Saturday, March 22, 2014

Deep in the heart of Texas, cont.

A curtain/drape formation at Natural Bridge Caverns
On day five, our big plans were tickets for the Hidden Passages tour at the Natural Bridge Caverns! After breakfast, we loaded up in the car and drove about 30 minutes north of San Antonio to the attraction. We got there *just in time* for our timed tour!

Our guides led us to a small pavilion, explained that we'd be climbing down 180 steps into a series of caverns, and then climbing those same 180 steps back UP, to see the rock formations growing below the surface.

The caves really are amazing. We saw stalactites and stalagmites, really unique formations (like the pincushion), a gorgeous formation called the Diamond River (with tons of sparkling little crystals) and beautiful, almost liquid-looking drapes of rock. Clay oohed and ahhed and asked tons of questions. ("Are there vampire bats in here?" he piped up during one noticeable silence.) When we got to the very bottom of the caves, we sat down on some benches. Then, our guides turned out the lights (completely) and asked us to listen. We could hear tiny drips of water everywhere, but we couldn't even see our hands in front of our faces. Really, really cool.
Diamond River formation - sparkly!

After that, we began the ascent up, back to light and air. When we finished our cave tour, we walked around the rest of the attraction. They have a big central entry point, where they sell tickets and operate a gift shop and cafe, and they also have some new storefronts. One building sells geologic souvenirs, there's a sweet shop and they also have a gorgeous Canopy Challenge - a ropes course with zip lines. Clay really, REALLY wanted to do the ropes course (and so did I, because the thing looks AMAZING), but he wasn't tall enough. Luckily for us, the attraction also offered the Amazen' Ranch Roundup, a maze course. Clay, Brian and I all did it, navigating our way through until we punched our cards at certain checkpoints and found the exit. It was a hoot! (Although, at moments, I thought I might die in there.) After a quick stop for a souvenir, we loaded back in the car.

HemisFair Park was built in the late 60s for the World's Fair.
Next up for our hungry crew was lunch in the city. We directed our GPS to Azuca, a nuevo latino place that turned out to be one of the best finds of our trip! We started with the fireballs as an appetizer, yummy corn fritters with different sauces to taste. I had the lunch catch, a fresh large serving of tilapia with sauteed vegetables and mashed potatoes. It came with a red salsa and a creamy adobo sauce, one on each side of the plate. Oh. Em. Geeeee!! This was soooo good. For dessert, we all split the tres leches cake, which was creamy and soft and sweet. Everything was fresh and tasty, prices were more than reasonable, and service was sweet, friendly and quick! We loved this place!

Our traditional "nerdy selfie at the top of a building"
After lunch, we visited HemisFair Park. We walked over from the hotel, taking the long avenue from La Villita that leads visitors directly to the Tower of the Americas. The park and the tower were both built in the late 60s when San Antonio hosted the World's Fair. (If you enter the park by this route, you'll walk by several vacant historic homes that sit within the park's perimeter. They are in bad shape and sad to see, but don't despair! The city has announced a revitalization of the park, which you can learn more about online.) It was a pretty day, so we enjoyed the park and the playing fountains a bit before buying our tickets for Tower of the Americas.

Then, we took the elevator way, way up to the top of the tower. When we got there, we had fun matching city landmarks in the skyline with indoor photos before going out onto the open-air observatory. What a rush! The winds were really, really high! It reminded me of when hubs and I went to Hawaii and stopped at Oahu's Pali Lookout! My purse was literally flapping above my shoulder, and my hair whipped around my head something fierce! Exhilarating! We stayed at the top of the tower for a while, alternating between admiring the skyline from indoors and going out to the observation deck for more windy fun. Finally, hunger drove us to leave, so off we went in search of dinner.

The wind was terrific at the top of the Tower of Americas!
We ended up back at Zocca. This time, I tried the clam linguine! YUM! After dinner and a glass of wine, we strolled very slowly back to the hotel and gratefully sank into bed.

