for the sweeping gulf views to Gulf State Park. Here you can immerse yourself in the sand dunes and Spanish moss that made Alabama’s beaches so beautiful before the condo boom. If you’ve got the gear, the park’s got plenty of RV, tent, and car camping sites. Or reserve one of the fully-furnished cabins that sit along Shelby Lakes. Take advantage of the park’s free bike-share program where you can hop on its 28 miles of trails and roll under live oaks then over a boardwalk to the area’s only stretch of sand not lined with condo towers. Nothing but sand dunes, pelicans, and the lapping waves to join you.

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fairhope, Alabama

Shangri-La may be a fantasy, but you can find a real-life utopia on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. The city of Fairhope (population, 16,000), founded in 1894 by a society based on cooperative community ownership, was named for its members’ belief that their enterprise had a “fair hope” of success. Ever since, it has beckoned artists, writers, and other creatives, and today, it draws visitors searching for good food, great shopping, and a bit of outdoor adventure. Galleries and studios pepper downtown streets along the waterfront, alongside more than 80 antique shops, small boutiques, and locally owned restaurants. Visit once and you will be back.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved\

Mobile, Alabama

Don’t be fooled by the beautiful skyline reflecting off the bay; Mobile is more than just incredibly good-looking. Mobile is more than 300 years old, and that fact alone ensures there must be a lot of history associated with a city of that age. The many museums and historical homes help tell Mobile’s story. Eight National Register Historic Districts make up what is known as downtown and midtown Mobile. Explore the mighty WWII battleship USS Alabama, winner of nine battle stars, and the submarine USS Drum. Both are National Historic Landmarks. Visit the Hank Aaron Childhood Home and Museum located at Hank Aaron Stadium. 

Dauphin Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dauphin Island, Alabama

A narrow, 14-mile-long outdoor playground near the mouth of Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island provides a getaway atmosphere with attractions aimed at the family. The Dauphin Island Park and Campground is a great place to enjoy all the island has to offer. The 155-acre park offers an abundance of exceptional recreation offerings and natural beauty. The campground is uniquely positioned so that guests have access to a secluded beach, public boat launches, Fort Gaines, and Audubon Bird Sanctuary. The campground offers 150 sites with 30/50 amp- electric service and water; 99 sites also offer sewer connections.

Bay St. Louis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

There’s St. Louis, and then there’s Bay St. Louis which dubs itself “a place apart.” Here, beach life collides with folk art. Catch the Arts Alive event in March when dozens of artists’ studios collide for a community-enriching arts festival that features local works, live music, theater, literature, and lots of food.

Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Back in 1799, Acadian pioneer Firmin Breaux Breaux built a suspension footbridge across the Bayou Teche to help ease the passage for his family and neighbors. In 1817, Firmin’s son, Agricole, built the first vehicular bridge. Breaux Bridge and crawfish have become synonymous. Restaurants in Breaux Bridge were the first to offer crawfish on their menus and it was here that crawfish etouffee was created. Breaux Bridge became so well known for its crawfish farming and cooking that the Louisiana legislature officially designated Breaux Bridge as the crawfish capital of the world. Breaux Bridge hosts the annual crawfish festival, recognized as one of the state’s finest festival.

Tabasco Factory on Avery Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Avery Island, Louisiana

Lush subtropical flora and venerable live oaks draped with Spanish moss cover this geological oddity which is one of five “islands” rising above south Louisiana’s flat coastal marshes. The island occupies roughly 2,200 acres and sits atop a deposit of solid rock salt thought to be deeper than Mount Everest is high. Geologists believe this deposit is the remnant of a buried ancient seabed, pushed to the surface by the sheer weight of surrounding alluvial sediments. Today, Avery Island remains the home of the TABASCO brand pepper sauce factory as well as Jungle Gardens and its Bird City wildfowl refuge. The Tabasco factory and the gardens are open for tours.

Seawolf Park, Galveston Island © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston Island, Texas

Galveston Island is home to some of the best attractions Texas has to offer including Moody Gardens, Schitterbahn Waterpark, the Historic Pleasure Pier, dazzling Victorian architecture, and 32 miles of sun-kissed beaches. Come to the island to stroll the beach or splash in the waves. Or come to the island to go fishing or look for coastal birds. No matter what brings you here, you’ll find a refuge on Galveston Island. Just an hour from Houston, but an island apart!

Port Lavaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Port Lavaca, Texas

Grab your fishing pole, sunscreen, and beach chair…it’s time to go to Port Lavaca. This coastal town has all the seaside fun you could ask for but without all the crowds found in other Gulf Coast locales. Checking out Port Lavaca’s beaches is a no brainer, regardless of whether you’re looking for a quiet barefoot stroll, hunt for shells, or kick back and relax. Start at Magnolia Beach, also known as the only natural shell beach on the Gulf Coast. Lay out a blanket and soak up the sun, or cast a line from the fishing pier. For more sandy beaches, relax in the shade of a thatch-covered cabana at Lighthouse Beach or swim or paddle board in the tranquil waters of Alamo Beach.

