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San Antonio

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ALL SECTIONS

— November 15, 2018

San Antonio

  • A treasured history. Thrilling encounters in nature. A deeply rich culture. A lively culinary scene. These all converge in San Antonio.
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Where to Get Out of the Rain

A rainstorm that blew in on Day One of my visit to town forced me to brainstorm how to make the most of my time. Naturally, whatever experience I chose would have to be indoors and compensate for the entertainment I would miss outdoors. It didn’t take me long to settle on San Antonio’s ultimate indoor escape: Hidden Bridge Caverns (naturalbridgecaverns.com). So named for the 60-foot natural limestone slab bridge near the entrance, Hidden Bridge Caverns is the largest cavern system in Texas.

Cavern adventures for visitors are available at varying degrees of extreme; since we’re talking the Southwest we’ll call these mild, medium and spicy. Because I like to scope out my environs before committing to the most extreme option, I opted for “mild”—one of two vigorous hikes along the caverns’ slopes and trails involving a 180-foot descent. I plan to return to take on the caverns’ more intense challenges that require caving gear and a headlamp as your only light source.

The “medium” adventure is a three-hour trek that begins with a steep climb up a mud-covered hill before you crawl through a narrow passage to cavern rooms. The “spicy” takes you on a four-hour exploration of undeveloped caverns, where you encounter some of the longest “soda straw” formations in North America. In this tour, you’ll be lowered 160 feet down a 22-inch shaft. If you want to keep your visit kid-friendly, take in the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch (wildliferanchtexas.com), a 450-acre drive-through animal park next door, operated by another company. (A word of caution: Make sure your car window is closed when you pass the ostrich.)

Remember the Alamo No trip to San Antonio would be complete without a visit to the iconic fortress where Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and other stalwart Americans fought the much larger Mexican army in a

A Special Place for Special Needs

Thirteen years ago, inspired by his daughter Morgan’s physical and cognitive challenges, Gordon Hartman sold his homebuilding business to launch The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation and create Morgan’s Wonderland (morganswonderland.com), a fully wheelchair-accessible theme park for people with and without special needs.

The $34 million park features rides, playgrounds, gardens, an eight-acre catch-and-release fishing lake, 18,000-square-foot special-event center, 575-seat amphitheater, picnic area, and rest areas. Sitting adjacent to Morgan’s Wonderland is Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a $16 million splash park that opened last year and lets wheelchair guests transfer into waterproof chairs to have a great time without damaging their own equipment.

 

 

Mexican free-tailed bats emerge from Bracken Cave, about 20 miles away from San Antonio, on their nightly hunt for insects.

13-day standoff that didn’t end well for the Texans. Beyond visiting the Alamo mission itself, identifying the parts of the surrounding plaza that included the complete fortress boundaries makes for an interesting challenge.

The tourist shops hawking T-shirts and coonskin caps can be a bit of a distraction, as can some of the colorful characters surrounding the mission. But it’s fun to imagine history colliding with this modern setting. Picture a confused buckskin-clad Jim Bowie time traveling to today, meeting up with the crackpot holding the sign declaring the coming of Armageddon: “Tell me, wise sage,” Bowie might ask, “have you seen hide or hair of Crockett or the other men?”

Where to Go Batty

One of nature’s most astounding sites can be found less than 20 miles from downtown San Antonio, at Bracken Cave (batcon.org/Bracken), where up to 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats make their summer home. The cave serves as a huge maternity ward for this species, perhaps the largest in the world, with females congregating there each year to give birth and rear their young. Expectant females return to Bracken Cave in March and April after wintering in Mexico. They each give birth to a single pup in late June, and by late July the juveniles join their mothers to feed on insects outside the cave.

