TRAVEL THERE: KING WILLIAM HISTORICAL DISTRICT IN SAN ANTONIO TX
If it’s art, I love it. If it’s Decorative Arts, Architecture and History, well I’m there. That’s the reason we spent our first morning in San Antonio at the McNay. It’s also the reason our next stop was the King William District.
The mill is still producing and you can sample their wares at the restaurant, right there at the home of their founder. The home also serves as a museum and has a great gift shop. Deb and I took a look at it all while we waited for a friend to arrive.
I met Clark in my SFA days and stay in touch on Facebook, but it’s always great to get a chance to chat in person. We were able to get a seat right there on that covered patio. Deb had a salad, I opted for the Champagne Chicken Enchiladas and Clark just kept us company.
Of the two dishes, I think Deb chose the better one. Not that mine was bad – it just wasn’t everything I’d dreamed of when I read, “Tender slices of chicken breast and Monterey Jack cheese wrapped in Pioneer’s White Wings flour tortillas. Baked in our special sauce made from San Antonio River Mill Champagne Chicken Gravy mix, garnished with jalapenos and cilantro.” The tortilla was a little tough and by the time the melted cheese made it out to the patio, so was it. The flavor was great, but I’m a real stickler for texture.
The King Willam Walking Tour
Soon Clark had places to be and I had the map a walking tour of King Williams in my hand. Now I’ve been to the King William District numerous times, but I’ve never been to San Antonio with anyone else who is as patient with my passions as Deb is. Every time I’ve been to San Antonio I’ve told my traveling companions how great it would be to walk through the district and spend some time looking at each house. So far no one had taken me up on it. I’d been through it on a trolley tour, I’d gone on the Steves Homestead Tour and I’d driven through on the way to Guenther’s, but walking tour and San Antonio had not clicked with any of my potential walking tour companions.
Of course, Deb thought it was a great idea and it turned out to be just that. We left Guenther’s and figured out where we were on the walking tour map. Then we did just what I’d wanted to do, strolled along and discussed all the beautiful homes with the Walking Tour Map & Guide as our reference. Along the way we did take in the Steve’s Homestead Tour – delightful, by the way. We were a few minutes late for Villa Finale, so we just enjoyed the grounds. As beautiful as these homes are they only scratch the surface. Each home in the five block area is a treasure.
So, yes, if you go to San Antonio you should do the walking tour. San Antonio is notoriously hot and humid, and we walked the whole thing in ninety something weather, but it was fine. In fact, the tree-shaded sidewalk made it very pleasant. On the way back to Guenther’s we dropped down to the River and enjoyed the serenity. This is one of my favorite memories of this trip.
There’s more than one reason I have a blast traveling with my bestie. One of the benefits I truly enjoy is her encyclopedic knowledge of movies and TV – especially movies and TV she enjoyed with her boys. Since I didn’t have kids at all and tend to know more about concierges than coneheads, I can be seriously entertained by things most everyone else already knew. Enter the sculpture garden at the McNay.
You can usually tell what is most important to me on a trip, because I will schedule it first on the agenda if at all possible. That’s why the McNay Art Museum was our Friday morning destination. As we pull into the beautiful grounds of the wonderful museum, Deb says, “Incoming message from the big giant head.” This made no sense whatsoever to me. Yes, there was a large sculpture of Marion Koogler McNay‘s head there on the lawn, but what was that “incoming message” stuff about?
That’s when I got a lesson on sci-fi sitcoms. Most of you don’t need an explanation, so I’ll leave it at that. We arrived a few minutes before the museum opened which gave us some time to explore the garden. Deb posed before the big giant head in the appropriate stance and we captured a few of the other lovely sites on the grounds.
Getting to Know Marion Koogler McNay
Though I’ve mentioned the McNay before, I’ve never really told you how wonderful it is. Marion Koogler McNay was a patron of the arts and one of her husbands (she had several) built her a palace in what was once a rural area outside San Antonio. Now the estate is just minutes from downtown, surrounded by accouterments of the bustling metropolis. Learning more about the heiress’ life is just one of a plethora of reasons to visit the McNay.
Ms. McNay is one of those people who had everything other people want, but was denied the one thing she really wanted. Over the years as I’ve visited the museum, I’ve learned tidbits about her life and it is a haunting story.
Born in Ohio, to a family with money, she was exposed to great art at a very young age and it captured her heart. She was one of the first to collect works of Impressionism, which led to an appreciation of the schools which followed it, like Cubism and Fauvism. But the modern art of her day was not her only interest. She collected religious images from the Middle Ages and classic sculpture also. She was an artist in her own right and played a role in the artistic community of Taos New Mexico.
But all she really loved was Don McNay. She was still quite young when the pair met and married. Though she was well-to-do, her husband was not. He was just a soldier who was about to be posted to an assignment on the Texas-Mexico border. She came along and they lived very happily in a very modest house near his posting. In spite of her affluent upbringing, this was the best time of her life.
