Exploring the Lone Star state of Texas - 26 May - 10 June, 2019

What was originally scheduled to be a short work meeting for Lee in California ended up in a two-week work/holiday combo when the meeting was moved to Austin, Texas. This was a good opportunity to explore a different part of the US with Quest covering the cost of Lee's flight and frequent flyer points covering Ky's.

The trip kicked off on Sunday 26th May with a 6am taxi pickup from our trusty Geelong driver for the easy 90-minute run up to Melbourne airport. We checked-in at Qantas domestic for our first flight, the short trip up to Sydney. The flight left on time at 9am and landed in Sydney just after 10am so we had plenty of time to make the transfer over to the international terminal to make our 12.30pm flight, the big one across to Dallas. This mega long haul was about as comfortable as such long flights can be in economy. We scored bulkhead seats in the tiny economy cabin on the upper deck of the A380, so we had heaps of legroom and peace & quiet in this cabin of only a few rows at the very back of the plane. A strong tailwind saw this leg come down to about 14 hours, landing early into Dallas at 12.25pm (still Sunday thanks to crossing the international dateline). Immigration and baggage collection in Dallas consumed a fair bit of time and we just made our final connecting flight, a half-hour sprint down to Austin. Landing into Austin at about 3.30pm, we then caught a taxi out to the Domain shopping centre, where we'd be based for the next four nights at the aloft Austin at the Domain hotel. The hotel was a good standard, our room was large and comfortable, albeit in a location that was chosen solely on being convenient to access the Quest office (the hotel did have one big plus, though, a free pool table in the lobby bar area!). Despite being really tired, we wandered the short distance to the Domain's Wholefoods Market (which remember started in Austin) - and got our first taste of hot & humid Texan weather! We stocked up on some supplies and snacked in our room before retiring for a very early night (at 6.30pm!).

We were well rested by the time we surfaced on Monday, which happened to be Memorial Day in the US. It was a cloudy but warm start to the day as we walked to the nearby public bus stop in the Domain to catch the 803 bus into Austin city centre. Alighting at Barton Springs, we enjoyed the fresh air and great vibe walking along the popular Barton Creek and into Zilker Park. From there, as the sun broke through and the temperature ramped up, we backtracked and explored the Auditorium Shores park, checking out the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue along the way. Hopping on another bus, we were soon at at Bouldin Creek Cafe and very ready for some good vegan food! This funky cafe is very popular so we had a short wait for a table before a hearty feed. Just down the road from the cafe was the famous "Greetings from Austin" mural and then we walked a little further to pick up food from the Conscious Cravings vegan food truck. Heading back to the hotel via couple of buses, we returned to Wholefoods for some fresh supplies, enjoying those along with the yummy wraps we'd picked up from Conscious Cravings. It was another early night in preparation for Lee's first day in the Austin office coming up on Tuesday.

It was a full-on day of work meetings for Lee on Tuesday at the nearby Quest office. Lunch involved a short drive out to an Austin Tex-Mex food institution, in the shape of Chuy's, while dinner was a taxi ride away at Jack Allen's Kitchen. Meanwhile, Ky headed into Austin on the bus again to walk along the river and enjoyed a very healthy lunch from the ATX Food Co food truck.

It was a hot and sunny Wednesday with Lee ensconced in the Quest office all day while Ky explored the Domain shopping centre. Finishing up a little earlier in the day, Lee walked back to the hotel so we could check out areas of interest around the Domain together before shopping at Wholefoods and picking up some tasty takeaway from one of the few healthy food options, Flower Child.

