Nathan Midgley uncovers the cosmopolitan side of Texas on a twin-centre break
The chances are your clients don't picture cities when they think of Texas. To the average Brit, the Lone Star state is about red dust and flat horizons, dude ranches and oil dynasties - a far cry from the buzz and colour city visitors crave.
All of which goes to show how much the average Brit knows. San Antonio and Austin, the cultural epicentres of southwest Texas, are packed with local and national history and interesting cultural collisions, putting them squarely in the frame for second or third-time US visitors keen to move beyond New York and Florida.
San Antonio, the site of the Alamo, is one of the points where American culture meets Mexican - originally settled by Germans, 60% of its population is now Hispanic - and is hailed as the spiritual home of Tex-Mex food.
State capital Austin has declared itself 'live music capital of the world', and can prove it too: it hosts the huge festival Austin City Limits and music, film and interactive conference South by Southwest.
It is also home to countless bands belting out rockabilly, jazz, hip-hop, country, soul and blues, more or less 24/7.
Just 80 miles apart and connected by Interstate 35, the two make a natural twin-centre break, and are being increasingly pushed as a package since Global Hospitality Marketing, the international agency for San Antonio, added Austin to its portfolio early last year.
Start with a breakfast burrito at San Antonio's Guenther House, formerly a miller's residence and now a museum and restaurant in the historic King William district.
No visit is complete without a boat tour of the city's Riverwalk, a bar and restaurant-lined network of paths in the downtown area. Tours depart from and return to the Marriott. From there it's a short walk to the Alamo, the city's must-see historical attraction.
Up to 250 Texans were killed by Mexican soldiers here in 1836, and the battle is of huge significance to most Americans. The complex covers more than four acres, so advise your clients to leave plenty of time if they want to see it all.
Also in the city centre is the Buckhorn Museum, with a vast collection of hunting trophies and taxidermy, plus some less gruesome exhibits on Texas history.
There are also two theme parks - a SeaWorld park and Six Flags Fiesta Texas - about 20 minutes' drive from downtown San Antonio.
In Austin, organise a city tour with Austin Overtures, which offers one-hour trips designed to help new visitors get their bearings. Their guides know the city inside out, so advise your clients to pump them for nightlife tips.
The Capitol building is open to visitors and the Rotunda is worth a look. A guided tour will stretch your clients' patience unless they are political junkies. Instead, advise them to hang out with the locals in Zilker Park - 315 acres of green space with hiking and biking trails, canoe rental and the thermal Barton Springs Pool.
Alternatively, they can drive out to the Mandola Estate winery. While the vino is unlikely to top its European or New World rivals, the excellent Italian restaurant on site makes up for it.
San Antonio nightlife is centred around the Riverwalk. It's pleasantly lit and the range of bars is enormous, so barhoppers are advised to go where their feet take them.
It's worth warning your clients that some places can get raucous, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings.
The city is famed for its Tex-Mex food. Every resident will recommend a different restaurant, but Aldaco's at Sunset Station is a good bet - it can also organise a great margarita-mixing lesson for groups.
Try Biga on the Banks, run by British chef Bruce Auden, for a modern twist on Texan food.
Over in Austin, the nightlife is ruled by music, which is almost always live.
The East Sixth Street area offers mainstream fare, from Irish pubs, to clubs playing R'n'B. For something a bit different, recommend basement jazz bar the Elephant Room or legendary honky tonk the Broken Spoke, where you can learn the basics of the two-step, waltz, schottish and cotton eye Joe before watching local experts tear up the floor.
There's more great dancing, with a slightly younger and edgier vibe, in the Continental Club on South Congress.
Where to stay
San Antonio's Menger is a venerable hotel a stone's throw from the Alamo. It has two big claims to fame: its several supposed ghosts, and its legendary mango ice cream, so good Bill Clinton mentioned it in his autobiography. Its public rooms are a model of early 20th century chic.
Try to get your clients rooms in the old wing - it has more character. Hyatt Regency, Marriott and Hilton all have properties accessible from the Riverwalk.
Austin offers a range of accommodation, from the Crowne Plaza just off I35 (not far from the city, but clients will need a car) to the art deco boutique hotel Mansion on Judge's Hill. Embassy, Doubletree, Radisson and Hampton Inn brands all have properties here, and higher river view rooms at the Hyatt Regency have good views out over the city centre.
A W Hotel is set to open in 2009, and construction on the 21c Museum Hotel, a swish hotel, spa and modern art Museum, begins in February.
Ask a local
Bit of local knowledge for you: this is Chris from Austin tour company Austin Overtures with some daytime and after-dark tips.
We filmed this - a bit too late in the day, I have to admit - at the Mandola vineyard, which in daylight is a lovely spot, and has a great Italian restaurant.
How to get the most out of Austin
The sheer number of venues and events in Austin can be dizzying, but help is at hand. Here are three tips to help visitors along:
- Pick up the free Austin Chronicle newspaper for up-to-date theatre, music, film and club listings. See austinchronicle.com
- Check local blog austinist.com for quirky local news and upcoming events
- Ask the experts. Everyone knows someone in a band, so grill Austin residents at every opportunity
JetSet offers the 13-day Lone Star Trail self-drive tour, including Austin, San Antonio, Houston, Galveston and Amarillo for £1,129. Price includes return flights to Dallas with US Airways, car rental with satnav and 12 nights' accommodation.
Tel: 0845 0257 757 8
Continental Airlines Vacations has a twin-centre holiday to Austin and San Antonio from £805 per person. The price includes non-stop flights from Heathrow with Continental, taxes and fuel surcharges, and fully inclusive car rental.
Tel: 0844 557 50508
America As You Like It offers one night in Dallas, three nights in San Antonio and three nights in Austin for £882 per person. The price includes car hire, return flights with British Airways and is based on two people sharing on room-only basis.
Tel: 020 8742 8299 8
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