Rockport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rockport-Fulton, Texas

At the final stop on our coastal road trip you’ll discover why Rockport-Fulton is the Charm of the Texas Coast. You’ll find a sandy beach, a birder’s paradise, a thriving arts community, unique shopping, delectable seafood, unlimited outdoor recreation, and historical sites. The Coastal Bend’s natural resources and moderate climate remain the primary attraction for visitors to the Rockport-Fulton area. Be it sport fishing, bird-watching, water recreation, or simply relaxing in the shade of wind-sculpted live oaks life here still revolves around Aransas Bay.

Worth Pondering…

I do like to be beside the seaside.

—John A. Glover-Kind

Birds, Birds, and More Birds: Estero Llano Grande State Park

Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination

Located at the southern tip of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth. Well over 500 species have been spotted in this eco-wonderland, including several that can be found only in this southernmost part of the U.S.

Estero Llano Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower Rio Grande Valley—the ancient delta of the river from Falcon Lake to the Gulf of Mexico—contains resacas or oxbow lakes, Tamaulipan thorn woodlands, marshes, wetlands, and forest. Less than 5 percent of the area’s natural habitat remains, however.

Estero Llano Grande State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the late 1990s, that alarming fact spurred the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, six local communities, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch the creation of the World Birding Center. Today, the World Birding Center consists of nine individual sites, including three state parks: Estero Llano Grande, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley, and Resaca de la Palma.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Together, the parks safeguard nearly 2,200 acres that are home to hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife—places for visitors to experience nature and the landscape of the Valley close to its original state.

Common pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the geographic center of the World Birding Center network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee (pictured below), Altamira oriole, green jay (pictured above), groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques (pictured above), green kingfishers, grebes, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron.

Turtles all in a row © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande State Park, formerly agricultural fields, became a World Birding Center site in 2006. Its 230-plus acres, free of car traffic, take in a shallow lake, woodlands, and thorn forest, along with a wildlife-viewing deck, boardwalks, and five miles of trails.

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park gets its name from the original Spanish land grant for the area known as Llano Grande, which means Large Grassland or Plain. An “estero” is a low-lying area of land often flooded by rain or overflow from a nearby river. So, Estero Llano Grande means “the wet place on the big plain.”

Black bellied whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s amazing what adding a little water to a typically sun-parched environment can do to attract birds and other wildlife. You need look no further for proof than the almost 200 rejuvenated acres of Estero Llano Grande State Park in the Rio Grande Valley.

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds and other wildlife love water; this park contains the largest wetlands environment in the World Birding Center. Hundreds of waders and shorebirds flock here, especially in late summer when water becomes scarce in these parts. Reported sightings include threatened wood storks, colorful roseate spoonbills, ibis, and migrating waterfowl such as ducks. The park’s woodland and thorn scrub harbor Altamira orioles and, sometimes, tropical red-crowned parrots and green parakeets.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the Visitors Center, follow a trail past Ibis Pond and Dowitcher Pond where turtles sun themselves, onto the Camino de Aves Trail, a 1-mile loop through the brush. At Alligator Lake, spend a few minutes on the observation deck looking for the lake’s namesake reptile (pictured below) before continuing to the top of a levee for a view of the Llano Grande.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next turnoff leads to the Spoonbill Trail, which circles Ibis Pond back to where you started. On the other side of the entrance road, lanes of a former RV park have transitioned into the park’s Tropical Area, which attracts rarities such as the rose-throated becard, white-throated thrush, and crimson-collard grosbeak. The short, narrow Green Jay Nature Trail loops through woods so thick they feel like an enchanted forest.

Rose-breasted grosbeak © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This park shelters more than 300 bird species with a record 115 spotted from the deck in one day. Estero Llano Grande offers the best chance to spot the heavily camouflaged common pauraque. Most of the trails accommodate wheelchairs, and tram tours are offered on certain afternoons by reservation. Park staff also offer regularly scheduled guided bird, butterfly, and dragonfly walks.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

Texas BBQ: By Meat Alone

Everything you need to know about Texas BBQ

The American barbecue tradition is rooted in numerous ancient practices. Caddo Indians had a method for smoking venison and in the West Indies, natives grilled meats on a frame of green sticks. Indeed the English word barbecue came from the Arawak-Carib word barbracot (via the Spanish word barbacoa).

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When European colonists arrived in the New World, no doubt tired of all the salt cod from the long Atlantic passage, they found a local population that roasted fish, birds, corn—pretty much anything at hand. The newcomer’s contribution was to introduce a tasty new animal: the hog.

