Winter may be dark and dreary in some parts of the country, but not in San Antonio, where the weather is delightfully mild, or in Denver where the sky is vivid blue most of the year.
Pleasure and History in San Antonio
"This city makes me think."
I was sitting in the lobby of the posh Westin La Cantera resort, half an hour from downtown San Antonio, when the man--tall, lanky, his graying hair damp from eighteen holes on the award-winning golf course--answered my question in a way that surprised me.
"What do you like best about San Antonio?" I'd asked, making polite stranger-to-stranger conversation. I expected him to say the weather, the River Walk, the margaritas and guacamole.
But no. "It's the history," he said. "The whole Alamo thing. I never realized..."
Like many Americans not raised in Texas or the Southwest, my new friend had been taught the Oregon Trail story of westward expansion. Yet land won from Mexico was greater than that acquired by the Louisiana Purchase, and Texas became a state thirteen years before Oregon.
In a sense, the United States became a continental power largely because of what happened at the Alamo.
San Antonio is, above all, a place to have fun. The sky is true blue--rich, bright, heightened by the sun. The vivid colors of Latin America shout from flags, serapes, blankets and papel picado (paper cuts). People converse in English, Spanish or a hybrid mix, but always with an easy smile. Though it's a big city, the eighth largest in the United States, San Antonio has a small town feel. The tourist area is compact and determinedly festive, but it's also centered on history. The Alamo, a one-block compound, is dead-center.
The basic story is simple. Lured by cheap land, Anglo settlers moved into Texas territory, content to live at first under Spanish rule and then, in 1821 when Mexico gained independence from Spain, under Mexican rule. But when General Santa Anna became president and reneged on promises made in the constitution, the Anglo settlers rebelled.
The Texas Revolution was short, lasting only eight months. The most memorable of the battles was at the Alamo in 1836. For thirteen days General William Travis and 188 ill-equipped volunteers fought to the death against a 5000-troop strong Mexican Army.
Legend has it that Travis, realizing the hopelessness of the situation, offered his men three choices: they could leave, surrender, or fight. For himself, he wrote, he would "die like a soldier who never forgets what is due his honor and that of his country, VICTORY or DEATH."
"Remember the Alamo" became the rallying cry for other Texans, who 46 days later defeated Santa Anna's men at San Jacinto. Thus, the Republic of Texas was established and, in 1845, became the 28th state to join the Union. A three-year U.S.-Mexican War ensued and, at the end, Mexico ceded all of the land that became New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California as well as parts of the future Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming.
Now the United States was a country to be reckoned with.
San Antonio's Spanish past is on show in at least three other well-visited attractions, while it's Hispanic present is visible at countless festivals, rodeos and, best of all, restaurants. (El Mirador on St Mary's is one that locals favor.)
It's oft forgotten that the Alamo was originally called Mission San Antonio de Valero, the first of San Antonio's five missions. The others�Mission Concepcion, San Jose, San Juan and Espada�can be seen along a well-marked six-mile drive. While all are interesting, the best known is Mission San Jose, which features a Visitor Center with an excellent film and guides who give equally excellent tours. Each mission still has active parish churches; Sunday mariachi masses at Mission San Jose are a unique San Antonio experience that melds past and present.
Santa Anna's troops prepared for their siege of the Alamo at nearby La Villita, a community of small houses that first sheltered newly arrived settlers to the Texas territory and later served as homes for the families of Mexican soldiers stationed in San Antonio. The adobe and limestone buildings have been turned into restaurants and galleries which carry goods of varying quality. Of special note: Casa Manos Alegres, which carries a good collection of Oaxacan woodcarvings, and Village Weavers, which has handwoven goods from North and South America.
El Mercado [Market Square] proudly proclaims to sit on land that dates back to an original grant from the King of Spain. Today it's a two-block collection of shops and restaurants, many of which feature goods imported from Mexico. The open plaza is often filled with mariachi bands and bright colored paper-cut banners. Mi Tierra, a combination restaurant and bakery, is open round the clock and always filled with customers.
But the Alamo and its Mexican heritage aside, San Antonio is best known for its river, which cuts a winding path through downtown, is crossed by 13 bridges and bordered by a wild array of shops and restaurants. Weather permitting (which it almost always is) people stroll the walkways, eat at outdoor tables, and take the gentle 45-minute narrated boat ride.
Like all visitors to San Antonio, my gentleman friend has decided to leaven his historical lessons with a goodly dose of self-indulgent pleasure. He stands up and helps himself to some chilled lemongrass-vanilla tea, which fills one of the canisters in the resort's lobby. "Lemongrass is better than mango mint," he says.
I agree. "Well," he says, "this is a glorious place." Enough with thinking. He's off to the pool.
For more information: www.sanantoniocvb.com
La Cantera Resort: As with several of Westin's newer properties (most notably the Kierland-Westin in Phoenix), the resort was specifically designed to reflect the surroundings of the place in which it was built. The architecture features white plastered walls, a red tile roof, Spanish arches, deep pools and, on all sides, views that seem to stretch forever.
The walls are lined with historic photos, but the place is designed to be a retreat from the regular world, with a 6,926-yard, par-71 golf courses, a spa, superb restaurants, and abundant activities for children (including "dive-in" movies in the summer that can be watched on big screen while relaxing in the pool), and the company's trademark "Heavenly beds." A short shuttle ride away visitors can explore 1.3 million square feet of shopping at trendy boutiques and upscale department stores, including San Antonio's first Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom stores.
For more information: www.westinlacantera.com; 210-558-6500 or 800-WESTIN-1
Hill Country and the Wine Trail: Those who want to extend their Texas vacation for a few more days can stroll the charming Main Street in Fredericksburg, which still bears reminders of the German settlers of the mid nineteenth century. Special activities include a tour of Wildseed Farms, a look at the National Museum of the Pacific War, and a visit to area wineries, including the well-regarded Becker Vineyards.
For information: www.fredericksburg-texas.com, 830-997-6523 or 888-997-3600
DAM, it's easy to be cool in Denver
Denver gets an undeservedly bad rap when it comes to weather. While skiers are enthralled by the snow-covered peaks in the nearby mountains, folks who stay in the city enjoy mild days and mostly dry streets. The air is so starved for moisture that snow is usually sucked off the streets within an hour.
Visitors to Colorado's ski country would do well to spend a day or two in the metro area, especially since the new, highly acclaimed Denver Art Museum (DAM) is sure to be packed come summer.
Officially open on October 7, the museum designed by world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind makes dramatic use of space and light. The building has been compared to a bird in flight and a ship�s prow, but perhaps it most closely resembles an origami sculpture with sharp angles and crisp points.
From the outside it's hard to imagine that art can be properly displayed on walls that are rarely perpendicular to the floor. Suffice it to say, it works. Inside the walls seem to fade into the background, allowing the visitor to experience the art in a new way.
DAM anchors an already thriving Museum District which includes the Colorado History Museum, the Kirkland Museum of Fine and Decorative Art, and more than a dozen galleries--as well as Civic Center Park and the Public Library.
For additional culture, the nearby Denver Performing Arts Complex, the second largest in the country, has ten theaters that seat more than 10,000 people for outstanding performances of opera, theater, symphony and ballet.
The conclusion is obvious: enjoy the mountains but don't ignore the city. Denver is coming into its own.