Saddle up for a Texan cowboy ranch with a difference, where indulgence reigns

At the Travaasa resort, Alex Hannaford discovers there's much more to the wilderness than horseriding

'As in the drummer of The Who?" I ask. Keith Moon, a laid-back Montanan with a large-brimmed Stetson, chuckles. Presumably he does this whenever somebody comments on his name, though he must have heard it a thousand times. He tells me to follow him, then hops in a black pick-up and motors down the steep, one-way path to the main road. A few hundred yards on, we turn through an open gate and pull up next to a field. Remp, a beautiful 10-year-old quarter horse, is already saddled up and grazing in the shade of a Post Oak, waiting for me.

Keith jumps on Gracie and we trot together to another gate, across a field, over a stream and out into the Balcones Canyonlands. Keith is from Bozeman, Montana, but we are a long way from the mountain state – on a ranch in Texas Hill Country. Keith moved down here three years ago to work as the equine manager at Travaasa, a unusual resort 30 minutes north of the Texas capital, Austin, that marries guided adventures like this with holistic spa treatments and upscale dining.

I've come here for a spa weekend with a Texan twist: to enjoy the cowboy experience, but in the lap of luxury. Travaasa sits on one of numerous tracts that make upTexas's central Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, a refuge formed in the early 1990s to conserve habitat for endangered songbirds.

Anderson Mill, where Travaasa is located, may be a stone's throw from downtown Austin, but 150 years ago this really was frontier territory. The small town along Cypress Creek was named after Thomas Anderson who built a mill here in the 1860s to manufacture gunpowder for the Confederacy.

For some light reading, I've brought along a history of Texas and a book called The Prairie Traveler by Randolph Barnes Marcy, apparently the best-selling handbook for American pioneers in the 1860s. There's nothing like some revision before attempting to assimilate into the cowboy way of life.

When the American Civil War drew to a close, there was plenty of cattle here and not enough farms in Texas to buy them. So, in a move that has now become firmly bound up in the mythology of the West, cattle herders forged trails northwards to sell their stock.

One of the most famous of these, the Chisholm Trail, passed near here. Fuelled up on caffe latte, my horse saddled for me, I prepare to take a leisurely trot along a gentle path. I'm fully aware this wasn't quite the experience of the cattlemen that beat these ways before me. According to my book, "weary and battered men" endured months of "grinding, 18-hour days in the saddle, the misery of rainstorms and endless dust clouds … [blazing] the northern trails, through Indian territory and even more dangerous and avaricious whites".

Luckily there'll be no northwards trek for me today. Just a short ride around a pretty forest before heading back to Travaasa in time for a beer tasting.

Travaasa is all about the spiritual experience. On the purpose-built property, in addition to more active pursuits such as archery and ziplining, there's meditation, massage, yoga, hiking and even an ecology class you can sign up for.

In keeping with that theme, you don't just get to ride your horse in the Texas wilderness; you can also take the "equine experience" in which you learn to "join up" with an unbroken horse. (Remember The Horse Whisperer?) If you're not a horsey person, this involves standing in the middle of the manège with a whip, and spinning gently round with whip extended while the horse trots around the fence. You change direction and the horse changes with you. Stop, and the horse stops. Eventually, it will become submissive. You then put the whip on the ground and, when the horse turns its head towards you, you can walk straight up to it.

Next on the agenda for me is riding a mechanical bull. At Travaasa, "Brutus" is set up in the gym and I'm joined by seven women all on girls' weekends. Our instructor, Cathleen Carothers, asks if anyone has ridden a bull before. One woman raises her hand. "A mechanical one. But not sober," she says, and everyone falls about laughing. Mechanical bulls are a mainstay of some Texan bars.

Predictably, perhaps, there's country music playing while we take turns to try to remain seated while Brutus swivels and jerks beneath us. I manage to stay on for about 20 seconds, which is not embarrassing considering I'm the only British person here, and clearly unaccustomed to this sort of thing.

It's a comfortable 80F (25C) the weekend I visit; wonderful considering this part of Texas had 90 consecutive days over 100F (38C) last year. It's also good considering the next activity I've (perhaps misguidedly) agreed to: the Challenge Course, where my sweat level is guaranteed to rise.

Outfitted in harnesses and hard hats, one by one we're told to climb a rope ladder to a small wooden platform, 30ft high, that towers above the trees. I'm not too fond of heights but the views are stunning. To get from the first platform to the second, however, we must walk across a carved wooden log that looms over the canopy below. Once you reach the second platform, the only way to get to the third is to perform a tightrope walk. I'm clipped on, but by now my palms are sweating and I'm gripping tightly to the rope attached to my harness. The final bit of excitement is the zipline down to the forest floor.

In keeping with the Texas cowboy theme, I head back inside to one of Travaasa's function rooms, where five of us sit on comfy sofas while Michael Rubin, an Austin harmonica guru who has taught the instrument for more than 20 years, relays the basics. It's a bit of a racket to begin with, but in 45 minutes, Michael manages to get us playing some semblance of a tune. All that's missing is the outdoor fire pit and a guitar.

Something cowboys probably didn't enjoy (unless it was in some frontier bordello) is a deep-tissue massage after a long day in the hills. And this is where Travaasa really excels. I opt, naturally, for the "Willie Nelson massage" (make sure you ask for it by its full name), after one of Texas's best-known musical sons.

As "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" plays, my legs are covered with a tie-dye sheet and patchouli-and-citrus oil is rubbed into my back. I drift off, and wake some time later to hear Willie covering a Texan classic: "Lone Star, where are you tonight?… It's dark and I think that I would / Give anything / For you to shine down on me."

It's all rather apt, as once my massage is over, I head straight to the outdoor hot tub and sit, under the huge, dark, Texas sky, looking for that lone star.

Travel essentials

Getting there

To fly to Texas, go to Heathrow. Dallas-Fort Worth is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and its partner American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk). BA also flies to Houston, as does United (0845 607 6760; united.com).

Staying there

Travaasa, 13500 Farm to Market Road 2769, Austin, Texas (001 512 258 7243; travaasa.com). Doubles start at $450 (£281), including activities such as yoga, guided hiking, the equine encounter, bull fitness and the Challenge Course. Breakfast extra.

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there