City Market, Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Not only was this beast a marked improvement over the previous fare, but its own habits proved well suited to the Eastern seaboard. In rural areas and colonial towns, pigs would roam freely, indiscriminately eating trash until someone decided to roast them, which was done in the local manner—a hole in the ground, a fire, and a split hog laid directly above it on a wood frame. 

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first recorded mention of American barbecue dates back to 1697 and George Washington mentions attending a “barbicue” in Alexandria, Virginia in 1769.

As the country expanded westwards along the Gulf of Mexico and north along the Mississippi River, barbecue went with it.

Barbecue in its current form grew up in the South, where cooks learned to slow-roast tough cuts of meat over fire pits to make them tender. This Caribbean style of slow cooking meat formed the basis of the Southern barbecue tradition that influenced Texas when some of its first American settlers arrived.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

European meat smoking traditions were brought by German and Czech settlers in Central Texas during the mid-19th century. The original tradition was that butchers would smoke leftover meat that had not been sold so that it could be stored and saved. As these smoked leftovers became popular, many of these former meat markets evolved to specialize in these smoked meats.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The wood-smoking traditions of the Lone Star State’s distinct barbecue styles vary by regions:

  • Central Texas “meat market” style, in which spice-rubbed meat is cooked over indirect heat from pecan or heavy post oak wood, a method that originated in the butcher shops of German and Czech immigrants
  • Hill Country and West Texas “cowboy style,” which involves direct heat cooking over mesquite coals and uses goat and mutton as well as beef and pork
  • East Texas style, essentially the hickory-smoked, sauce-coated barbecue with which most Americans are familiar
  • South Texas barbacoa, in which whole beef heads are traditionally cooked in pits dug into the earth

The barbecue is typically served with plenty of thick sauce (either slathered on the meat or on the side for dipping or both), and then sides of coleslaw, potato salad, pinto beans, and fat slabs of white bread.

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you want to sink your teeth into excellent brisket then head to Lockhart, the official Barbecue Capital of Texas. The small town is home to four major barbecue restaurants: Black’s Barbecue, which has been owned by the same family since 1932; Chisholm Trail Bar-B-Que; Smitty’s Market; and Kreuz Market (pronounced Krites).

Heavy on the pepper, the snappy beef-and-pork sausage at Kreuz Market is truly one of the best in Barbecueland. The pork spareribs taste fresh, with plenty of juicy, delicious meat on them, and the beef ribs are scrumptious.

Smitty’s Market © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Only the uninitiated use the front door at Smitty’s Market. You’ll enter the boxy brick building from the parking lot passing the waist-high brick pits and peruse the list of post oak–smoked meats—brisket, pork ribs and chops, shoulder clod, sausage, and prime rib. Salivating, you place your order for a pound or so of meat. May this bulwark of tradition never change.

City Market, Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Instead of a mesmerizing encounter with a picturesque fire blazing at the end of an ancient brick pit like you’ll find at Smitty’s, at Black’s you’re funneled through a narrow corridor past a salad bar. When you finally reach the meat counter, you’ll find great brisket, enormous beef short ribs, pork ribs, pork chops, smoked turkey breast, and Black’s signature sausage (90 percent beef, 10 percent pork) with phenomenal flavor.

Luling Bar-B-Q, Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heading south on Highway 183, the City Market in Luling is just 15 miles away. Admired as one of the best barbecue places in Texas, City Market offers brisket, sausage links, and pork ribs. They also offer pinto beans and a homemade mustard-based sauce which is out-of-this-world.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While in Brenham (think, Blue Bell ice cream) I decided to check out a rising star, Truth BBQ on the west side of town. Truth looks too cute to be serving serious barbecue. The carefully curated interior—with its hand-lettered signs, Texas license plates, and Instagram-ready desserts—is a far cry from a no-frills meat market or a rusty roadside pit. Walking in we’re offered samples of brisket and a delicious side. The first bite announces the fact that youthful proprietor Leonard Botello IV has been an admirer of the handiwork of other masters of the craft, notably Franklin Barbecue’s Aaron Franklin.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The pork ribs are decadently moist and slightly sweetened with a glaze. The brisket possesses an intense meaty flavor, subtle but deep smoke penetration and a fine black-pepper crust. With every bite I liked my visit more. And the sides—can we talk about the sides? There is creamy mac and cheese with sizzling bacon crumbled on top; slow-cooked collard greens; rapturously buttery corn pudding; and bright, crisp slaw.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Somehow you must leave room for one of Truth’s five or so different monster cakes, which Botello’s mother, Janel, makes from scratch. And on the way out the “Love Texas” sign makes a perfect background for selfies. Truth BBQ is the real deal, get out there the next chance you can. If you don’t believe me, they have a 5 star rating on Yelp and Trip Advisor.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On a trip to the Coastal Bend we checked out Mumphord’s Place BBQ in Victoria and it did not disappoint. The minute we parked, I was drawn to the action out back where the pit master tends the glowing fireboxes and pits in the screened-in shed. This is “cowboy-style” barbecue, where the wood is burned to coals, then transferred to large metal pits in which the meat is placed on grates set about four feet directly above the heat.