The bats begin their nightly dining sojourn up to three hours before sundown, emerging like a single giant black cloud; check the website to ensure you get a spot to see these amazing creatures. Your fee helps Bat Conservation International (BCI) and its partners buy land around the cave to conserve the bats, as well as many

Given this is the Southwest, there is no shortage of excellent restaurants from which to choose. But I’m a barbecue guy, and I’m in Texas Hill Country. So my compass, I mean GPS, is pointed to Lockhart, about an hour’s drive northeast of San Antonio—considered one of the state’s, I mean country’s—make that planet’s— great barbecue hot spots.
In San Antonio, however, I want to really see how the locals eat. No better place to do that than head to HEB, a locally based grocery chain. Turns out its hatch pepper season, and some workers are busy roasting a bunch in a giant tumbler out front. A huge torch is blackening the peppers as quickly as the flame hits them as they spin around like numbered balls in a bingo cage. Inside I find that these folks really love their hatch peppers— there’s hatch pepper cheese, hatch pepper artisan bread, hatch pepper sauce…I buy a big jar of local honey to take home. And a bag of hatch peppers.
Another way to get a good sense of the local (and state’s) culinary scene— visit during the city’s springtime Fiesta (fiesta-sa.org), when chefs from around the state converge on the city to offer dishes representing a variety of Texas food styles.

other native and endangered species on the Bracken Cave Preserve.

Where to Stay

There’s a stretch of San Antonio high ground that sports some very inviting properties, whether you’re traveling with your family or on a romantic jaunt with your partner. Each features beautiful pools, spas and stellar views of magnificent Texas skies.

Distinguishing the JW Marriott is its on-property water park with some impressive slides that families will love. But fitness-minded singles will want to spend some time at the water park, too. The property, creative in a way we haven’t seen before with its lazy river, holds swimming contests against the current, adding to fitness options that include a well-equipped health club and a sprawling fitness trail. When you’re ready to dine, you’ll know that you’re eating about as locally as you can get. The JW Marriott features organic gardens that supply its restaurants, and its blackberries yield some 50 pints of homemade jelly and jam each season.

The rituals of spirit healers known as Latin American Curanderos inform treatments at the property’s gorgeous, airy Lantana Spa. For instance, a signature treatment, the Spirit of the Curanderos Energy Spa Journey, employs lavender that aims to soothe body and mind. Each spa visitor is given a red ribbon, part of a Seven Knots Ritual, to release stress; after tying knots in the ribbon, one for each worry, guests leave the ribbon and their worries behind. A stay at the JW Marriott can easily accomplish that.

La Cantera Resort & Spa is a gem for its multi-level pools, lively nighttime cabana scene, a world-class spa, and great restaurants. Not only does its Sweetfire Kitchen serve local, earth-friendly fare, it lists the nearby farms and other sources on its menu. Its newer restaurant, Signature, inspired by Chef Andrew Weissman, touts an inventive menu blending traditional and Texas flavors, inspired by the seasons. La Cantera keeps adding to its extensive property, with new villas and an adults-only floor of guest rooms, Seven. (marriott.com; search “San Antonio Hill Country” under the Destination tab)

Éilan Hotel & Spa has more of a boutique hotel feel yet is spacious. Its sizable outdoor pool, surrounded by comfy cabanas, and sporting peaceful nooks and hideaways, was rated the #1 pool in Texas by Texas Monthly. If your dining tastes are for sustainable and local, the property’s Sustenio restaurant, touting American fare, sources from local Hill Country farmers and purveyors; we were impressed with its sous vide fried chicken. Also impressive are its spacious guestrooms and lush spa, which offers fitness counseling along with its menu of treatments. (eilanhotel.com)

If you’re looking for a more lively area, say along the city’s River Walk district, we liked Hotel Contessa for its boutique, urban vibe—the living room of our suite had red brick walls with colorful, Picasso-like art—and access to downtown clubs and restaurants. We could step out the hotel’s back doors right onto the River Walk, the city’s 15-mile riverside promenade. You’ll trade in size for urban convenience, as in the small rooftop pool and, on the same level, the Woodhouse Day Spa. But the pool area offers great city views, and the spa’s signature Woodhouse Escape treatment, with a scrub, volcanic stone massage and other soothing elements, was delivered at the hands of an expert therapist. (thehotelcontessa.com)

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