Taste USA in TEXAS

Featuring: San Antonio, Bandera, Fredericksburg, Austin and Houston

With special thanks to: Discover USA, Air New Zealand and Texas Tourism

I think my challenge for this blog is going to be trying to write about my ten wonderful days without 1) writing a novel and 2)  over using “love” “beautiful” “authentic” “fantastic” . I really did have the time of my life on this trip and from the bottom of my heart, I believe that Texas is that little (well, not so little) place in the world, where I belong.

The start of this trip is now nothing but a blur. I was so anxious, never having been on a Famil before; filled with the looming fears of going somewhere alone and continuously planting seeds of doubt into my mind like “what if I don’t like my group?” “what if my group don’t like me?!” “what if I drink too much and end up dancing on the table again?” (hehe – oops!). Like most things in life, I was FINE! beyond fine actually – I fell in love with The Lone Star State.

Define (Famil): A free or low cost trip for travel agents or consultants, provided by a travel wholesaler or airline as a means of promoting their service.

After arriving in Auckland from Wellington I was greeted by two cowboys (well, men in cowboy hats), Wayne and John, who were handing out colour coordinated back packs for the Mega Famil. Wayne from Brand USA and John (later know as Jahn with an accent) from Air New Zealand were both on Team Texas. We all had different groups and I was stoaked with mine! (we were a “younger” bunch). It was not really until sitting at the gate that people started to morph towards their own similar colours – I didn’t see any white Texas bags right up until boarding. First stop… Houston, Texas!

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From Houston we jumped straight onto the next flight to San Antonio, where we were met by our Texas host, Tommy (said Tahmy with the accent) who gifted us our very own Stetson cowboy hat – yeehaw! Tommy, based in Austin Texas, stayed with us the entire ten days and the host with the most! We headed straight to check in at The Sheraton Gunter Hotel, San Antonio. (after night one to find it was also famous for headlines such as “haunted Gunter hotel in San Antonio”!!!).

We arrived at the hotel around 5pm and had an hour to refresh and get ready for the beginning of our Taste USA adventure. We started at a place call Cured for appitiesers and cocktails which was a really historically interesting venue – too bad the moonshine cocktail made me forget some of the most important points… though I do recall they re-used many of the old parts of the building and revamped them into more contemporary things, such as a wine rack. After a delicious start to the evening we headed to The Boiler House (literally an old boiler room turned restaurant) for mains and dessert. I have NEVER seen a table so full of food in my life! It was in this moment, on the verge of a food coma, that I accepted all the work I had done on the 12 Week Challenge would be lost forever… well, for ten sweet sweet cheat days!

On Day Two we met in the lobby at 7.45am to meet our San Antonio host, Dianne, but we called her Sassy – she is a delight! We had breakfast at the Gunther House where I ordered a Texan classic “biscuits and gravy” which is basically a type of scone-bread roll fusion with a yummy creamy sauce… It was only day two and I already had wished that I had brought more stretchy pants!

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Again in a food coma. we rolled onto the bus and did a driving tour through King William District, a historical area of preserved buildings of German architectural style:  http://visitsanantonio.com/Browse-Book/Attractions/King-William-Historic-District  We also passed through South Town where we stopped in at Gini Garcia Art Glass, where we got a chance to watch glass blowing with a full commentary. We also got a chance to visit San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and spend some time at “The Queen of the Missions” to hear all about the Spanish Catholic history Texas had to offer.

What all the history buffs had been waiting for… we “crossed the line” at The Alamo, another historic spot in San Antonio where many Texans died fighting off the Mexicans. I found it very crowded, though on our tour we got little ear pieces so we could hear our tour guide via microphone.

LUNCH, served at Mi Tierra Restaurant and Bakery. This Mexican restaurant is decorated like it is Christmas all year round and is open 24 hours a day. After lining our bellies with strawberry margarita’s we had a little spare time before heading to the Alamo Brewery for a tour and tasting of the local product – not bad if I may say so myself!

We had dinner on the River Walk to end our day with a neat surprise. We literally had dinner ON the river! Many of the restaurants cater to the little boats that take you for a wee cruise of the river. You have your own waitress on board and the driver gives you a little commentary as you eat and/or talk amongst yourselves. I barely noticed as we stopped to pick up our mains and drop off dirty dishes from the breads to start. It was the moment I was waiting for… RIBS IN TEXAS! Did I mention beer and wine on board?

We got dropped off in front of Drury Plaza Riverwalk where we watched a light show on San Fernando Cathedral. I think we were all so pooped, that a few of us actually fell asleep in-front of the cathedral (guilty!). The light show was about The Alamo and a visually pleasing way to spend our last night in San Antonio.

