By Joanna O’Leary
What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in Marfa can only happen in Marfa, a truly singular West Texas town that has become a mecca for tourists seeking a travel experience way off the beaten path, as well as a refuge for minimalist artists. Although having a strict itinerary would be antithetical to the laissez-faire style of living that characterizes the Marfan existence, you should really, like, try to hit some of these points of interest (but you obviously don’t have to) while you’re there.
First, the place to stay (and see and be seen) in Marfa is the newly opened Hotel St. George. Appropriately named for the patron saint of chivalry, this luxurious lodging spot aims to cater to the Marfa visitor’s every need via suites well-stocked with amenities (miniature fridges, separate entertainment spaces, plush robes, etc.) and decorated with furniture crafted by area designers. After check-in, belly up to the Bar St. George to sip on celebratory bubbly (yay, you made it!) and to nosh on the voluminous charcuterie plate featuring chicken liver pâté, cornichons, jam, country ham, whole grain mustard, baguette toasts, and buttermilk biscuits.
The Hotel Paisano, perhaps Marfa’s most storied accommodation, is also a great home base for your explorations. Opened in 1930, the hotel served as the filming location for the cult Western drama Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson, so it attracts droves of film-history buffs. Jett’s Grill, the hotel’s signature restaurant, boasts an all-around solid Southwestern menu that is particularly well-known for its lip-smacking pistachio-crusted chicken fried steak.
Don’t linger too long over the memorabilia and artifacts at the Hotel St. George and Hotel Paisano, because there are loads of delightfully weird sites that are best seen in the daylight hours. I recommend first hitting two of Marfa’s most prominent galleries, each housed in spaces equally as intriguing as the artwork inside. Ballroom Marfa, in a former ballroom, showcases rotating visual exhibits and hosts educational sessions like a DJ camp, while the Marfa Contemporary highlights the modern work of international artists in a repurposed garage whose entry is marked by an inverted automobile.
Next, make the half-hour drive to the quirky modern-art sculpture known simply as Prada Marfa. Look (but don’t touch) the purses and shoes inside—these faux luxury goods are actually security devices designed to alert authorities to potential vandals.
As the sun sets, head to Marfa’s most eerie attraction: the “ghost” or “mystery” lights. Regularly observed on Mitchell Flats just east of Marfa, these fleeting yellow, orange, and occasionally green orbs have mystified casual observers since 2007. (Scientists, however, have concluded that they are just reflections from headlights of the cars on Route 67. But whatever—the lights are still enchanting and more than worth a gander.)
Marfan art comes in edible as well as audible and visual form, so in between gallery hopping and festival gallivanting, seek sustenance at one of the town’s many unique eateries. Hot-and-ready Middle Eastern fare can be found at the Food Shark food truck, a favorite among locals and tourists alike for their overstuffed falafel and kebab wraps and rice plates dressed with possibly the best tzatziki sauce in West Texas. Seating options are unconventional and diverse—diners have the choice of chowing down on adjacent wooden tables or inside an abandoned school bus.
Another noteworthy no-frills hotspot is Marfa Burrito, which serves (you guessed it) breakfast burritos the size of small missiles filled with house-made salsa, stewed rice, and assorted proteins (chorizo, eggs, steak, etc.). What is perhaps most endearing about Marfa Burrito is the home-style kitchen where the sweet staff rolls tortillas by hand. Tip: bring cash (credit cards not accepted) or ask frequent customer Matthew McConaughey to pay for your meal.
For fancy-schmancier dining and digs, head to Cochineal where acclaimed chef and owner Tom Rapp offers patrons an ever-evolving eclectic menu based on the availability of local raw ingredients. On any given night, you may have a choice of starters such as fresh-baked bread made with yeast cultivated in Marfa, or tender snails ensconced in melted butter and garlic. Recent entrées on special include duck breast with blueberry compote and rosemary mashed potatoes, and shrimp chowder accompanied by fingerling potatoes, shallots, and green peas. With only 30 tables, Cochineal fills up quickly, especially on weekends and during special events (see below), so make reservations.
And while any time is the right time to go to Marfa, there are certain annual highlights that you may want to organize your visit around. July is a particularly vibrant time to visit during the Marfa Film Festival that showcases shorts, features, music videos, and experimental pieces by cinematic visionaries from all over the globe. One distinctive and particularly enjoyable aspect of the festival is that films are shown one at a time rather than simultaneously. This slower pace means attendees don’t have to choose one show over another, and it also allows for more socializing between shows. The 2016 festival (July 13–17) features an early-bird filmmaker pool party, which those in the know claim is the best way to cozy up to filmmakers and producers likely to become the Next Big Thing.
Music lovers, aspiring groupies, and a few folks verging on melomania trek to Marfa roughly two weeks later to the enjoy the Viva Big Bend Music Festival (July 28–31). Concerts are held almost nonstop in venues small and large, kitschy and historic, such as the Gage Hotel, the Planet Marfa beer garden, and USO Hall. Tickets will likely sell quickly for this year’s diverse lineup of performers, which includes Los Lonely Boys, Brandy Zdan, Zac Wilkerson, and Mike and the Moonpies; however, should your first choice be sold out, there are also several free daytime shows.
A mini-vacation in Marfa is pretty much guaranteed to leave you dazed and confused, in a good way—and fairly confident that while Austin may be keeping it weird, Marfa is keeping it downright bizarre.
Joanna O’Leary is a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. Her exploits are chronicled on brideyoleary.com.