This city in the heart of the Lone Star state may sur­prise you.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY BECCA HENSLEY

This city in the heart of the Lone Star state may sur­prise you.

At Walsh Boat Land­ing in Austin, there’s not a cow­boy with a ten gal­lon hat in sight. In fact, as the sun dap­ples an ab­surdly beau­ti­ful ex­panse of emer­ald­hued water, as crys­talline as a per­fect gem, I don’t see any stereo­typ­i­cal tum­ble­weeds, horses, cacti or spaghetti west­ern folk with syrupy drawls. This is a whole other part of di­verse Texas, a state that’s ge­o­graph­i­cally as large as Spain or France. In this town, you’re more likely to spot a hip­ster on a road bike than a man on a horse. Birth­place to global busi­nesses, such as Dell Com­put­ers and Whole Foods, idio­syn­cratic Austin, lo­cated at the state’s heart, ex­udes a vibrant univer­sity town vibe.

Here, on the fringe of an eclec­tic, up­scale neigh­bour­hood, I spy a duet of swans glid­ing across the lake, a pair of über-fit run­ners rac­ing up a be-flow­ered hill, a co­terie of wake­board­ers load­ing their equip­ment into a sleek boat, and a wo­man serenely pad­dling atop her SUP (stand-up pad­dle board) glid­ing through the glassy water. Just min­utes from the ur­bane hub­bub of down­town, I’m wait­ing to board Lake Austin Spa Re­sort’s water taxi, a stream­lined craft that will whisk me to the award-win­ning hide­away, 30 min­utes away, On the lake’s shores, with its un­abashed cel­e­bra­tion of na­ture, its casual el­e­gance, and its fo­cus on fit­ness and per­sonal trans­for­ma­tion, the des­ti­na­tion spa em­bod­ies the pos­i­tive spirit of Austin. Day-trip­pers or those in­clined to check in for a more re­sult-driven stay, can oc­cupy plush cot­tages with a view, eat healthy or­ganic food, par­take of a plethora of fit­ness classes (think: yoga or aer­o­bics on a pon­toon in the pool, kayak­ing or guided hikes), and opt for more than 100 treat­ments from the spa’s all-en­com­pass­ing menu.

While lo­cals won’t deny their fer­vour for the city’s sto­ried mu­sic scene, Lake Austin Spa Re­sort is but one of a bevy of less melo­di­ous rea­sons to visit Austin. Though this tune­ful mecca em­braces sev­eral wildly pop­u­lar mu­sic fes­ti­vals (South-by-South­west and Austin City Lim­its be­ing the best known) and hun­dreds of live mu­sic venues, res­i­dents will ar­gue that the city of­fers so much more than soul­ful voices and gui­tar riffs. Al­ways a lib­eral bas­tion in a more con­ser­va­tive state, the city’s buzz and open­ness to cre­ativ­ity has drawn artists, free thinkers, in­ven­tors and in­tel­lec­tu­als of all sorts. A me­trop­o­lis of roughly one mil­lion peo­ple that man­ages

to main­tain a vil­lage at­mos­phere, the cap­i­tal sits amid man-made lakes, fringed by peach or­chard-rich wine country, and hills that erupt with a carpet of wild­flow­ers in the spring. The pop­u­lace ranges from hip-hop­pers to hip­pies, hip­sters to home­bod­ies.

Con­ven­tion never has been Austin’s thing. “In Austin, nothing is strange at all,” muses alto pow­er­house Shelly

King, a former Texas State Mu­si­cian and much beloved local crooner. Per­haps that’s why the city de­fi­antly lives up to its motto: “Keep Austin Weird”, a call to arms to any­one who wants to ho­mogenise it. The re­sult is a city fab­ric dense with texture and per­son­al­ity.

What other city can brag about a nude beach on a lake as well as a nat­u­ral spring swim­ming pool, one-fourth of a mile long, that shel­ters its own en­dan­gered species – an al­bino, blind sala­man­der? Add in one of the big­gest ur­ban bat colonies in the world, lo­cated be­neath the Ann W. Richards Congress Av­enue bridge down­town (1.5 mil­lion Mex­i­can Free-Tailed bats emerge at dusk, Oc­to­ber-April, in an ebony spec­ta­cle that draws throngs), a dive bar, (The Lit­tle Longhorn Saloon), where happy, live chick­ens join im­bibers in play­ing the venue’s in­fa­mous “chicken s---” bingo drink­ing game, and a pro­fu­sion of food trucks (more than 2,000 at last count) sell­ing ev­ery­thing from bahn mi to bar­be­cue. Such ec­cen­tric­i­ties cre­ate our norm.

