Yves de Contades flew over to San Antonio to see why it attracts 26 million visitors a year, Yeehaa. San Antonio is a vibrant modern city that fuses the old West, Mexico and modern American hospitality perfectly. Forget everything you think you know, this is one modern, art strewn, historically rich, musical, foodfest of a city.
I started my trip off with a stay at the luxury Picosa Ranch, just half an hours drive from San Antonio. The welcome there is real Southern hospitality at it's best, warm and fun. The ranch used to be owned by "Big John" Connally, governor of Texas and best friend of JFK and his wife Jacqui. In fact they were in the front of the car when JFK was shot and John took the first bullet in the shoulder. Visitors to the ranch included President and Mrs. Nixon, President Johnson, Nelson and Happy Rockefeller, President Ford, Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra and more. Airforce One even used the private airstrip. The ranch was purchased by the Kowalski's in the mid 1990's and is managed by Connally's grandson Bubbah Ammann, who epitomises charm, efficiency and takes immense pride in making sure his guests have the best possible time.
Chef David there makes the best steak I have ever had, bar none. It was the largest, softest and most succulent T-bone I have ever melted on my tongue.
Mornings commenced with a dip in the smoking pool, with the warm steam flowing out over the meadows behind the house, whilst admiring the beautiful sunrises over the infinite horizon, followed by a sumptuous breakfast. On day one I took a Solaris out on an exotic Safari expertly guided by Bubbah. The Picosa Ranch covers 2500 acres, has 300 sunny days a year and is home to an extraordinary range of wildlife. There are 250 different exotic animals such as Texas cattle, Zebras, Oryx, Addax, Waterbuck and more. They even have their own rodeo compound with beautiful horses which I rode in the afternoon, followed by fly cast fishing in the lake and then shooting skeet as the sun went down. The next morning we were off for a little light training on a Smith and Wesson M&P 15-22, which is a light semi automatic rifle with an impressive firing rate and accurate enough to keep knocking those Prairie Dogs for six.
The evening was spent at Stephan Pyles' Sustenio restaurant at the new uilan Hotel Resort in the Texas Hill Country serving modern Southwestern cuisine. The executive chef David Gilbert took me through a personal tasting that was out of this world, mixing Peruvian Ceviches with Heston Blumenthal style deserts. This is world class food from two chefs who combine passion and technique to create their own original mouth watering dishes.
The next morning I switched to to the Hotel Contessa on the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio which has a wonderful rooftop pool with a great view of San Antonio and a large comfortable bar restaurant overlooking the Riverwalk, one of San Antonio's most famous beauty spots. The Riverwalk is a lovely canal that snakes through Downtown with two levels of bars, restaurants and shops and is very lively in the evening. keep an eye out for the Arneson River Theatre which holds some spectacular outdoor entertainment.
I joined up with a friend from San Antonio and we walked along the river to a bar that does perfect Margaritas, the speciality of the region, and soaked up the atmosphere with couples, families and barges meandering up and down. After a brisk walk to get over the drinks I tried a massage at the 4 star Mokara Spa, just a short amble from the Contessa. Brandy immediately spotted the knotted muscles from my early onset of middle age neurosis jogging and administered a wonderful relaxing, but deep tissue sports massage that galvanised me into further visiting the shops and sites.
If you want an authentic cowboy hat go to Paris Hatters's (inaptly named) millinery emporium on Broadway Street. They have made bespoke cowboy hats for some of the most famous cowboys ever. My personal favourite being the Outlaw Josey Wales Stetson . For high end luxury cowboy boots, if that is not a contradiction in terms, try Lucchese (pronounced Lou Casey). Both list many celebrity clients.
You cannot miss the Alamo, as it is surprisingly located right in the centre of town. One of the 5 old Catholic missions established by the Spanish and the site of the heroic last stand of Jim Bowie in the Battle of the Alamo in 1836, defending the outpost against the much larger Mexican army led by Santa Anna. The Menger Bar where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders is just opposite and worth a quick drink for the history.
The Riverwalk is being extended north to the The Pearl brewery in Northern downtown San Antonio which is worth a visit as it houses the new Culinary Institute of America, a cooking college funded by the billionaire Kit Goldsberry, and the actor Tommy Lee Jones has his production offices there.
San Antonio is holding up well against the global recession and there are many such developments springing up attracting very large funding. Much of this is due to its strong policy of land development which attracts large companies and this means that business is booming. San Antonio is home to five Fortune 500 companies and also enjoys large investment from wealthy Mexican families who have settled there.
Do visit the Mi Tierra Cafe y Panaderia for breakfast before shopping in the Market Square, the largest Mexican market in the States, it is the home and essence of Mariachi kitsch. Another little gem known to the locals is Gini Garcia's glass blowing studio where you can sit and watch the relaxed artists whilst they listen to Mariachi music and blow glass with amazing skill. More widely known is the celebrated McNay on North New Braunfels, the first modern art museum in Texas showing 19th through to 21st century European and American paintings, sculptures, and photographs.
Lastly, San Antonio has a thriving music culture, and I recommend these places for live music and great atmosphere.
Olmos Pharmacy, a real American pharmacy turned jazz bar with fantastic live music and open mic. Ask Jed to make you a Guinness milkshake, it tastes a lot better than it sounds.
Howl at the Moon on the Riverwalk has musicians duke it out with great skill on two Grand Pianos, guitars and drums. It's like a musical version of lap dancing, the musicians take music request slips accompanied by cash whilst keeping up a running banter with the audience.
Love eXcellence particularly recommends the Picosa Ranch, 30 minutes south of San Antonio; (830) 393-9262:
To get more details about San Antonio and it's events and festivals: