The Big Lumbering Tour Boat/Truck Known as Longhorn Lilly Offers a Bird's-Eye View of Austin
Six long, hot summers have passed since I moved to Austin, and in that time I've acquired a degree in philosophy and government, written about state and local politics for this paper, and taken advantage of just about every form of entertainment, civic and otherwise, this city has to offer. I've learned a bit, I'd like to think, about the life and times of the city I now call home. So what in God's name am I doing out here, on the hottest Saturday of the year so far, sitting on an amphibious tour boat with a gaggle of wide-eyed tourists in town for the Easter weekend?
"Tour boat," in fact, is a bit of an understatement. The vehicle, owned and operated by Austin Duck Adventures, is actually a British Alvis Stalwart dating from 1967, used to transport British soldiers across Europe in the late 1960s. You've probably seen them all over downtown and on Lake Austin -- the big, ungainly monsters no one knew what to do with after they were de-commissioned in the Seventies (touring outfits in some cities use vehicles that date back to the WWII era). This particular one, named "Longhorn Lilly," runs on gasoline, weighs 20,000 pounds, and is driven by a firefighter from the Austin Fire Department. It's big, loud, and hot onboard the thing and seats, as best I can tell, between 40 and 60, depending on how well you want to get to know your neighbors. It weaves in and out of lanes that are too narrow by about two feet, making even the largest SUVs hover back in trepidation.
Actually, it was me who was filled with trepidation this particular Saturday, as the tour "captain" handed out "quackers" (ungodly loud honking devices) to the horde of weekenders on our trip. That there were few children in the group (uncharacteristically -- the tour's biggest demographic is reportedly 30- to 50-year-old women and their kids) did not exactly inspire relief; some of the quite mature adults on the bus would quickly discover that they could use their quackers not only to terrorize Sixth Street pedestrians (approved) but to drown out the tour guide (very much frowned upon).
So what am I doing here? I'm trying to see Austin through a tourist's eyes, to see what big tour companies like Duck Adventures (which is, unlike many similar companies in other cities, independently owned) deem worthy of out-of-towners' attention, and what gets left off the list. Maybe it's the sweltering heat, or maybe it's the gas fumes rising from the Stalwart's gigantic tank, but my hopes aren't high that I'll learn anything from this History-Lite excursion. And sure enough, the usual suspects pop up throughout the hour-and-a-half-long tour: There's the Driskill (reported to be haunted!), the Capitol (made with pink granite from Marble Falls! Taller than the nation's Capitol!), and the UT Tower (Suicides! Murder! Mayhem!). Several obvious candidates for inclusion are inexplicably omitted: the Stephen F. Austin, the Brown Building, even the Paramount. But along the route, there are also (for this relative newcomer) revelations: the building whose interior columns are made of exploded Confederate gun shells on Congress; the whole Bastrop pine trees that form the columns at the Governor's Mansion; the streets around Enfield, named for towns in neighborhood founder Elisha Pease's home state of Connecticut. (A walking tour along Sixth Street and Congress, guided by a pamphlet available at the Austin Convention & Visitors Center at Second & San Jacinto, highlights many of the same downtown sites as the Duck Adventures tour.)
The Stalwart may look like a big, lumbering vehicle (and it is), but it doesn't take long before we're hurtling down Enfield at a relatively terrifying 35mph. From 10 feet up, the view afforded by the mammoth vehicle, everything takes on a different perspective. All those walled houses along Enfield, built by privacy-minded owners, are suddenly visible. (Hey, if they wanted seclusion, they should have moved to the suburbs!) Low-hanging trees are obstacles to brush rudely out of the way. Neighboring cars are rectangular rooftops that dodge and weave to get out of the mighty Stalwart's path. Overall, the elevated perspective was among the best features of the tour -- no insults intended to our captain, who did his best to stay perky in the blistering heat. (The boats do have a fine-mist cooling system, which operates in the summer but wasn't on this unseasonably hot mid-April morning.)
Restrictions on Town Lake make splashing down there prohibitive, so after another long, hot wait at the boat dock, we pulled off the dock at Lake Austin and ambled around the water north of the Tom Miller Dam at a steady clip of about five miles per hour. The tourists were fascinated by the monstrously-scaled houses perched precariously on the shores of the river in West Lake Hills, and I was just happy to be on the water -- where it was a couple of very crucial degrees cooler than out above the pavement.
The tour route to Lake Austin and back was intermittently interesting; a vast expanse of student housing along Lake Austin Blvd. didn't exactly give our guide much to work with, but the trip along Sixth Street, up Congress, through UT, and down Enfield was actually -- dare we admit it? -- educational. Bottom line: This "adventure," while not something to do every weekend, is a great way to get your history fix, get the kids out of the house, and ride around town in a loud, slow-moving vehicle that's guaranteed to be the biggest thing on the road.
Tours start at the Austin Convention & Visitors Center at 11am and 2pm daily with an additional 4pm time on Saturday and Sunday; get there early and go on a weekday if you can for shorter waits and more leg room. (They also do charters and private tours; call for more information.) 4-SPLASH.