Austin, Texas — At dusk, I joined about 200 other bat watchers in the shadow of the Congress Avenue Bridge, lured by the prospect of seeing a million or more bats swarm out from under the span on their nightly bug-foraging mission.
We waited and waited. As an hour passed, I wondered whether we were all batty. Finally, someone yelled, "There they are!" But it was now quite dark and, scanning the sky, I could just make out a formation of small gray fliers whizzing by.
Anticlimactic, yes, but fun and free, as are many of Austin's top attractions. The Mexican free-tailed bats arrive in mid-March, nest under the bridge and breed madly before flying back to Mexico in early November. They boost tourism and, happily, eat up to 30,000 pounds of pesky insects nightly.
I'd chosen Austin from among last-minute getaway offers at Site59. The deal: nonstop flights on American Airlines at decent hours and three nights in a room with a king-size bed at a DoubleTree Hotel for $407.16 per person. (The single supplement brought my tab to $485.02.)
With a goal of coming in at about $500 per person, based on double occupancy, I figured that if I ate cheaply (lots of Tex-Mex) I'd squeak by. But, never having visited Austin, I bought into Site59's description of the hotel as being "conveniently" located "five minutes" from downtown. Although the hotel is fine, it is five miles from the city center and hemmed in by freeways. It has no downtown shuttle, and getting anywhere by bus is an ordeal. I was stuck with cabs, which -- together with the single surcharge -- blew my budget. Site59 has no downtown hotels in my price range; still, the $500 goal is realistic -- if one takes the rental car add-on for $38 per person per trip.
Austin calls itself the live music capital of the world, and as I deplaned at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, sure enough, there was live music on a stage.
My first night in Austin, I explored near the hotel on foot, venturing into Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen on the theory that any place with a line that long must be OK. With entrees in the $15-to-$30 range, I had to be creative. My meal -- a salad, seafood gumbo and bread pudding -- was tasty and filling.
I'd booked a table at Stubb's Bar-B-Q downtown for the Mother's Day gospel brunch. Onstage, the Durdens were dishing up soul-stirring music with a dollop of religion. The all-you-can-eat buffet was amazing -- Mexican scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, grits, barbecue beef and chicken. I sampled judiciously -- it was good -- then tucked a biscuit into my handbag for the next day's breakfast. (My room had a coffeemaker.)
Then I was off to the beautifully restored Capitol, where I stood in the soaring rotunda (under a portrait of former Gov. George W. Bush) as our guide told Texas tales. I loved hearing about Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, Texas' first female governor, who won in 1924 with the slogan, "Two governors for the price of one," only seven years after her governor husband, James, had been impeached for financial hanky-panky. The free tour takes in the House and Senate chambers.
A short walk away is the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, a terrific space with interactive exhibits telling the state's history from conquistadors to wildcatters. Here too is the Goddess of Liberty -- almost 16 feet and 2,000 pounds of her. She stood atop the Capitol dome until she was replaced in 1986 by a more durable copy. Up close and personal, she's no beauty.
I'd booked ahead for a free tour of the public rooms in the pristine and beautifully furnished Greek Revival Governor's Mansion. Our guide pointed out holes in the polished banister where former Gov. James Hogg hammered in nails so his children wouldn't slide down. (Contrary to myth, the Hoggs didn't have twins named Ira and Ura, but they did have a daughter named Ima.)
At the Convention & Visitors Bureau center, I hopped aboard an amphibian vehicle for the Austin Duck Adventures tour. Conrad, our "con-duck-tor," a high school history teacher, pointed out such historical sites as the trendy 6th Street bar where underage first twin Jenna Bush was caught buying alcohol. We passed the fabulous 1885 Driskill Hotel, where LBJ and Lady Bird had their first date.
Budget or no, I never resorted to fast food, instead seeking out places like the 24-hour Magnolia Cafe South, where I had terrific grilled shrimp enchiladas. It was chicken enchiladas for lunch at Las Manitas Avenue Cafe, where the tablecloths are serapes and nothing on the menu costs more than $8. I had dinner at Shady Grove, near Zilker Metropolitan Park, where patrons can watch silent films under the trees while enjoying tortilla fried catfish or Cajun meatloaf. (I chose chili and a burrito.) In the trendy Warehouse District downtown, I lunched on crab, mango and grilled shrimp salad at Crimson, a nouveau Southern spot where chicken potpie and Thai jambalaya coexist happily.