With Lee's work commitments completed, we could enjoy a relaxed start on Thursday. We checked-out of the aloft and caught the bus downtown to our home for the next four nights, the DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Austin. Although we arrived at midday, checking in was no problem and we were amazed to find our enormous suite up on the 13th floor with nice views over the Capitol building. The suite had a decent kitchen, separate lounge and a huge bedroom/bathroom area, a really nice spacious place to hang out during our leisure time in Austin. After exploring the suite, we wandered to the University of Texas campus (home to 80,000 students!) in the hope of visiting the UT Tower but unfortunately no guided tours were running as most of the students had already finished up. We headed back to the hotel for some lunch before going just across the street to the Capitol Building. We were just in time for one of their free guided tours at 2.30pm and so we spent about 45 minutes in the company of an, erm, interesting guide who showed us around the main features of this impressive place. She was passionate and knowledgable but had a very strong and unusual Southern American accent so was almost impossible to follow most of the time! It was still good to see inside the various legislative chambers and other areas, a great attraction and all for free. We then decided to walk to the famous LBJ Presidential Library - this was more of a hike than we imagined and it was sunny and pretty hot too in the late afternoon. We arrived at the library too late to make it worthwhile paying the entry fee but it was good to see the unusual architecture of the place. After freshening up back at the hotel, we caught a bus from just across the road to the Tarrytown area and, after a short walk through a lovely neighbourhood, arrived at our dinner choice, The Beer Plant. This popular and well-reviewed higher-end vegan restaurant was lovely, with good service, amazing choice of drinks (including ciders!) and innovative food. We enjoyed a great meal here and vowed to return before we left Austin. Very close by was the Rabbit Food vegan grocery store so we enjoyed exploring the shop and stocked up on a few more items while we had the chance. It was then an easy bus ride back to the hotel for about 9pm.

A sunny and hot Friday provided the perfect opportunity for us to explore a little further afield. We caught a taxi out to McKinney Falls state park, a popular walking and leisure area about ten miles out of Austin. It was fairly quiet there on a weekday and we had a lovely hour-long forest walk to kick off our visit, before stopping for a nice picnic lunch using some of our Wholefoods and Rabbit Food grocery supplies. The afternoon saw us exploring more of the park including the Upper and Lower falls, both lovely relaxing spots. We contacted the same taxi driver and he was happy to pick us up for the return trip to the city at 4.30pm. This park was well worth the trip, well kept, good services and plenty to explore for a day out. After freshening up back at the hotel, we decided to walk to the Nissi Vegan food truck for dinner. Unfortunately our long walk in the hot afternoon sun was rewarded by a "closed" sign on the food truck so we changed plans, heading back into the city by bus to an Austin locals' favourite, in the shape of Arlo's food truck at Cheer Up Charlie's. A tasty burger and cider went down well at this classic junk food place, with just a short walk back to the hotel for 8pm.

Saturday started how it meant to go on, hot and sunny! We decided to do the Texan weekend thing by going out for brunch, heading out by bus to the Possum Park food trucks. We'd heard good things locally about Bistro Vonish there and so we opted for their brunch offering. French toast and sweet fruity sauces are not our usual breakfasts, so this was very different and quite yummy it has to be said. From the food truck park, we walked to Austin's favourite vegan ice cream shop, Sweet Ritual. It was a perfect day for ice cream and we enjoyed a couple of different flavours there. Navigating our way back to a bus route, we headed to South Austin to explore South Congress Avenue, a happening street of unique shops, bars and restaurants (this area was a tip-off from our taxi driver the day before). This was a great street to explore with a busy and alternative vibe on this Saturday afternoon. A decent coffee at Jo's was a chance to relax for a while and people watch! A bus ride back to the city and then another one saw us in East Austin, where we were heading for dinner at Counter Culture. Another stalwart of the Austin vegan scene, we had a hearty feed in this unfussy diner-style setting. Exploring the area some more after dinner, we stumbled across the cute Capital City Bakery, an all-vegan cake shop and cafe. We stopped off there for a coffee before catching a bus back to the city, then heading to Congress Avenue bridge to wait for the nightly spectacle of the bats! Somewhere around two million bats emerge from the underside of this bridge every night around sundown and we waited patiently for almost two hours (along with thousands of others!) as the sun slowly slipped away. Unfortunately, it dropped dark before any bats appeared, so we opted to head home on the bus by about 10pm - and vowed to return on our last night in Austin hoping for better luck!

