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Where to Vacation in Texas Now

Sometimes the best vacations aren’t about exotic destinations. They are about transporting yourself to a fictional reality a short drive away.
By , and | |Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
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Poolside View at The Commodore
Poolside View at The Commodore Elizabeth Lavin
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Where to Vacation in Texas Now

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gilded age

Commodore Perry Estate

Austin’s Commodore Perry Estate is a throwback to Gatsby-esque glamour.

Ken Fulk, for those who don’t know the name, is the guy who turned a former S&M leather factory in San Francisco into his design studio. He created a bohemian Manhattan terrace for Gigi Hadid, designed an art deco Miami hotel for Pharrell Williams, and once co-hosted a Dallas party with Brian Bolke, casting shirtless men in safety vests and hard hats (branded with his name) as crystal-goblet-carrying cocktail waiters. He’s as colorful and theatrical as his layered, patterned interiors. And he was the perfect choice to put the “Great” back in the Gatsby-esque mansion known as the Commodore Perry Estate in Austin.

“Commodore” Edgar H. Perry, for whom the property is named, was not a sailor but a cotton broker, who made his fortune exporting the soft stuff. He completed the 10,800-square-foot house after his retirement in 1928, and he wasted no time throwing lavish parties with his wife, Lutie, on the extensive 10-acre grounds. 

When it was built, Perry’s mansion was on the outskirts of town, perched on a hill overlooking the Austin Country Club (currently the Hancock Golf Course), which opened in 1899. Now the mansion is in the middle of the city’s leafy Hyde Park neighborhood, at the bustling corner of 41st and Red River streets. After various stints as a private school, a convent, and an ashram, the mansion was returned to its former glory as re-envisioned by Fulk, with a restaurant, chic bar, and upstairs suites added. It opened as part of the Auberge Resorts Collection in June 2020.

The resort also includes a new two-story boutique hotel with rooms arranged around a central courtyard. (For the most peaceful stay, opt for an interior room facing it.) There is a chapel for weddings, manicured gardens for wandering, a Palm Springs-style pool for wallowing, and a standalone restaurant and bar (Lutie’s) for wining and dining. 

From the moment you pull in to the gravel drive, it becomes clear that this isn’t meant as a base camp for a visit to Austin proper; Fulk intentionally designed a stage set to transport guests to another time and place without ever having to leave the grounds. So we can all imagine ourselves to be Daisy Fay for a day. In that, he truly succeeds.

Lutie’s is a study in romance. White-haired spouses who have been together longer than they’ve been apart bend their heads over the wine list to select a bottle of natural wine. Newlyweds who still hang on every word extend forks to each other’s plates. A May-December romance debates the better protein: sustainable California trout from Mt. Lassen or pastured pork from Yonder Way Farm in Fayetteville.

Romance makes sense at this restaurant helmed by sweethearts Bradley Nicholson and Susana Querejazu. Nicholson has top-tier cred, having worked at starred kitchens in San Francisco and Copenhagen. Querejazu has worked her pastry magic in starred kitchens, too, from San Francisco to Paris.

Their joint endeavor is described as a “garden restaurant,” and it certainly is that, with the ceiling covered in leafy hanging baskets, banquettes upholstered with lush fern-patterned fabrics, and views of the landscaped grounds beyond. But after the sun spectacularly sets, in the twinkling candlelight, it is more like being in a mossy fairy cave, velvety and magical.

The seasonal menu is small and focused, and dishes are meant to be shared. Alone in the room of couples, I start with diminutive fried spheres of sunchoke falafel, topped with tendrils of fresh tarragon and mint, followed by the house “estate bread”—griddled sourdough English muffins served with a gorgeous striped terrine of browned and cultured butter. The Yonder Way pork loin, with pickled and charred Napa cabbage and fresh lima beans, is an upscale succotash that arrives swimming in a tangy sauerkraut broth. 

The best dish is simply titled “Chickpea, Green Corn, Fermented Herbs.” Its name something of an abbreviated haiku, the dish is based on Burmese fermented tea leaf salad. A pool of fresh yogurt with a squeeze of lime juice is topped with tender chickpeas, crisp corn nuts, diced cucumbers, sunflower seeds, fresh mint leaves, and an elixir of fermented herb trimmings from the garden. It offers a fission of flavors and textures that is far greater than the sum of its parts. 

