WHY TEXAS, WHY NOW?
WHY TEXAS, WHY NOW?
Bigger than England and France put together, the Lone Star State packs a vast amount of variety into its 267,000 square miles: wild mountains in the south-west; fast-flowing rivers in the pretty rolling Hill Country; vast tracts of pine forest in the east; desert canyons and some fine beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Texas is tops for oil, cattle and cotton, but it's as much about cultural cities as it is about life on the ranch. And it's also home to one of the country's biggest wine-growing regions. Temperatures are dropping after another warm summer, and air fares are falling even faster. So now is the time to go west in search of thrills.
IS IT COWBOY COUNTRY?
Yes, and it has been for nearly five centuries. In 1523 a Spanish expedition took six cows and a bull by ship to Mexico. The cattle multiplied and there were plenty of job opportunities for wranglers and herdsmen, known in Spanish as vaqueros. When the Spanish moved north to the Rio Grande they took cattle and vaqueros with them. The cattle were soon abandoned to wander free; they prospered and bred at a prolific rate.
Pioneers learned the vaqueros' skills and became known as "cowboys". They rounded up thousands of free-roaming cattle and drove them north from Texas, to be sold where beef was scarce. The "golden age of the cowboy" was from the 1860s to 1880s, until the railroad put an end to the need for marathon cattle drives. By 1890 the introduction of barbed wire fencing had made cattle herding possible with far fewer men.
Bandera, on the Medina River north-west of San Antonio, is known as the "Cowboy Capital of the World" and was once a staging area for cattle drives. These days there are a number of guest ranches in the area offering wannabe sheriffs the chance to get their feet tender and their seats sore (01923 671831; www.ranchamerica.co.uk).
For more cowboy connections, head north to Fort Worth ("The city where the West begins"), and in particular its Stockyards National Historic District. This was once the busiest livestock trading centre in the US South-west. The town also has twice-daily longhorn cattle drives down Exchange Avenue, and from 14 January-6 February next year will stage the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo (001 817 877 2400; www.fwstockshowrodeo.com).
You will have plenty of opportunity to buy cowboy boots and accessories when you visit the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame and the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame. The first opens 10am-6pm daily (Friday and Saturday to 7pm, Sundays from noon), admission $4 (£2.25); the second opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday, noon-5pm on Sundays, admission $6 (£3.50). For the rodeo experience try the Cowtown Coliseum (001 817 625 1025; www.cowtowncoliseum.com); after dark you can drink and dance at Billy Bob's Texas (001 817 624 7117; www.billybobstexas.com), the "world's largest honky-tonk".
ANYTHING MORE REFINED?
Fort Worth has an abundance of galleries and museums, such as the Kimbell Art Museum (001 817 332 8451; www.kimbellart.org), which contains prehistoric Asian and pre-Columbian pieces, European old masters, Impressionists and modern art). For American Western art seek out the Amon Carter Museum (001 817 738 1933; www.cartermuseum.org), which features Frederic Remington, Charles M Russell and Georgia O'Keeffe. Both collections are free, and are open Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm (Friday to 8pm), Sunday noon-5pm. Despite its name, the Museum of Modern Art (001 817 738 9215; www.themodern.org) is one of the oldest in Texas. It opens Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm (Friday to 8pm), Sunday 11am-5pm, admission $4 (£2.25).
SHOULD I DALLY IN DALLAS?
"Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC9 at night?", starts a much-covered song by Jimmie Dale Gilmore. "Dallas is a picture, Dallas is a beautiful sight." It also has more restaurants per capita than New York and more shopping centres per capita than any other city in the US. Fans of a certain TV programme of the 1970s and 1980s might want to head out to Parker in the northern suburbs to visit JR's Southfork Ranch (001 972 442 7800; www.southforkranch.com). It opens 9.30am-4.30pm daily, admission $8 (£4.50).
This gleaming, high-rise city centre is full of the sort of culture that only oil money can buy. The Nasher Sculpture Center (001 214 242 5100; www.nashersculpturecenter.org) houses a world-class private collection including works by Miro, Moore and Picasso. It opens 11am-6pm daily except Monday (Thursday to 9pm), admission $10 (£6). The Meadows Museum of Art (001 214 768 2516; www.meadowsmuseumdallas.org) is reputed to have the greatest collection of Spanish masters outside Spain, including paintings by Velazquez, Goya, Dali and Picasso. It opens Wednesday-Friday 11am-8pm, Saturday 11am-5pm, Sunday noon-5pm. Admission $8 (£4.50) or $5 (£3) after 4pm.
But Dallas is not just about shiny skyscrapers. Western heritage lives on in Old City Park (001 214 421 5141; www.oldcitypark.org), a 13-acre living museum comprising nearly 40 historical buildings dating from 1840-1910. It opens Tuesday-Saturday 10am-4pm, Sundays noon-4pm, admission $7 (£4). And close to four million visitors are expected to attend the huge Texas State Fair (001 214 565 9931; www.bigtex.com), which began yesterday and continues to 17 October. Daily admission is $12 (£7).
