The Heart of Texas
Hill Country’s Canyon Lake is the Lone Star State’s best-kept secret.
If it weren’t for the abundance of prickly pear cacti, Spanish-tile roofing and authentic taco cantinas, a visitor to Texas Hill Country might believe he or she had been transported to the German countryside. Deutschland -inspired towns with names like New Braunfels, Fredericksburg and Boerne mark some of the hotspots of the west-central part of the state. Between these communities stretch rolling yet rugged ranchlands where blankets of hearty wildflowers soften the jagged riverbed cuts and rocky escarpments.
Back in the 1830s, German immigrants began to move in to the area. They were lured by what pioneer Johann Friederich Ernst called “a land with a winterless climate, like that of Sicily.” Praise for the fertile soil and abundance of game and fish also helped the cause, and the first groups of settlers formed what is now called the German Belt. The European immigration plus the Spanish influences that drift across the border combine to create a fusion of two very different cultures. Yet they flourish together in a great symbiosis that offers tourists and locals alike plenty to do.
The various towns in Texas Hill Country feature quaint antique and fudge shops, bakeries, wineries, elaborate beer gardens and plenty of places that serve food wrapped in tortillas. If spicy fare doesn’t hit the mark, a juicy burger, no doubt, lies just around the corner. One such spot, the Gristmill River and Bar, sits high on a bluff overlooking the Guadalupe River in Gruene, the historic district of New Braunfels. The perch allows diners to watch the fun on the waters below as people float by on tubes, rafts and canoes. The Texas heat encourages many visitors to get out on the area waterways. The Marcie family is no different. They’ve gathered for the day on their new Sea Ray 390 Sundancer.
Just a few miles north of New Braunfels, a dam stops up the winding Guadalupe. The resulting Canyon Lake reaches its many fingers in between the rugged limestone hills that make up the heart of Texas. A short drive from two metropolitan centers, Canyon Lake plays host to boaters from both nearby Austin and San Antonio and everywhere in between. The Marcies live in San Antonio, but they spend most weekends making the lake and their Sea Ray their home.
The 390 is actually the family’s fourth Sea Ray, bought from Troy Triplet at Sail and Ski. They bought their first one, a 17-foot Bow Rider, in 1991. “We just kept coming back to Sea Ray,” Pat Marcie says. “We love the look, the layout and the performance. Honestly, what’s not to like?”
The Marcies gather at their dock slip in Cranes Mill Marina, where they hang out with fellow boaters, many of them also Sea Ray owners. Their dock even has a special name, “The Lost Palms Dock.” The story goes that the group had once decorated the pier with lighted palm trees. Not long after, the trees went missing. Presumably, the marina had taken them down for safety reasons. That didn’t stop the boaters from making the dock their own, however. Pat built wooden benches for the individual slips and personalized them by adding the name of each slip’s corresponding boat. “I’m just like that,” Pat says. “I always need a project.”
Today is Pat’s birthday. It also happens to be Pat and his wife Annette’s anniversary. A cake awaits in the Sundancer’s full galley for when the sun goes down and the birthday candles will have full effect. To help them celebrate their special day, their daughter Skyeler has driven down from Austin, where she attends the University of Texas. Van, their son, is unfortunately tied up with studying for the bar exam. Of course, the Marcies don’t require a special event to get out on the water. Their boat name, AM:PM has a double meaning. It’s their initials, but it also suggests the Marcies can be found on their Sea Ray anytime, day or night. Today, they’ve invited friends Jeff and Kim Sajec along to join the fun, as well.
Once everyone is onboard, Pat cruises toward the dam and drops anchor in a cove. Annette sets out a spread of deviled eggs, watermelon, strawberries, cheese and crackers. Pat and Jeff jump in the water to cool off. They float near the swim platform in easy reach of snacks and conversation. Annette and Kim grab beverages from the cockpit refrigerator and head to the bow loungers to work on their tans. Skyeler hangs in the cockpit eating hors d’oeuvres and talking to the swimmers. Canyon Lake is a closer drive for her than San Antonio, so whenever she’s homesick for a little parental spoiling, she heads for the boat.
