IF you’re looking for a US city to rival Brits’ favourites New York, Boston or Chicago, head to the other side of the country and holiday in Austin. BA has been flying there for a few years and now Virgin Atlantic is launching flights, four times a week from Heathrow to the Texas state capital, from May 25. Seats are on sale with return fares from £409.
Juha Jarvinen, Chief Commercial Officer at Virgin Atlantic said: “We are incredibly excited to launch this new service to Austin. With an impressive food, arts and music scene, we know it’s a destination our customers will love to explore.
“There are so many synergies between Virgin Atlantic and the city of Austin. We love their philosophy and desire to celebrate local brands, businesses and communities and we cannot wait to welcome customers, both existing and new onboard, flying them safely to explore this fabulously quirky city.”
Austin is indeed quirky. Trisha visited the city and here’s her article, which first appeared in Sun Travel, on her fantastic stay.
Tacos for breakfast, sunsets with a sky full of performing bats and a huge party to celebrate the birthday of Eeyore the donkey – that’s pretty weird.
A park handed over to paint-spraying graffiti artists and a three-storey, 60-ton Cathedral of Junk made from hubcaps, motorcycles, computers, TVs and hundreds of bicycles. That’s a bit weird too.
But then the Texan capital of Austin promotes itself as being quirky and off-the-wall – even boasting the marketing slogan: Keep Austin Weird.
Good for them, I say. It’s a pity more cities don’t follow in the cowboy-booted footsteps of Austin folk. For they sure know how to have a great time in a city where anything goes at any time of the day or night.
And, being the Live Music Capital of the World, anything that happens, happens to music. There are more than 200 live music venues and 10 times as many bands and artists in the city performing indie rock to jazz, country to blues and hip-hop to reggae.
“It’s eclectic, that’s the difference between Austin and Nashville,” says songwriter and musician Julian Acosta. “You can find any sound you like here just yards from where you are at any one time, on the streets and in the bars and restaurants.”
And I did, starting with a set from Lucas Hudgins & the first cousins (love a bit of country) as I tucked into Texas Gulf Coast crab and fish cake and chilli lime grilled prawns. Feeding my face at Ranch 616, a cool eaterie with a decked, fairylight-lit al fresco area, was fortunate for them, as it stopped me singing along (love a bit of karaoke).
I’d imagine guys like talented Lucas Hudgins must get fed-up of playing to background chattering, chomping, slurping and burping.
Texans are so spoiled for choice in live music that they often don’t stop what they’re doing to listen. There’s always another night, another venue and there is – Antone’s Nightclub where Eric Clapton performed; the Saxon Pub, which Kris Kristofferson described as like “playing in my living room”; The Victory Grill, now on the National Register of Historic Places, where the likes of Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin graced the stage.
Then there’s stompin’ 6th Street and rockin’ Rainey Street where renovated bungalows are now live music bars. And the newest and largest outdoor music venue is the amphitheater at the F1 track, Circuit of the Americas.
The list is endless in the city of sounds, which has changed the name of a street to Willie Nelson Boulevard and erected an 8ft bronze sculpture of the country singer and local hero. There are 35 Gibson guitars on display around the streets and in the baggage area at the airport.
Every October, the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Zilker Park attracts 450,000 people, but it is just one of many festivals in good-time Austin. You name it, there’s a festival for it including rodeo, arts, biker, tequila, yoga, film, craft beer, wine and even one to Keep Austin Weird!
They are always packed but then the city gets 32 million visitors a year and is home to the University of Texas with 50,000 students. These figures also explain why there are 2,000 street food trucks, with wacky names such as Urban Cowboy and The Big Kahuna, selling all sorts of cuisine from sausage and steak to salads and shrimps.
Perhaps the most famous is Torchy’s Tacos, which also has a restaurant in town where TV chef James Martin recently ate his first ever taco. He described his breakfast as like “eating a full English in a wrap, with cheese”. I opted for a Migas – scrambled egg, crisp corn tortilla strips, green chillies, avocado, salsa and cheese – that’s a wrap!