Truth BBQ, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The flavor is good, and in a part of the state where quality ’cue of any kind is scarce, Mumphord’s does a better than decent job. Part of the fun is being there, in the room with its red-checked tablecloths, sports photos, trophies, cow skulls, an ancient icebox, a sword, old firearms and cameras, beer cans, and heaven knows what else. 

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.

—from Legends of Texas BBQ

Best Places for RV Travel this December

The seven best destinations for RV travel this December from Southern California to the Sunshine State

September, October, November, and December are where the names that derive from gods as people end and numeric-naming conventions begin. Thanks to the Roman rearranging the numeric names don’t correspond when the actual month appears on the calendar. Decem is Latin for the tenth month.

Cave Creek Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But in 46 B.C., the beginning of the Julian calendar bumped each of those months backward to create the calendar we all know and use today. Good thing the Roman Empire fell so they could stop moving months around.

Forget summertime: December just might be the best time of year to travel. There are the Christmas classics.

Planning an RV trip for a different time of year? Check out our monthly travel recommendations for the best places to travel in September, October, and November. Also check out our recommendations from December 2019.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arizona

The Grand Canyon State is a place where you’re amply rewarded for looking beyond the obvious. You’ll find dramatic geology beyond the Grand, rivers beyond the Colorado, and ancient ruins that you’ve probably never heard of. You may equate Arizona with desert but much of the state is mountainous and its home to six national forests. You won’t want to miss the mighty canyon in the state’s far north, but venture farther afield and you’ll find gentler canyon country near Sedona, mountain hiking near Phoenix and Tucson, and some ancient dwellings that are still inhabited.

Corkscrew Sanctuary, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Florida

You’re picturing white sandy beaches, and you’re not wrong: Florida has endless miles of picturesque sand. But it also has countless opportunities for adventure and discovery of Florida’s natural wonders. Everglades National Park, on the southern tip of the state, is the largest subtropical wilderness in the U.S. and an absolutely otherworldly landscape full of rare plants, alligators, and birds. The Keys are paradise for wreck diving while the interior of the state is full of crystal-clear springs ready for swimming and hiking and biking trails that meander through cypress forests.

McKinney Falls State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas

Texas is divided into numerous climatic zones. Each zone has its own weather patterns. During the winter, most RV travelers choose the Texas Gulf Coast, Central Texas, or South Texas. The Gulf Coast and Central Texas typically have daytime highs in the 60s during the winter months, while highs average around 70 in the southernmost parts of the state. Houston, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi have RV parks that are open year round. From Brownsville to Mission the Rio Grande Valley welcome thousands of Winter Texans looking for a warm winter home.

Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern California

Well-known for weather that remains balmy year round, Southern California is an ideal winter destination for RV travelers. Temperatures in San Diego and Los Angeles rarely drop much below 70 degrees and precipitation is minimal. The beaches are open, as are all of the region’s attractions. Note that Southern California is a popular winter destination for travelers of all types, not just those in RVs. Expect crowds and high prices throughout the winter season.

Alabama Gulf Coast © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alabama Gulf Coast

The Alabama Gulf Coast is warmed by sunshine, history, culture, and unspoiled natural beauty. You’ll find 32 miles of sugar-white sand beaches made almost entirely of fine, quartz grains washed down from the Appalachian Mountains thousands of years ago. Once you visit the Gulf Coast area of Baldwin County, you quickly realize these are some of the finest beaches in the world and one of America’s hidden gem locations. You’ll yearn to return year after year to feel the sand between your toes, splash around in the turquoise water, smell the salty air and admire the jaw-dropping sunsets of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

The Old Pima County Courthouse in El Presidio, Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

Tucson is a city set in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The city is surrounded by several mountain ranges, such as the Santa Catalinas. You’ll find a strong historical heritage here with a number of restored historic mansions in the El Presidio and Barrio Historic Districts. The University of Arizona is based here and the area around campus has many unique shops, a variety of nightclubs, and quality restaurants. Saguaro National Park is easily accessible and offers stunning desert vistas with saguaro cacti. Winter is somewhat busy in Tucson with mild temperatures compared to much of the year.

Smitty’s Market, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart, Texas

Eat your way through the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Lockhart is home to three of Texas’ most legendary barbecue joints: Kreuz Market (go for the sausage, stay for the smoky pork chops), Black’s BBQ (dinosaur beef rib, anyone?), and Smitty’s Market (lines form for a taste of its shoulder clod, brisket, hot links, and pork ribs). Why not try all three in a day? If you are a Texas BBQ enthusiast, all roads should go through Lockhart.

