A hot spot of innovation, the “Alamo City” rocks with creativity, congeniality and class.
Upon arriving at La Cantera Resort & Spa in San Antonio, I was greeted by a life-sized painting of the 1946 Triple Crown winner, Assault, by local artist Lloyd Walsh. The fabled King Ranch bred Assault, a star in a long line of champion thoroughbreds, and was the model for La Cantera. While the decor is refreshingly contemporary, touches of wood, stone, metal and leather recall the ranch’s traditional “big house.” Today, the sprawling 223-hectare property high in Texas Hill Country includes two championship golf courses, one of which is the Palmer Course designed by golf legend Arnold Palmer.
Players report seeing wild turkeys, deer, quail—even boar—on the links, although the resort’s executive chef Robert Carr assured me that the game on my plate at the Sweetfire Kitchen was not from the property. La Cantera’s new Signature restaurant by celebrated San Antonio chef Andrew Weissman embodies the culinary movement dubbed “Tex-Next” that could describe any of the city’s avant-garde culture. The cuisine blends traditional recipes with imaginative twists: we sampled fresh seafood and lamb along with South Texas quail, dove and venison (destinationhotels.com/la-cantera-resort-and-spa).
On a subsequent foray into wine country, we followed the Fredericksburg Wine Road along U.S. Route 290, the second most-visited wine trail after Napa, California. Conversations with Texas Hill Country winemakers were eye-openers. “The main challenges to growing grapes in Texas are late-spring freezes, hailstorms and cotton-root rot, not to mention blistering heat and deer that eat everything,” says Julie Kuhlken, co-owner of Pedernales Cellars. “In 2013, four late-spring freezes destroyed all stages of our viognier crop.” Nevertheless, her boutique winery specializing in Spanish and Rhone-style wines has claimed several international prizes and offers an enticing selection of unique bouquets.
Wine distribution is also a challenge for a grape-growing region that spans hill country and the high desert. This has led to the formation of strategic alliances such as 4.0 Cellars, where oenophiles can stop and taste the vintages of several wineries in one place. Nearby Fredericksburg’s boutique-lined main street is interspersed with tasting rooms to give visitors easy access to a cross-section of libations without having to drive to the area’s more than 100 wineries. And wine clubs are a way for both buyers and sellers to capitalize on volume purchases online or at exclusive events.
Nowhere is San Antonio’s love of amazing edibles more pronounced than in the River Walk’s nine-hectare Pearl district. From Latin cuisine and pop-up cafés at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) to organic cured charcuterie at Cured and handmade macarons at Bakery Lorraine, the enclave bustles with gastronomic creativity. Every Saturday morning, the farmers’ market brings in amazing produce and wares, while foodie festivals throughout the year celebrate wine, tamales, tater tots and beer.
Once the site of the Pearl Brewery, the district has adopted an industrial chic flavour by repurposing the existing structures. For example, the 19th-century brewhouse has been converted into the swanky Hotel Emma, where guests can sip margaritas in the old brew tanks surrounded by an ammonia compressor, old ventilation fans and bottle-filling wheels. The rebuilt bottling house is now home to Jazz, TX—a classic supper club created by local bandleader, Doc Watkins. Its patrons can enjoy South Texas cuisine and bespoke cocktails while, between courses, dancing to jazz, blues, Texas swing and salsa. The stately stable across the street that once housed the brewery’s draft horses is a popular venue for weddings and other events.
As part of the city’s famous River Walk, Pearl is ideal for strolling and cycling. Water taxis and barges ferry people to a range of attractions along the River Walk, which winds for 24 kilometres along the San Antonio river. Paths and walkways connect restaurants, shops, museums, missions, hotels and art galleries.
A truly unique San Antonio theme park is Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first fully accessible playground that serves not only handicapped children, but also parents who may have been injured in military service. “We get a lot of veterans with debilitating injuries or amputations who have healthy, active children so they can come here and play together safely,” says Ron Morander, the 10-hectare park’s general manager.
Morander reports that finding high-profile role models for members is integral to the organization’s strategy of creating positive experiences. For example, in September 2016, double amputee and paralympic bronze medallist Amy Purdy led a motivational session that lifted the spirits of hundreds of handicapped children. San Antonio native and actor Eva Longoria, whose older sister has special needs, is also a patron.
I was surprised to find that San Antonio is home to the largest of three SeaWorlds in the U.S. and is reputedly the world’s biggest marine-life theme park. Much of its work is in animal husbandry, welfare and rescue. In summer 2017, SeaWorld will launch a roller coaster ride based on marine animal rescue missions.
The Botanical Garden, whose glass pyramids are a San Antonio landmark, is a 15-hectare family-friendly park that focuses on education, interactivity with plants and water conservation. Programs include children’s book-readings in the garden, the annual butterfly count, vermiculture and PetSmart Dog Days, when dogs may accompany their owners. And through the interactive Culinary Garden and outdoor kitchen, members can learn healthy eating habits. Foodies and sippers will enjoy events such as Brews and Blooms where local craft breweries showcase their beer, and Wine Down at the Garden featuring food and wine pairings.
While this amazing cultural adventure was my first rodeo in San Antonio, it certainly won’t be my last.
On May 1, Air Canada (aircanada.com) begins direct flights to San Antonio from Toronto. A recently launched visitor bus service (VIVA) takes passengers on self-directed tours to the area’s key attractions for an all-day pass rate of US$2.75 (viainfo.net/BusService/VivaMain.aspx). For more information, check out VisitSanAntonio.com.