Unfortunately it was not happily ever after. Don was reassigned and shortly after leaving the border area, he died from the Spanish Influenza epidemic. Ms. McNay had not followed him on his second assignment, but settled in San Antonio, where the two had honeymooned on their way to the border town. There were other homes and other husbands, but her heart would always belong to Don.
One of her husbands built this beautiful mansion, called Sunset Hills, for her, and even though she made it a beacon of art and beauty for others, she had sad experiences there. It took years to build the complex residence and when it was done, our country had fallen into the Depression. She held a gala housewarming, but the pictures of it seem to echo with disappointment, rather than glee. In just a few years her marriage ended and she took back Don’s surname as her own. I can imagine her walking the halls of her beautiful home wishing she could trade it all for just a little more time with the love of her life, Don McNay.
The McNay Today
Though her own life was sad, she brought opportunity and great art to San Antonio for others to enjoy. A visit to the McNay to learn more about Marion and enjoy Sunset Hills is more than enough reason to make the pilgrimmage, but on top of it all is the art – some of it hanging on the walls, other items actually a part of the walls, like the beautiful mosaic in the courtyard.
Membership having its privileges, Deb and I got in for free, thanks to my membership at the DMA. Then we began to roam the museum enjoying first the permanent collection, then wandering back to the theater area for some special exhibitions out there. One was called “All the Rage in Paris” and it had posters, costumes and other artifacts from the days of the Ballet Russe in Paris. What and interesting and beautiful collection!
While visiting the museum we watched a video on Ms. McNay’s life, which reminded me of some of the things I’d learned about her. We also relaxed in the courtyard. I love that courtyard so much that there is even a chance that I actually go there for the fountain and mosaics rather than the art. (Don’t tell anyone! I’m still trying to impress people with my art appreciation skills.) The museum also has a whimsical and wonderful gift shop, but I managed to leave without buying anything this time.
After a couple of hours, it was unfortunately time to move on. We had many plans for our day and lunch at the Guenther House was one of them. Come back next week and find out about Champagne Chicken Enchildas! In the meantime, enjoy a few more pictures of the McNay.
TRAVEL THERE: SAN ANTONIO’S CHART HOUSE RESTAURANT
If there is one thing I hate, it’s a reviewer that can’t find anything good to say about any place they stay or eat. I wasn’t loving the place we stayed the first night in San Antonio, but I wasn’t going to let that color the rest of my experience.
Going with the Flow
I was the one who wanted to stay in a cheap hotel, but I had high hopes for the rest of the stay. One of the reasons I’d opted for the first night in a bargain was because I really didn’t expect to arrive in San Antonio until late that night, but travel is really all about dealing with change.
I’d expected sight-seeing in Austin, another town I love, but taking the tollway just got me to my favorite city a little faster. Having a meal in the Tower of the Americas had been on my list for a long time and the change in plans gave me the opportunity to do just that.
The Way It Was Before
Way back in the summer of 1968, on a family visit to the Hemisfair, we did not have dinner in the tower. If memory serves me right, I’m pretty sure we didn’t pay the price of ride up the elevator either. I think something like that would have stuck with me. I remember the wonder of walking through all of the amazing pavilions and adored the Institute of Texan Cultures, but all my memories of the tower are from the ground looking up.
In subsequent visits other things kept me from visiting the tower:
bad reviews of the restaurant
not enough time
traveling companions who thought it was a tourist trap
I thought that the “not enough time” issue might come into play on this trip, too. I always have so many favorite things to return to in San Antonio that it’s hard to find time try new experiences. Arriving hours before I expected to, paved the way for an experience I’d wanted to have for a long time.
The Way It Was This Time
With a map, instructions from the hotel clerk and a GPS we set out for downtown San Antonio. Just as the clerk promised we found parking at RiverCenter Mall with no trouble. Somewhere inside my head is a map of the Riverwalk, but it always takes a little while for that map to sync with all the development around the popular attraction. We could see the tower and my mind told me where we should go, but we kept running into obstacles that my old mental map didn’t know about.
It didn’t help that the “You Are Here” map provided by the city next to the river did not have the promised red dot telling me where we were. Still it was only a minor irritation, because I followed my gut around the obstacles and soon recognized we were on the Hemisfair grounds – then all we had to do was look up.
If I was ever in San Antonio with time to kill, I think I’d kill some of it just enjoying Hemisfair Plaza. It’s a very pretty place, but I had my eye on the top of the tower. There was a booth selling elevator rides and the ticket salesmen pointed us to the other side of the tower for the Chart House Restaurant. We sidled up to the desk and asked if they had room for us. To my great joy, they did.