Worth Pondering…

Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.

—Norman Vincent Peale

Why I Love Blue Bell Ice Cream

Blue Bell ice cream seriously is the best ice cream

I grew up in the good old days when you milked the cows and separated the wonderful fresh cream from the delicious whole milk. You bought your salt and ice and sat out in the shed all afternoon cranking away on the arm of the ice cream keg. It was usually a family affair that required many hours of hard labor but the end result was well worth all the effort. Perfectly crafted handmade ice cream with just the right texture and flavor! In fact, if you wanted wholesome ice cream back then it was about the only way you got it.

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around the early 70’s that old past time came to an abrupt end for many as word got around that the little creamery in Brenham, Texas had started expanding and would soon begin selling to new markets. There was some skepticism, at first, followed by years of unbridled gluttony as many discovered the joy and convenience of being able to shop at a local grocer for a whole half gallon of incredible ice cream, something that took hours of hard labor before then.

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, other brands have come along and Blue Bell has continued to increase its markets across the South. I’ve given the competitors a try including the big names and have come to the simple conclusion that, just as their ads proclaim, Blue Bell really is the best ice cream in the country. The main reasons? Fresh ingredients and tasty rich flavors! To quote Blue Bell, “The milk we use is so fresh it was grass only yesterday.” That commitment to quality is why Blue Bell has been slow to expand in spite of strong demand. 

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Perhaps it’s the country music inspired commercials or the many cherished flavors but one thing is for sure: I love Blue Bell ice cream! Below the Mason-Dixon line, the brand is known as the go-to ice cream company simply because it “tastes just like the good ole’ days.”

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It all started back in 1907 when a group of local farmers in Brenham, Texas, decided to work together and founded the Brenham Creamery Company. They pooled their resources and the output of their Jersey cows and started making butter from the excess cream that the area farmers dropped off. A few years later, the creamery realized what else they could do with all that excess cream. Soon they started churning out the best ice cream around—albeit just two gallons of ice cream at a time—selling it under the Brenham Creamery Company name and delivering it to neighbors by horse and wagon.

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About twenty years later, the company switched its name to Blue Bell Creameries with the charming Texas bluebell wildflower in mind. The rest is history! Blue Bell ice cream flavors are often the exciting grand finale to any celebration. The products are now sold in 22 states according to its website.

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s quite a change for a company that still promotes itself as a small town business selling a locally produced product. “We eat all we can and sell the rest,” one of the company’s favorite marketing slogans says. So, if you’re searching for where to buy Blue Bell ice cream, you should know that the tasty treat is a bit of a delicacy ‘round these parts.

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

My favorites change from time to time but they’re all good even the stranger ones (remember Blueberry Cheesecake?)  Currently I am hooked on both the moo-llenium crunch and the pecan pralines ‘n cream but as new flavors arise and seasonal reappear I never know what I’ll come home with next. Their original homemade vanilla and Dutch chocolate are classic favorites and if you can’t make up your mind then the ultimate Neapolitan (vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry evenly divided under one lid) is an easy choice.

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pour a little light cream over a big bowl full of the original homemade vanilla and think back to all those days on the farm spent cranking away at that bucket out in the shed. The old days are never really that far away, after all. They just got better when Blue Bell came to town.  

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ice cream is like a good friend. Sweet, nostalgic, ready on the freezer shelf whenever you need it! And it will never abandon you and when it’s the only dessert that will satisfy a cool, creamy craving, the frozen aisle is pretty close to paradise.

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The century-old, Brenham-born brand offers a wide variety of ice creams, sherbets, and frozen snacks. Ice cream flavors include 25 classic year-round options like rocky roads, strawberries & homemade vanilla, and cookies ’n cream. As well as rotational limited-time flavors like fudge brownie decadence, spiced pumpkin pecan, and confetti cake. And yes, I’ve tried them all!

Blue Bell Ice Cream © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

My love for ice cream emerged at an early age – and has never left!

—Ginger Rogers

Best Getaway to Czech Out

This might just be the “Best Little Day Trip in Texas.”

Etched in the eroded headstones in the city cemetery and the cemeteries at the nearby “painted churches”—quaint little chapels with exquisite, spangled interiors—are the names of German and Czech immigrants who flocked to the town starting in the 1840s. With its rich heritage, it’s no surprise that La Grange is the hub for celebrating the Czech culture in Texas. Over 80 percent of the Czech Moravian families that settled in Texas at some time lived in Fayette County before they spread out across the state. La Grande is on the Colorado River between Houston and Austin on Texas Highway 71.

Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For starters, Czech out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center. Vitáme Vás is the Czech equivalent of “howdy” and you’ll certainly feel welcome. This museum gives visitors a feel for the culture and early days of Fayette County when thousands of Czech immigrants populated the area. The museum has clothes, relocated homes, and lots of musical instruments. Crank up the Polka, baby!

Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another must-see stop is the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. Located on 40-acres of land on a bluff overlooking the Colorado River and La Grange this park holds two historic sites and a ton of beautiful nature. One site is Monument Hill honoring the Texan heroes who lost their lives in the Dawson Massacre and Mier Expedition where Texans were forced to draw beans for their lives. The other stop is the stone ruins of the Kreische Brewery, one of the oldest commercial breweries in Texas started in the 1860s and the house of the Kreische family which you can tour.

Fayette County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Czech immigrants incorporated different aspects of their culture into the town, perhaps the most apparent being the architecture of the buildings standing in the town square. In the center of the Square sits the most recognizable building in La Grange, the Fayette County Courthouse the fourth structure to house county business since 1838.

Fayette County Courthouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This stately temple of justice was designed by 27 year old James Riley Gordon of San Antonio and constructed in 1891 at the cost of $99,407.04. The architecture of the courthouse is Romanesque Revival style which was popular during the mid to late 1800s.

Texas Heroes Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Honor Texans who have served and sacrificed at the Texas Heroes Museum. The museum is in the Fayette County Old Jail that operated from 1883 to 1985. Located just off the Square, it is a beautiful Victorian Gothic rusticated limestone building that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside is a portion of an original jail cell, bunk, and a wash basin and commode combination. Sheriff’s memorabilia include badges, handcuffs, a hanging rope, Sheriff Will Loesin’s gun holster, and photographs.

Colorado River from Monument Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Learn about the volunteers from Fayette County who were killed in the Dawson Massacre and the Black Bean Lottery and are now buried in the nearby Monument Hill State Historic Site. Learn about Texas Heroes like Sam Houston, Audie Murphy, Chester Nimitz, and Chris Kyle. See how uniforms, helmets, and other gear have changed over the years. Over 1,000 books are in the museum’s reference library.

Kolaches at Weikels Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The early Czech settlers also brought with them the kolache, an open-faced pastry traditionally prepared with a sweet filling which is now beloved across the state.

Kolaches at Weikels Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just as the Czech koláč became “ko-lah-chee” on the tongues of Texans, kolache fillings evolved over time. Many Texans first experienced traditional kolache flavors that include poppy seed, prune, apricot, peach, and cream cheese. As the pastry grew in popularity bakers developed new flavors from lemon and pineapple to Philly cheese steak and the distinctly Texan sausage known as Klobasnikies (Pigs-in-a-Blanket) even though no kolache would contain meat in Eastern Europe.

Kolaches at Weikels Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery. Here you find cinnamon rolls, strudel, cream cheese pound cake, pecan sandies, and cookies of all kinds, plus a repertoire of a dozen kolaches. The kolache is Weikel’s specialty, the shop’s motto (on the highway billboard): We got’cha Kolache.

Weikels Bakery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t worry—you don’t have to squeeze every flavor into one trip… Weikel’s will ship these goodies anywhere in the country!

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas history is a varied, tempestuous, and vast as the state itself. Texas yesterday is unbelievable, but no more incredible than Texas today. Today’s Texas is exhilarating, exasperating, violent, charming, horrible, delightful, alive.

— Edna Ferber

Everything’s Bigger in Texas: Best Road Trips from Houston, San Antonio, and Austin

As t-shirts and bumper stickers are quick to remind us, Texas is big

There’s an old saying that “everything is bigger in Texas” and what counts as a commute for a Texan may well qualify as a road trip in other states. From Conroe to Freeport, Katy to Baytown, the greater Houston area spans more than 100 miles north to south and over 50 miles east to west. The Dallas/Fort Worth metropolis isn’t much smaller especially as suburban sprawl continues to spread and San Antonio has expanded significantly in recent years.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big cities mean wide highways and fast speed limits: The 41-mile stretch of Texas Highway 130, just east of Austin, boasts a speed limit of 85 miles per hour—the fastest legal limit in the country. Austin retains traces of its small-town vibe although locals whisper about a future where Austin and San Antonio could morph into one giant megacity. And Austin is notorious for its daily traffic jams.

La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking to ditch the hustle and bustle of big-city life? There’s so much to see in Texas beyond its major metropolitan areas. Houston, San Antonio, and Austin are strategically placed for road trips in Central Texas. Here are some of my favorite getaways for a day trip, a week, or longer.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note that, in 2020, it’s imperative to check websites and social media updates beforehand to ensure that your destination is open and accepting visitors at the time you arrive. Many state parks and public areas require passes beforehand or impose a strict limit on the number of guests allowed at any given time even during normal circumstances.

