We enter the 11th Street Cowboy Bar and take a 360 to fully absorb our surroundings. On the adjacent wall giant Budweiser and Coors Light neon signs flicker, illuminating old photos of rodeos, dusty cowboy hats and horseshoes, but it’s the multiple bras hanging from the ceiling that catches everyone’s attention.
Moving through the swinging door we find ourselves in an expansive outdoor patio complete with bandstand and sawdust-covered dance floor. Undeterred by the obligatory cowboy hat dress code, we settle on a bar stool and wait for the band to start. The twang of Country music fills the air and we watch as a few mean looking cowboys take to the dance floor, all very willingly. Then, poised in their pairs they start twirling effortlessly in a perfect clockwise circle.
Having had a fast track line dance tutorial earlier that day, some of our group brave the dance floor, much to the amusement of the other punters, until one of the skilled dancers takes pity and guides us through the routine, counting every step.
Rodeos and Ranches
In under an hour we had been transported from the city buzz of San Antonio to what felt like small town Texas. Bandera earned its title as ‘Cowboy Capital of the World’ when it became a staging area for one of the last great cattle drives of the late 1800s. It lives up to its name with hidden saloons, stores stacked high with cowboy hats and boots and horse ranches dotted across the Texas Hill Country.
One of which, Mayan Ranch, is where we stop for the night. Its picturesque trails meander over 348 acres, from the lowlands of the Medina River to the rolling hills of the valley beyond. Impressively, it claims to have produced seven world champion rodeo cowboys and promises a special brand of ‘horsepitality’.
The rustic charm is echoed throughout the ranch and it is not long before I’m on a hay-ride bouncing down to a paddock where a BBQ feast awaits.
We each pile our plates high with brisket, potato, corn and gravy before we sit, family-style, on long benches, a cowboy crooner singing as the sun sets.
A few escapee horses dine on the longer grass around us before being ushered back behind the gates. Beyond, horses graze as far as the eye can see.
The next day it’s time to get better acquainted as we saddle up for a ride, the horses even more enthusiastic than the riders. I’m relieved to hear that my steed, Winston Churchill, is very placid but it doesn’t stop him from getting impatient when he deems it is time to go.
We snake in single file across the lowlands while the ‘cowboys’ gallop alongside us making it look easy and comfortable, somehow. I compare it to a scene from neo-Western style drama Yellowstone, although this is not much of a compliment to the rancher’s son (there is a lot of violence and unlawfulness in the TV series), nevertheless the passion for the horses and the way of life is certainly on a par.
And the ranch is much more than just a sanctuary for horses too: each year more than 125 adoptive parents, birth parents and children come here to connect with other like-minded families in a safe and supportive space.
We’re joined at breakfast by a group who meet at the ranch every year. One of the adoptive parents tells me how special these weekends are for making memories and sharing experiences.
Small town Texas
From Bandera we travel an hour north until we reach Fredericksburg which, from giant ‘Willkommen’ sign to multiple Bavarian restaurants, is not so subtle about its German heritage.
The town’s history dates back to 1846 when the first German settlers arrived in the Texas Hill Country with the promise of work and a better life.
Overcoming initial struggles and hardships, the German community made Fredricksburg their home and brought with them traditions and cultures which still shape the town today, including a huge Oktoberfest celebration and German-inspired cuisine.
The inspiring story of those first German immigrants is told in the Pioneer Museum. Visitors can step back in time by touring the period complex, from the old school and smokehouse to ‘Sunday houses’ – small dwellings where farm families could sleep over during weekend trips into town.
Besides breweries and biergartens, Fredricksberg and the wider Texas Hill Country is home to over 100 wineries and vineyards – from the tongue-in-cheek ‘Fat Ass Ranch and Winery’ to the more refined Texas Wine Collective, which offers wine & cheese and wine and chocolate pairings.
Our whistle-stop tour finishes in Luckenbach, in southeastern Gillespie County. Despite having a population of just three, this tiniest of towns attracts thousands of visitors thanks to the hit country song Luckenbac, Texas by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Comprised of a music hall, a bar and a general store, the town entertains curious tourists with live music daily and its very small town charm, and lives by the mantra that “Everybody’s Somebody in Luckenbach.” traveltexas.com
Book it…North America Travel Service
A 12-night Texas Adventure Fly Drive in March 2024 includes three nights in Austin, one in Fredricksburg, a two-night stay at the Mayan Dude Ranch, Bandera, three nights in San Antonio and three nights in Houston. The trip is priced from £3,655pp and includes non-stop flights from Heathrow to Austin – Houston to Heathrow on British Airways, plus car hire. northamericatravelservice.co.uk