We had to walk back around the tower to the elevator, but this time we were inside. After a short wait and a quick conversation with a couple of guys who were also on their way to dinner, we arrived. From the picture above, you can tell that it was a pretty spectacular experience. The view alone was amazing. The restaurant was also nice.
I’ve been in Dallas’s Hyatt Regency Reunion Tower and the Westin’s Peachtree Plaza Tower in Atlanta, so I can tell you that the experiences are very similar. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that the same architect designed them all. I can also tell you that this was not just a me-too experience. San Antonio is a town very different from Dallas and Atlanta. The spontaneous opportunity turned into a evening I won’t forget for a long time.
We were not seated immediately, but that was OK. We hadn’t had reservations and it was obvious that a lot of other people did. What was not OK, was that if I was going to wait I would have liked to enjoy a drink. The hostess pointed us at several groupings of leather chairs and told us to wait. I assumed it would be a short wait. There was an observation deck above, which may or may not have had a bar, but if I’d known we’d be cooling our heels for a while I would have at least gone exploring.
Still, I wasn’t an unpleasant experience. I sat in the big comfy leather sofa and enjoyed the view. I also enjoyed the arriving dinner patrons. Many were dressed to the nines, suggesting the meal was a special event. The restaurant was also recovering from a big busload of diners. Observing them go down the elevator in batches of a dozen was somewhat interesting.
After the noisy bus tour was back on the ground, a sort of calm settled of the restaurant and I smelled a fragrance I couldn’t at first identify. I pointed it out to Deb and we agreed it wasn’t a food smell and kept trying to guess what it was. Saddle Soap!! The leather sofas had been recently cleaned with saddle soap. There was no residue and the fragrance was subtle, but I enjoyed the little smell association game. Finally, they seated us.
Seated at the Top of San Antonio
We were looking north-ish when we first sat down – sort of toward our lovely Microtel. Not that we could pick it out from up there. As the evening played out we enjoyed the view until we were south-ish, but by then the city had disappeared into the darkness and all we could see was the lights. One disappointment was that you cannot see the Alamo for the big Marriot which is attached to the RiverCenter. That would have been quite wonderful.
What was wonderful was the food. The prices were a little steep. Not that they were expensive for what they offered, they were just more than I usually pay for a meal. We made choices around the outskirts of the menu, not so much for the cost, but because that’s what sounded good. And of course, we ordered Margaritas!
I started with Lobster Bisque – thick, creamy and delicious – just the way I like it. It was not the best I’d ever had, but it was a treat. Deb chose a salad and it was HUGE. Our next course was side orders – sauteed mushrooms, asparagus and an OMG order of Lobster Mac & Cheese. Good thing Deb and I had decreed that nothing had any calories during this entire weekend, otherwise we would have just scored about two days worth of them. OH – and we had a souffle for dessert. My mouth and stomach were in heaven and the view was out of this world.
Since this trip was my belated birthday celebration, when we met Cousin Brenda she had a belated birthday present for me. Along with some lovely fragrance gifts for my house, she also gave me one of those gift cards you can use for whatever you want. What I wanted was dinner at the Tower of the Americas. Thank you Brenda. We didn’t have to wash dishes to leave the tower.
Maneuvering back to the car was no problem. My internal map had synced with the city. We did have an adventure getting back to the hotel. First the GPS couldn’t figure out where we were when we left the parking lot and then there was the back road approach to the hotel, but all’s well that ends well – right?
Our next stop? The McNay! You’re going to love it, so come back next week.
TRAVEL THERE: MICROTEL SAN ANTONIO NORTHEAST A DANGEROUS BARGAIN
We all know that if it’s too good to be true, then it’s probably not true – and with few exceptions, you get exactly what you pay for. Deb and I wanted a cheap hotel for our first night in San Antonio and that’s exactly what we got, so no surprise here.
Decision Path to Disaster
Now I’m not so cheap or adventurous that I’d purposely stay in an awful hotel, but I will look for bargains. In fact, I’d first planned to stay somewhere in San Marcos or New Brunsfel, but all the reviews of their bargain hotels made it sound as if these hotels had served one too many drunk river rafters – dirty and smelly being the biggest clue.
But I know Microtel. I’ve stayed at several of them and they have all been great. They weren’t always the latest and greatest, but you got a lot for not so much dough and they were clean. Enter Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham San Antonio Northeast. I know, for $45 a night in San Antonio I should have figured out there was a problem, but I didn’t.
Maybe our first clue should have been how difficult it was to find. On the map it looked as if it would be easy to get to, but maps can be deceiving, because what’s in a convenient place might be hard to reach. Our GPS had to take us around and around and around until we finally broke a few laws and made it to the parking lot. Then there was a sigh of relief. The outside looked as if it had been freshly painted and the landscaping was under control. The cars all looked as if they were driven by people with a sense of propriety and the lobby was nice.
There was one couple ahead of us in line, but I was more interested in the breakfast bar than I was this anonymous couple. That was until I figured out who they were. He was a rugged type, with a beard that was a day or two old. He was wearing a black t-shirt with “The Trucker’s Prayer” emblazoned on the back. I found that to be at least a little bit interesting, because they’d arrived in a crossover van. It didn’t seem as if English was his first language. In comparison, his companion was a beautiful young woman with cafe au lait skin. Her hair was in a semi up-do. She had on great shoes and a cute short set with very, very short-shorts which showed off a pair of perfect legs. She flashed me a great smile.
Though I was not listening carefully, I figured out that the clerk was trying to explain the hotel’s cash policy to the man. If you pay cash, you have to leave a $50 deposit at the desk. When you’re through with your stay, they inspect the room to make sure everything is OK and then you get your $50 back. It seemed reasonable on the surface and then the woman cooed, “Just put it on your credit card, baby.” Something clicked in my brain and I figured out what most of you had already realized. This was a hooker with her john. That made them very interesting.
The conversation went on for a few more clicks, but the baby was not going to put it on his credit card and the Microtel wasn’t going to change their policy, so eventually the pair left. The funniest thing was that the female half of the pair turned around at the door and said, “We’ll be back,” in her outdoor voice. I want you to know I do not hold this episode against the Microtel. They can’t help who walks in the front door and they had a policy in place to keep that kind of stuff at bay.
The clerk was very nice to us and very helpful with suggestions and directions to the Riverwalk. It also wasn’t the hotel’s fault that I don’t drive those luggage carts real well. Deb helped me load our bags and walked ahead to open the door. Unfortunately, the cart decided it was more interested in the swimming pool than it was the interior of the hotel. Nice clerk person appeared out of nowhere and got me going in the right direction.
The clerk had given us the very first room past the lobby, so that gave me a pretty secure feeling. Deb stuck her card in the door, but it took both of us to shove the door open. Whoever chose the carpet, which was still pretty new, had selected a style that was too deep for the door. Each trip in and out was like a tiny weight resistance session.
We didn’t pay much attention to anything else, because we were ready to head to the Riverwalk. More about that later, but coming back to the hotel AFTER the Riverwalk, now that was an adventure. The hotel is in a sort or industrial area, which is part of the reason it’s so hard to reach. The GPS on my phone discovered another way to get there on the return trip. We exited and the GPS told us to take a street that on any other occasion we would have avoided, but the GPS showed that it was the most direct route. We feared a repeat of our earlier around the world experience, so we ignored those little voices in our head and crossed into no man’s land – or maybe I should say no-woman’s land.
The narrow two lane street had thick vegetation on each side and at a certain point the vegetation gave way to junk yards and re-cycling centers wrapped in chain link fences – or at least that’s what it looked like. The road got very rough and suddenly it felt like the car had fallen into the Grand Canyon. Deb kept right on driving and said, “If we get a flat, I’m gonna keep on driving. We’ll just worry about it in the morning.”
We didn’t have a flat and, with the exception of that too-thick carpet, had no other troubles getting to our beds. We were soon happily asleep. Now I know the Microtel can’t be responsible for the condition of the streets around it, especially small back-roads the GPS decides you should take and they certainly can’t help who walks in the front door, but the odds were starting to stack up against them nonetheless.
Mornings for me mean a bubble bath and that’s when the real trouble started – nasty tub corners. When it comes to the hotels and motels of this world, I consider cleanliness my primary concern. I laugh my way through bad decor, small rooms, rude desk clerks – in fact most of the foibles that you can run into, but you better be clean. This is where the Microtel missed the mark.
Then there was the hair dryer. I guess they must have a problem with losing hair dryers, so now they hard-wire them in place. I can understand that, but did they have to cover up the other plug. I had to wander around the room looking for another plug with a line of sight to a mirror, because I needed some curling iron therapy to cope with my wild hair. (I don’t blame the Microtel for my wild hair either. I explained all that a few posts ago.)
The nasty tub corners sort of ruined my stay, but I got cleaned up and we headed to the breakfast bar for a bite, anyway. Like most of the things we’d experienced at the Microtel, the breakfast bar was more than decent. They had boiled eggs, which I like, and an assortment of other things, so it more than satisfied the need at hand. The morning clerk was a grandmotherly sort and that really made me want to like this hotel better, but the specter of the nasty tub corners couldn’t be erased.
Deb and I have a certain cure for everything. It’s called laughter. We started to enjoy all the little quirks we found. We even went outside and shot these pictures so you too could enjoy our stay.
Come back next week and I’ll tell you all about our dinner at the Tower of the Americas – but don’t stay at Microtel Inn & Suites by Wyndham San Antonio Northeast, unless grime is your friend.