Everything's bigger in Texas, including the metropolitan areas of Dallas and Houston - both prime vacation hot spots for Midwesterners hoping to escape November's chill. But why stay in one of these big, congested cities when you can relax in the Texas 'burbs?
You can still enjoy the many attractions of Dallas while staying just a bit farther afield in the suburbs of Plano or Frisco. And so many attractions abound in both of these Texas suburbs that you may decide to avoid the heavy metropolitan Dallas traffic for the length of your stay, and just take it easy in the suburbs.
When travelers stay in Plano, they are within a 30-minute drive of most major attractions and entertainment venues throughout the Dallas/Fort Worth area. They are also staying in a city that is the safest in North Texas, according to a recent survey by CQ Press, and among the most family-friendly and economical in the whole state. Plano has received numerous honors, including being named by USA Today as the most affluent city in the United States in 2008.
But the biggest attraction in Plano for me will always be its charming historic downtown area, with its brick streets, unique restaurants and more than 50 specialty shops, including three quaint antique malls, art galleries, a Scandinavian cookware pottery shop, tea rooms and a wine shop.
And, when I'm finished with the day's shopping, there's no question about where I'll pause for refreshment before heading back to my hotel with my treasures - Urban Crust (www.urbancrust.com), 1006 E. 15th St. in historic downtown Plano.
Salvatore Gisellu, a master chef and native of Sardinia, Italy, presides at a custom-built, wood-burning oven in the open kitchen, where the specialty of the house is artisanal pizza. Using the finest imported Italian ingredients, local organic herbs and greens and in-house, handcrafted mozzarella cheese, Gisellu and his staff create amazing concoctions.
Start out your meal with the complimentary appetizers: pizza-dough breadsticks (baked in their oven), served with side dishes of tomato relish and tapenade (olive relish). Move on to the Caprese appetizer: imported buffalo mozzarella, tomatoes, basil pesto and aged balsamic vinegar. Your taste buds will dance with delight when you finish up with a signature pizza. Try the Margherita, with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella flown in from Italy, fresh tomatoes and basil. Meat lovers may want to add Jimmy's Italian Sausage to an Urban Classic pizza.
After your meal, climb the stairs to Urban Crust's 32 Degrees Rooftop Ice Bar, which is very cool in more ways than just temperature. The draft beers are poured at a constant 32-degree temperature, and there's a strip of ice running the length of the bar where patrons can rest their drinks to keep them cold.
Ringo's Pub (www.ringspub.net) is another local watering hole in Plano, with a decidedly British flair. You can tuck into fish and chips, bangers and mash or shepherd's pie, while hoisting a pint of Guinness Stout or Smithwick's Irish Ale.
Adjoining Plano is the rapidly growing community of Frisco, which offers a wide variety of shopping, concerts and events, four professional sports teams and more than 150 pieces of art on public display.
I love the Stonebriar Centre Mall, which boasts some of the best shopping in the metroplex, as well as an NHL-sized ice arena (the largest rink in any Dallas-area mall). Stadium and table seating on the upper level of The Ice offers shoppers a great view while they cheer on a game or enjoy a meal. Take a break from shopping to rent ice skates and enjoy one of the daily public sessions.
But the diehard shopaholic needs to hear only one word to know that shopping in Frisco is fabulous: IKEA. Yes, I'm talking about that Swedish retail behemoth that is synonymous with affordable, ultra-modern home furnishings and decor.
At 310,000 square feet and filled with 10,000 home furnishing products, the Frisco store is a shopping wonderland. Try the Swedish meatballs and lingonberries in the IKEA cafeteria, washed down with a glass of lingonberry juice, to fortify yourself before hitting the mazelike floors. Then wander among the model "dream homes" in the IKEA showrooms, some of them only 270 feet square. (I could easily live in one of the model homes, just coming out periodically to snack in the Swedish Food Market.)
A good home base for exploring Plano and Frisco is the fairly new Holiday Inn Frisco/Stonebriar, where you'll see many IKEA furnishings put to good use. The hotel was originally built to be a "W" hotel, and has an upscale, boutique feel. Check out the gorgeous chandelier in the lobby.
If you're coming to Texas for rest and relaxation, look no further than the Four Seasons Resort Dallas at Las Colinas, which is more than just a resort -it's an experience.
Fresh from a $60 million expansion and enhancement and surrounded by 400 rolling acres of North Texas hills in the suburb of Irving, the Four Seasons offers all the amenities you could possibly require for a weekend of unparalleled leisure - a full-service spa with 16 treatment rooms (try the aromatherapy massage with a blend of citrus essential oils for the ultimate in pampering); 12 tennis courts (four indoor); a Par 70 TPC golf course, home of the HP Byron Nelson Championship, a PGA TOUR event; three restaurants and two lounges; three outdoor swimming pools and one indoor heated lap pool; a full-sized fitness club and athletics center (offering racquetball, squash, half-court basketball and a variety of exercise classes) - and, of course, thick terry bathrobes hanging in the closet of your guest room or villa for down time. The Breakfast Buffet in Cafe on the Green is so bountiful and delicious that you'll want to linger at your table forever.
Just north of Houston on Interstate 45, The Woodlands is another not-to-be-missed picturesque Texas suburb. It's home to two of the most impressive lodging options in the country: The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center, a full-service resort and spa set in a lush, wooded landscape; and AVIA The Woodlands, a new boutique hotel in the heart of bustling Market Street.
The Woodlands Resort is family-friendly, with its refreshing Forest Oasis Waterscape (filled with waterfalls, waterslides and underwater marine murals) that features "dive-in movies" on weekends. But there's plenty of recreation available for adults, too - including two 18-hole championship golf courses, 21 world-class tennis courts and more than 180 miles of hiking and biking trails. The spa menu features nature-inspired body treatments, such as the Pear and Green Apple Body Wrap and the Honeydew Body Scrub. The Woodlands Resort offers a variety of dining options - from burgers poolside at the Cool Water Cafe to extensive buffets in the beautiful Woodlands Dining Room.
AVIA The Woodlands combines elegant Spanish-style architecture with sophisticated urban energy. The hotel's exterior boasts Texas limestone and preserved natural pines, creating a warm and inviting ambience.The first time I stayed here, I was struck by its chic, ultra-stylish design (including the Italian tiles in the bathroom) and the convenience of being in the middle of a thriving retail center with more than 75 shops and restaurants. But I was most impressed by AVIA's gorgeous infinity pool on the outdoor terrace overlooking Market Street - the beauty of it, complete with constantly-changing colored lights at night, knocked my socks off.
The Woodlands is the site of one of the top outdoor performing arts venues in the world, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, featuring a lively schedule of big-name bands.
But that isn't the only draw of this heavily forested community. The Woodlands also contains more than 5 million square feet of shopping (with more than 460 shops), dining (from upscale Perry's Steakhouse & Grille with its Famous Pork Chops to down-home Willie's Grill & Icehouse with its Lemon-Pepper Catfish Fillets) and entertainment venues, and even a beautifully landscaped waterway. No wonder Travel & Leisure Magazine recently listed it as one of the "10 Coolest Suburbs Worth a Visit" in America.
So, when it comes to Texas-sized vacation pleasures, look farther than the cities of Dallas and Houston. Spend time instead in the towns less traveled - the Texas 'burbs of Plano, Frisco, Irving and The Woodlands - all fabulous getaways for Midwesterners.
Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )