What was I thinking? From what I’ve heard this open-minded Texan town is afroth with great food, friendly people. Yet here we are starting our bohemian city break sitting in a car on the side of a multi-lane carriageway. This is where we’re spending our precious vacation?
Fresh from a flight from JFK and a car-rental upgrade to a Mustang, things had been looking good. Then our GPS steered us to a busy main road leading to a crop of high-rises that loom in the distance like a modern-day Oz. Hip creative hub? Parked past a cluster of shiny food trailers outside a stretch of kitsch stores, our SatNav is convinced this is where our edgy motel is. Mr Smith bursting into a bar of Burt Bacharach is not making me feel better. ‘Yes, I know the way to San José. It’s clearly around here. Anyway, he means the one in California,’ I snap.
Then we spot Jo’s across the street. The coffee shop is cult among those who take their beans seriously; it’s a beacon too to this cappu-holic. We park up behind the open-air shack of hipsters on laptops and opter-outers kicking back with double-shots, and stumble out into the balmy southern sunshine. It feels like summer, which is especially welcome in October. Then we spot what’s painted in red on the grey concrete stairs up from the car park: Welcome to Hotel San José.
Quirky touches abound, and we’re only at reception. In just a few feet we’ve browsed Toms Shoes sneakers and arty books for sale, and let retro music posters whet our appetite for after-dark thrills. Checked in by a super-friendly tattooed chap, we’re chaperoned to our little bungalow out back by a pretty, pierced, peroxided gal. A world away from the Stetson- and spur-wearers of Texas’ other big towns, Austin’s stereotypes are more reminiscent of Williamsburgers or Melburnians.
Hotel San José’s grounds aren’t exactly sprawling but succulents and cacti provide bursts of greenery around the cool gunmetal-grey compound. And it’s astonishingly peaceful, though there’s only a hedge and a sidewalk between us and South Congress Avenue.
Our understated air-conditioned putty-and-pea-green bungalow is at first glance basic, but this Austin boutique hotel compensates with considerate high-on-cred details. Daily poems are pinned nonchalantly to bathroom mirrors, the minibar stocked with gourmet nibbles, and if we need them, cameras, typewriters, iPods and bikes are available to borrow. There are even reasonably priced Havaianas and Toms in place of slippers – handy given that we have a sociable new city to explore and we’re a stroll from live music, hill walks and dirt-cheap pulled pork.
SoCo – as is its snappy portmanteau – is as happening as a ’hood can be. Strolling out onto what I’d dismissed as a busy road, sun-drenched South Congress is lined with buzzing bars, restaurants and boutiques. Buildings that don’t appear much from their strip-mall exterior stretch way back and are bursting with personality. After enjoying the best darn pizza we’ve ever had at Home Slice across the street, we browse taxidermy relics and Fifties’ ephemera at Uncommon Objects, then buy cowboy boots at Allens Boots.
‘Keep Austin weird’ was the turn-of-the-millennium bumper-sticker campaign that coined the slogan for a community that prizes all things locally owned and independent. A sentiment that chimes with this pair of Smiths. Plotted up at a table in San José Lounge with a couple of Lone Star beers, a copy of the Chronicle for gig listings, and a printout of our destination guide, we plan our Austin evening. It’s going to be an eating, drinking and toe-tapping marathon, and if all goes to plan we’ll be enjoying a nightcap at nigh-on-neighbouring Austin music institution, Continental Club.
With the sun dropping, we remember a tip-off about getting to the main bridge downtown at dusk. The world’s largest urban bat colony resides here under Congress Avenue, and at sunset they fly out in their droves. We arrive at the banks of the Lady Bird Lake in time to witness a blur of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats whooshing out into the night.
As impressive as those flying fur-balls are, by now we’re desperate for dinner. Foodie friends have insisted we visit places both humble and haute cuisine, so we’ve booked in for a mammoth trail of courses all over town. Dieters, look away now. Our 48-hour foodfest starts at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue with sticky sriracha-slathered baby boar back ribs with blue cheese dip, washed down with a Shiner Bock. Then we mosey across the block to devour upscale street food – zingy ceviche and calabaza and elderflower martinis at vibrant La Condesa. A banquet of desserts ensues at Second Bar & Kitchen; here in the informal offshoot of David’s Bull’s Congress, chef Ethan Holmes is doing a delicious job of keeping Austin weird with creations such as cheese-and-bacon ice-cream.
Jon Dee Graham, once hailed Austin Musician of the Year at South by Southwest (SXSW), is playing at the Continental Club luring us back down that arterial road. Perched on stools, we watch cowgirls sway to his guitar-strumming and guttural crooning and at last we’re living and breathing a scene familiar to us from the movie Crazy Heart.
Bento boxes of breakfast by the pool the next morning take the edge off the kind of hangover Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for portraying. A dip in the ice-cold natural green waters at Barton Springs only 10 minutes west takes care of the rest, followed by a pig-out session of Love Balls and Mati Greek Food at a newer eastside food-cart enclave. As we roll back into our little mini San José house for a nanosleep (in preparation for a fancy feast from chef Josh Watkins at Carillon Austin), I look at our hip Austin hotel and wish we were staying longer. What was I thinking? We needed a week here…