We continued the brunch theme on Sunday, returning to The Beer Plant to sample their brunch menu. We sampled a few different dishes including the Texas favourite "biscuits and gravy"! It was a very relaxed and enjoyable feed and we also popped into the nearby Rabbit Food Grocery again. Heading back into the city by bus, we made the most of the sunny afternoon with a nice walk along the North side of the river to reach the Rainey Street district. This bustling historic street of bars and restaurants was busy with a great vibe. Another couple of bus rides from there saw us reaching the NadaMoo! scoop shop, another all-vegan ice cream place. We enjoyed their ice cream more than Sweet Ritual and they had an amazing range of flavours (and also served up a decent coffee). Heading back towards the city, we returned for a walk along the river and town lake before catching a bus out to East Austin again. We'd spotted a couple of vegan food trucks during our previous visit to the area so we made the most of those, with meals from the super-healthy Curcuma and the not-so-healthy The Vegan Nom! Both meals were enjoyable and this food truck park seemed to be popular and well laid out. We went back into the city and had some time to kill before sunset, so visited the downtown branch of Wholefoods before heading to the Congress Avenue bridge to settle in and wait for the bats. Sundown again happened first, but we stayed on (as locals suggested) and were finally rewarded some time later by the bats starting to fly out. They were hard to see in the dark, but once we tuned in, it was quite a sight seeing wave after wave of them heading out for the night. We imagined that this would be an awesome spectacle when viewed against a dusk sky. One last bus trip saw us back at the DoubleTree by 10.45pm.

We had a relaxed start on Monday, packing up to move on from Austin and enjoying a picnic lunch in the grounds of the Capitol Building (using what we had left from our brunch at The Beer Plant and supplies from Rabbit Food Grocery). Picking up our luggage from the DoubleTree, it was a very short walk to the MegaBus station where we would pick up our bus down to San Antonio. The double-decker bus was pretty packed and left a few minutes late, but it was a very comfortable run down to San Antonio (for a ridiculously cheap price booked well in advance) and only heavy freeway traffic stopped us arriving on schedule. The bus dropped us off in a parking lot well out of town, with no nearby facilities and certainly no sign of any taxis! Pleas at a restaurant next to the parking lot to secure a taxi failed to deliver anything, so we hopped on the first local bus that passed by. As soon as the bus reached a hotel on the outskirts of the city, we got off and then got that hotel to order a taxi, so we finally made it to our home for the next four nights, the Menger Hotel. This historic hotel in the centre of the city (literally next door to The Alamo!) is in amazing condition with grand internal spaces and our room was tucked away in the original section of the hotel dating back to 1859. Our room was large and quiet, very comfortable and with all the mod cons like wi-fi. We decided to head to the Pearl district to check out a vegetarian restaurant there, walking via the shortest route on Google Maps. It was an unattractive and skanky route along Broadway but we made it (albeit very hot in the even hotter and more humid conditions in San Antonio) and enjoyed a good meal at Green's. We opted for a more scenic walk back to the city giving us our first experience of the jewel in the city's tourist crown, the River Walk. It was a delightful hour-long walk back to the city and the more commercial areas of restaurants and bars were buzzing as we headed home.

We started our tourist activities close to home on Tuesday, with a visit to The Alamo, right next door to the hotel. It was busy with tourists but easy enough to wander around and, surprisingly, was another free attraction. A coffee stop was in order next at the plant-based cafe, Revolucion. From there, we enjoyed the River Walk heading South all the way to the King William historic district, a lovely old area of the city to wander around with some beautifully restored properties. We were in the area to go for lunch at Tapatio Vegan Tacos, an all-vegan Tex-Mex food truck. The food was great and we also took the opportunity (on recommendation) to visit the nearby Blue Star Arts Complex. The skies were darkening as we walked back towards the city centre and we didn't make it back to the hotel before some serious rain and thunderstorms passed through. After sheltering under a tree for almost an hour, the intensity of the rain forced us to brave the elements to the closest building with some shelter, where we spent another hour waiting out the enormous deluge. We managed to finally walk back to the hotel in light drizzle. After drying off and freshening up, we felt confident enough to head out for dinner, opting to try the closest vegan restaurant in the shape of Senor Veggie where we enjoyed an excellent meal with amazingly friendly service. Rather than returning to the hotel immediately after dinner, we headed to the Briscoe Western Art Museum to take advantage of their free admission during Tuesday evenings and it was an enjoyable place to spend an hour, if a little focused on the animal exploitation involved in much of the state's history and traditions. Another wander along the River Walk rounded out our day.

