Every Christmas, my husband and I and our boys, Gus, seven, and Jeb, five, play freeze tag, our version of a winter sport here in the Texas Hill Country. We play it only at this time of year, and only in one place: under the million lights that coil around 42 live oak trees at the local power company's headquarters. It's the most spectacular of the many electric displays in the alluring old towns between Austin and San Antonio, and it seems to bring on hyper-animation in our kids, as if they themselves were plugged in. When one of them is tagged he twirls dramatically with his face bent up to the trees, like Michele Kwan in a full layback spin, and collapses to the ground, "frozen," staring up at the glittering branches.
Some places have a white Christmas. The Hill Country has a light Christmas. From Thanksgiving to New Year's, the area gets as bright and flashy as a neon cowboy, as 13 towns strain the power grid with their gumdrop gaudiness. The tradition was kindled 15 years ago, when a few women in Johnson City held bake sales to raise money to cloak the Blanco County Courthouse in strands of white pinhead lights. The electrical extravagance was contagious, and soon other towns were lighting up and organizing Christmas markets and parades. These days more than 7 million bulbs are turned on, and from miles away you can see the towns emitting a corona of green-gold iridescence.
But the luminous show isn't the only reason to visit the Hill Country in what I think of as Endless Autumn (December temperatures often reach the sixties). During the day you can hike in tall grass the white-blond color of potato chips; paddle along (or fish in) one of the absurdly green rivers; or go horseback riding, since visiting Texas without playing cowboy is like going to Aruba and never putting a toe near sand.
Don't exhaust yourself, though, because you'll want to be out and about when darkness falls. Here, a four-day itinerary to fill your days with enthralling activities—and put you in exactly the right spots when the lights come on.
Fly into San Antonio or Austin; then hang around till "dark-thirty," as they call dusk in these parts, to take in the urban lights (see "Switched-on Cities," sidebar). From San Antonio, head to the Guadalupe River Ranch in Boerne (rhymes with Ernie), about 45 minutes away. This 330-acre spread will be your base for forays into Hill Country towns over the next two days, after which you can relocate to Canyon of the Eagles Lodge in the north (90 minutes from Austin and two hours from San Antonio) for two nights. Or you can start in Austin and do the tour in reverse.
After a morning of hiking, horseback riding, or kayaking at the Guadalupe River Ranch, drive 15 minutes (Interstate 10 to Waring-Welfare Road) for lunch at the Po-Po Family Restaurant—look for the red neon eats sign on the former dance hall. Open since the 1930's, the place is famous for its fried chicken and its collection of 2,100 plates from around the world.
Continue down the Welfare-Waring Road and take Route 1621 to Comfort, where streets are lined with 19th-century limestone buildings the color of buttermilk. Every Friday afternoon, locals set up card tables right on High Street for a raging game of dominoes. If you know how to play "42," you can join in.
Head 18 miles north on Route 87 to Fredericksburg, the hub of the Hill Country and a staunchly German town (settlers began arriving in the mid 1800's). My boys' preferred stop is the National Museum of the Pacific War, which houses the Japanese mini-sub captured at Pearl Harbor as well as a re-created PT-boat dock. Hang out in town until about six to watch the arched windows and porch balustrades along Main Street go aglow. Then drive 10 miles west on Route 87 to the Hill Top Café, an old gas station turned roadhouse with the quirkiest coupling of cuisines—Cajun and Greek (one of the owners is from east Texas, the other is of Greek heritage). Kids get a kick out of the jumble of neon signs and license plates, and everyone loves the shrimp gumbo and spanakopita.
Route 1376 will take you back to the ranch via the most famous Texas town that's barely a town (only 10 acres). Luckenbach—which Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson put on the map ("Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain't nobody feelin' no pain")—is mostly a collection of barn buildings patched long ago with old metal advertisements. The dance hall bursts with twangy tunes and dancers doing the two-step. We've taken our boys here since the oldest was wearing tiny cowboy boots and the youngest was still in booties.
Your destination this morning is Blanco, my own stomping grounds (use Highway 281). To see locals in their native habitat, swing by the Blanco Bowling Club & Café, where ranchers congregate as early as 5:30 a.m. The bowling arcade in back has nine pins that are set by hand; out front are meringue pies as high as Lyle Lovett's hair (the man himself counts this among his favorite diners). Before leaving town, stop by the Deutsch Apple for dense, moist apple cake—the kids and I once gobbled a whole loaf in our five-minute drive home.
Work off that sugar rush at Pedernales Falls State Park, 30 minutes up 281, then east on Route 2766. For us, going to the park is like a trip to the beach—there's a sandy bank of crushed limestone, and the water tumbling over a series of sloped rock faces sounds like the crashing of waves.
Back in Johnson City, a small crowd gathers at the Blanco County Courthouse just before dusk. Kids do cartwheels on the lawn while everyone waits for the ta-da moment. When the lights finally crackle on at about six, the red-roofed building is transformed into a gilded jewel box. Hire a horse-drawn carriage to take you to the Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the site of our freeze-tag game. On weekends, Santa sits here listening to ardent requests, but even he plays second fiddle to the coruscating canopy behind him.
Dinner is 20 minutes up Highway 281, in Marble Falls. From the terrace of the River City Grille, which cantilevers out above Lake Marble Falls, you'll see 2 million lights flickering—a million in the town's Walkway of Lights on the banks of the lake, the other million reflected in the water. The most popular attraction is a wire tunnel strung with light strands, on a steep slope kids love to roll down.
It's a half-hour drive (Highway 281 to Route 29) to Canyon of the Eagles Lodge, which sits in a 940-acre park on the edge of Lake Buchanan. Don't expect any fancy volt-work here, though. The park is a low-light zone, for optimal star-viewing—there's an observatory with telescopes, and the Austin Astronomical Society sponsors star parties near the lodge.
Spend the morning canoeing or kayaking on Lake Buchanan; then take Route 29 to Llano for lunch at Cooper's Bar-B-Que. Huge smokers on the porch sizzle with slabs of beef—served on butcher paper instead of plates. Inside, it's wall-to-wall deer heads.
If your political-correctness meter can withstand a wider array of taxidermy, visit the Hill Country Wildlife Museum, on the Llano town square. Creatures I've seen only on the Animal Planet—such as binturongs (a type of civet cat) and Himalayan monal pheasants—can be inspected up close.
Enchanted Rock State Park, with the second-largest granite dome in the country, is 25 minutes away on Route 16. Hike to the top of the dome, and you'll know how an ant on a pound cake feels. (Note that the rock is riddled with small caves in which impish children like to hide.)
Be back in Llano at dusk. Ribbons of lights stretch from the courthouse in the square to surrounding buildings. It's like being under a magical big top.
After dinner back at Canyon of the Eagles Lodge, chill out while cowboy poets recite odes to prairie life or a band cranks out country Christmas music. Sitting in the dark with entertainment you simply listen to may be just what everyone's overstimulated orbs need.
JEANNIE RALSTON is a contributing editor for Parenting and Ladies' Home Journal. She and her husband run Hill Country Lavender, a lavender farm in Blanco, Texas.
San Antonio and Austin, both less than an hour's drive from the Hill Country, go whole hog during the holidays. Along San Antonio's famed River Walk (800/252-6607; www.sanantoniovisit.com), colored lights drip from the cypress trees, looking like electrified Mardi Gras beads, and luminarias line the pathways. The power goes on the weekend after Thanksgiving with a nighttime parade of illuminated floats along the river.
The Austin Parks & Recreation Department sponsors the 11/2-mile-long Trail of Lights (512/974-6700; www.ci.austin.tx.us/tol), with 38 festive tableaux and, in Zilker Park, what is purportedly the country's largest man-made Christmas tree. Capturing Austin's ersatz hippie spirit are the lights on 37th Street (www.crossroads.net/lights), just north of the University of Texas campus. High-wattage volcanoes, spiderwebs, goddesses, and rockets could pass as installation art.
