The Hamptons of Hill Country
From plush ranches to local specialties, the Texas Hill Country provides a variety of memorable experiences for the holidays.
The Texas Hill Country encompasses 14,000 square miles of Lone Star State myth flanked by Houston, San Antonio and Austin. To write his masterful biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro had to first understand Hill Country, the infinite landscape that forever shaped Johnson’s soul. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, an old-Texas epic ripe with noble cowpoke iconography, is another seminal text.
Today, the Hill Country encompasses such lavish properties as The Inn at Dos Brisas, a 313-acre Relais & Châteaux ranch with nine plush guesthouses incorporating swimming pools and private golf carts. Dos Brisas is a gilded soupçon of Hill Country with skeet shooting, an indoor riding ring and trail expeditions through lulling groves of live oaks. This is a surprisingly green landscape, a kind of Provence-meets-longhorns when the bluebonnets are in bloom.
Petits fours at Dos Brisas (canéles de Bordeaux, bourbon chocolate truffles and native pecan chocolate truffles). / Courtesy of Dos Brisas
The opulent Dos Brisas restaurant, adorned with an 18th-century French fireplace and Bernardaud china featuring the resort’s logo of a windswept horse’s mane, overlooks spiraling hawks and pastures with horses running for the sheer beauty of it. Chef Zachary Ladwig works with a 7,000-bottle wine cellar and a 42-acre organic farm: The nightly eight-course menus can include a tartare of garden beets, line-caught rockfish, and silver corn with black truffles, agnolotti pasta and purslane, also known locally as duckweed.
Dr. Stephen King, who holds a PhD in plant breeding from Cornell University, presides over a farm with edible flowers, vibrant heirloom tomatoes, turkeys and free-range chickens. On Saturdays, King sells Dos Brisas produce, from Swiss chard to holiday pumpkins, at Houston’s Urban Harvest market—a stomping ground for chefs from such area restaurants as Eunice, La Lucha, the Madrid-inspired MAD, Arnaldo Richards’ Picos, Theodore Rex and Armadillo Palace.
Hacienda at The Inn at Dos Brisas. / Courtesy of Dos Brisas
Dos Brisas and two nearby towns serve as a kind of Hamptons for Houston. Round Top is known for its twice-annual antiques fair, stretching along Highway 237 for miles, and cultivated shops. HGTV hosts Amie and Jolie Sikes have the Junk Gypsy store and Wander Inn hotel, featured in Miranda Lambert’s cover shoot for American Songwriter. Meanwhile, Brenham’s Rockin’ Star Ranch hosts the annual Butcher’s Ball benefit cookout, and the cult of Truth BBQ also began in Brenham. Coveys of Houston tycoons/weekend ranchers eat brisket in bespoke Hamilton shirts—a Houston institution founded in 1883 and featuring a Lyle Lovett line—with gleaming wives in riding breeches, echoing middle-era C.Z. Guest.
Restaurant Patio Breakfast at Dos Brisas Hotel. / Courtesy of Dos Brisas
In Texas, food and drink are always a handy shorthand for the state’s grab bag of influences. Hill Country is dotted with towns—including Gruene and New Braunfels—founded by 19th-century German settlers; in Fredericksburg, Otto’s is known for duck schnitzel. Wimberley has more than 1,200 olive trees, and Texas is also the third-largest American Viticulture Area (Southold Farm + Cellar recently moved to Hill Country from the North Fork of Long Island). In Driftwood, the Desert Door Distillery produces sotol, a tequila alternative made from the dasylirion plant.
Hill Country’s atmospheric towns include Comfort and Luckenbach, immortalized by Waylon Jennings, as well as ZZ Top’s La Grange. And an old-school shop brought a straight-out-of-Lonesome Dove encounter. For some reason, the proprietor assumed I shared his passion for beekeeping, and solemnly delivered a nugget of Texas folk wisdom: “As you know, bees are like people—the more you do for them, the more they hate you.”