Day Two of our rehabilitive roadtrip got off to an auspicious start, helped in no small part by the very good coffee served by Hampton Inn both in room and at their breakfast buffet. (The breakfast itself was unexceptional; the one we enjoyed at a Hampton in Seattle one year ago was much better.) We have learned, over our years together, that the first day of traveling is almost always the worst, and vowed to put yesterday's unpleasantness behind us. So after a leisurely morning spent with coffee, newspapers and internet surfing, we screwed on our heads and headed out to a place where we were sure to find old-fashioned therapy. A message joint? A spa?? No, it seems my lovely wife the Rock Star and I needed quality time with some four-footed healers.
NATURAL BRIDGE WILDLIFE RANCH
I visited Natural Bridge Caverns (conveniently located right next door on Natural Bridge Caverns Road, seven miles west of IH 35 in Greater New Braunfels) many years ago, and since my family had determined that it was one of the better subterranean attractions in Texas, I reasoned that the Wildlife Ranch must be of similar stellar quality. Following a rather good map found at www.wildliferanchtexas.com, we made our way to the park's door in short order, paid the very reasonable fees, received our bags of animal feed (you will want more than one) and proceeded slowly into the drive-thru park. Several rules for enjoying this oasis of fauna should be mentioned. One: DRIVE SLOW! Five MPH is the MAXIMUM speed allowed, and for your own safety and enjoyment, you should never exceed it. Trust me, if you feel the need to hurry thru, please do us all a favor and visit another attraction. Two: Frequent stops are encouraged. This is not one of those places where you see the animals from a distance; this is a truly in-your-face (literally), interactive experience. Three: Respect horns and teeth. Key to a great animal experience? Just drop a little of the food out of your window, watch as they come up to your car, and offer your arm so they can smell and become familiar with you. Then, you may pet. (Again: Respect horns and teeth!) Some animals are standoffish, others, such as the zebras, can be quite aggressive. (A threesome had our vehicle surrounded at one point, and one of the dear fellows grabbed the Rock Star's half-full feed back right off her lap and consumed it on the spot! Since zebra's have teeth, she did not contest ownership.) Other animals you may see include llamas, emus, ostriches, springboks, giraffes, and rhinos. (These last two animals, thankfully, behind fences. I do not fancy the notion of playing chicken with a rhino in a PT Cruiser!) After our lovely drive was complete, we took time to visit the gift shop and even the petting zoo, where we proved quite popular with the young goats and kids of the human species. (One young lady came to my aid when she discovered a goat trying to ascend my leg like an Alpine ski slope. Thank you, dear!) In short, our time wandering amongst the animals proved to be quite theraputic indeed, and prepared us spiritually for the next stop on our trip.
DRY COMAL CREEK WINERY
Located just a few minutes from the Wildlife Ranch, Dry Comal Creek Winery is one of those businesses intent on placing the Texas Grape firmly in the minds and tasting rooms of wineheads the world over. David and his colleagues conducted an irreverent, spirited tasting of their finest, and we were so impressed that we bought half a dozen bottles to take home, which I'm sure will form the basis of one or more Wine Corner Reviews in the very near future. I'm especially impressed by their nontraditional offerings, not only the blends but their unusual varietals such as the bone-dry French Colombard (truly an underappreciated white grape, with notes of pear, tangelo, and pineapple on the finish) and the native-to-Texas Black Spanish (Jam For Days!), which may well be their signature tipple. After the tasting, we even bought a glass of wine apiece and shared a lovely half-hour under the trees around a natural stone table. Quite a delightful time indeed, contributing mightily to restoration of our wellness. URL is www.drycomalcreek.com.
Quite restored, we then pointed the car back toward New Braunfels, determined to see firsthand a highly-acclaimed historic district for sightseeing and a late lunch.
GRUENE RIVER GRILL
Gently resisting change since 1872, Gruene, Texas bills itself as "conveniently located between Austin and San Antonio and a little behind the times." Judging from the crowds flowing thru it's streets like the nearby Guadalupe River, folks like it that way. Simply put, if you like authentic Texas-German history, you will love Gruene. A delightful old-town center with plenty of shops, restaurants, antique stores, rock & fossil shops, a genuine Texas dance hall, and gift places galore await your perusal. After parking in the centrally-located lot, we spent only a few minutes strolling the square before hunger called and we made our way to the Grill. Perched dramatically above the river, Gruene River Grill is similarly positioned in a culinary sense to make a major impact on the local dining scene. My wife had the Chicken Fajita Salad and raved about it, and since I stated in the previous day's post that she is a Certified Fajita Expert, her opinion is high praise indeed. I chose to open my very late lunch with a cup of Jalapeno Corn Chowder, deservedly touted on the menu as a specialty, and redolent of sweet corn, cilantro, spicy jalapenos (not too spicy!), and crawfish tails. After this ambrosial mixture, I made a play for the Queso Chicken. Pan-fried tortilla crusted breast of chicken topped with Monterrey Jack cheese, spicy queso, and fresh cilantro, served with sauteed black beans and rice, was probably the very best Mex meal I've had to date all year. With the sunlight flashing beautifully off the waters below, this stop may very well have been the highlight of our roadtrip. Website (still under construction) is www.gruenerivergrill.com.
After a little more shopping and sightseeing, we decided to check out Gruene's most fabled tourist attraction.
Not only is Gruene Hall Texas oldest operating dance hall (since 1878), but it still boasts a full schedule of live music. As we passed this historic edifice on the way back to our car, we heard sounds of a kickin' live band inside and decided to investigate. To properly describe the wonderfulness of this genu-wine Texas honky tonk would take pages and pages of dialogue, with it's rather smallish wooden interior, separate bar for longneck sippin, and large rear biergarten complete with barrels and ancient ReadyMix ice machine. Suffice it to say, we stopped in just long enough to enjoy the excellent music and a round of brew before heading back to our hotel for much-needed rest. Website for this glorious emporium of living Texana is www.gruenehall.com.
After a nap at the hotel and a little more TV and internet surfing, we decided to motor back to Gruene for dinner at yet another historic structure.
Situated on a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River directly under the Gruene water tower, the Gristmill Restaurant has been serving meals inside this restored cotton gin since 1977. Ten separate dining rooms give the feeling of dining in a turn-of-last century bank with its stone, distressed walls. The Rock Star was very pleased with her old-fashioned chicken-fried chicken, done to a turn, with excellent cream gravy. I was mucho pleased with my Guadalupe Chopped Steak, medium-rare with queso, red onions, jalapenos, and jack cheese. (Although my stomach often objects, I do love south-of-the-border-influenced cuisine.) Website is www.gristmillrestaurant.com. Don't pass up the chance to dine at this historical site (complete with historical marker out front).
Before we left Gruene, we paid one more visit to Gruene Hall for a final round of brew and more great live music, then puttered happily back to our inn to sleep. A much better day, with much less friction, theraputic and much needed by us both. Please look for the third and final installment soon, and:
LIFE IS TOO SHORT FOR MEDIOCRE FOOD!!!