The biggest draw in Dallas, though, is its presidential connection. Texas has strong links with the White House. George W Bush was born in Connecticut and his father in Maine, but both have spent much of their lives in Texas. Former president Lyndon Johnson was also a Texan. But the date everyone of a certain age remembers is 22 November 1963, when President John F Kennedy was shot. For a comprehensive look at the life - and death - of JFK, visit the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza (001 217 747 6660; www.jfk.org) and stand in the room from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots. It opens 9am-6pm daily, admission $10 (£6). Cynics might then make the short walk to the Conspiracy Museum (001 214 741 3040), open daily from 10am-6pm, admission $7.
All the usual corporate hotels are available in Dallas, but Amelia's Place - A Bed and Breakfast Establishment, downtown at the corner of Young Street and St Paul Street (001 214 651 1775; www.ameliasplace.com), is an eccentric venue that is much friendlier than most other options.
HOUSTON: A PROBLEM?
No, the state's biggest city has two world-class draws. Space Center Houston (001 281 244 2100; www.spacecenter.org), near Clear Lake about 20 minutes south of the city, is a joint project between NASA and Disney. It brings space exploration to life with some thoughtful exhibits and thrilling rides. It opens 10am-5pm daily (Saturday and Sunday to 6pm), admission $17.95 (£10.50).
The city's Menil Collection (001 713 525 9400; www.menil.org) is a superb private art collection, and includes works by many 20th-century masters, classical works from the ancients, and tribal art from around the world. It opens Wednesday-Sunday, 11am-7pm, admission free.
CAN I REMEMBER THE ALAMO?
Yes, in San Antonio. On 23 February 1836, during the Texas War for Independence, America's most hallowed battles began at a graceful Spanish church in downtown San Antonio. Against huge odds and an army of thousands, 160 men (including Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie) held out in the the Alamo (formerly known as the Franciscan Mission of San Antonio de Valero) for 13 days before finally succumbing to the advancing Mexican troops (001 210 225 1391; thealamo.org). Incidentally, in 1982 Ozzy Osbourne was arrested for urinating on the building; when detained he was wearing one of his wife's dresses.
Also in San Antonio, the Paseo del Rio (River Walk) is lined with outdoor cafés, shops and hotels. Boat rides from three riverside spots (001 210 244 5700; www.sarivercruise.com) cost $6 (£3.50). Tour the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park (001 210 932 1001; www.nps.gov/saan), open 9am-5pm daily, which winds south from downtown. Or change the mood at the world's largest marine life adventure park, SeaWorld (001 210 523 3611; www.seaworld.com). Outside the holiday period the park may only open at weekends. Admission $45.
I'M IN A LONE STAR STATE OF MIND
Then aim for Austin, the Texas state capital, and spiritual home of everyone from Nanci Griffith to the Dixie Chicks. In contrast to much of Texas, it's a lively liberal city and a good base to visit the pretty rolling Hill Country. Must-sees include the splendid State Capitol building and the bats; each evening around sunset between March and November clouds of Mexican free-tailed bats set off from under the Congress Avenue bridge (001 512 327 9721; www.batcon.org). One of the best places to learn about the state's past is the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (001 512 936 8746; www.thestoryoftexas.com), which opens 9am-6pm from Monday to Saturday, noon-6pm on Sunday, admission $5.50 (£4). If the weather stays warm through autumn, have a picnic in the 485-acre Zilker Park and take a dip in the spring-fed Barton Springs.
In the evening, head for a bar and sip a margarita in the city that labels itself the "Live Music Capital of the USA". Popular music genres in Austin include Americana, Blues, Roots and Bluegrass in addition to Country & Western, while from 16-20 March next year, Austin will host the South By Southwest film and music festival (001 512 467 7979; www.sxsw.com). Whenever you are in town the likelihood is that there will be top-notch live music at one of the dozens of excellent venues such as the Broken Spoke (001 512 442 6189; www.brokenspokeaustintx.com) or the Continental Club (001 512 441 2444; www.continentalclub.com) or Gruene Hall in New Braunfels (001 830 606 1281; www.gruenehall.com).
WHAT ABOUT OUTDOOR PURSUITS?
Explore the wooded waterways and ecosystems of eastern Texas at the Big Thicket National Preserve (001 406 246 2337) or the atmospheric bayous (Louisiana is just next door) of Caddo Lake State Park (001 903 679 3351; www.tpwd.state.tx.us). For the latter, seasonal boat trips (001 903 789 3978; caddolake.com/steamboat.html; 001 903 789 3495; www.caddogrocery.com) leave from the charmingly named settlement of Uncertain. In this area do not miss Jefferson, a town of Plantation-era houses, good accommodation, antique shops and moss-draped trees.
The most popular beach destination in Texas is South Padre Island, which is especially busy during the US universities' "Spring Break" (virtually all of March in 2005). Lines of hotels and apartment buildings have sprung up in recent years, but the sea is generally warm and the public beaches have fine white sand.