Sassy saw us off in the morning with a big bag of breakfast tacos for the road. We were off to “the Cowboy Capital of the World”, Bandera, about an hour out of San Antonio and into Texas Hill Country. This was one of my favorite places purely for its authenticity. The population of Bandera is around 900, there is one main street called, you guessed it “main street” where you will see horse and carts alongside big massive trucks. Lunch was burgers & pie on 11th street at a local fundraiser followed by a cowboy gun fight reenactment. I remember during lunch we saw a place called “the Silver Dollar”. It looked like nothing on the outside, but as you walk down into the dingy darkness, you hear the country band playing, the smell of stale cigarettes and beer until you come in to find you are walking on a floor of sawdust – for “boot’n’scoot”!!!

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Our host Patricia took us on a tour to check out the various styles of ranches before horseback riding! It was at this ranch where Mr Scary Cowboy came galloping on his giant horse and made a couple of us “GIT AWN MA DAMN HORSE!?” we did as he said, quivering in fear. But we got some cool photos to show for it hah!

We checked in at the Mayan Dude Ranch where we immediately hit the pool where we had free beer and a photo opportunity with my new best friend, Redneck the Longhorn Bull! Dinner, like the ranch and the rooms itself, was again a completely authentic experience, a Cowboy dinner. We were taken on the back of a truck sitting on hay bales out into the country side for a big barbecue dinner with all the other guests. A keg was there to top up as you please, marshmallows for s’mores around the fire and to top it all off, a cowboy and his guitar singing songs about the countryside. In my mind it could not get better than this…

… but it did! After yet another food coma and beer belly bloating we had the option of going out to Honky-Tonk Saturday night. We went back to 11th street where we had had lunch and it was just like the movies! cowboy hats, live country music, line dancing, bras hanging from the roof but the best part… you can BYO your MASSIVE bottles of spirits – I love Bandera!!!

The morning after was not the best. But one of my favorite memories from this trip, was as we were waiting to depart, I was outside trying not to be sick when I saw a line of horses majestically walk in single file into their stables. I know it sounds strange, but in that moment, with the crisp country morning air, the peacefulness and almost silence of those horses is an odd moment of complete solace that I will cherish always – the most strange though loveliest hangover I have ever had! We were again taken back out for a Cowboy Breakfast featuring grits, beans and biscuits. Spirits were not quite as high as the night before and food was eaten slowly; none the less, a wonderful way to depart Bandera and the Mayan Dude Ranch bound for Fredericksberg.

We arrived at the visitor centre and took the “coolest ride in town” down Historic Main Street and Downtown where we got to see some beautiful historical buildings and learn about Fredericksberg’s German history, mix of religion and the restoration it has been through.

Hair of the Dog at its finest – we had THREE wine tastings this day! However, we begin softly with a Peach Bellini and a cooking demonstration (and tasting) at Das Peach Haus, home of the Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce.

Departing down Fredericksburg’s Wine Road 290, the wine tasting began. We visited Becker Vineyards (recently nominated as “Best Winery in America”), Grape Creek Vinyards (“Tuscany in Texas”) here, we were tasting wine straight out of the barrel to sample different oaks and how it changes the taste. Lastly, a wine AND CHEESE pairing at 4.0 Cellars.

We checked into our accommodation before another food coma at the Navajo Grill, known for their authentic fresh Mexican influence with a touch of New Orleans & Caribbean flavors. This was a beautiful meal! We stayed at the six star, Hoffman Haus which too was a favorite of mine. We each got our own little cottage with a big bathroom, giant bed and living area, it was bliss! At 8am the next day I had a knock on my door to find a wicker basket filled with a local breakfast. Only a small touch but made all the difference and had us ready for Day Five and our “surprise hike” on the way to Austin.

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Hamilton Pool Reserve was our hiking destination and most definitely not something I thought I would see in Texas. A popular swimming spot in summer and also a natural pool, Hamilton Pool Reserve is a great and beautiful activity very close to Austin; with beautiful 360 degree view of a the waterfall. I have to say, at this point I was pleased to be in gym gear, as I was pretty sure I had doubled in size!

We arrived at Moonshine Patio Bar & Grill for lunch, YUM! though, again a food coma and again having to roll onto the bus.

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After lunch we checked into The Driskill Hotel – if you type it into Google, you will find the word “haunted” appear a few times. Apparently on the same floor I was on, people have reported the smell of cigar smoke, which is apparently a sign the former owner checking in on you. Haunted or not, this hotel is old and this hotel is beautiful. We had dinner there that night before heading out onto 6th Street for a Live Music Crawl ending at a Jazz Club called The Elephant Room, where the walls were covered in dollar bills signed by people from everywhere.

