December 26, 2018

Christmastime on San Antonio’s River Walk

Day 1 – Traveling to the Lone Star State

According to both Mark Twain and Will Rogers, “there are only four unique cities in America: Boston, New Orleans, San Francisco, and San Antonio.” Although I’ve been to San Antonio before, I must admit that I had forgotten how charming and unique it is!

I greeted my guests as they arrived at the airport via La Costa limousine shuttles where they were picked up right at their homes.  Very convenient!   You could feel the excitement as we all stepped aboard our non-stop Southwest Airlines flight to San Antonio.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by James, our friendly bus driver.  Our first stop was for an included lunch at Cracker Barrel which is specializes in stick-to-the-ribs southern comfort food.  I always recommend the blackberry cobbler with ice cream for dessert.  Nobody ever goes away hungry from a Cracker Barrel meal!

Our hotel was conveniently located on the River Walk and offered every amenity that one can imagine, including an amazing “happy hour” that included three free cocktails and an amazing hot buffet.  No need to go out for dinner.  This evening, I offered an orientation walking tour of the River Walk for anyone who was interested and almost everyone participated. As we walked, my guests marveled at all the beautiful Christmas lights (over 100,000) along the River Walk.  There are now over six miles of the River Walk that are illuminated with Christmas lights, and it gets a little bit bigger every year.

The River Walk is now 77 years old, and was built in the 1940s by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the FDR presidency.  It was built first and foremost to protect the city from flooding, that was its main purpose, and the nachos and mariachis all came later.  The city hasn’t had major flooding in over 70 years.  The tourist aspect of the River Walk was developed in the 1960s as part of the world’s fair held in San Antonio in 1968.  Today the River Walk has become one of Texas’ top tourist attractions, with over 11 million guests annually.

Day 2 – City tour, El Mercado, Tower of the Americas

We enjoyed a San Antonio city tour with a local guide this morning.  Our guide was Steve and he did a nice job.  Our first stop was at Mission San Jose, which is one of five missions which were recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The missions were established by Catholic religious orders to spread Christianity among the local natives. These missions formed part of a colonization system that stretched across the Southwest in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.   The best known of the missions is the Alamo, but is not part of the Park, rather is located upstream in downtown San Antonio.  Steve provided us with a very informative tour of the mission on a beautiful December morning.

Our next stop was at the Alamo where we were divided into two groups and given radios with listeners that our docents spoke into. People love the listening devices because it makes it so much easier for them to hear the guide.  Here we learned all about the complicated details that led up to the famous Battle of the Alamo, which took place from February 23 to March 6, 1836.  The outnumbered force of Texans was ultimately defeated, and all of the Alamo defenders killed. These men were seen as “martyrs” for the cause of Texas freedom and “Remember the Alamo” became a rallying cry for the Texas Army’s eventual success at defeating Santa Anna’s Mexican army.

After the Alamo, we headed over to San Antonio’s Historic Market Square and El Mercado for time on own for lunch and shopping. This is the largest Mexican market outside of Mexico and features over 30 shops, patterned after an authentic Mexican market. In addition, there are 80 specialty shops in the adjacent Farmers Market Plaza.  Many of us enjoyed lunch together at La Margarita, where I ordered fajitas, a famous Tex-Mex dish said to be invented in San Antonio.  They were muy delicisio!  Afterwards, I couldn’t resist also visiting Mi Terra, the other sit-down restaurant at the market which is often regarded as the best Mexican restaurant in San Antonio.  But I was here for their Panaderia (bakery) and was not disappointed!

We got a panoramic view of the city with our next stop at the Tower of the Americas.  This 622 ft. tall tower was the centerpiece of the world’s fair back in 1968.  The tower is taller than the Seattle Space Needle and it is second only to the Stratosphere in Las Vegas as the second tallest free-standing structure in the United States. At the top of the tower is the observation deck, as well as a rotating restaurant and lounge.  We also enjoyed a “4-D” movie in their theater entitled “Skies Over Texas,” which gave us a birds-eye view of the entire state.  The 4-D part of it was the shaking seats we sat in!

