Distance: 40 miles
Driving Time: 1 hour
Any time is a good time to drive through the mostly rural Texas Hill Country, with its limestone outcroppings and gnarled old live oak trees, but March and April are spectacular. Spring is when the Texas bluebonnet, the state flower, rises under barbed-wire fences, encircles old barns, and stretches out over fields, softening the landscape with a plush bloom-to-bloom carpet that bobbles in the breeze. From May through July, small colorful blooms sprout between cactus needles. Call the Texas Travel Information line (800/452-9292) for the latest bulletins on the densest wildflower concentrations. And turn your car radio on till you find Austin signals; some people say, and I'm one of them, that the capital's stations play the best music around.
Take Loop 1 to Highway 290 west; turn left on Route 12 and continue about 15 miles to Wimberley. At the faux Old Western storefronts of Oak Hill, the city's edges start to blur into calming country roads. Zig and zag from one farm-to-market road to the next, avoiding as much as possible the suburban pockets that are popping up at weed speed. This route takes you on roads that lead past more rusting tractors and tumbledown barns than past SUVs and tract houses. Once you get to Wimberley (population 13,000), it will seem like the big city.
Take It Outside
Long privately held but open to the public because its owners didn't feel right about not sharing it, Hamilton Pool (24300 Hamilton Pool Rd., Dripping Springs; 512/264-2740) is now the centerpiece of a nature preserve run by the state. This is a Hill Country oasis, especially in summer; it is a naturally collapsed grotto with a large round pool of clear, cold water into which a waterfall pours over a fern-embellished wide shelf above. Pack a swimsuit, towel, and athletic shoes; a sign at the entrance booth, where a small admission fee is collected, signals whether swimming is permitted on any given day. But dip or not, you'll want to follow the far less-crowded trail alongside pretty Hamilton Creek to its outlet, about a half mile away, at the Pedernales River (which runs through the LBJ Ranch upriver), a prototypical Hill Country vision of green water, limestone riverbed, bald cypress trees, and low boulders for sunning. Speed up on the hike back to get good and hungry for the next stop.
Where to Eat
Believe it or not, the most famous barbecue joint in Texas, the Salt Lick (18300 FM 1826, Driftwood; 512/858-4959; www.saltlickbbq.com), is easy to miss—if your windows are rolled up. Roll them down, and the smoky scent from the divine mesquite-fired pit will draw you right into the parking lot of this ever-expanding low-slung temple of meat. Opened in 1969 and originally a humble limestone room with a patio, the Salt Lick these days is so renowned it's almost bursting out of two big buildings; plentiful outdoor seating under pecan trees is ready for the overflow. Watch the servers deliver black-crusted pink beef, glistening ribs, and crispy sausages to your table. Don't forgo the sides of lightly-spiced pinto beans, creamy potato salad, and vinegary coleslaw with sesame seeds. And just try to sweeten your giant iced tea with fewer than the eight packets of sugar it comes with. Waddling back to the car is not only permitted but expected. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner; be sure to bring cash, because credit cards aren't accepted here.
Stop and Sip
Named for—the so-called "Mario Batali of Texas"—Damian Mandola, the co-owner, Italian-American chef, and specialty grocer, Mandola Estate Winery (13308 FM 150 West, Driftwood; 512/858-1470; www.mandolawines.com), is a bit odd for being a Tuscan-style complex plunked down among humbler buildings in Texas. But it's not a very far-fetched idea; this area of Texas shares a climate similar to that of Southern Italy and Sicily, and Mandola's vintages are made from suitable traditional grapes, including Montepulciano, Moscato, Sangiovese, and Nero d'Avola. Winemaker and vineyard manager Mark Penna oversees the high quality of the wines. Visitors can taste the wines free of charge, in a spacious stone-lined tasting room that doubles as a shop for olives, oils, snacks and Mandola's cookbooks—Ciao, Y'All, among others. Various other clues around the winery show how completely Mandola has embraced his adopted state: Corks are inscribed with Italian translations of such phrases as THE STARS AT NIGHT ARE BIG AND BRIGHT DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS and DON'T SQUAT WITH YOUR SPURS ON. Mandola, of course, is to oversee the winery's rustic Tuscan/Italian restaurant, which is expected to open in late summer.
Thanks to a high ridge called the Devil's Backbone, the road between Wimberley and Blanco to the west opens up gorgeous vistas of the Blanco River Valley and gives you a taste of the heights that the hills reach further west. For a quick look, take Ranch Road 12 to the intersection of Highway 32 and then head back to Wimberley. For more fulsome Hill Country glory, take 32 another 13 or so miles to the sweet historic hamlet of Fischer before turning around.
Stop and Shop
At the Wild West Store (13709 Ranch Road 12, Wimberley; 512/847-1219; www.wildweststore.com), just off Wimberley Square, you can spend an hour or more browsing three rooms of vintage cowboy boots and a far smaller but still fine collection of belts, spurs, blankets, hats, jackets, and jewelry. Those soft on cowpoke fashion will not escape the shop unadorned. Walk up the street to River House (104 Wimberley Square, Wimberley; 512/847-7009) for distinctive artisan-made glassware, pottery, and objects, as well as contemporary art and Italian pewter pieces. A number of stores on the square lean toward kitschy or souvenir-ish; one exception is the cheerfully appointed antiques shop Chick-a-dee (204 Wimberley Square, Wimberley; 512/847-9979; www.buychickadee.com), where you might find a well-made 1940's cocktail dress with hat, or a needlepoint footstool among the farmhouse furniture and objects.
Come sundown it makes sense to be sitting in a rocking chair on the wide, westward -facing second-floor porch of the beautifully envisioned and situated Inn Above Onion Creek (4444 West FM 150, Kyle; 800/579-7686; www.innaboveonioncreek.com). The driveway to the inn is one mile long, passing through open countryside as far as the eye can see—a rarity for a hostelry in these parts. The large, comfortable, well-appointed rooms, with high ceilings and thoughtfully chosen antiques, are named after personalities from Hays County, including the native Texan writer Katherine Anne Porter and Captain Fergus Kyle, founder of the town named after him and known for wearing his Confederate Army uniform long after the war ended. A night's stay at the inn includes fresh, seasonal food at dinner in the parlor, and a home-cooked breakfast in the morning.