In typical American style, most restaurants serve ginormous portions and if I lived in Texas, which has the most beef cows in America, I’d be the size of one of them. To be fair, there is no shortage of ways to burn off fat, especially around Lady Bird Lake where you can run, cycle, row, kayak or swim in Barton Springs pool – three acres of natural warm water.
Whizz round the lake and city on a bike tour with Rocket Electrics, it’s brilliant fun. The lake, a reservoir on the Colorado River, is named after the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson, 36th President of the US.
Lady Bird, a nickname from when she was a toddler, loved the outdoors and nature, and the beautiful wild flowers growing along her home state’s highways are just part of her legacy. Guide Jason Weems of Austin Detours gave me a fascinating insight into the Johnsons while touring the city: “They married 10 weeks after their first date, he’d proposed with a one dollar 50 cents diamond ring.” That first date was at the Driskill Hotel, a beautiful boutique hotel with stained-glass windows, carved wood staircases and cow hide chairs.
Forget tacos, go there for breakfast and taste the most scrumptious iced cinnamon buns ever created. Jason is full of facts and figures: “We have seven museums, 17 libraries and a Capitol building containing two million stars.” One of the stars in the impressive and quite beautiful granite powerhouse of Texas, nicknamed the Lone Star State, is 8ft wide and 218ft up in the dome.
The most astonishing figure Jason threw at me was the number of urban bats which fly out from under Congress Avenue Bridge just before sunset every night between March and October – 1.5 MILLION. And as they sweep, creating an amazing aerial show, they gobble 8.2 BILLION mosquitoes! Unique, but that’s Austin.
The shops are cool too, so go look – even if you don’t buy – at the vinyl in one of the world’s best record stores, Waterloo Records, and the extraordinary array of boots and Stetsons in Allens Boots.
There are lots of individual boutiques and retro stores, thanks to the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ campaign. But designer brands and high street shops are there too and I could easily have spent a day at one of the malls, The Domain, a short cab ride from my hotel.
I stayed at the newly-opened Fairmont Austin. The swish but super-friendly Fairmont has a gorgeous terrace pool, spa and great bars and restaurants. And it is perfectly positioned to walk to most of the weird and wonderful attractions.
Funnily enough, the weirdest thing I saw was from the window of my tour bus, just around the corner from the hotel. A guy was walking down the street with a chicken perched on his shoulder. Now that is seriously weird!
For more tourism info, see visitaustin.org and VisitFredericksburgTX.com. For flights, see virginatlantic.com and ba.com
Climb every Mountain
There was a price to pay for over-indulging in Austin, but climbing a 1,825ft mountain for exercise is a bit steep! The 360 degree views of the Texan countryside though, from the summit of pink granite Enchanted Rock, made it worth every gasping breath.
The protected natural park is outside the old town of Fredericksburg in Hill Country, 80 miles from Austin. The quaint traditional town was founded by German settlers in 1846 and original buildings now house the Pioneer Museum.
With art galleries, craft, home and clothes shops, Fredericksburg is firmly on the tourist map, more recently because of its wine. There are 30 vineyards in the area, many offering wine-tasting. Go to 4.0 Cellars for a wine and cheese experience and hope you get Jimmy, who is a Texan star.
Explore Hill Country by car or on one of the many tours from Austin. There’s a variety of accommodation here, including the Inn on Barons Creek with rooms from just over £100 a night. My favourite place was laid-back Luckenbach Texas, a one-time trading post that was turned into a mini-Glastonbury, where all local legends such as Willie Nelson have performed.
Grab a beer, sit on a bench and listen to live music al fresco. Back in nearby Fredericksburg, don’t leave without one last taco from Tubby’s Ice House and, perhaps, loaded fries. Not a mountain in sight!
See virginatlantic.com and ba.com