Our last adventure of the day was an optional visit to the San Antonio Shoe Factory (SAS) store. We had 16 who stayed on the bus to go over here for a little shopping.  This family owned company was founded in 1976 by Terry Armstrong and Lew Hayden and still feels very home spun.  The store offers much more than shoes!  There’s old-fashioned popcorn, candy, ice cream, soda and even antique cars. There are a huge number of shoe choices in all sizes at reduced prices and a clearance section with even lower prices.  It was a fun way to end our day.

Day 3 – Austin, LBJ Library, River Walk Cruise

Today’s travels took us to Austin to see the Texas State Capitol building and also the LBJ Library and Museum.  Austin’s population has exploded in recent years due to many large companies relocating here, the expansion of the University of Texas and also the city’s reputation for being a little unconventional, at least by Texas standards.  So much so, that they have adopted the much adored and criticized statement: “Keep Austin Weird.”  One cannot help notice all the new modern skyscrapers that have sprouted up, most of which are residential in nature.  Today Austin is the fastest growing metropolitan area in Texas and one of the fastest in the United States with well over 2 million people.

Austin is also dubbed as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” and upon arrival we drove down 6th St. to show everyone the city’s main entertainment/music street.   Along the way we drove by a Whole Foods store which is noteworthy because Austin is the corporate headquarters for Whole Foods.  At the Texas State Capitol Building, we enjoyed a guided walking tour with a docent.  The Texas State Capitol building was designed by architect Elijah E. Myers, and was completed in 1888. A $75 million underground extension was completed in 1993.  It is the sixth tallest state capitol and one of several taller than the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.  After our tour, we enjoyed an included lunch in the cafeteria followed by an unexpected treat as several high school aged groups were performing Christmas music in the State Capitol Rotunda.  Our impromptu concert also included music and dancing complete with costumes and definitely added to our holiday spirit.

After the capitol we did a little driving tour by the Governor’s mansion and the University of Texas campus en route to the LBJ Library.  The Austin area was home to Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States, who graduated from nearby Texas State University in San Marcos.  Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) was the 36th President of the United States from 1963 to 1969. The Library was dedicated on May 22, 1971, with Johnson and then-President Richard Nixon in attendance.  President Johnson passed away in 1973 and is buried at his ranch, near Johnson City, Texas. The top floor of the Library has a 7/8th scale replica of the Oval Office decorated as it was during Johnson’s presidency and also a replica of Lady Bird’s office which was adorned with mid-century modern style furniture complete with bright orange vinyl covered chairs.

The highlight of this entire tour was definitely this evening when we enjoyed a narrated riverboat cruise to see the magnificent lighting displays along the River Walk.  Our guide told us that it takes over two months each year to put all the Christmas lights up, and also over two months for them to take them down.  Along the way, we passed under the Selena bridge, made famous in the movie where Jennifer Lopez got started (playing Selena) and she gets engaged on this bridge. After the movie came out, they started seeing more and more people getting engaged on this bridge, and it’s since become known as the Selena bridge.  Some other interesting facts we learned about the river is that it is averages about four feet deep and people still fish in the river, primarily for tilapia.  The river is 242 miles long and starts about 2 miles north of downtown and empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is spring fed from the Edwards Aquifer, a giant underground lake that sits underneath the city of San Antonio.  The city drains the river once a year when they come out and pick up all trash as well as all the fish that are flipping and flopping around.  They do this to clean things up and also make sure the floodgates are operating properly.   Along the River Walk we saw some beautiful trees, the most prominent of which were the Bald Cypress, but there are also lemon trees, palm trees, banana trees, Crepe Myrtle trees and Magnolias.  The River Walk is also an open carry area, and visitors are welcome to drink alcohol while strolling along the river. (The river walk is a much tamer version of Bourbon Street) Some of the river is dimly lit at night, and it also gets incredibly busy, so about twice a week someone falls in the water most likely due to drinking excessively.

