The cry "Remember the Alamo!" has inspired generations from 1836 to the present. And this year, with many events planned to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo occurring in San Antonio, it's the perfect time to visit the place The History Channel named one of America's top 10 historic sites.
On a specific date each month (July 16, Aug. 20, Sept. 17, Oct. 15, Nov. 12 and Dec. 3), you can watch re-enactors in period garb demonstrate how arms were used by both sides in the siege. On a more peaceful note, other re-enactors demonstrate how people of that era cooked and did other household tasks. Get in the spirit by buying a coonskin cap (like the one worn by Alamo defender Davy Crockett), always a top seller in the gift shop.
But San Antonio has lots more to recommend it as a traveler's paradise, from its charming and ever-expanding River Walk to SeaWorld San Antonio, the world's largest marine park. And, let's not forget about that mouth-watering Tex-Mex food - undoubtedly one of the city's top tourist draws, especially when it's served in a festive south-of-the-border atmosphere.
Places to stay, eat
If you're planning to spend a lot of time exploring the River Walk, an excellent home base is Drury Plaza Hotel on the River Walk, which couldn't be more convenient to the world-class restaurants and attractions dotting the picturesque venue. With its beautiful outdoor rooftop pool, indoor pool, two whirlpools, free wireless Internet, free hot breakfast and evening reception buffets, and free mid-afternoon popcorn and soda in the lobby, the Drury can't be beat for family value vacations.
But this hotel does not look at all like a typical, nondescript chain property. Covering an entire city block facing St. Mary's Street, this hotel was once the 24-story Alamo Bank Building, which opened its doors in 1929. The building was renovated to maintain its historic character, and the interior includes travertine flooring and an Art Deco-inspired lobby featuring 50-foot ceilings. Within the lobby are the original refurbished chandeliers and stunning stained-glass windows. Try to score Room 2301, if it's available. It's actually a two-story suite (with a spiral staircase and kitchen), and will astound you with its spaciousness.
Another great River Walk property is the Crowne Plaza Riverwalk, a AAA four-diamond historic hotel, beautifully renovated in 2005. Its outdoor pool and whirlpool provide a refreshing break from touring San Antonio, and its proximity to the River Walk is a definite plus. The 111 Bar & Grille in the hotel lobby serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the late-night snacks (from an abbreviated restaurant menu) in the Pecan Street Pub lounge are quite tasty.
Some of the finest Tex-Mex food (and other gourmet delights) that the world has to offer is available along River Walk. For an inexpensive yet delicious lunch, try Rita's on the River (on the River Walk level of the Rio Plaza building). The atmosphere is casual, but the Texas-sized margaritas, cheese quesadillas and chicken sour cream enchiladas won't disappoint. Rita's serves delicious breakfasts and dinners, too.
At the foot of the historic Hugman Bridge, you'll find Zuni Grill, a more upscale setting for such delectable treats as cactus pear margaritas, blue corn chicken enchiladas (with a fantastic smoky flavor) and signature fire-roasted salsa. Zuni Grill is at the most picturesque bend in the river, so opt for the cypress-shaded riverside patio seating for a scenic view. The breakfast, lunch and dinner menus offer all the usual Tex-Mex suspects, but also try such delicacies as the applewood smoked salmon, cilantro crabmeat croquettes and pork potstickers.
The Iron Cactus Mexican Grill & Margarita Bar, across from the rustic La Mansion hotel, offers a private patio where you can relax and watch the boats go by while enjoying some of the best Mexican food you will ever eat. The swanky Agave Room Bar boasts more than 80 varieties of tequila. Try the Ahi tuna cerviche (Ahi tuna cured with citrus juices and tequila, with fresh pico de gallo and diced avocados), served with crispy seasoned tostadas. One variety of the cactus quesadillas (giant tortillas with your choice of filling, served with guacamole and sour cream) comes with spinach, goat cheese, black bean corn relish and tomatoes. And you haven't lived until you've tasted the Mexican shrimp cocktail (fresh shrimp tossed in citrus juices, peppers, cilantro and avocado).
Don't expect gourmet food or impeccable service from Dick's Last Resort, located on the River Walk in the basement (and former morgue) of the historic Nix Hospital. Dick's is known for its outrageously surly wait staff who inflict humor upon the guests. Be warned: You may end up wearing a 2-foot-tall paper hat inscribed with an embarrassingly insulting slogan or doused in a sea of napkins. If you're in the right mood, dining on typical pub fare at Dick's while listening to live classic rock music can be very entertaining.
Sites to see
It's easy and fun to take a VIA streetcar from downtown San Antonio to the King William historic district for a wonderful breakfast with signature Guenther Mill's biscuits and pancakes at Guenther House Restaurant, or to La Villita Historic Arts Village to stroll along streets lined with old cottages turned into art galleries, boutiques and craft shops. La Villita has roots back to the 1700s,when Spanish soldiers were stationed there; it's a browser's paradise.
But a favorite thing to do in San Antonio is to hop aboard a yellow trolley and ride to Historic Market Square. You'll feel as if you've crossed the border in this vast Mexican marketplace north of the Rio Grande. More than 100 shops with clothing, folk art, pinatas, jewelry, pottery and textiles cover a three-block area. Wait to buy your souvenirs until you hit one of the many art galleries and boutiques along the plazas, inside the Farmers Market Plaza and El Mercado buildings. It's the perfect spot for a girlfriends' getaway, particularly if you take a break from shopping to eat at Mi Tierra Cafe and Bakery, which opened in 1943. Strolling mariachis, an authentic Mexican bakery, a full-service bar and an extensive Tex-Mex menu make this place one of the best-loved restaurants in San Antonio. And, if you want your Mi Tierra "fix" at 3 a.m., rest assured that this family-owned eatery offers 24/7 service, 365 days a year. The food is consistently wonderful, the entertainment is superb and the service is warm and genuine.
Whale of a time
For a completely different experience, set aside a day of your trip to explore SeaWorld San Antonio, where an all-new Shamu show, "One Ocean," opened last month. Other popular shows at the park are "Believe," also starring the killer whale Shamu; "The Cannery Row Caper," a comedy featuring sea lion duo Clyde and Seamore; "The Azul Show," in which beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, colorful birds and human acrobats frolic together in a celebration of sea and sky; and "Pirates 4-D," a special-effects movie starring Leslie Nielsen (you will get splashed).
Thrill rides include Journey to Atlantis, The Great White, Steel Eel, Rio Loco, Shamu Express and Texas Splashdown. Many of them combine the intensity of a coaster with the fun of getting wet. And new this spring, the Sesame Street Bay of Play offers kinder, gentler rides and activities for the small fry.
San Antonio can be scorching in the summer, and the best way to beat the heat is to head to SeaWorld's Lost Lagoon water park. But the best parts of Sea World are the animal exhibits, particularly the ones in which guests can interact with sea creatures. Touch and feed lively Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at Dolphin Cove, feed playful seals and sea lions at Rocky Point Preserve and feed exotic birds (lorikeets and parrots) in various aviary habitats.
Being able to get up close and personal with the animals often involves standing in lines to buy flimsy cartons of dead fish. But it's worth it. There's nothing more magical than feeling that special bond with one of these interesting - and often highly intelligent - fellow citizens of the world.
Do remember the Alamo of legend and lore during its yearlong 175th anniversary celebration. But be sure to take part in many of the other cultural, culinary and just plain fun experiences that make San Antonio unique.
If you go
Order a free Travel & Leisure Guide from www.visitsanantonio.com.
Sites to see
Story published Friday, July 1, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 4 )