FREDERICKSBURG, TEXAS — As someone who grew up not far from this inspiring little German settlement, there's two things I can tell you about it: 1. There is never a bad time to visit and 2. While No. 1 is unequivocally true, the best time to visit is between now and Memorial Day.
The Texas Hill Country can be a hard place to love with its propensity for droughts, hot summers and temperamental winters. The rocky land is a stew of intermittent loamy soil, limestone, clay and shale — remnants of prehistoric global cataclysm.
But every spring, the good earth sends an annual love letter: A reminder of how natural landscape's severity doesn't preclude its potential for beauty.
That love letter is wildflowers, and the undisputed heavyweight champion of wildflowers in the Texas Hill Country, and incidentally the state flower, is the bluebonnet.
Thanks to a demure winter and soggy spring, bluebonnets are already washing across the landscape, and flushing the thorny, hardscrabble prairies of Gillespie County and its neighbors with color.
Visitors today can drink in all that color from a local winery, peach orchard, former president's ranch, granite dome or the porch of a Sunday house thanks to historical preservation.
The road to Fredericksburg
Most folks enter Fredericksburg from the east, via U.S. 290. From Oklahoma, one could fly into Austin, San Antonio or even Fredericksburg, but a leisurely drive down U.S. 281 is scenic day spent winding through the Hill Country.
U.S. 281 meets U.S. 290 in Johnson City, Texas — ancestral home of late President Lyndon Baines Johnson. In Johnson City, you'll find the visitor center for the LBJ National Park as well as his boyhood home and Johnson Settlement.
About 15 miles west of Johnson City, with Fredericksburg another 16 miles to go, is the tiny town of Stonewall. This is home to some of the world's best peaches and The LBJ Ranchlands, run by the Texas State Parks Department. A self-guided driving tour goes past the Old Junction School where Johnson received his primary education, LBJ's birthplace, family cemetery and finally the coup de grace, his Texas White House.
Under the broken shadows of epic live oak, the Texas White House is a four-star tour for history buffs. The house is immaculately preserved. Furniture from Johnson's presidential period looks like it was delivered last Tuesday. LBJ's collection of cars, including one that was part boat, and the hangar and airstrip used to land the one-time POTUS are also on display.
Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farmstead is on the grounds. The authentic Hill Country farm illustrates life as it was for most pioneer families. The living history farm features interpreters in period costume performing household chores in various authentic structures.
The remaining 16 miles of highway to Fredericksburg are dotted with peach stands and wineries. U.S. Highway 290 might not be the autobahn, and if you forget to slow down, a friendly Texas Highway Patrolman will remind you, but Bavaria is just minutes away.
Once in this mid 19th Century German pioneer settlement town, quaint will land between your eyes like a Max Schmeling right cross. The town of a tic more than 10,000 is a mix of classic Bavarian village, prairie charm and modern art colony.
On Main Street, which is home to about 150 specialty shops, the downtown Pioneer Museum Complex provides a glimpse of early life in Fredericksburg. Across the street in the marktplatz sits a statue honoring founder John O. Meusebach near the Vereins Kirche Museum. Soon after Meusebach and friends established roots in 1846, an eight-sided Vereins Kirche (society's church) was built in the center of the town's main thoroughfare. It acted as town hall, school, fort, and a church for all denominations as traffic in its evolving forms wound around it.
The original building was demolished about 50 years later. In 1935, locals built a new Vereins Kirche as a pioneer memorial. This memorial is at the center of the marktplatz, or town square, where numerous festivals are hosted but is even more attractive for a quiet sit with the resident water wheel or sculpture of the country's longest uninterrupted peace treaty, forged between German settlers and the Indian tribes they neighbored.
Throughout town you'll find Sunday houses. Original pioneers received a land grant package, which included a small town lot and 10 country acres. Settlers working their country acres often used their town property to erect small, functional houses to retire to after conducting Saturday business and rise early to attend church and perhaps return to for fellowship before the trek back to the farm. Sunday houses were, to the truest extent, townhomes.
The Weber Sunday house can be toured at the Pioneer Museum.
The National Museum of the Pacific War is dedicated to those who served in the Pacific theater during World War II under Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
Nimitz, the last of the five star admirals, was a native of Fredericksburg. His grandparents, among the first settlers, were proprietors of the Steamboat Hotel, the original building on the site. The complex consists of the Admiral Nimitz Museum, the George Bush Gallery, the Garden of Peace, the Pacific Combat Zone, the Memorial Wall, and the Plaza of the Presidents.
Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park, about three miles from Main Street, features an 18-hole golf course, picnic pavilions, The Live Oak Wilderness Trail, a swimming pool, an RV park and fishing hole.
Eat, drink, be merry
Fredericksburg boasts more than 70 restaurants and bakeries featuring German, Bavarian, Texan, Mexican, Asian and Italian foods. Add 10 nearby wineries, and you've got the makings of a truly unforgettable food-and-drink getaway.
We visited Pedernales Cellars, Becker Vineyards, Torre di Pietra, Grape Creek Vineyards, and brand-new Messina Hof tasting room during our trip. Each carried wine you'd be proud to pack up and serve at home. Each offered scenic, relaxing venues to relax, perhaps picnic and enjoy some of your newfound wine.
Meanwhile, what better way to spend a day than hopping from one tasting room to another before a nice dinner out?
During my visit, I had dinner at The Cabernet Grill, which features a crowd-pleasing menu of chops and local fare like quail. Opened in 2002 by Chef Ross Burtwell, the Cabernet Grill is part of the Cotton Gin Village accommodations. The Cabernet Grill features Texas wines and Texas Hill Country cuisine, which consists of game, Southwest flavors, classic German smoking technique and local ingredients.
My visit was during the fall Wine Festival, which included a cocktail party at August E's. Chef Leu Savanh and his wife Dawn opened in 2004, bringing considerable experience from the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro. The menu combines Hill Country cuisine and sushi. Savanh's sushi would stand up to our Tokyo Restaurant in quality and exceed it in artistry.
One of the town's tastiest finds is Chocolat, where since 1984 chocolatier Lecia Duke has been creating handcrafted liqueur-infused pralines and specialty confections. Her inventory of rare Fortunato No. 4 Peruvian chocolate is small but worth hunting down as it offers the soul of chocolate, demonstrating how it came to be one of our most precious commodities.
Peach production is fiercest from June through early August, but the early spring and gentle winter might lead to earlier yield like the wildflowers surrounding this early spring.
Bluebonnets aren't exclusive to Fredericksburg. But the community founded on education and cooperation offers stunning views of them with their multicolored cousins plus while offering a premiere destination for wine lovers, peach lovers, history buffs, bikers, hunters, fishermen hikers and spelunkers.
It's not hard to imagine old Johnny Meusebach, Fredericksburg's founder, perusing a multicolored field of wildflowers and wondering why his tribe of Germans couldn't live in the same kind of harmony with the locals they'd impeded. It's inspiring to think that just as wildflowers combine to create beauty in unlikely places, those Fredericksburg forefathers' spirit of cooperation and inclusion was the seed from which the town's current success grew.
With all that inspiration and a bunch of good food and wine to boot, what are you waiting for?