The lake’s many coves provide privacy for enjoying a quiet afternoon. While the reservoir plays host to a ton of on-water recreation, the Marcies have no trouble avoiding the crowds when they want to or finding the party crew for a raft up if they so desire. The land surrounding the lake consists of a mix of shoreline homes and cabins, bed and breakfasts, and several parks managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. These parks feature rocky hiking trails that wind through stands of cedar scrub, cypress and Texas live oak. They lead to secluded beaches or climb granite bluffs that provide an epic view for watching the sunset.
Canyon Lake’s shores also hold the beautiful veranda of FawnCrest Vineyard, where visitors can enjoy weekend tastings of award-winning Bordeaux-style wines while overlooking a Texas-shaped fountain. Southern Living magazine touts Texas Hill Country as the next Napa; however, grapes were planted in the region nearly a century before California even had its first fruit on the vine. Because of its higher elevation atop the Edwards Plateau, offering slightly cooler temps than other parts of the state, Texas Hill Country is an American Viticultural Area (AVA). An elevated humidity level and specific soil conditions make the region even more suitable for growing grapes at its 20-plus wineries and vineyards.
Texas Hill Country hosts a food and wine festival every spring. The same climate specifics that make the area an oenophile hideaway also make the hills a fine place to grow greens, heirloom tomatoes, peaches, strawberries and lavender. Aptly named farm-to-market roads connect the just-a-dot-on–the-map communities, creating a locavore’s paradise. In case that fruit and veggie list sounds a bit too healthy or refined, rest-assured, Hill Country is authentic Texas, and an acclaimed barbecue joint can be found in each and every town.
Plenty of ranches with grazing goats, alpacas and sheep sprawl out amongst the undulating hills that surround Canyon Lake. But Hill Country is predominantly cattle country. To get up close to a Texas Longhorn, visitors can stay at the Canyon Lake Ranch Bed and Breakfast, where they’ll have an opportunity to hand-feed the giants while enjoying the luxuries of an elegant retreat.
Hill Country is also wildflower country. From late March through June, Texas bluebonnets spread a roiling see of blooms across the ranchlands. There are entire websites dedicated to mapping the blooms. Finding the highest concentration of the trumpet-shaped flowers has become a bit of a friendly competition. Eventually the Texas bluebonnets give the stage to the flaming colors of Texas paintbrush and Indian blanket and then to the sunny-shades of greenthread.
The great thing about Texas Hill Country is that the region blends rustic and rural with the right amount of chic sophistication. The setting might be sublimely pastoral, but the cultural cornucopia that encompasses the region definitely holds an air of class. A wildflower tour can set the stage for a trip along the wine trail, for example, and the simplicity of freshly picked berries can prompt a gourmet picnic. Such a picnic is made all the more grand aboard a Sea Ray, of course. “We just love it out here,” Pat says. “The hills act as a buffer between us and all the usual day-to-day worries. And Canyon Lake is far enough, but not too far enough, away from the hustle and bustle of San Antonio.”
After cooling off in the just-right waters, the Marcies climb back onboard to refuel. “I feel like all I ever do when I get on the boat is eat,” Skyeler says with a laugh. She pops a piece of watermelon in her mouth and then settles onto the rear lounger next to her mom. They take a minute to talk boys and sorority-pledging plans.
Meanwhile Pat maneuvers the Sundancer into yet another cove so that the crew can anchor and enjoy evening cocktails. “Sunsets are the best,” he says. “They highlight all the beauty and peacefulness of the area.” He uses the handy Axius control system to spin the Sea Ray around. “Once you use it a few times,” he says, gesturing to the joystick, “it’s like how did I ever live without it?”
Annette and Kim gather on the bow with Skyeler to gab about fashion, fitness and the unique Austin nightlife. They chatter and laugh as they scroll through photos on Skyeler’s cell phone. For a moment, the 20-something is the absolute center of attention. But suddenly they all grow quiet. The sun casts a golden glow on the water and lights up the horizon with blazes of orange and red. The hills take on a violet hue behind dark stands of oak. In the cockpit, Pat and Jeff have grown quiet, too, and it’s clear that Texas has officially stolen the show.