Black’s Barbecue, Lockhart © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lockhart

A trip to this flavor-packed smoke town should be on any food lover’s bucket list. Dubbed the “BBQ Capital of Texas,” Lockhart is easily one of the most legendary barbecue destinations in the world. While you could make it a daytrip you’ll need several days or more to eat your way through it. Tackle at least two of the Big Three on Day One: Black’s Barbecue (open since 1932), Kreuz Market (est. 1900), and Smitty’s Market (since 1948). Proceed in any order you please. Lockhart has one more stop in store for you: Chisholm Trail Barbecue (opened by a Black’s alum in 1978).

Lockhart State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But there’s a lot more to Lockhart than just smoked meats. Golfers can look out on the rugged Texas scenery while enjoying a round of golf at the Lockhart State Park Golf Course which also offers an on-site swimming pool, camping sites, and fishing hole.

What is next? Off to Luling for some more barbecue? How about a Shiner beer? A nap? Or both? You deserve it!

Luling Oil Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Luling

This little town is known for BIG flavors—and whether you prefer sweet or meat, both are delicious here. Gorge yourself on juicy watermelon or fill up on some of the best barbecue in the Lone Star State—either way you’ll leave here full. And while you’re eating your way through town, you’ll also find some pretty epic nature spots.

Luling © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dive into the history of “the toughest town in Texas” at the Luling Oil Museum where you’ll learn about the oil boom of Central Texas in the 1920s. Walk through a model town and see real tools from the oil boom days. Around this oil town, you’ll find tons of pump jacks decorated as everything from quarterbacks to killer whales. It’s the perfect mixture of art, history, and liquid gold!

Spoetzal Brewery, Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shiner

Shiner, Texas is home to 2,069 people, Friday’s Fried Chicken, and—most famously—the Spoetzal Brewery where every drop of Shiner beer is brewed. Tours are offered throughout the week where visitors can see how their popular brews get made. Tours and samples are free. Founded in 1909, the little brewery today sends more than 6 million cases of delicious Shiner beer across the country. Founder, Kosmos Spoetzal, would be pretty proud! To which we say “Prosit!”

Blue Bell Creameries, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Brenham

Blue Bell fans travel from all over to see the making of their favorite ice cream. At The Little Creamery in Brenham, visitors can watch the manufacturing process from an observation deck while attendants narrate and provide fun facts, and then check out the Visitors Center to read up on the company’s history and see artifacts. The self-guided tours conclude with $1 scoops from the parlor. In addition to regular favorites, the creamery also serves special flavors like Cookies ’n Cream and Pecan Pralines ’n Cream and the newest flavor to temp your taste buds, Fudge Brownie Decadence.

Fredericksburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fredericksburg

In the heart of the Texas Hill Country, Fredericksburg maintains a small-town feel while having lots of things to see and do. With its unique German heritage, thriving wineries, and shopping, it’s the perfect getaway. The historic buildings along Main Street are home to over 100 shops. Influenced by the town’s heritage, German and German-inspired food options abound. Fredericksburg and the surrounding regions are at the heart of Central Texas wine country. This area is particularly beautiful in the springtime, with gorgeous wildflowers erupting from the otherwise green landscape.

Fayette County Court House, La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Grange

This might just be the “Best Little Day Trip in Texas.” I’m sure Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton would agree as it was the events of La Grange’s famous “Chicken Ranch” that inspired the classic musical “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” While the brothel is no longer around there’s still plenty to do in this town.

Weikel’s Bakery kolaches, La Grande © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For starters, “Czech” out the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center. This museum gives visitors a feel for the culture and early days of Fayette County when thousands of Czech immigrants populated the area. Another must-see stop is the Monument Hill & Kreische Brewery State Historic Site. The settlers also introduced a town favorite treat—the kolache! One of the best spots to grab a kolache is Weikel’s Bakery.

Blanco State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blanco

Blanco calls itself the “Lavender Capital of Texas” as home of Hill Country Lavender farm and the annual Lavender Festival in June, complete with tours of lavender crops, growing tips, and music. If swimming or fishing’s your thing, head to Blanco State Park. A river runs through this 104-acre green oasis making Blanco State Park a perfect destination for a relaxing afternoon of kayaking. Calm waters and an easily accessible watercraft launch site (complete with handrails) mean that even first-timers can easily rent a single or double kayak and take in the lush greenery that borders the mile-long stretch of the Blanco River. If desired, bring along your tackle box to enjoy some fishing as well. 

Bottom line

While the tiny towns of Texas may not be very large, everything else is generally bigger from the distances you’ll be driving to the sheer amount of open sky you’ll see on the road. This shortlist of destinations in Central Texas is far from an exhaustive list, but it’s a start.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Texas is a state mind. Texas is an obsession. Above all, Texas is a nation in every sense of the word.