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Day Six started with breakfast tacos at Maria’s Taco Express, something to line our again hungover bellies. We made a quick stop at Austin’s highest point to a pretty spectacular view – Good Morning Austin!

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We had a guided tour of the Lydon Baines Presidential Library & Museum and a food truck lunch at The Picnic. The food trucks are all about local support and everything is locally owned and supplied. This was followed by free time – COWBOY BOOTS TIME (and nap). Dinner tonight was at Cafe No Se – I will let the pictures of the food speak for themselves. After we went to go bat watching! Sadly, they didn’t feel like coming out for us, though we did see a couple and heard a lot of them. We were however, stuck on a boat with a woman who loved to ask the driver questions and then answer them herself. For a bunch of Hungover Harries at their wits end, I think we all did well not to tell her where to shove it! – there is always one…

I did not take many photos of 6th Street itself, but after the bat watching we had another Music Tour. A few of the girls & I just were not feeling up to it, so headed back to the hotel down 6th Street. I was in awe the entire way! I could sit on a chair outside and people watch all evening. As you walk down 6th Street and array a genres come spiraling at you like a slap in the face; jazz, rock, hip hop, techno, I even walked past some death metal! But it never felt sleazy, it felt cultured and funky. Austin is such a neat city and if you like music or if you just like people in general, you will feel at home here!

Our last part of Austin was to visit the Circuit of the Americas for a tour and to go Go-Karting… but our little surprise was that WE GOT TO DRIVE SUPER CARS! No words… the photos can say the rest!

After feeling like adrenaline junkies we left the super cars behind and made our way to the airport, to head back to Houston. Here, we would meet up with all the Taste USA teams for our last couple of nights and days together and on the last night celebrate with an awards night. Tonight however, we had another surprise event…A BASEBALL GAME! The Houston Astros vs The Baltimore Drioles in our own private area. Life was pretty fantastic that day.

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Day Eight started with a buffet breakfast at the hotel and shortly after headed out NASA. We spent the morning on various presentations tours and finally were able to see a Saturn V, the rocket that was part of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

We also were able to check out Kemah Boardwalk, which is like Santa Monica Pier but BETTER! The Cadillac Bar is where we had lunch: Fajitas and Margaritas of course! On the boardwalk you will find plenty of rides, games and restaurants as well as shops, yachts etc.

The end of Day Eight was bitter sweet. It was awesome that we got to catch up with all the other teams, celebrate together and have another big night; but it was also the last time we would ever be Team Texas, we were going home tomorrow.

We arrived for the awards night at the Astorian, which is a private loft space in The Heights area of Houston. After getting glammed up, having a three course meal (again) and a few more drinks, the awards concluded are everyone went to check out the town. Off we rolled back onto the bus to see what Houston had to offer.

13265839_10154254406123130_7134781572596078751_n Day Nine was our last day in Texas. We had breakfast at the Buffalo Soldiers Museum catered by The Breakfast Club which was really nice. We had a short, moving performance by a man in a Buffalo Soldier uniform and also were able to have a read in the museum downstairs.

The last activity for the Taste USA Megafam was one of three. Visit the Museum of Natural Science, the HUE Mural Festival Tour or “shop till you drop” at the Galleria Mall. I chose the latter, shopping. If you have read my other posts from the USA or even Asia, you will know that those types of malls intimidate me, and the Galleria did just that. It was huge. A friend of ours even got lost and ran late! It was nice to walk off all the food and booze I had consumed over the last few days and I was determined to try and make myself very tired to ensure I could get some sleep on the plane  (and I did).

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I have definitely left a part of my heart and soul in Texas.

Again, I would like to give massive thank you to my Megafam family (ps I stole some of your photos, so thank you) ‪#‎tasteusateamtx‬, Brand USA ‪#‎TasteUSA‬ ‪#‎usamegafam‬, Air New Zealand and Texas Tourism ‪#‎TexasToDo‬ for everything I was able to be a part of.

From the little things like the nicer headphones on the plane to the big things like the surprise baseball game and the experience of a lifetime; I arrived home with nothing but the biggest smile on my face thinking about the fond memories I had been a part of (not to mention the kilos gained ‪#‎worthit‬). I have a feeling that I will remain a country bumpkin (on the inside) for life!

Y’all stay safe now, y’hear?
Thankyou thankyou thankyou ✌ 

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