Cross the bridge down­town to SoCo (South Congress), my favourite en­ter­tain­ment and shop­ping district to ex­pe­ri­ence an abun­dance of mom-and-pop owned-bou­tiques, unique restau­rants, bars, galleries, and cof­fee­houses. Once an un­savoury flop­house sec­tor, this por­tion of SoCo was re­born when a canny hote­lier turned an old mo­tel – now Hotel San Jose – into the town’s coolest hang­out and out of town stay. Soon other busi­nesses reimag­ined them­selves around the hotel, turn­ing the re­fur­bished strip into a see-and-be-seen des­ti­na­tion, the tan­ta­lis­ing sort of spot where the stylish kids of all ages con­gre­gate. Here, find the iconic, his­toric Con­ti­nen­tal Club, a boozy speakeasy that draws from deep South­ern juke joint roots and hosts world-class mu­si­cians ev­ery day of the week. Stores like Allen’s Boots (shelves and shelves of jaw drop­ping cow­boy boots), Lucy In Dis­guise

With Di­a­monds (vin­tage clothes and cos­tumes), Parts & Labour (cloth­ing and ac­ces­sories by some of Austin’s funki­est designers), Black­mail (fash­ion de­signer’s work­shop with an all black theme) and Stag (a menswear shop with a James Dean-meets hip­ster-aes­thetic) de­fine the drag. Restau­rants such as Home Slice Pizza, Gueros, and Perla’s Seafood and Oys­ter Bar offer plenty of places to nib­ble and tip­ple. Once a month, pedes­trian-friendly SoCo revs up the action with a street party. Called First Thurs­day, the event means stores stay open late with sales, free snacks and li­ba­tions. Most restau­rants, in­clud­ing food trucks, lure folks to stay awhile with ex­tended happy hours or food spe­cials. Through­out, on bare bits of side­walk, and in park­ing lots, bunches of ar­ti­sans set up booths to hus­tle their wares. It’s an invit­ing scene, which un­veils Austin’s creative, ebul­lient spirit – one that makes tourists feel like in­sid­ers.

And what’s to eat? With a mul­ti­tude of or­ganic farms, for­agers, fam­ily-owned food com­pa­nies and farmer’s mar­kets, the city draws from a food ob­sessed foun­da­tion. Al­chemist­mixed cock­tails, craft beer, homages to ba­con, and sushi

“The pop­u­lace ranges from hip-hop­pers to hip­pies,

hip­sters to home­bod­ies”

con­cocted from such things as blue­ber­ries and beef tongue set a vogu­ish stan­dard. And this lib­eral lean­ing town gob­bles it all up. From Tex-Mex cafés to more high­brow James Beard win­ning chef-helmed-sanc­tums, Austin sat­is­fies. Try trusty Fonda San Miguel (a tem­ple of in­te­rior Mex­i­can cui­sine), Franklin Bar­be­cue (where the long line makes a statement about the qual­ity) or Chef Tyson Cole’s highly awarded, Ja­panese-in­spired Uchi for din­ner. Gorge on brunch at Chef Drew Cur­ren’s 24 Diner, a gas­tro­nomic take on Amer­i­can clas­sics, or in­dulge all day at truck-stop chic Irene’s. For li­ba­tions, don’t miss the speakeasy, Garage, hid­den in a park­ing com­plex.

To off­set the calo­ries, Austin plays hard. Join the denizens for a swim at spring-fed, Bar­ton Springs Pool, home to afore­men­tioned sala­man­der, for a run around Lake Lady

Bird Lake’s hike and bike trail, on the water in kayaks or atop a SUP. For bi­cy­cle rentals and or­gan­ised rides, look no fur­ther than Mel­low Johnny’s, a bike shop co-owned by the in­fa­mous Lance Arm­strong.

Weird trans­lates to won­der­ful in Austin. Come visit, and en­joy the ride. •

Pho­tog­ra­phy by var­i­ous es­tab­lish­ments.

© Aneese/iS­tock.

Open­ing im­age: Bats fly­ing from the bridge in Austin at sunset,

Right: Kayaker against the Austin sky­line.

© Vanessa Es­cobedo Barba.

Above, clock­wise from centre left: Lucy in Dis­guise With Di­a­monds; Irene’s Dirty Mac & Cheese; Chef An­drew Cur­ren at 24 Diner,

Left from top: Stand-up pad­dle board­ing on Lake Austin; Lake Austin Spa Re­sort.

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