Kids who don't get enough of Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express in the movie version of the classic children's story (out in November), can relive it all again aboard a 1916 train (512/477-8468; www.austinsteamtrain.org). During the two-hour ride hot chocolate is served and Santa puts in an appearance. PJ's optional.
WHERE TO STAY
Guadalupe River Ranch The stone cabins in the woods at this 1920's ranch are comfortable, though not luxurious—unless you count sitting on a screened porch listening to the quiet a luxury. (I do.) At Christmas, the buildings and fences are strung with lights, and there's a special dinner featuring turkey, ham, and wild game. Stick around until New Year's for a dance and fireworks at midnight.
DOUBLES FROM $114, PLUS $20 FOR EACH CHILD OVER THREE
604 FM474, BOERNE; 800/460-2005 OR 830/537-4837; www.guadaluperiverranch.com
Canyon of the Eagles Lodge
The tin-roofed cottages built in 1999 in the Hill Country vernacular have blond-wood furniture and porches with rocking chairs.
DOUBLES FROM $105
16942 RR2341, BURNET; 800/977-0081 OR 830/334-2070; www.canyonoftheeagles.com
WHERE TO EAT
Po-Po Family Restaurant
LUNCH FOR FOUR $50
829 FM289, OFF WARING-WELFARE RD., BOERNE; 830/537-4194
Hill Top Café
Reservations are a must.
DINNER FOR FOUR $80
10661 N. HWY. 87, DOSS; 830/997-8922
ONE LOAF OF APPLE CAKE $10.50
602 CHANDLER ST., BLANCO; 830/833-2882
River City Grille
DINNER FOR FOUR $70
700 FIRST ST., MARBLE FALLS; 830/798-9909
Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que
LUNCH FOR FOUR $35
505 W. DALLAS ST., LLANO; 325/247-5713
WHAT TO DO
Texas Hill Country Regional Christmas Lighting Trail
National Museum of the Pacific War
340 E. MAIN ST., FREDERICKSBURG; 830/997-4379
412 LUCKENBACH LOOP, LUCKENBACH
Blanco Bowling Club &Café
310 FOURTH ST., BLANCO; 830/833-4416
Pedernales Falls State Park
2585 PARK RD. 6026, JOHNSON CITY; 830/868-7304; www.tpwd.state.tx.us
Pedernales Electric Cooperative
201 S. AVE. F, JOHNSON CITY; 830/868-7155
Hill Country Wildlife Museum
826 FORD ST., LLANO; 325/247-2568
HEAR CHRISTMAS CAROLS IN A CAVE
Longhorn Cavern, a sprawling limestone cave north of Marble Falls, holds caroling parties on December 15, 18, and 22. Choirs and other a cappella performers sing in a section of the cave that was a speakeasy back in the 1920's. Reservations required. 877/441-2283; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/longhorn/longhorn.htm.
"I've got eagle eyes," my seven-year-old, Gus, shouted proudly as he pointed to the ash-gray sky. I stopped paddling our kayak to focus on the large bird with the brown body and the characteristic white hood, floating quietly on a thermal updraft. We were on a five-hour bald eagle outing on the Colorado River. Our trip began on a pontoon boat near Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park. We were carted 12 miles upstream by Lake Buchanan Adventures and then loaded into kayaks for the easy downstream excursion with a guide. In addition to spotting six bald eagles, which winter in this part of Texas because it's relatively deserted, we paddled into coves and by graceful waterfalls and sharp cliffs crawling with wild goats. Eagles are at home here from October through March, and from December 11 to 18, Canyon of the Eagles Lodge sponsors Eagle Awareness Week, when you can see eagles and other birds of prey. 512/756-9911; www.lakebuchananadventures.com; $65 per adult and $49 per child for the Wilderness Kayak Trip.