By day six, I was ready for a bit of alone time. (Too much togetherness can spell doom for a family vacation.) Hubs and Clay decided they were going to try out the hotel pool again, and I headed out for a morning at the McNay Art Museum. What a good idea!

I got there just as it was opening, and the very helpful woman at the front desk walked me through a map of the facility. I hung a left, enjoying the museum's collections in modernism, post-impressionism, impressionism and sculpture before rapturously arriving at the theatre arts rooms.

Jacob Epstein's Helene bronze
Now, many museums don't even nod to the theatre arts. And it can be a difficult medium to capture and display. But the McNay has a stunning collection of marquettes from wonderful productions: Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park with George, Richard III. Accompanying information puts the designs into context and gives you an idea of the overall production effort. Screen projections show you the art in action. It's just really, really well done. And the adjacent room is all about the technical values of the Fiddler on the Roof revival!! Woot! Drawings, sketches, models, even notes scribbled on the odd piece of notebook paper. Wonderful, just wonderful.

After spending significant time in the theatre arts rooms, I made my way to the southwest and medieval rooms. From there, you can step out on the glorious second-floor balcony, overlooking the museum's main center courtyard. You can take in the air, survey the beauty and feel what it might have been like to be Mrs. Marion McNay. A small staircase will lead you down to the courtyard, where you can watch the fountains play, sit on a bench, admire the flowers and then head back in to see the rest of the facility. (I peeped into the "Works on Paper" gallery. I remembered that when the greeter was talking me through the facility map, she'd specifically pointed this room out to me, noting, "You'll really enjoy that room," with a gleam in her eye. You know what was in there? Drawings of male nudes! They called the exhibit "The Full Monty!" Sly old girl!) At the end of my tour, I enjoyed a large temporary exhibit of Robert Indiana's work. Bright, colorful, opinionated.
One of Indiana's famous LOVE installations

By this time, I was hungry. I telephoned my partners-in-crime and asked if I could pick them up for lunch. I drove to get them, then came back out on Broadway to treat them to lunch at Chappy's. I had a juicy steak frites, and hubs and Clay both had burgers. The food here is so, so good. Prices are a bit spendy, but you get the distinct feeling that you're dining with more locals than tourists. Service was impeccable. There's a lot of construction on Broadway right now, but the restaurant has off-the-street parking.

After lunch, we decided to visit the San Antonio Botanical Garden. We were already on that side of town, and it was a sunny, pleasant day. After parking and paying our entry fee, we strolled through Gertie's Garden and ducked under a wisteria arbor. The Japanese Garden was closed for renovation, but we enjoyed the sensory garden, full of fragrant and tactile plants like rosemary and lamb's ear. Next, we headed for the Lucille Hall Conservatory. These pavilions were so enjoyable and beautiful. The tropical plants were lush and colorful, and we loved the desert environments with all their prickly denizens. Clay got a HUGE kick out of the "food" garden, which featured a coffee bean plant, a chocolate plant, a vanilla vine and many other recognizable edibles. We walked under the waterfall in the fern room, and then we climbed up, up, up through the palm and cycad pavilion! From there, we cut across to the children's vegetable garden, a very large plot full of all kinds of goodies. (Their children must be MUCH more hard-working than mine! Ha!)
Palm and cycad pavilion

Then, we wandered trails that reflected different Texas environments: the south Texas arid climate (with a cleverly concealed bird watching blind), the east Texas pineywoods (with a big lake, ducks you can feed and a log cabin to play in) and the hill country. We ambled back through the formal and display gardens before heading for a break in the hotel.

We weren't too hungry for dinner that night after such a hefty lunch. We popped out to Bella on the River, near our hotel, for cocktails and a few nibbles. I had a Bella Blush, hubs got a couple of bottles of beer and we split the antipasto platter. Clay had pasta marinara. We talked and laughed with the other diners seated al fresco as we watched the boats go by. It was a fun, relaxing ending to a fantastic day.

More to come . . .

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