Fredericksburg, Texas -- The town has you at "guten morgen."
The idea of a place in the middle of Texas where schnitzel and bratwurst are more popular than tacos and T-bones, where the architecture is more Black Forest than ranch house and where folks say things like "auf weidershehen, y'all," is just too intriguing to pass up.
OK, they don't actually say "auf weidershehen, y'all" in Fredericksburg, but they do speak a very specific dialect of Teutonic twang that hearkens back to the town's founding by German immigrants in 1846. About 10 per cent of the population of 10,500 speaks German and it is home to the largest number of speakers of Texas German, a dialect unique to Texas Hill Country.
And the town only sweetens the deal with wildflowers. This area of the state is renowned for its fabulous floral displays that are said to resemble a living Monet painting.
Sadly, during my visit in April after a drought-like couple of months, the roadside was not the colourful explosion of foliage fireworks we'd been promised, but at a time when Winnipeg's boulevards offer only piles of dirty sand and thawing dog poo, I was delighted with the occasional burst of indigo from a bunch of Texas blue bonnets and the plentiful sprinkles of red, yellow and pink blooms that dotted the ditches along the highway on our drive north from San Antonio.
The gardening writers on our tour were disappointed the flowers were more tame than wild, but I'm neither botanist nor horticulturist, so I was far more interested in other things Fredericksburg had to offer -- and any town with more than one beer garden is my kind of place.
I was unprepared, however, for the sheer charm of the place, a hip little outpost in the hills.
Lots of folks make the drive from San Antonio or Austin for a day trip -- Fredericksburg's main drag is stuffed with restaurants, chic boutiques, brew pubs, wine stores, purveyors of western wear and gift emporia -- but once you've exhausted the shopping options (which could take a couple of days, frankly, what with stops for bratwurst and wiessbier), there are reasons to stay on, whether you're a wine lover, hiker, history buff or music fan.
Three highlights of my visit couldn't have been more different from each other, but each wove a spell that wasn't soon forgotten.
The first was the aptly named Enchanted Rock, so called because at night, the pools of water on its surface twinkle in the moonlight, a phenomenon that indicated spirits or ghosts to Native Americans long ago. But even during the day, its pink granite surface seems to glow with a warm, rosy light that's alluring.
At 130 metres high, it's the second-largest granite dome or batholith in the United States. A clear path leads straight up the rock's surface -- neither too vertical nor treacherous to provide a serious challenge, even to the novice hiker (although I presume daredevils could find a steeper route) -- and there are walking trails surrounding the base that wend their way through grassy terrain.
The view from the top is spectacular; Hill Country is lovely from ground level and it's even more beautiful from above. The gentle slopes of the rock and relatively flat top allow for multiple perspectives and a 360-degree view.
The second spell was cast at Luckenbach. The tiny town 19 kilometres north of Fredericksburg was immortalized in song by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and remains a testament to the laid-back Texas spirit.
It's not much to look at -- a big old dance hall and a combination saloon/general store with a small stage and some picnic tables out back -- but it's got ambience out the wazoo.
The night we visited was a quiet one without a featured musical act -- just a couple of folks with guitars, trading songs -- but there's something magical about sitting outside, sipping an ice-cold Shiner Bock beer with a big Texas moon hanging in the sky and chickens roosting overhead (at night, the trees are full of poultry that have walked up the bent tree trunks to sleep in the branches above). Luckenbach could be a tourist trap -- in fact, with its jam-packed gift shop and overblown mythology, it most certainly is -- but it's a trap I'm most happy I fell into.
The third highlight was a brief encounter with a Latin lover whom I had eating out of my hand... literally.
Actually, the affection may have been one-sided on my part, but I defy anyone to resist the dorky charms of a freshly shorn Peruvian alpaca -- and Wildflower Ridges's Don and Beth Weeks clearly feel the same way.
The couple got into alpaca farming for prosaic reasons -- working farms are taxed at a lower rate in Texas than recreational land -- but they quickly fell in love with the animals, whom they have given names such as Frodo and Bilbo.
Beth and Don's affection is understandable. Alpacas are gentle and docile, unlike their South American cousin the llama, which can be quite aggressive and can actually be used to protect livestock from predators.
On our visit, the herd had just been clipped (the Weekses run a store on-site featuring goods woven from their alpacas' wool). With their big eyes, long necks and knock-kneed gait, they look like Zooey Deschanel crossed with a giraffe.
Blast from the past
THERE are many hotel options in Fredericksburg, but the one with the best novelty factor is the Hangar Hotel. Designed to emulate an old airport hangar, it's like taking a step back to the Second World War era (not to mention the fact it's actually adjacent to an airport; you can watch planes land from the hotel's observation deck). The rooms are done up in retro 1940s style, and there's a cosy Officers Club lounge filled with aviation memorabilia, an old-school diner and a conference centre whose palm tree decor pays homage to USO dance halls in the South Seas -- a nod to the fact Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the Second World War, was a native son of Fredericksburg.
Taking advantage of the Hill Country's network of B&Bs and house rentals is also great option -- the latter especially for families who want to spread out while exploring the area. I stayed at adorable Blue Cottage, just a few blocks from the main road. The owners provided a couple of coaster bikes, which proved the perfect way to tour the town. The side-gabled cottage, decorated in country chic style, has a long front porch and lovely backyard, complete with picnic table, grill, chiminea and a swing to lounge in while enjoying a glass of Texas Riesling.
Yes, you read that right. Texas is just one of many states that is dipping its toe into the wine business, and Fredericksburg is at the heart of the vineyard route that runs along Highway 290 and the surrounding area. A very pleasant day could be spent driving from tasting room to tasting room, sampling the wares and strolling in the sunshine among the vines.
And what better way to wind down your day than by enjoying the warm spring breeze with the perfect wine to accompany a fresh bratwurst, barbecued in your own temporary backyard, followed by a decadent German pastry. Prost!