—John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Where the Journey Is the Destination: Texas State Highway 35

The journey is the destination along this coast-hugging highway

Don’t be fooled by the name. State Highway 35 is the antithesis to the behemoth with which it shares a number. Interstate 35 is a white-knuckle fight for highway survival while its country cousin is an easy cruise through green marshes and across bays with intermittent glimpses of the Gulf of Mexico.

Otherwise known as the “Hug-the-Coast” Highway, this 35 predates I-35 by more than 40 years. With only one lane on each side most of the way, it’s a quaint retreat—a throwback to Sunday drives where the journey was the destination.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This slow ride begins south of Houston in West Columbia, the tiny town with the distinction of having been the capital of the Republic of Texas for about three months in 1836. Stop by the state historical marker on the corner of Brazos and Brown streets to learn about Charlie Brown, the former slave who became the largest landowner in Brazoria County and started the county’s first school for African American children.

Port O’Connor © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although much about Brown’s life is unrecorded and unknown, in 2015 the state legislature passed a resolution honoring the man whose “life and legacy are indeed worthy of tribute.” The Varner-Hogg Plantation, a state historic site just outside of town, tells stories of pioneer days, slavery, and oil.

Port Lavaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back on the road as Route 35 steer you straight toward Matagorda Bay. In the town of Palacios, home to birders and fishermen, stop at The Point. The hybrid convenience store and Vietnamese and Mexican restaurant has become the social hub of the town. You can grab fishing gear, breakfast tacos, and authentic Vietnamese food. Everyone in Palacios ends up at The Point. Road-trippers can dine on world-class pho and spring rolls at the same table where the late chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain once sat, or grab takeout for a picnic on the docks overlooking the bay. If you’re lucky, you might catch the flash of a roseate spoonbill in flight.

Grab your fishing pole, sunscreen, and beach chair…it’s time to go to Port Lavaca. This coastal town has all the seaside fun you could ask for but without all the crowds found in other Gulf Coast locales.

Port Lavaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Checking out Port Lavaca’s beaches is a no brainer, regardless of whether you’re looking for a quiet barefoot stroll, hunt for shells, or kick back and relax. Start at Magnolia Beach, also known as the only natural shell beach on the Gulf Coast. Lay out a blanket and soak up the sun, or cast a line from the fishing pier. For more sandy beaches, relax in the shade of a thatch-covered cabana at Lighthouse Beach or swim or paddle board in the tranquil waters of Alamo Beach.

Texas Lakeside RV Resort © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plus, Texas Lakeside is a 5-star RV resort with long concrete pads, multi-purpose clubhouse, fitness center, tropical pool, stocked fishing lake, and gated entrance. The park’s 138 full-service sites include cable TV and high speed Internet.

Rockport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can keep on trucking toward Rockport or take a 45-minute side trip to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. This pristine sanctuary overlooking San Antonio Bay attracts more than 400 species of birds and is the winter home of the endangered whooping cranes. Heron Flats, an easy 1.5-mile walking trail, promises glimpses of leggy birds high-stepping through marshes as they seek their supper.

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The natural wonders continue 10 miles north of Rockport in Goose Island State Park, where the Big Tree prevails. Scientists have calculated this live oak could be more than 1,000 years old—and it’s so resilient even Hurricane Harvey couldn’t knock it down.

Big Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Between Palacios and Rockport, it may be hard to keep your eye on the road. SR-35 crosses over the shimmery Lavaca, San Antonio, and Copano bays, where rivers meet the Gulf of Mexico. The thrill of being surrounded by blue water on all sides may require a photo stop. If you time it right, you can catch a sunset sky of pink and orange swirls at the remains of the Copano Bay Fishing Pier just as you’re cruising into Rockport.

Sea Breeze RV Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Rockport, it’s only 28 miles to Portland, where it’s time to say goodbye to this laid-back coastal road as it merges south into the bigger US-181. Sunset Lake Park, with a 2-mile hike-and-bike trail among the wetlands of Nueces Bay is a breezy spot to stretch your legs and enjoy some bird watching. And Sea Breeze RV Park is a friendly spot to enjoy a panoramic view of Corpus Christi Bay with the causeway and city skyline and amazing sunrise and sunset from your 75-foot pull-through site.

North Beach on Corpus Christi Bay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lyrics of country musician Don Williams, who was raised in Portland, suits the bayside scene: “The smell of cape jasmine through the window screen / I can still hear the soft southern winds in the live oak trees.”

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heading toward Corpus, you are thrust back into the rush of multiple lanes and cars in a hurry to get somewhere—a jolt after so many miles of traffic-free driving. The intensity of it brings to mind the other bigger, faster 35. It’s a reminder of just how good you’ve had it on the mellow ride of the coast-hugging highway.

Corpus Christi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

After 7 days of trial and error,

God created Texas on the 8th day.