Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 11, 2017

© S Dee / San Antonio CVB

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Lone-star slate

Forget the stereotypes — Texas has more great culture, cuisine and quirkiness than all get out

It was the first armadillo race of the day in Fort Worth and the instructions were simple. “Git down on your haunches behind that varmint, and blow like heck on his posterior,” drawled Gene, the laconic older man who was in charge. “If that don’t make him run like tarnation, y’all might as well quit the great state of Texas.”

Feeling the pressure, I glanced down dubiously at my own racing armadillo — a bizarre marmot-sized mammal with a face resembling Winnie the Pooh’s friend Piglet, and a body like a tortoise shell glued to a football — and was relieved to see that it had opened an eye and stopped snoring, which gave us an edge on the competition. My more immediate problem was what to do with the stuff I was holding: a Jean-Paul Gaultier designer scarf bought as a gift, a large map of Cowboys Stadium, and a catalogue of a show I’d just seen on the great Renaissance painter Caravaggio at the Kimbell Art Museum (tel: 817-332-8451; kimbellart.org).

Luckily, Gene got wind of my dilemma. “Don’t you worry none, son,” he said as he took my belongings. “Armadillos are more into that modern art stuff. Take that little feller there.” He pointed out a sleepy armadillo ignoring a girl on all fours blowing noisily at its tail. “He’s so downright abstracted, we call him Picasso!”

Life, Texas sized

Welcome to Texas, a place that’s an old hand at surprising greenhorn visitors. In the Lone Star State of today, skyscrapers and old Spanish missions co-exist with sports shrines, hip neighbourhoods, cowgirl rodeos and some of the world’s finest museums and golf courses. Seven of the top 20 restaurants in the US are in Texas, including The French Room (tel: 214-742-8200; hoteladolphus.com) in Dallas, rated number one by Zagat Guides. Even Texas manners put Canadians to shame — prepare to bask in the state’s genteel charm and listen attentively; the locals have a way with language.

Once part of Mexico, then an independent republic, and now the second-largest American state after Alaska, Texas stretches 1300 kilometres from Oklahoma’s wind-swept plains to the Mexican border. As filled with natural splendour as it is with people (Houston and the twin cities of Dallas-Fort Worth are two of America’s biggest urban centres), the landscape ranges from prairie, forest, and hill-country to desert canyons and the endless beaches of the steamy Gulf Coast.

Texas is big. Not only that, everything about Texas is big: whether it’s a 16-ounce sirloin (almost half a kilo), Dallas International Airport (same size as Manhattan), or a cowboy shirt labelled XL-M. In other words, you’ll probably need transportation just to get from your hotel bed to the bath — and you can take it as gospel that a rental car is a must.

Visitors arriving after May might find they spend a lot of time in their cars with the air conditioning on: 40°C summers are normal through September. April, however, is regarded as the nicest month of the year. Fall, and even much of our winter, are usually a safe bet, too: temperatures under 20°C inspire horror here.

Down by the river

Given Texas’ scale, I confined my trip to two areas: the central twin gateway cities of Dallas and Fort Worth (the initial destination of the many Canadian snowbirds who flock here), and the charming, more southerly city of San Antonio.

Established by colonial Spain in 1718 and still mostly Hispanic, San Antonio is a picturesque place with handsome period buildings and a compact, easily walkable downtown, a novelty in Texas. The most touristed city in the state, local attractions suit every taste. There’s loads of fun for kids (eight local theme parks, including Six Flags, SeaWorld and Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s only full-access park for physically challenged children), as well as cool shopping ($2000 cowboy boots).

At the edge of town lies the Texas Hill Country, a rugged wilderness perfect for trail-riding, hiking and white-water rafting. San Antonio has over 50 golf courses, including two PGA Tour courses (at the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort). For history buffs, there are the city’s four Spanish Missions to visit — large walled settlements built in the 1700s by the Franciscan religious order for its Native American flocks.

Right downtown is the fortified Alamo (tel: 210-225-1391; thealamo.org), also originally a Spanish Mission and still a symbol of the 1836-1846 Republic of Texas founded by American settlers who revolted against Mexican rule. The 1836 Alamo Massacre retains its importance for Texans: all 189 rebel defenders died, and it’s still customary to take off your hat. The landmark Emily Morgan Hotel (tel: 210-225-5100; emilymorganhotel.com; doubles from US$180) in a grand flatiron-style building is right across the street.

Nearby, you’ll find a staircase to carry you down to one of San Antonio’s best features, the shady and festive Riverwalk (thesanantonioriverwalk.com), a 13-kilometre promenade full of eateries, lounges, stores and patios on the landscaped banks of the San Antonio River — all of it sunken one storey below street level and the city’s bustle. The Riverwalk’s lush landscapes, pathways, waterfalls, outdoor art and relaxing margarita terraces make it seem like a tropical Venice. Water taxis and river tours are available.

San Antonio is also the best place in Texas to try Mexican-style cuisine. La Gloria Ice House (tel: 210-267-9040; lagloriaicehouse.com), run by gifted chef Johnny Hernadez, is a revelation, mixing novel takes on Mexican regional dishes and street-food with exotic game like rattlesnake. Serving more traditional Tex-Mex fare is the Mi Tierra Café y Panaderia (tel: 210-225-1262; miatierracafe.com), actually an enormous restaurant decorated with thousands of piñatas and run by the same family for three generations. It’s a Texas landmark, as famous for its atmosphere as for the authentic food.

