By Joanna O’Leary
The bluebonnets are bloomin’, gas is cheap, and you’re feeling restless—it must be time for a road trip! Assemble your crew, your inamorato/a, or just your lonesome self for a tour of some of the cutest dang small towns just outside of Houston.
Hop onto I-90 for just under 90 minutes (traffic permitting) and you will reach Schulenberg, perhaps best known as the home of the painted churches. These divine sanctuaries, decorated with ornate stenciling, oil pastels, and celestial frescoes by 19th-century Swiss and Czech artists, are located just outside Schulenberg in the communities of Dubina, High Hill, Praha, and Ammannsville. Grab a map at the Schulenberg Chamber of Commerce to chart your own route; alternately, take advantage of the bus tour ($20 per person) that departs every Monday at 10 a.m. and includes a lunch stop at Oakridge Smokehouse (ribs not included in the ticket price, natch). By the way, if any philistines in your group claim that if you’ve seen one painted church you’ve seen them all, reassure them that each church boasts a subtly different style of iconography. Also on offer through the Schulenberg Chamber of Commerce is a tour of local museums, including the Schulenberg Historical Museum, E.A. Arnim Archives and Museum, Stanzel Model Aircraft Museum, and the Polka Museum. This eclectic itinerary is guaranteed to satisfy a diverse group, from history buffs and aviation aficionados to those who, well, really enjoy frolicking to half-tempo melodies while wearing colorful vests and lederhosen.
From Schulenberg, mosey (and we do mean “move in a leisurely manner”) to La Grange, whose best attractions lie outside the main town square (though it is darling). While La Grange is generally quiet and peaceful, the town livens up considerably during “Antique Weekend,” which has morphed into two massive two-week celebrations of antiquarian material culture that end on the first weekend in April and October each year. As one of the “major cities” close to the festivities (held mostly in the tiny communities of Roundtop and Warrenton), La Grange is home base for the thousands of visitors who flock to Antiques Weekend, so plan ahead with regards to accommodations if you’re just passing through during these periods. That being said, if you and your partner are looking to decorate your love nest, then by all means linger, as this massive marketplace of American, European, and vintage artifacts is guaranteed to hold singular treasures.
Year-round La Grange is home to another terrific attraction, The Jersey Barnyard, a fully functional dairy farm where you can bottle-feed a calf or piglet, commune with goats and a miniature pony, and buy some really fresh milk and locally made cheeses. The owners and staff are ridiculously helpful and so friendly that you will leave vowing to return with friends—and also wondering if an agrarian lifestyle should be in your future.
By now you may be ready to set up camp for the night. Chain hotels and motels such as the Hampton Inn and Best Western can be found nearby, but for infinitely more charming accommodations, make a reservation at the Brendan Manor Bed & Breakfast. Run by friendly owners Brenda and Dan, this B&B comprises five rooms decorated with well-curated antiques designed to reflect the mansion’s 19th-century origins. After check-in—and perhaps a short nap—venture into town for dinner.
Online reviews suggest that Bistro 108 is the best restaurant in town, and indeed they should receive props for their wine selection, as well as well-executed regional fare such as pecan-crusted catfish beignets and beef tenderloin with rosemary butter. Or try the grilled quail, camarones a la diabla (jumbo shrimp with bacon-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with jack cheese), and the spicy fajitas with beef.
The serious accolades, however, go to Las Fuentes, which serves Tex-Mex that easily stands up to that found in H-town. The gargantuan menu (which features no fewer than four different types of nachos!) will leave the picky eaters in your party overjoyed and the indecisive members overwhelmed. Seek out any of the multitude of combination plates featuring tacos, enchiladas, tamales, or quesadillas.
Although the margaritas may tempt you to sleep in the next morning at the Brendan Manor, the sweet and savory fragrance of the home-cooked breakfast will rouse even the most fatigued to their feet. Served under the crystal chandelier in the first-floor dining room, breakfast includes comfort fare such as quiche, oatmeal soufflé, plus biscuits, fresh fruit, and some very strong coffee—perfect fuel for the two-and-a-half-hour ride to Fredericksburg, the last but certainly not least stop on our mini-break itinerary.
This quaint Germanic town, deep in the heart of Texas Hill Country, is perhaps best-known for its German kitsch, numerous award-winning wineries, and restaurant scene. Naturally, Fredericksburg is busiest and most vibrant during Oktoberfest (September 30 to October 2, 2016), which brings together a full German-themed entertainment lineup, local craft brewers, and vendors selling a wide range of treats including (but not limited to) currywurst, schnitzel burgers, pfeffernusse, potato pancakes, and German tacos. The rest of the year holds just as many opportunities for fun, such as perambulating through the monthly “First Friday Art Walk,” hiking the trails at the Fredericksburg Nature Center at Lady Bird Johnson Park, or blazing through the Gillespie County tour of historic one-room schoolhouses.
With so many cute B&Bs in Fredericksburg, quality accommodation options are easy to find. One of our favorites is Der Stall (The Barn) B&B, a replica of the owner’s ancestral family barn in Reifenberg, Germany. And though you may not have been raised in a barn, you can stay in one at Der Stall, where guests are afforded an entire stable to themselves equipped with a master bedroom with whirlpool, second-floor “hayloft” with two full-size beds, and an authentic German hutch. Each morning at 8:30 a.m., fresh fruit and affenbrot (a pecan-cinnamon cake made from an old family recipe) are delivered to your door. We recommend you enjoy your breakfast al fresco at the picnic tables overlooking the 380-acre property populated by three amiable white-tailed deer—Mary, Alice, and Red.
Unfortunately, all mini-breaks come to an end. While you will eventually have to leave (okay, wrench yourself away from) Fredericksburg in order to return to reality in Houston, derive comfort from the fact that you will be taking with you fond memories—and perhaps some photos and a few bottles of Texas cabernet.
Joanna O’Leary is a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. Her exploits are chronicled on brideyoleary.com.