After all that, how could I say no to Querejazu’s kouign-amann ice cream, with crispy bits of the Breton pastry folded into vanilla ice cream? When the caramel sauce is poured tableside from a tiny copper pot, the couple to my left actually leans toward me and gasps.

With or without my spouse, I’ll return, just for this. —Kathy Wise

out of africa  

Walden Retreats Hill Country

Inspired by his time in Uganda, Dallas native Blake Smith decided to create a savanna experience on the Pedernales.

Walden Retreats Hill Country sits on 96 prime acres along the Pedernales River, about an hour west of Austin. It was named in tribute to Henry David Thoreau but is inspired by safari-style eco hotels. Founder Blake Smith (a Highland Park High School grad) and his wife, Sarah Contrucci Smith, spent several years in Africa working with the Akola Project, a Dallas-based nonprofit jewelry brand that employs female artisans in Uganda. While there, Blake became enamored with the outdoor hotels he encountered when friends and family came to visit.

When he returned to the United States, he felt like there was a missed opportunity for that kind of glamping hospitality here. While at the Acton School of Business in Austin, he came up with a business plan as a class project. After getting a positive response to his pitch, he ended up raising nearly $1 million to buy the land and start his first prototype in the Hill Country.

So that’s where I head on Earth Day, at the end of April, with my husband and daughter for a weekend with friends. We drive up to the gate in a swirl of dust, and a few minutes later I can see the collection of safari tents dotting the canyon above the river. Each one has a wraparound porch, fire pit, gas grill, and private outdoor shower. Blake worked with Design Build Adventure, the architects behind El Cosmico in Marfa, on the design. He wanted to ensure that, for almost $500 per night, the tents had power, running water, en suite bathrooms, and air conditioning. 

The rest of our group joins us, adding four more adults, one more child, and several dogs. Grilling that first night under a canopy of stars, we feel a thousand miles away from anything. 

The next morning, when the sun comes out, we venture into Johnson City to explore. We stop at Proof & Cooper at The Lumber Yard, where we all share barbecue and Nashville hot fried chicken. Back at our tents, we take the dogs down to the river and get out the canoe. That night, we stay up talking until midnight on the porch. The next morning, my husband and I wake up early and make breakfast for everyone. We grill bacon and make perfect BLTs before packing up and heading out. 

On our way home, we stop by Southold Farm + Cellar in Fredericksburg. The vineyard won’t produce fruit for another five years, but it has since opened a beautiful restaurant next to the tasting room that overlooks the valley below. We leave Southold in another swirl of dust. My daughter instantly falls asleep in the backseat. I am thankful we all had some time together outside, laughing and getting our feet dirty. —Elizabeth Lavin

over the rainbow  

The Caroline

I came to Lockhart in search of barbecue. I found a thriving and diverse arts community, Ellen DeGeneres’ viral twin, and an underground root cellar that just about saved my life.

The plan was to spend some quality time with Elizabeth Lavin, D Magazine’s staff photographer and my road trip bestie. We arrived early in the evening on a Monday, so we stopped for dinner at Black’s Barbecue, where we filled a tray with the best beef rib I’ve ever eaten, sausages, smoked chicken, and brisket. (Pro tip: get a double order of potato salad, and skip the coleslaw.) We ended up running into Tori Boltwood, a young singer from Fort Worth, who was sitting in a nearby booth. She was on her way with her father to record at Sound Machine Studio in Skidmore.

We all watched through the windows as rain suddenly poured down. After a couple of Lone Stars, the skies cleared, leaving the full arc of a rainbow. Elizabeth and I walked across the street to Little Trouble, a basement bar under The Culinary Room gourmet food market, both owned by Alex Worthington. We had to sit at the bar, which was the plan anyway, because the rain’s runoff was following gravity’s path. We curled up with a taxidermied bobcat in a mini sombrero for a Boulevardier and a spicy pineapple and tequila number.

Refreshed, we headed to The Caroline, our Airbnb, one of four owned by power couple and local real estate titans Tamara Carlisle and Donna Blair. (Google “twin Ellen DeGeneres” to see the clip that made Blair YouTube famous.) The property is a three-story colonial, beautifully preserved and artfully furnished with pieces from Carlisle and Blair’s own art collection. They also own the Commerce Gallery downtown, a short walk away. 

Elizabeth and I cozied up in the second-floor TV room to watch Life After Death With Tyler Henry on Netflix, then, slightly creeped out, retreated to our separate rooms. I awakened to a light tap-tapping on my window that I couldn’t identify (hail) and then was jolted awake by a bolt of lightning striking nearby. Checking my phone, I realized there was a tornado watch, and I did the math: in a historical house full of large windows surrounded by age-old trees, the best escape was probably the mysterious stairwell we’d noticed on our way in, leading underground from the covered back patio.

I grabbed my shoes and Elizabeth, and we tentatively walked down the outdoor steps, hastened by the wind’s howl, and discovered the cleanest root cellar I’ve ever seen. We hung out for an hour until the storm passed and then went back to our rooms, eventually reawakening to a cool, blue-skied day.

In the morning, after a dose of caffeine at Chaparral Coffee, we explored the historic town square and found a surprise: hidden behind its fame as The Barbecue Capital of Texas—boasting Smitty’s Market, Kreuz, Chisholm Trail, and Black’s—Lockhart has transformed itself into the new Fredericksburg. Travis Tober of famed Austin bar Nickel City opened The Old Pal here. (The smash burgers, fried chicken, and whiskey sours infused with Earl Grey tea are to die for.) Adrian Quesada of the Black Pumas bought a house here. HBO filmed its new mini series Love and Death here. Carlisle and Blair are building their forever home here, and they are investing in a commercial property that will include a second art gallery (named Get Lucky). 

I, too, got sucked in by the cool of it all. I returned home with a piece for my dining room by Austin artist Patrick Puckett, and I soon found myself cruising Carlisle and Blair’s real estate site, looking for a Lockhart bungalow within walking distance of the square. And with a root cellar, of course. —K.W.

true west

Hotel Drover

Mule Alley looks a little different than when Jake Spoon stopped in town looking to get lucky at a card game.

Some feared the $200 million redevelopment of the century-old barns that once housed the nation’s largest horse and mule market might rob the Fort Worth Stockyards of its historical charm. I am here to report that the district remains a red-bricked garden of Western delights; let’s just say the new Mule Alley has kicked the taste level up a notch. 

The headliner of this festival of the senses: Hotel Drover. Named in homage to the cowboys who trailed millions of cattle through the city in the Reconstruction era, the boutique hotel draws revelers with a vast, idyllic courtyard and its blend of rustic elements (reclaimed wood floors, Texas stone fireplace) and modern art installs (neon lights, pinup cowgirl murals). Insta photo ops abound.

Strolling through Mule Alley, my husband and I saw a thumping country band playing to a blissed out crowd in Second Rodeo Brewing’s covered turf “bar garden,” while a duo sang acoustic country classics at the Sidesaddle Saloon, where bartenders sling upscale cocktails.

Out on the main drag, we dodged herds of tipsy women wearing “Bach and Booze” t-shirts and Stetsons they accessorized with scarves, feathers, and jingling trinkets at Flea Style’s “hat bar.” Lowrider trucks blasting reggaeton cruised Exchange Street, and we popped into the new shops to escape the crush of tourists. King Ranch, Kimes Ranch, Proper Supply Co.—they carry all the quality provisions necessary to dress like a Dutton. 

Yet the most luxurious retail experience is back at the Drover. Inside the Lucchese custom shop, a clerk offered drinks to a young couple in the process of designing bespoke boots. Clients are fitted, then consider everything from exotic leathers to toe shape to their preferred stitch pattern. 

For dinner, the hotel’s 97 West Kitchen & Bar serves steak you can practically cut with a fork, but the highlight of our stay was when friends joined us for Sunday brunch at the same restaurant. We started with pork belly strips dipped in maple syrup, hung from clips so as to drip a delicious runoff onto a loaf of jalapeño cornbread. As we passed around plates of apple churro pancakes and hot chicken and biscuits, my husband and I realized this was our first brunch out with friends since the world went haywire. All the more reason to indulge. —S. Holland Murphy

Authors

Kathy Wise

Kathy Wise

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Kathy Wise has been the executive editor of D Magazine since 2016. At various points before that, she was a…
Elizabeth Lavin

Elizabeth Lavin

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S. Holland Murphy

S. Holland Murphy

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