By Ted McIntyre
Yes, yes—there were plenty of other things to do in San Antonio, beginning with mega attractions such as Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld, the latter being the largest marine life adventure park on earth. There were intimate lures such as Missions National Historic Park and a thriving art scene. There was the healthy sporting community, including 40 area golf courses, an AHL hockey team and the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs. There was even the beckoning Bracken Cave a short drive north of the city, where millions of occupants from the world’s largest bat colony coil their way out of a sinkhole on a nightly basis to hunt insects. And, lest we forget, there was the Alamo, the 300-year-old Mission San Antonio de Valero that was the site of a pinnacle battle during the Texas Revolution in March of 1836.
But I’d have shed not a single tear had I never left the River Walk. Situated 20 feet below street level, draped in towering, century-old Cypress trees, a two mile-long oval of manmade river seamlessly curls its way through lower San Antonio. Evoking the renowned public spaces of Europe, with its lush landscapes, quaint pathways, waterfalls, pools, outdoor art and relaxing patios, the River Walk links past and present as it winds its way past statues and landmarks and a variety of hotels, restaurants, bars and shops abuzz with patrons from around the globe. It is stunning by sun-dappled daylight and positively electric by night beneath a million twinkling lights. And there is not a speck of trash to be found despite the stream of people on a perfect autumn afternoon as my significant other Mary and I stroll among local businesspeople, conventioneers, romantic couples and happy families.
San Antonio might rank as the seventh-largest city in the U.S., but a small town feel pervades, thanks in part to the bylaw that prevents anyone from constructing a city structure big enough to cast a shadow over the city’s “shrine to freedom,” the Alamo.
But the River Walk is San Antonio’s carotid artery, fed by natural springs that are part of a vast underground lake called the Edwards Aquifer, a source of drinking water for much of the region. Regular flooding of the San Antonio River a century ago nearly caused city officials to pave over the river, but saner heads prevailed, and now the Alamo City’s cultural hub is undergoing a $279 million upgrade that, when completed in 2014, will extend the River Walk to 13 miles, all the way to the city’s Mission district.
Were there no River Walk, on the other hand, I would gladly have been confined to the grounds of the JW Marriott 25 minutes north of the city in the Texas Hill Country. The region’s most recent jewel in the crown, the sprawling 600-acre, 1002-room resort is the world’s largest JW Marriott. A destination unto itself, it includes a 28,000 square-foot spa with a huge private pool and hot tub area, a sensational $15 million waterpark and one of the coolest sports bars I’ve ever seen—High Velocity, the centrepiece of which is a 120 foot-long TV screen.
Stone and wood indigenous to the Hill Country, natural lighting and work from local artists help create an elegant yet cozy atmosphere where guests are equally at ease in ball gowns and shorts. There are aspects of a boutique hotel, such as elevators with leather and wood inserts, but there’s also 140,000 square feet of meeting space with LED lighting in the ceiling that can change colour, as well as interactive screens throughout the resort that can be used to check your flights, the weather, etc.
But two of the main attractions for me were the TPC San Antonio courses outside: the AT&T Oaks by Greg Norman (home to the PGA Tour’s Valero Texas Open) and Pete Dye’s AT&T Canyons Course (site of the Champions Tour’s AT&T Championship). Audubon International Cooperative Sanctuary-approved, both layouts were designed to take full advantage of the abundant natural resources, including Live Oaks and Crape Myrtle trees with their pink and purple blossoms, as well as indigenous flora and fauna.
Although the Pinehurst-styled concave green complexes at The Oaks initially bordered on the unfair, the course has since been softened to make it more player-friendly. Deep bunkers emulate the overhanging oak trees, while the ball sits halfway down in the rough to ensure a penalty for missing the fairway. Closely mown green surrounds, however, add a putting option for many errant approaches. The course culminates with an unreachable, uphille par-5, where even the layup is dicey given a creek that slices diagonally through the fairway, while a false front induces many balls to tread their way back off the green.
The Canyons Course is somewhat more forgiving, and, for the standard resort guest, more interesting from an aesthetic standpoint. The course measures under 5,000 yards from the forward tees, so there’s a nice advantage for higher handicappers.
Other golfing options within a half-hour’s drive include The Quarry and Brackenridge Park Municipal Golf Course. Brutal traffic coming down Highway 281, and the fact that hotel staff neglected to inform us that there are actually TWO exits for Jones-Maltsberger Road (seriously—a few miles apart), delayed our arrival at The Quarry, but exquisite service and impeccable conditioning more than made up for it. The memorable layout begins innocently with a short, blind dogleg over a pond to a smallish green, then steadily builds in drama, past the well-bunkered par-three eighth, where towering chimneys of the now-defunct quarry provide the backdrop, and into the depths of the quarry. The layout remains a fair test throughout, despite the 17th tee, which provides an unobstructed view of the quarry, including an intimidating sliver of fairway that is guarded to the right by a thickly treed hillside, and to the left by a cliff.
Brackenridge Park offers another look entirely. The oldest public golf course in Texas at 96 years of age, this classic tree-lined A.W. Tillinghast layout— overhauled in 2008 with a $7.5 million restoration—is loaded with tight drives, some penal bunkering (including a few well-placed cross bunkers) and subtle greens. There are no yardage markers, which can make it a challenge for newcomers, so bring a rangefinder.
And bring a camera.
You are, after all, just a 15-minute drive from the River Walk!
Food for Thought
La Gloria, a half-hour’s walk up the River Walk, offers exceptional authentic Tex-Mex cuisine. While the JW Marriott’s menus are a little heavy with high-fat foods and cheeses, 18 Oaks restaurant in the adjacent TPC San Antonio clubhouse offers superb healthy-eating options and a solid wine list. The first thing I saw on the menu was a baby spinach salad with crisp pears, candied pecans and local goat cheese. I went for the iron charred Meyers Natural Hanger Steak; Mary with a seared soy ginger salmon with Pearl Brewery Market vegetables. And if you’re looking for something different to cap the evening, check out the killer martini list at Coco Chocolate.
San Antonio Tourism: http://www.visitsanantonio.com
JW Marriott San Antonio: http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/satjw-jw-marriott-san-antonio-hill-country-resort-and-spa/