A Hill Country Town That Whispers, Not Shouts
By STIRLING KELSO
Each year thousands of vacationers flock to the Hill Country, the Central Texas destination that often draws comparisons to Tuscany for its tree-covered hilltops and rolling valleys. Fredericksburg is the hub of this tourist activity; there, crowds amble through antique shops, and boutique B&Bs fill up faster than an IHOP after church. But not all towns in this area require reservations for a plate of schnitzel.
For travelers in search of a Hill Country destination that is a bit less touristy and a touch more rugged (read: authentic), visit Kerrville, a small city of roughly 22,000 residents on Interstate 10 an hour northwest of San Antonio. “We’re like Fredericksburg’s stepsister,” said Julie Land of the Kerrville Convention & Visitors Bureau, noting that the F-word often soaks up the attention of the entire region.
Head straight downtown, the place where Kerrville’s relaxed charm unfolds, thanks in large part to the sparkling Guadalupe River, which runs through the city’s center. “Even our Starbucks has water views,” Ms. Land said.
Skip the coffee chain and head for Grape Juice (623 Water Street, 830-792-9463, grapejuiceonline.com), a gem of a restaurant off the city’s main street, which is currently being redeveloped. Original art adorns the walls in a loft-like space that is conceptually divided into three parts. It has a wine store, a large bar with about 20 beers on tap (including a rotation of local brews) and a restaurant, where you can eat antelope sliders or quail tacos. Patrick Wilt, the owner, buys wines from all over the world, but he respects the locavore movement by selecting ingredients from Broken Arrow Ranch and Diamond H Ranch, farms in nearby Ingram and Bandera, respectively.
Francisco’s Restaurant (201 Earl Garrett Street, 830-257-2995, franciscos-restaurant.com), an upscale institution that has been serving residents for 25 years, also has an exceptional menu. Carefully prepared items, like cilantro and lime shrimp, fried oysters, and a 12-ounce ribeye steak, are served in a cozy space with exposed-stone walls and white tablecloths.
Walk off lunch and make your way to the Kerr Arts and Cultural Center (228 Earl Garrett Street, 830-895-2911, kacckerrville.com), a simple and inviting gallery, with free admission, in the town’s former post office. Watercolors and photographs by local artists are currently on display, but the Texas Furniture Makers’ Show, which attracts more than 500,000 visitors every year, will fill the space beginning Nov. 10.
Also downtown, the Museum of Western Art (1550 Bandera Highway, 830-896-2553, museumofwesternart.com) showcases an impressive collection of Western American paintings and sculptures in its hacienda-style building.
Immerse yourself in Kerrville’s history with a stop at the castle-like Schreiner mansion (226 Earl Garrett Street, 830-896-8633), built in 1879 for Charles Schreiner, a cattle baron. Unlike the situation in most other historic homes, the bedrooms, parlor and stairways are all open, giving visitors an intimate view of the Schreiners’ elegant turn-of-the-century lifestyle. (Tread carefully on magnificent, original parquet floors.)
The neighboring 1869 Schreiner’s Department Store is closed for renovations, but it will soon reopen with new boutiques and (rumor has it) a martini bar. For now, make a beeline to Hill Country Living (709 Water Street, 830-895-4889) for elegant and timeless shopping finds like Vietri and Arte Italica housewares, or for classic and colorful place mats and napkins.
No trip to this area would be complete without a pilgrimage to the James Avery Craftsman headquarters (145 Avery Road, 830-895-1122, jamesavery.com) on the outskirts of town. Before the stores became a mall staple, James Avery was here — he set up his first workshop in Kerrville in 1954 — and Mr. Avery routinely visits the 40-acre campus. The grounds, circled by beautifully landscaped walking trails, encourage exploration. Copper-topped gazebos offer a shady spot for sipping refreshments, but most visitors hover around the extensive gift store, which sells new and discontinued jewelry lines. Shoppers can also watch jewelers hammer, mold and engrave the sterling silver crafts from the small guest center and museum.
Continue out of the city along Highways 27 or 39 for a scenic drive on a two-lane road, where low-hanging pecan and maple trees hug the Guadalupe River, and discreet, unassuming gated entrances lead to some of the state’s most respected summer camps. (For a shot of weird Texas, keep an eye out for the quirky replication of Stonehenge in Ingram.)
Take a quick 20-minute jaunt outside Kerrville, and finish your day at the Hunt Store (1634 Highway 39, 830-238-4410), a wood-paneled convenience and grocery depot that carries everything from wildlife feed and smoky beef jerky to meat rubs and organic pecans. At this old-timey Mom and Pop, visitors can sit at outdoor picnic tables for specialty menus — lobster rolls and watermelon salad made the last seasonal spread — and occasional live music.
As you relax with a drink and gaze up at the night sky, the only F-word you’ll be uttering is “fabulous.”