Small town congeniality and celebration create a year-round feeling of fiesta
By Laurie Millman & Martin Rubin
Small town congeniality and a celebration of San Antonio and Texas roots (primarily Mexican, Spanish, French, and German) create a year-round feeling of fiesta in this historic city. Convention organizers and attendees, as well as vacationers, will find plenty of attractions and events to fill many days and nights, including our favorites — taking regular strolls on River Walk along the winding San Antonio River below street level, listening to strolling Mariachi trios while eating al fresco at the many River Walk restaurants, visiting the historic Alamo complex, and going underground at the Natural Bridge Caverns.
The “official” annual San Antonio Fiesta ( http://www.fiesta-sa.org ) takes place this year between April 21-30, 2006. The focal point of the celebration is the 100 plus-year old Battle of Flowers parade (the original event), with its flower-covered floats, dozens of military, college and high school bands, cavalcades, horse-drawn carriages, antique cars and giant, helium balloons. Since its inception at the end of the 19th century, the parade has grown into a 10-day, city-wide, multi-cultural celebration with over 100 different events, including:
- The Texas Cavalier’s evening River Parade on the San Antonio River — decorated barges covered in thousands of lights will hold festive bands and colorfully costumed participants.
- A masked ball called Incognito Fiestas, with live music from Brazil, the Caribbean, and South America provided by Brave Combo, and a floorshow by Carnaval de San Anto dancers and drummers (only $17.50 per person or $150 per table of 10; for advanced ticket sales beginning March 31, go to www.urban15.org ).
- Fiestas Fantasias at Market Square – free, daily events at the historic Market Square, with live entertainment on five stages featuring folkloric dancers, and Tejano and Conjunto music, Latin Jazz, and country-western. More than 30 booths will offer a variety of foods for sale, including spicy Tex-Mex cuisine, Cajun shrimp, hamburgers, fresh fruit drinks, funnel cakes and more.
- Fiesta carnival (free admission).
- 90th anniversary Fiesta Oyster Bake offering more than 100,000 oysters served raw, baked and fried, with continuous rock ‘n’ roll, Latin and country music, and fireworks.
San Antonio is geared towards visitors, beginning with the focal point of our stay, the beautiful River Walk area, with its Depression-era, WPA-constructed cement bridges and cedar-lined cement banks along the narrow San Antonio River. We stayed at the “Hotel Contessa” Suites ( www.thehotelcontessa.com ), the newest hotel along the River. We parked our car in a public parking deck across the street from the hotel (half the price of parking it through Hotel valet parking).
From the hotel’s vantage point, we strolled down River Walk to get to its predominately Tex-Mex restaurants with outdoor dining and strolling Mariachi trios; the nightclubs and bars, including the trademarked “Coyote Ugly” (the young ladies really do dance on the bar), and most downtown attractions.
The most famous of these is The Alamo complex ( www.thealamo.org ) – part of the first of a series of missions built by Spanish friars; the complex is open every day, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; entrance is free. (A live web cam of the Alamo is available at www.mapsanantonio.com )
Just across the street from The Alamo are: Ripley’s Believe It or Not Show and Haunted Adventure; Guinness World Record Museum; and Louis Tussaud’s Plaza Wax Museum ( www.plazawaxmuseum.com ).
Other attractions include: La Villita Historic District ( www.lavillita.com ) — 19th c. historic buildings adjacent to the River Walk which now house retail shops of artists and artisans; our favorite shop was the original ScentChip shop where you can sniff and mix little wax chips with more than 30 different scents, which emit fragrance into a room even without burning them.
An outdoor stage on the other side of the river from La Villita is where they filmed the bathing suit contest in “Miss Congeniality.” Cement stadium seating rise up to La Villita for visitors and residents to enjoy free, outdoor concerts, shows, and rallies.
Rio San Antonio Cruise tour barges (www.RioSanAntonio.com ) for an historic perspective on the river and its downtown structures.
RiverCenter Mall – the multi-storied, U-shaped retail complex has its glass doors opening onto a man-made extension of River Walk. Catch the approx. 35-minute “Alamo” movie on an IMAX screen dramatizes the fall of the Alamo (for advanced tickets and times, go to www.imax-sa.com ). We even got to see the latest Harry Potter movie on the big screen while we were there.
Houston St., which crosses over the River, is closed off every Saturday for the Houston St. Fair, with live, local entertainers in the intersections, and local artisans selling their wares, salsas, jams, and food.
The Buckhorn Museum and Saloon on Houston St.( www.buckhornmuseum.com ), is a unique venue with its huge collection of antlers, stuffed animals and oddities like Siamese calves and two-headed lamb. When we were there, the Museum was hosting a very interesting exhibit about the history of and memorabilia from the men and women who were gunfighters and sharpshooters, outlaws and lawmen.
Market Square – a wonderful collection of authentic Mexican retailers and restaurants, and live bands every weekend.
Historic Downtown -walk or drive to find historic buildings such as the 18th c. Spanish Governor’s Palace and the home of author, William Sydney Porter, better known as O.Henry.
HemisFair Park boasts the Convention Center, and the Tower of Americas, leftover from the 1968 World’s Fair, now the 2nd tallest, free-standing cement structure in America. It has a rotating restaurant, theater, carnival rides, and even water fountains at the top.