In terms of wildlife, we saw some Yellow Crown Night Herons on the river and we also learned that turtles, frogs and ducks are some other animals that you’ll find along the River Walk.   If you go away from the River Walk itself (a few blocks south) the current become stronger and the river becomes wider, so there is a lot of fishing, canoeing and kayaking. There has been a boom in residential properties both north and south of downtown.  Former industrial structures have been converted to condos and it’s becoming increasingly more popular and expensive to live on the river, especially downtown.  $2000/month for an apartment along the river is considered very high for San Antonio. The riverboats operate year-round unless it’s below 40° or it’s raining hard.  They have been operating since the 1940s and the newer ones are now electric.  Many restaurants cater dinners aboard the riverboats.  Last year over 12 million people visited the River Walk and, on a busy day, over 10,000 people will take a boat ride.  There are 40 tour boats between two companies. One of the bridges we passed under was called the Crockett Bridge, named after Davy Crockett, who was a member of the Texas force who met their demise at the Battle of Alamo.  The beautiful architecture of this bridge as well as others brought to mind Architect Robert Hugman, who was the visionary behind the Riverwalk. Hugman proclaimed that downtown San Antonio’s river district could be economically viable and also safe from flooding.  (There was a catastrophic flood here in 1921)  He was a graduate of the University of Texas. We also passed by Casa Rio Cantina, which has been owned by the same family for 72 years and is the oldest restaurant on the Riverwalk and it was also started by Robert Hugman.  I was especially excited to point out this restaurant because this is where our farewell dinner was going to be held the next night.  Whenever you see a postcard of San Antonio’s River Walk, many times it’s a picture of Casa Rio Cantina’s colorful outdoor umbrellas taken from the Market Street Bridge above.

We also traveled along a non-natural portion of the River Walk that was added for the 1968 World’s Fair.  Much of the infrastructure that San Antonio has today was because of the world’s fair.  We passed by the Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church, the oldest German church in town built in 1868.  Back in the day they had a German mass and choir and you would hear German spoken in the streets of San Antonio as much as you would hear English or Spanish. The bells of St. Joseph were imported from Germany back and 1868 from Munich, Bavaria. When you look at a map of Texas, little German towns are peppered throughout the state including the city of Fredericksburg and New Braunfels.  Germans as well as immigrants from other countries (including the United States) came to Texas during the time it was an independent republic. They were offered free land to settle and it was looked at as a way for the new republic to bolster itself against another Mexican siege.  Today there are still lots of great German Restaurants along the river and throughout the city and state.

Along the river we saw several monuments with the number 300 because we learned that San Antonio is celebrating its 300th anniversary.  In fact, San Antonio is the second oldest municipality in the nation established by the Spanish 300 years ago.  (New Orleans is also celebrating their tricentennial, but they were established by the French) San Antonio is today the 7th largest city in the United States and second largest in Texas.

San Antonio is definitely a convention city, and their convention center is the six largest convention center in the nation, and is so important to the city’s economy.  30,000,000 people visited downtown San Antonio last year, and it is really built for tourists and conventions. We also passed by a statue of San Antonio and learned the reason why the river and the city were named San Antonio. A group of Spanish missionaries came upon the river on June 13, 1691, which is the feast day for the celebration day of San Antonio according to the Catholic calendar. So, they christened the river and they held a mass and named it the San Antonio River.  We also saw another statue of San Antonio showing him holding a baby. He is the patron saint of children and also the patron saint of Portugal, in fact the statue was a gift from Portugal. Saint Anthony was born in Lisbon Portugal but died in Padua.  He is also the patron saint of lost things and we noticed all the flowers people had laid at his feet.  (Which is kind of ironic considering how many things are lost in the river each year by tourists.)

We learned that there are many other parades that are held along the River Walk each year, such as Mardi Gras 4th of July, Veterans Day, etc.  (almost monthly) The people who are in charge of the parades are called the Paseo Del Rio and they’re at on nonprofit group that is in charge of promoting the Riverwalk and San Antonio.  New riverboat drivers are expected to work almost every parade to start but, as they gain seniority, they may not have to do as many parades.

We passed by La Vallita, one of the River Walk’s most charming areas and the oldest neighborhood in the city.  It was built by the Spanish military back in the 1700s.  Across the river from La Vallita is the Arneson River Theater, an amphitheater built on the banks of the river offering free shows throughout the year. (this is a public park) This stage was featured in the movie Miss Congeniality, starring Sandra Bullock.  The stage is also home to Fiesta, the city’s largest festival held the first weekend in April, which celebrates San Antonio’s independence from Mexico.  It is second only to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  One can only imagine all the Mariachi Music played here throughout the year, in fact we learned that Mariachi music is taught in high school here just like jazz band and marching band, which keeps traditional Mexican music alive and well in Texas.