We woke to more rain on Wednesday morning but it soon cleared to a lovely sunny and hot day. Our mission for the day was to visit all of the Spanish missions that San Antonio is so famous for. The local public bus company conveniently offers a route to visit all four of the missions so we made use of that, starting off with the short trip out to Mission Concepcion. This mission was very quiet so we could enjoy exploring it largely uninterrupted. Our next stop was Mission San Juan Capistrano and the visitor centre there provided a lot of really useful information about this and the other missions. Jumping back on a bus, we headed out to the most remote mission in the shape of Mission Espada. The small church there was picture-postcard perfect in a lovely setting, with hardly any other visitors when we were there. We then headed back closer to the city to end our tour at the most commercialized of the missions, Mission San Jose. We were there in plenty of time to make the 2pm guided tour so enjoyed a picnic lunch beforehand. The tour was great, with a very passionate guide, and giving us plenty of tips on what to explore further on our own. This big mission had a lot to see and we also watched the documentary in their visitor centre. Catching the bus back into the city, we'd had a great day out exploring the missions - and it cost us the princely sum of just US$2.75 for the all-day bus ticket as all the missions and tours were free! We popped into Revolucion again for a much-needed coffee before resting back at the hotel for a while. With bus tickets still in hand, we decided to head a little further afield for dinner, out to La Botanica. This bar/pub style vegan place served us up decent Tex-Mex in a very relaxed and groovy environment. It's located in an area known as The Strip with many bars and restaurants so we also explored this happening locality on foot before catching a bus back towards the city and then enjoying a stroll along the River Walk to make it back to the hotel.

Thursday dawned clear and sunny, the perfect morning to head to the Tower of The Americas observation deck, a short walk from our hotel. This 750-feet high tower had an excellent observation deck with both internal and external areas to take in the views over San Antonio. There were also free 4D films included in the entry fee so Lee enjoyed "Rio" and "Skies Over Texas". It was then not far to return to Senor Veggie for lunch, where we were greeted like old friends and had a yummy and filling meal. Heading back into the city centre, we detoured by the La Villita historic district and then visited the beautiful San Fernando cathedral. A coffee back at Revolucion was in order before we boarded a Rio river shuttle to explore the river by boat. We were heading North to the Pearl complex to eat at Green's again and, as the boat slowly meandered up the river, the skies darkened and looked distinctly threatening! The boat dropped us off before the Pearl as they wanted to try to return downtown before the storm hit, so we quickly walked the rest of the way to the Pearl. It was hot and steamy by the time we arrived there and we noticed that the market (meant to be on until well into the evening) was being dismantled, an ominous sign. We managed to take shelter under a building before the storm hit - and, wow, did it hit! The torrential rain came first and then a mini-tornado tore through the area, forcing the rain into horizontal sheets and creating an unbelievable sound as it passed through. The local Texans didn't seem too concerned and the storm passed after about half an hour, so we could walk the short distance to the restaurant. Green's was busy again and we tried different dishes from our first visit, we made good choices and enjoyed the atmosphere of this place. As we were about to leave, the rain started again so we waited it out at the restaurant for a while to consider how best to get back to the city centre. We were sure the river boats would be cancelled now so it was either a local bus or risk walking. We waited for a bus for a while to no avail and then decided the skies looked clear enough to risk the hour-long walk back downtown. Our bravery paid off, though the River Walk was littered with the after effects of the storm, with many trees down and muddy conditions along the way. Reaching downtown just after the sun went down, Lee returned to the Tower of the Americas again to make use of the all-day entry and enjoy the view over the city in the dark. We headed back to the hotel at about 9pm, having survived the storm without getting drenched!