At sunset, Mockingbirds and Graeckels cover the trees on the San Antonio streets, singing and chirping throughout the night. As it became dark, a fantasyland was created along the River Walk, with close to 700,000 strands of white lights cascading down from the very tall cedars that line the river. Colored lights brightened the many River Walk bridges, barges, and hotels. We even passed “Elvis,” one night, in a rhinestone-studded jump suit. The city stays up late, especially the River Walk. Police patrol in motorboats along the river, and ride bicycles around the city streets, making the city very safe to walk even after midnight. Access to the River Walk from the city streets is primarily by stairs. Even the bridges connect to either side of the river using stairs. All in all, as nice as it is, it is not suitable for strollers and wheelchairs.
It just so happened that our vacation coincided with the Alamo Bowl, where the Nebraska Huskers and the Michigan Wolverines contended for the win in this televised, college football game in the beautiful Alamo Dome. While eating dinner on the second story patio of the Zuni Bar and Grill ( www.joesfood.com ) overlooking the River Walk, we were serenaded by the marching bands from both schools as they floated past us on the Rio San Antonio Cruise barges.
We took one of the four routes of historic streetcars (blue line, $.80/person) down Alamo Street to the King William Historic District. The streetcar rode past the stately homes built in the mid 19th century by German immigrants. We jumped off to visited the Al Rendon Photographic Gallery (relocated New Yorkers), and Garcia Glass Gallery ( www.garciaartglass.com ) where they blew the beautiful functional and display glass we admired in our hotel restaurant. The northern trolley ride goes uptown to the museums, the Japanese Tea Gardens, the San Antonio Zoo, and Botanical Gardens.
After all of the local attractions, you will have to use the rental car to get to other worthwhile attractions:
Natural Bridge Caverns ( www.naturalbridgecaverns.com )- one of four major limestone caverns within a short drive of San Antonio, it is open year-round. Unlike the eastern caverns, leave your sweaters and coats at home – the temperature inside the caverns is similar to outside, with 99% humidity. Even in late December, we were sweating! The 75-minute long tour offered us some of the best cave formations we have ever seen.
McNay Art Institute – 19th and 20th c. paintings, prints, and sculptures housed in what was once a private estate
Also: Sea World San Antonio (closed for the winter after October); Six Flags Fiesta Texas (closed for the winter after October); and Air Force and Army military bases — historic Fort Sam Houston Army Base has an extensive walking tour.
For all of your San Antonio planning, visit the San Antonio Convention and Visitor’s Bureau web site,www.sanantoniovisit.com , and visit the San Antonio Visitor Information center open daily at 317 Alamo Plaza.
Dining: Tex-Mex Style
We had such nice weather in late December, that we took every opportunity to eat outdoors. We found many excellent, moderately priced restaurants in San Antonio. Sure, you can find other themed restaurants, but San Antonio is known for its Tex-Mex restaurants, which boast a distinctly “smoky’ flavored, brownish red salsa. We had our first (and second) glass of San Antonio’s signature “Prickly Pear” Margarita with lunch at Boudro’s Texas Bistro ( www.boudros.com ). The traditional lime Margarita drink was infused with a deep, magenta swirl of prickly cactus pear juice – out of this world! We ordered uniquely San Antonio dishes at Boudro’s — Chicken-fried Ribeye, Blackened Yellow FinTuna on a bed of greens in a maple walnut vinaigrette, and Blue Crab Tostada. They also prepared tableside guacamole with lime and orange juices. The average luncheon menu item cost $8.50.
At the Mexican-themed Market Square, we ordered traditional Mexican food in the decades-old, family-owned Mi Tierra Café and Bakery ( www.mitierracafe.com ), which is open 24×7. This block-long restaurant with its many rooms, brightly painted murals, and festive atmosphere, has roving Mariachi trios all day and evening. Our waiter confided in us that people come in at all times, even at 3 – 4 am, after the bars close. Breakfast is available all day and night. Every Saturday night and Christmas Day night around 6pm, a 15-person Mariachi band and Mexican dancers entertain in the bar. Try Mi Tierra’s Midori Margarita and their Mexican pastries, which are baked fresh on the premises.
In the King William District, we ate dinner at the newer, upscale Azuca Nuevo Latino Restaurant (www.azuca.net ; entries range between $19-21), next door to Garcia Glass. The centerpieces and wall art in the restaurant were also all Garcia Glass. The menu offered an interesting mix of flavors, and we chose gazpacho soup, Chilean Sea Bass that melted in our mouths, and a non-spicy stew over coconut rice and sesame flatbread. Try to make reservations for Thursday – Saturday, when Azuca sponsors Flamenco shows in the separate bar.
Las Ramblas Restaurant in The Contessa offered such a wonderful breakfast buffet with omelettes made-to-order, that we ate there every morning. For dinner one night, we experienced the upscale restaurant’s Spanish cuisine by selecting succulent rotisserie leg of lamb and a barbeque brisket. Dining is indoor or outside along the River Walk. We always opted for outside, next to the tiny little island known as “Marriage” or “Wedding” Island, and the river tour barges passing by.
Many of the gift shops offer for sale a wide variety and intensity of salsas, hot sauces, and pepper jellies. Many are made locally (including Pace salsa), and we opted to take back those unique to the area to family and friends.
Photo:A small, but serene section of the River Walk (© 2006 Laurie Millman).
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