Play. Eat. Drink. Stay.
By Chris Chamberlain
How can a city with the 7th largest population in the U.S. possibly be overlooked? Especially when it also is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the top ten with more than ten percent increase in population between 2010 and 2015? Well, in the case of San Antonio, it may be because three other Texas cities—Houston, Dallas and Austin—draw more attention for their music scenes, culinary reputations and major league sports teams, despite the fact that only Houston is actually larger than San Antonio.
But that’s fine, a million and a half people know that San Antonio is the place to be and has been since the Spanish first settled it in the early 1700s. The Spanish mission culture is still an integral part of the culture of the city, and the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park along with the Alamo, became part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites on July 5, 2015, only the 23rd such designation in the United States.
Modern day San Antonio does a wonderful job combining its history with modern art, architecture and industry, and should definitely be added to your short list of vacation destinations if you’re seeking an experience that offers cultural and culinary sustenance. The San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau is a particularly helpful resource for planning a trip to River City, and their Trip Planner is a fun tool to play with as you imagine your ideal itinerary, be it a foodie adventure, a guys’ getaway or an LGBT night out.
I recently visited the city on a press junket and experienced San Antonio in a brand new way, especially considering it had been almost 30 years since my last trip there. Here’s my advice on how to wring the most of a trip to old (and new) San Antone:
Our home base for the trip was the fantastic La Cantera Resort & Spa. This property recently underwent a multimillion dollar renovation and rebranding, and you can see the result of every penny they spent. Laid out on top of a bluff with sweeping views of the valley below, including an amusement park and two championship golf courses, La Cantera is southwestern luxury at its best. The spa had not reopened when we stayed there, but I’ve never been much of a spa guy anyway. (Don’t even think of trying to talk me into a pedicure.) But we did tour the facilities and it looks perfectly lovely. Have a ball!
Multiple pools on the property also offer the same sort of infinity views, and multiple bars and restaurants mean you never have to walk far to get a bite or a sip. But you should still wait a half hour before reentering the water. Dining options range from casual cantinas with indoor/outdoor seating to fine dining to laid-back 19th hole golf grilles. While we were there, La Cantera management announced the exciting news that San Antonio stalwart and favorite local chef Andrew Weissman would soon be opening his own signature restaurant as part of the resort.
The lobby, the bars, the restaurants and the rooms are all exemplary of a top-notch resort, but the room rates were surprisingly reasonable as were the greens fees and club rentals at the golf course. Considering how the course beat me up, they should have paid me for the entertainment factor of watching me hack the little white ball around…
If you’re looking for something even hipper when it comes to accommodations, we also visited the striking Hotel Emma, adjacent to the happening Pearl Brewery complex. Named after Emma Kohler, a former owner of the brewery that covered multiple acres in the area in years past, Hotel Emma is located in the former Pearl brewhouse. Designed in the Second Empire style, the building is very attractive and classic on the exterior and some sort of whimsical steampunk wonderland on the inside.
The former brewhouse has been converted into a hotel that is so cool, I’m not sure they’d ever let me stay there, but they were gracious enough to let me visit. Amenities include rooftop pools, four two-story suites, seven penthouse suites, several food and drink options and a massive club with a huge bar, elegant pool tables and cozy booths cut out of the old fermentation tanks. It really was a unique experience.
Our media group was specifically in town to visit the annual Culinaria food and drink festival. The dates haven’t been announced for the 2017 edition, but it’s usually a late spring event, so keep checking the website if you’re interested in taking part next year. More than just a single day event, Culinaria offers educational seminars, afternoon wine and taco tastings, a grand evening tasting event and even a 5K run, which I ran away from.
In between Culinaria events, we made plenty of time to experience more of what San Antonio had to offer, although it did mean a lot of time in the car since the city has a wide geographic reach and a ton of people. Just plan ahead, and it’s a pretty easy city to navigate.
