Deep In The Heat Of Texas

Every winter, thousands of Americans flock to this southern state for the sun. Alex Hannaford joins them

'Does it snow in England?" says Carol McCartney, who manages the Pecan Grove mobile home park in Austin with her husband, Robert. She looks at me hopefully. Central Texans don't see much snow.

"Not as much as it did when I was younger," I tell her. "But I've come here to escape the cold."

And I'm not alone. Each winter, people from across the US descend on central and southern Texas in their thousands for the sunshine. Known as Winter Texans, they pack up their RVs and head to places such as Austin (the state capital), the historic south Texas town of Mission, and Harlingen in the Rio Grande Valley.

"There's an exodus down here in the winter," Robert tells me from behind a small wooden counter. "There are 500 RV sites down in the valley. People have been coming to our site for 20 years. Some trailers have never left." (According to the Austin visitors' bureau, the actor Matthew McConaughey keeps his RV at Pecan Grove because he "rarely flies").

Most Winter Texans come from the north - places such as Minnesota and Michigan, Illinois and South Dakota - but Floridians wanting a change of scenery (and sometimes even warmer temperatures) are not unknown. All come for the weather, swimming in the many lakes and natural water holes, fishing, boating and live music.

Half an hour before I met Robert and Carol I was swimming in nearby Barton Springs, a 900ft-long natural swimming pool fed by an aquifer. It's the beginning of November, the sun is shining and the trees surrounding the pool are blowing in the gentle breeze.

A sign outside the pool explains that over the years it has drawn Indians, pioneers and tourists. In the 1700s Spanish friars built missions here. Some hardcore Austinites come here every day for their morning exercise routine.

Barton Springs feeds into Town Lake (actually a dammed-off section of the Colorado River), right in the heart of downtown Austin. After a swim, my wife Courtney and I rented kayaks here for $10 (£5.30) an hour. In parts, the water is clear and as you head out into the main body of the lake you can see turtles sunning themselves on floating branches. There was a peculiar, shrill sound as we paddled under Congress Avenue Bridge. It was also a bit pungent: this bridge is home to the largest urban bat colony in North America and each night, from March to November, about 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats emerge from the small ridges underneath its arch and head out into the night sky in search of food. Apparently they get through from 10,000 to 20,000lb of insects a night, so it's probably a good place to get away from mosquitoes too. The most spectacular bat flights are in August but still merits a visit this time of year - even if you do have to hold your nose.

It's worth flying into the airport at Dallas and driving the three hours south to Austin just so you can get some idea of the immensity of Texas. (It's bigger than France - a fact Texans will relay with relish.) They may not ride horses to work but one stereotype is true: everyone drives trucks or SUVs. The Ford Expedition, for example, is a monstrous beast that dwarfs anything seen on UK roads. In Austin, even youngsters who have just passed their driving tests are at the helm of these vast creations.

Austin is not a huge city by American standards - it has a population of under a million - and it's very different from the stereotypical image of Texas that most people have (flat, with oil wells). Austin lies in the midst of Hill Country - more than 14,000 square miles of cedar and mesquite trees, lakes, rivers and idyllic natural springs. It's 11am and already 27C outside. The Lake Austin Spa Resort (where we're staying) is 40 minutes from Austin. Accommodation is in small, luxury cabins, each with a paved backyard which catches the mid-afternoon sun. The resort has three swimming pools, hot tubs, saunas, and kayaks and pedalos to use on the lake.

We're only 230 miles from the Mexican border which, apart from the better weather, means you can eat the best Mexican food outside of, er, Mexico (although Californians dispute this). If you can tear yourself away from the peace and tranquillity of the spa, 10 minutes up the road is the Oasis. This restaurant sits in the hills overlooking Lake Travis and is the self-styled "Sunset Capital of Texas". A fire destroyed much of the wooden decking last year but it's being rebuilt, and you can still sit overlooking the water from the huge terrace that escaped the flames. Here you can drink margaritas and eat queso with taco meat - a moreish concoction of melted cheese, onions, tomatoes and minced meat into which you dip corn chips - until the sun goes down.

Texas has a persistent, albeit slightly endearing, boast of having the biggest and the best of everything. Dallas lays claim to the world's largest parking lot and largest pair of jeans; Bandera declares itself the "cowboy capital of the world"; Crystal City the spinach capital; Athens the black-eyed pea capital; and Austin the live-music capital. Pause for a breath and Texas also has a strawberry capital, barbecue capital, wind-energy capital, spur capital, and an unofficial wild boar capital. There's no shortage of things to do and see.

As the sun began to dip behind the trees there was still time to rent mountain bikes and ride along the hike and bike trails downtown. There are more than 50 miles of scenic paths that follow natural green belts all over this city. We rode for a couple of miles along Barton Creek before turning back. In summer it's a sweltering trek to the cool pools and waterfalls along the creek. It's a lot more bearable in winter. In fact, it seems Winter Texans had the right idea all along.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE:

Alex Hannaford travelled as a guest of British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com), which offers return fares from London to Dallas from £347. One week's car hire starts at £142 per week with Hertz (08708 448 844 online at hertz.com).

FURTHER INFORMATION:

Texas Tourism (020-7978 5233; traveltex.com) Also see austintexas.org.

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