Yet another highlight of our cruise was a spectacular view of the Tower-Life building all lit up. This gorgeous six-sided neo-gothic style building was completed in 1929, built in the midst of the stock market crash. Part of this building is gothic and includes gargoyles. Today the building serves as headquarters for the Tower Life Insurance Company as well as some law offices.

After our cruise, some of us walked over to Main Plaza in front of the gorgeous San Fernando Cathedral where we enjoy watching “The Saga.”  This free 24-minute show by French artist Xavier De Richemont, features lights projected onto the cathedral which tell the story of San Antonio from its beginning to today.  Across the plaza from the Cathedral was the beautiful Bexar County Courthouse Building all lit up for the holiday season.  It was a very festive evening indeed!

Day 4 – Fredericksburg and LBJ Ranch

Today we ventured to the very German town of Fredericksburg, TX founded in 1846 and named after Prince Frederick of Prussia. The town is famous for showcasing all things German, including their own accent which is referred to as “Texas German,” a dialect spoken by the first generations of German settlers who initially refused to learn English. Today Fredericksburg has become famous for its tourist attractions, including a historic main street with lots of cute stores, wine tasting, bed and breakfasts, and of course it’s German restaurants as well as many other types of cuisine.   Fredericksburg is also the birthplace of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz and is home to the National Museum of the Pacific War, a World War II Museum featuring the Nimitz and George Bush Galleries.  Many of our folks enjoyed the museum and others concentrated on the multitude of shopping options.

Fredericksburg is in the heart of a new and emerging wine scene in the Texas Hill Country.  In fact, there is a ton of agriculture in the Fredericksburg area including vineyards, herb farms, lavender farms and wildflower seed farms, which have become a growing business in the area.  Lady Bird Johnson’s passion for Texas wildflowers has sparked a high demand for seed.  We offered a side trip to visit the 200-acre Wildseed Farm just outside Fredericksburg.  It is the largest family-owned wildflower seed farm in the United States and hosts an annual Wildflower Celebration. It produces 88 varieties of wildflower seeds, and they have a very nice retail store that sells many types of wildflower seeds as well as some very nice garden-oriented gifts.  Across the courtyard in a separate building, they have a boutique winery.  There is also an outside nursery that sells herbs and different plants.

The Fredericksburg area has become known as the Peach Capital of Texas. Benjamin Lester Enderle is known as the Father of the Hill Country Peach Industry. He was a county surveyor and a math and science teacher at Fredericksburg High School when he planted five peach trees and began selling the fruit in 1921. He began marketing them through the H-E-B grocery chain, and eventually had 5,000 producing peach trees on 150 acres.

Next, we headed to LBJ Ranch which is now part of what’s called Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. The park consists of the birthplace, home, ranch, and final resting place of Lyndon B. Johnson. During Johnson’s administration, the LBJ Ranch was known as the “Texas White House” because the President spent approximately 20% of his time in office there. We stopped at the visitor center first for the movie and then we re-boarded our bus and made stops at the school house and family cemetery before traveling on to the White House. One can easily understand why LBJ chose to spend much of his time here, because the landscape is serene and its peaceful setting along the Pedernales River is beautiful.

“Texas White ouse” at LBJ Ranch

We headed for home via Johnson City to drive by LBJ’s boyhood home in Johnson City and then traveled back to San Antonio.  Our farewell dinner at Casa Rio Cantina was a lot of fun and the food was delicious.  We took our group picture right on the River Walk in front of the restaurant, and afterwards many opted to walk with me back to the hotel via the River Walk. The River Walk was quite crowded but very festive and the holiday lights were amazing, so it was a fun walk.

Day 5 – Adios San Antonio!

We were sad to be leaving San Antonio this morning, but it was an easy Sunday commute to the airport. Our check-in and flight went off without a hitch we were off to San Diego in no time.  We were greeted by our limo drivers upon arrival back in San Diego.   I would strongly recommend this tour to anyone considering a future holiday get-a-way!

Mark Jacobson
DayTripper Tour Manager

Tour: 5-day Christmastime on San Antonio’s River Walk
Date: December 12-16, 2018


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