Extremely easy to navigate, in fact, is the famous River Walk, miles of paths located along the San Antonio River a level below the automobile streets. Known as “America’s Venice,” these easy paths are lined with restaurants, bars, hotels and other tourist attractions, and they also connect some of the ancient mission and interesting museums with The Pearl District while offering recreational activities with paddling, walking and biking trails. Water taxis carry tourists along the river, and you can even book a dinner tour catered by one of several local restaurants that will teach you about local history while you enjoy multi-course meals and beverages. In a pinch, the River Walk also acts as flood control by opening and closing flood gates as necessary.
The Missions of San Antonio include more than just the most famous example of The Alamo. While that particular mission is the easiest to visit since it’s downtown and just a few steps off the River Walk, the entire mission system includes four other locations that are well worth a visit. In fact, The Alamo turns out to be a lot smaller than you might imagine, and it’s difficult to imagine the brave Texans defending it from any force bigger than a boy scout troop, much less Santa Ana’s army. Regardless, all the missions have now been officially recognized with UNESCO World Heritage status.
Whether you take the River Walk or drive, you need to visit the rest of The Pearl district. Filled with great restaurants, fun bars and brewpubs and interesting boutiques, it’s a great place to while away a few hours and burn off some breakfast tacos. Speaking of which, here are some culinary highlights of my trip.
San Antonio is of course known for Tex-Mex food, and interesting Latin flavors in general. In fact, The Pearl is the home of one of only three branches of the Culinary Institute of America. Many of the country’s best chefs are CIA grads, and the San Antonio location offers a special Latin American cooking focus in addition to the regular curriculum. Civilians like you and me can also take individual cooking classes at the facility or sample the food and service skills of students at the college’s Nao Latin Gastro Bar.
Other nice dining options at The Pearl include the bustling Bakery Lorraine, a Peruvian/Asian fusion spot named Botika, Chef Steve McHugh’s fantastic meat-centric eatery Cured, and several others. Steak lovers will be satisfied by an outpost of John Besh’s Lüke, a cool brasserie with French, German and New Orleans influences.
San Antonio has a reputation as a center of innovative beer and spirits. They even hold an annual cocktail conference that is aimed at both bar professionals and also craft cocktail enthusiasts. I’ve got it on my calendar for next year, so I promise to report back if I make it down…if I remember how much fun it was.
Breweries still abound in San Antonio, just on a smaller and craftier scale than back in the days of Pearl. Alamo Beer Co. has been brewing since 2014, focusing on German-style ales and lagers including a pils they describe as being “the color of Texas sunshine.” I don’t know about all that, but I can say it was darned tasty.
Other fun brewpubs include The Granary and Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery, both part of The Pearl complex and both offering full menus to accompany their craft drafts. More difficult to find, but well worth the trip is Ranger Creek Brewery and Distillery. Hidden away in an industrial development, the unique “brewstillery” brews some interesting beers but also crafts a handful of fascinating whiskeys. They actually age their spirits in barrels stacked in shipping containers in the parking lot behind the distillery as opposed to the traditional multi-level rickhouses of Kentucky bourbon country. I’m not normally a fan of smoked whiskeys, but I was particularly struck by Ranger Creek’s Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Texas Single Malt Whiskey, part of what they call their “Small Caliber Series” of limited releases. Not only was this a novel treatment if a single malt whiskey, it went beyond novelty with a balanced smokiness and sweetness. Like all of Ranger Creek’s products, it is named after a weapon used by the famous Texas Rangers of yore. Since it’s still a small craft facility, Ranger Creek doesn’t have wide distribution yet, so you’ll have to seek it out.
If there’s one thing in San Antonio that you should definitely not miss, it’s the latest major tourist attraction downtown on the Main Plaza. “The Saga” is a remarkable art installation which takes viewers through the history of San Antonio in the course of a gorgeous 24-minute allegorical video projected on the façade of San Fernando Cathedral. Created by renowned painter and video artist Xavier De Richemon, “The Saga” is a beautiful way to experience the soul of the city choreographed with lights, music and video projection. The presentation is free and subject to weather, so make plans to catch it at 9, 9:30, or 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. We caught it on our last evening in San Antonio, so it was a nice way to sum up what we’d learned as we watched history dance in the perfectly choreographed light show on the face of the cathedral. But I think it would be even better as an introduction or inspiration for your trip to San Antonio, so consider moving it up in your itinerary.
– Photos by Chris Chamberlain
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