The Best of "Day Trips"
The best day trips around Texas are always difficult to name. The Lone Star State is a big place, and there are an awful lot of things that could fall into that category. There is never enough room to list everything that should be included. Here are a few of my favorite things discovered or rediscovered this year.
Best Return: The caravels are back, albeit in dry dock at the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. Three full-scale replicas of Christopher Columbus' ships, built by the Spanish government to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World, were leased to Corpus Christi in 1993 after a world tour.
Huge crowds never materialized to see the wooden ships docked on the ship channel under the Harbor Bridge. It's a shame that they didn't prove as popular as the city had hoped because they do offer a perspective of what the explorers endured like no history book can give.
In 1994, an errant barge smashed into the ships, causing extensive damage. The Pinta and Santa Maria wound up as museum exhibits while the Nina sits off-limits to the public, rotting at a berth in a waterfront marina.
The interpretive tours provided by the staff gives an appreciation for the history that can be acquired nowhere else. Despite the sad turn of events, the museum has done a good job in preserving the ships while they wait for their next fate. Spain still owns the ships and at one time was in negotiations with a restaurant to move the attractions to Kemah, a seaside suburb of Houston. A true Texas treasure, see them while you can.
Open 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Saturday, and noon-5pm on Sunday, the museum is at 1900 N. Chaparral St. Admission is an extra $3 in addition to the $5 museum fee. 361/883-2862.
Best High: Another tourist attraction that has reopened is the Wyler Aerial Tramway in the Franklin Mountains State Park on the edge of El Paso. Texas' only public mountain tramway was built in 1959 to give maintenance crews access to broadcast towers and transmitters at the top of Ranger Peak. It was opened to the public for awhile but closed in 1987 because of insurance costs. In 1997, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department took it over and opened it again after extensive renovations. Admission is $7 for adults and $4 for children. 915/566-6622.
Best Birding Spots: According to a new book, Where the Birds Are: The 100 Best Birdwatching Spots in North America, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge outside of Rockport and the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park near Mission are the best in the state. Texas is the top destination for serious birdwatchers who come to see the more than 600 known species of birds that live here or are passing through. For more information, go to www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/wild/birds/txcheck list/intro.htm.
Best Honky-Tonk: The 36th Academy of Country Music Awards in Los Angeles named Billy Bob's Texas in the Fort Worth Stockyards as club of the year. This was the fifth time the dance hall has garnered the award since 1981. It also has won top honors by the Country Music Association three times.
The famous night spot features a 4,800-square-foot rodeo arena, 600 feet of bar rails, shops, games, and restaurants. With a 1,650-square-foot stage, the club is as much fun for the entertainers as it is for the patrons. 817/624-7117.
Best Travel Web site: RoadsideAmerica.com captures the essence of American folk art in a fun and informative way. No matter what state you're traveling through, the editors point out offbeat attractions along the highway. Of course, Texas has more than its share of entries in the world of the weird from the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo to "Old Sparky," the state's electric chair at Huntsville's Prison Museum.
Best Compromise: In the southeast Texas town of Anderson, the black and white communities found a solution to a potentially divisive issue with grace and guts. After nearly six years of fundraising, the Grimes County chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans raised the money to pay for a statue honoring the more than 1,800 men from the county who fought for the Confederacy. The all-white county commissioners court unanimously approved putting the statue on the courthouse lawn.
This led to what could have been a nasty fight. One side was led by Bill Terrell Jr., a wealthy cotton farmer who saw the statue as honoring his ancestors, not intended as an insult to blacks. On the other side was James Mable, a Baptist preacher and the foreman on Terrell's farm. At a meeting with the Texas Historical Commission both sides expressed their opinions without rancor. In the end, the state commission, which has jurisdiction over the grounds as a historical site, ruled against placing the statue near the entrance to the courthouse for practical reasons.
The statue, named "Bubba," was placed in a small park paid for with private funds about a block from the courthouse. Mr. Mable still works for his childhood friend, and the community was spared a battle of hurtful words or worse.
Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.
539th in a series. Collect them all.