At the top end of the state, in contrast to the seemingly unending treeless plains of the Panhandle, the Palo Duro Canyon State Park (001 806 488 2227; www.tpwd.state.tx.us) feels like Utah or Arizona. There are magnificent red- and orange-tinged cliffs, and rock formations dotted with juniper and cottonwood trees. Palo Duro is not far from Amarillo, just outside which you can visit much-photographed Cadillac Ranch. Nearby, the excellent Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum (001 806 651 2244; www.panhandleplains.com) is well worth a visit.
IS THAT A PLANE?
No, it's probably a bird. Four out of five of of all bird species spotted in the US are seen in the Rio Grande valley. With over 600 documented species, birding in Texas exceeds all other states. The World Birding Centre (001 956 584 9156; www.worldbirdingcenter.org) - a network of sites along a 120-mile stretch of the river from South Padre Island to Roma - opened recently offering information, educational and conservation resources. The WBC headquarters is in Mission, in the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
Just a short drive from South Padre Island, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (001 210 748 3607) has recorded more species than any other wildlife refuge in the nation. The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (001 361 286 3559; southwest.fwd.gov/refuges/) is the winter home of the rare whooping crane, typically 5ft tall with a 7ft wingspan.
AND WEST TEXAS?
The far end of Texas is full of surprises. Just off Interstate 10 near the Davis Mountains is Balmorhea State Park (001 432 375 2370; www.tpwd.state.tx.us), which contains a 1.75 acre swimming area teeming with small fish that is great for swimming, diving and snorkelling. Equipment can be rented in the park. Marfa has two contrasting claims to fame: this relatively remote town is home to the Chinati Foundation (001 432 729 4362; www.chinati.org), which displays and encourages the best in contemporary art. It is open Wednesday-Sunday with tours at 10am and 2pm, admission $10 (£6). Once it's dark, from Highway 90 just outside town, try and see the mysterious - some say mythical - Marfa Lights, unexplained moving lights of which there have been sightings since 1883. I've been there twice but without success.
Down by the Mexican border, at over 1,250 square miles, Big Bend (001 915 477 2251; www.nps.gov/bibe) - so named for the huge turn the Rio Grande makes in the area - is one of the largest national parks in the US. It has a soaring mountain range, vast and varied Chihuahuan Desert landscapes, hot springs, countless hiking trails, sublime sunsets, scenic drives, nature walks and more species of bird than any other US park. Until three years ago, popping across the river to Mexico for a snack was very popular and a mainstay of the local economy: sadly it is no longer possible "for reasons of national security".
Just outside the National Park, close to Study Butte in Terlingua Ghost Town, the Starlight Theatre (001 432 371 2326; www.starlighttheatre.com) is a great dinner venue and often has live music. Further west, "El Camino del Rio" (the "river road") is a great drive along the Rio Grande between Lajitas and Presidio, especially in early morning or late afternoon, when the light shows off the river and multi-hued cliffs at their best.
Autumn is a great time to visit the wild Guadalupe Mountains National Park (001 915 828 3251; www.nps.gov/gumo), not far from El Paso and adjoining the state border with New Mexico. In addition to McKittrick Canyon, celebrated for its stunning autumn colours, you will find Guadalupe Peak, Texas' highest point at 8,749ft.
ARE THE STARS AT NIGHT BIG AND BRIGHT?
Definitely, if you go to a Star Party at the McDonald Observatory (001 432 426 3640; mcdonaldobservatory.org) deep in the heart of the Davis Mountains in west Texas, considered one the world's best astronomical research facilities. On Tuesday, Friday and Saturday evenings, visitors are allowed to use the observatory's high-powered telescopes to view heavenly bodies for $8 (£4.50).
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Fly from Gatwick to Dallas-Fort Worth with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or American Airlines (0845 7789 789; www.americanairlines.co.uk); or from Gatwick to Houston with BA or Continental (0845 6076760; www.continental.com). Not only do Continental and American generally offer competitive through fares or "open jaw" possibilities to many other Texan cities such as San Antonio, Austin and El Paso, they usually include Houston (Continental) and Dallas-Fort Worth (American) as a free stopover on many of their fares to other US destinations.
HOW DO I GET AROUND?
Because of Texas' size, flying is definitely worth thinking about: Dallas-based Southwest (001 800 435 9792; www.southwest.com) generally offers the most competitive fares. The Greyhound (001 800 229 9424; www.greyhound.com) transnational coach service, and its local affiliates, link some of the bigger cities, as - to a lesser degree - does Amtrak (001 800 872 7245; www.Amtrak.com) America's national rail company. But this is the US, so you are best off getting behind the wheel. Peregor (0845 345 0003; www.peregor-travel.co.uk) currently offers a special fly-drive combination to Houston or Dallas - flights on British Airways and car hire from £399 for departures from November. Book by 28 September.
For a pre-planned self-drive package try North America Travel Service (0845 1228899; www.northamericatravelservice.co.uk). A 15-day trip including flights on American Airlines to Dallas, returning from Houston, including car rental and high-quality hotel accommodation in Dallas, San Antonio, South Padre Island, Corpus Christi, Galveston and Houston costs from £1,499 per person for November departures.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Further details can be obtained from Texas Tourism (020-7978 5233, www.traveltex.com).