The time had come to leave Texas on Friday, but we had plenty of time to enjoy San Antonio before we needed to head to the airport. So, after packing and leaving our luggage at the hotel on check-out, we set out for some final exploration on what was the hottest day so far, well over 100F (around 40C). Firstly, we walked back to the Briscoe Western Art museum to visit their free outdoor sculpture gardens, just next to the River Walk. These peaceful gardens were beautifully kept and housed a variety of interesting pieces. From there, we returned to Senor Veggie for an early lunch before heading back to the River Walk and enjoying a full "lap" on the river shuttle, taking almost two hours. It was very hot on the boat with no shelter (leading to Lee's only sunburn of the trip!) but it was also nice to relax and enjoy the lovely experience of gently cruising a sizeable chunk of the River Walk. We then went back to Senor Veggie to pick up some takeaway food for the airport and we ended up chatting with the amazingly friendly staff there for quite some time (some of whom are serious vegan activists in the area, good on them!). It was hugs all round as we said farewell to this great eatery and its lovely people. Collecting our luggage and grabbing a taxi for the short trip out to the airport, we checked-in to our American Airlines flight up to Dallas at about 5.30pm. We tucked into our Senor Veggie takeaway to pass the time, but we ended up with way more time to kill than we anticipated. The flight was scheduled to depart at 7.55pm but kept getting delayed more and more. We discussed options with the gate staff as we were looking increasingly likely (and then certain) to miss our Dallas-Sydney flight. There wasn't much anyone could do, so we waited it out and the flight eventually left at 10.15pm, ten minutes before our flight to Sydney was due to depart Dallas! The flight was less than one hour and so, on arrival into Dallas, we made our way to where the Qantas flight was meant to leave from, just in case it had been delayed. Of course, their gate was on the other side of the massive Dallas Fort Worth airport so it was a 15-minute train ride away and our flight was long gone. So we then headed to the American Airlines customer service desk at about midnight to join the many other folks with missed connections from various flights. We were fortunate that our delay was down to "maintenance" so the airline provided us with hotel, taxi and meal vouchers. By about 1am, we were in a (crazy!) taxi taking us to the Lux Hotel and Spa in the area of Arlington and they were great at accepting the voucher and getting us our rooms super quick with no forms to fill in or credit card checks, etc. Our room was nice with a big bed so we finally called it a night at about 1.30am, albeit devoid of PJs or toiletries as these were all packed in our luggage which was not accessible to us as it had been checked through!

We made the most of the midday checkout time on Saturday, taking the chance to sleep in and at least enjoy a shower before the remaining travel back home. The hotel wasn't in a good location for sightseeing, next to a freeway and with no public transport anywhere close. So we looked up the closest vegan place and grabbed a taxi to take us the ten miles or so to Itso Vegan for lunch, arranging for the same taxi to pick us up there a couple of hours later. This recently-opened restaurant was doing great business and the really friendly staff made us feel very welcome in our hour of need! The menu was classic Southern comfort food (read: not very healthy!) but the meals were really tasty and substantial, just what we needed. We took the chance to order some more food as takeaway to fuel us later in the day as well. This place was a great find and an unexpected highlight late in the trip! Our taxi arrived as planned and we then headed to the Grand Prairie Premium Outlet mall to buy some fresh underwear to cover the rest of our trip home! Our trusty taxi driver returned to drive us back to the hotel where we chilled out for a couple of hours before he returned at about 6pm to drive us to the airport (using the free voucher we'd been given by American Airlines). We were four hours early for our flight so had plenty of time to enjoy the takeaway food we'd sourced from Itso Vegan before finally departing the US on time at 10.30pm. The 17hr+ flight back to Sydney was relatively comfortable as we snagged upper deck economy cabin seats again, with the flight landing on-time. Immigration was relatively smooth but our wait for luggage was ultimately fruitless, a baggage tag scan revealed it was still in Dallas! We made our scheduled 8.30am flight down to Melbourne and our usual taxi whisked us back home by midday. It felt like a really long return trip, not surprising as we left San Antonio on Friday afternoon and got back home at midday on Monday! (Our luggage got an even longer holiday, arriving back to us two days later!)

It was great to explore a new part of the US and both Austin and San Antonio offered plenty to see with vibrant vegan scenes to keep us well fed! The warm weather was a welcome break from the chilly Victorian Winter back home and, while the delay on the return trip was annoying, it didn't detract from what overall was a really enjoyable couple of weeks.