Bright skies, big city

A dauntingly large metropolis of suburbs, with a downtown filled with skyscrapers, the greater Dallas area contains almost 12 million people. The city is internationally recognized for its fine museums (the Nasher Sculpture Center has the best collection of modernist pieces anywhere), along with its cultural institutions, collected together in the central Dallas Arts District (tel: 214-744-6642; thedallasartsdistrict.org). There, the lavish opera, symphony, performing arts centre, and Wylie theatre provide a quick crash course in cutting-edge architecture: you’re looking at the work of some of the world’s most celebrated architects, all in a few blocks.

Close by is Uptown, a swank area known for its upscale nightlife and expensive shopping (check out Korshak, a Dallas-only high-end department store). One highlight is Fearing's (tel: 214-922-4848; fearingsrestaurant.com) at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (tel: 214-922-0200 ; ritzcarlton.com/dallas; doubles from US$400), one of the best five restaurants in the US. Run by Chef Dean Fearing, it offers such savoury fare as pan-roasted BBQ-spiced filet with chicken-fried Maine lobster. The area is also home to the Sixth Floor Museum (tel: 214-747-6660; jfk.org) which chronicles the assassination and legacy of US President John F. Kennedy. It is located in the former book depository, the exact spot Lee Harvey Oswald shot the President.

Further afield are Dallas’ hip urban neighbourhoods, filled with bistros, galleries, bars, music venues and artisans. The former industrial area of Deep Ellum, just east of downtown, is an up-and-coming trendsetter. Stop by Twisted Root Burger (tel: 214-741-7668; twistedrootburgerco.com) to try out their Texas-sized menu: you can sample ostrich and gator burgers, and slurp on a peanut-butter milkshake. Off in South Dallas, the Bishop Arts District operates in a similar vein, and is known for its funky boutique shopping, as well as the nearby Lockhart Smokehouse (tel: 214-944-5521; lockhartsmokehouse.com), the place to try Texas BBQ.

A victim of sprawl and organization by automobile (a fact the city is busily trying to rectify), Dallas is often regarded as a way station by tourists, who visit the museums and indulge in the excellent shopping, then hop over to its sister city 58 kilometres away, the more humanely-scaled Fort Worth. Mid-way between the two is Cowboys Stadium. Home of the all-time Super Bowl-champion Dallas Cowboys, this colossal US$1.8 billion titanium-clad building is indisputably the Taj Mahal of Texas. Astonishing in scale, it’s well worth seeing even if you have no idea what NFL stands for: access to the playing field and tours of the cheerleaders and athletes’ locker-rooms are available daily (US$50).

A downhome town

A place that easily juxtaposes the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame (tel: 817-336-4475; cowgirl.net) with a fabulous Museum of Modern Art (tel: 817-738-9215; themodern.org) across the street (second largest collection in the world after the MOMA in New York), Fort Worth is a laidback, hospitable city of 800,000 people that finds it easy to be all things to everyone.

There is a cultural district here too, with many great museums. The easily-navigable city centre boasts a 35-square-block entertainment district centered around the power shopping emporium of Sundance Square. Down the street is the Bass Performance Hall, with a façade graced by two 15-metre-tall sculpted angels. The Omni Fort Worth Hotel (tel: 817-535-6664; omnihotels.com/findahotel/fortworth.aspx; doubles from US$240), one of the largest and most high-falutin’ luxury hotels in the US, is around the corner.

Fort Worth also has its share of America’s best restaurants, including Ellerbe Fine Foods (tel: 817-926-3663; ellerbefinefoods.com), a US leader in the slow-food movement that has gained raves for its elegant, innovative farm-to-table cuisine. The Lonesome Dove Bistro (tel: 817-740-8810; lonesomedovebistro.com) specializes in steak and game dishes. Apart from the wagyu Tomahawk ribeye, try out wild boar ribs, rabbit-rattlesnake sausage, elk loin or kangaroo carpaccio.

Across town is Angelo’s BBQ (tel: 817-332-0357; angelosbbq.com), one of the most famous smokehouses in Texas. Their “rubs” (spice marinades) are a closely guarded family secret, but they’re always happy to show off the braising smokepit, or explain the African taxidermy that festoons the walls.

No one leaves town without visiting the Stockyards Historic District (tel: 817-624-4741; fortworthstockyards.org), filled with Texas-themed shopping and cuisine, Western saloons, a championship rodeo coliseum, and many original structures from the days of the Old West.

Longhorn steers are still driven down Exchange Avenue daily, and staged gunfights take place at high noon: Maverick (tel: 817-626-1129; maverickwesternwear.com), a Western store with a pioneer pedigree, is the spot to buy a calfskin ten-gallon hat. Just around the corner is the world’s largest honky-tonk, Billy Bob’s Texas (tel: 817-626-1129; billybobstexas.com), a 9290-square-metre roadhouse that can hold 6000 people, and contains more than 30 different bar stations, a bull-riding rodeo arena, many dance floors, two restaurants, and much more.

In fact, the wealth of things to do in Texas could easily explain my groggy racing armadillo, so tuckered out by all the fun that he never moved an inch as I blew on his tail in the pretty square across from Billy Bob’s. As Gene the wrangler (who’d been looking at my art book between hollers) gave me back my belongings, he winked and said, “next time, son, bring some brushes: if y’all hurry, you kin paint a still life.”

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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