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San Antonio River Walk

A stroll in paradise

Every great city has its history, traditions, culture, nightlife, and popular attractions. When it comes to a vibrant blend of it all, San Antonio tops the list for me and Dan. It’s no wonder we were eager to share this city’s colorful character with our friends Richard and Maureen when they visited us from England.

Open-air cruises are popular on the rio.
We arrived in early April to glorious sunshine, no surprise considering the city  boasts at least 300 sunny days most years. Our main destination was the celebrated River Walk, a 2 ½-mile stretch of subtropical paradise along the San Antonio River. Although The Alamo is the city’s biggest draw, we wanted to save that adventure until later. It’s best to see the old fortress when the tourists are tucked in for the night, when its bleached stone walls are bathed in honey-colored moonlight.

We checked into the Hyatt Regency which sits on the banks of the River Walk and offers all the comforts of a luxurious getaway. We were greeted with Texas hospitality while marveling at the hotel’s 16-story atrium --filled with blue-green cascading pools, a riot of blooms and palm trees.

Several waterfalls grace the River Walk.
After settling in, we slipped through the lobby doors with our friends and onto the River Walk which sits a full level below the downtown streets. Within minutes, our senses were awakened to a nether world. The river banks were graced with gardens, charming street lamps, waterfalls, rock walls, cobbled walkways, and quaint footbridges. Birds flitted from tree to tree like kids at recess as strolling musicians cajoled riverside diners. The whiff of tacos and tamales nosed about, and though it was noon, there was too much exploring to do before lunch.

The four of us ambled along the river’s winding path, soaking up the mid-day sun and admiring the lush greenery. According to locals, the River Walk was conceived by architect Robert H. H. Huggman, a dreamer who had fished along the tree-lined banks as a boy. He envisioned a haven that echoed the cities in Spain – complete with gardens, cafes, galleries, specialty shops and elegant hotels. Huggman presented his plans to the city in 1929 and ground was broken 10 years later. His vision has since evolved into today’s splendid masterpiece – a welcome retreat from the bustling streets above.

Before long, the sun’s heat was beading at our temples and our feet were pleading for relief. It was time to kick back and relax with a cool drink. Ibiza’s was just around the bend – a good choice, in the end, for quesadillas washed down with beers, Margaritas, and cheers to Huggman.

The legendary Alamo
That evening, we walked over to The Alamo to pay homage to Davy Crocket, Jim Bowie and others who fought for independence from Mexico during the 1836 Texas Revolution. There at night, you can imagine the frontiersmen struggling against their fate during the 13-day siege against Santa Anna’s massive army. In the quiet moonlight, you can close your eyes and visualize the heroes in coonskin hats and fringed buckskin, and if you listen with an imaginative ear you can hear the battle cries echoing from the past.

The Alamo was originally built in 1718 as the first of four missions for Indian converts. It later became a post for the Spanish army. In the early years, the San Antonio River, known as the “Paseo Del Rio,” supplied water to the missions. But its rich history reaches back to 8000 B.C. when ancient Indians hunted bison along the river.

Whether you’re interested in history, nightlife, relaxation, or a romantic getaway, you’ll find it in San Antonio – not to mention the culinary scene is second to none, from burgers and brews to top shelf cuisine and a nice Cabernet.

Dan enjoyed birdsong with a cup of coffee.
Come morning, though, all of it paled to time spent along the River Walk shortly after sunrise. Dan and I wiped the sleep from our eyes on a bench beside the river, sipping coffee and inhaling the heady aroma of tropical vegetation. A kaleidoscope of reflections glimmered in the water as we listened to birdsong and trickling waterfalls. It seemed like every breath of nature went out of its way to bid us a good day. Even the flowers tumbled their colorful petals onto our path.

When Rich and Maureen joined us, we headed to Market Square. A visit to San Antonio wouldn’t be complete without a trip to this festival market. It’s not on the River Walk, but it’s definitely worth a trudge up to the real world above. If you go, take time to mosey through El Mercado, a Mexican marketplace filled with local folk art, cowboy hats, sombreros, piñatas, religious artifacts and other what-nots.

After a delightful browse, we treated ourselves to lunch at Mi Tierra Café and Bakery which serves up some of the best Tex-Mex fare you’ll find in the city. Maybe that’s because everything is made on site, according to our server who brought a warm pile of corn and flour tortillas with our entrees. We learned that the Cortez family opened the cafe doors one morning in 1943 and haven't closed them since. While dining, roving mariachi entertained us with “Guantanamera,” my favorite ballad from the 60s. It was definitely a fiesta moment!  

Mi Tierra serves some of the best Tex-Mex fare in town.
After lunch, we walked to the nearby King William Historic District where the river continues to flow past 19th century mansions and cottages. Back on the River Walk, we noticed a breathtaking reflection of the Tower Life Building posing for us in the river. The tiered skyscraper looked like a wedding cake bobbing on the water. Later, we’d learn more about the building’s historical significance.

After a Margarita stop at Michelinos, the guys headed to the Hyatt’s rooftop pool which has a magnificent view of The Alamo and the city’s skyline. Maureen and I were lured by the open-air cruise down the scenic rio. The 40-minute tour offers a splendid blend of history and humor and is well worth the $7. At times, it was like floating in paradise. Our entertaining narrator shared historical snippets of the city as we drifted by towering cypress, under stone footbridges, and past a colorful profusion of umbrellas sheltering the lunch crowd from the sun.

Tower Life Building
Our guide pointed out the 30-story Time Life building with its stunning neo-gothic tower, complete with gargoyles carved from stone. It was the city’s tallest building from 1929 until 1988 when the Marriot Rivercenter was built. Although the gargoyles were too far up to see, we got a quick glimpse of the grotesques which were at eye level as we cruised by. During the tour, we also learned that the Rio joins the Guadalupe River and then flows down to the Gulf of Mexico – amazing, since that’s where we were headed the next day.

That evening, we cozied up to a riverside table at the Poloma Grill where we sat for hours, content to set the world right over a few bottles of wine while nibbling on shrimp quesadillas. We ended up at the Hyatt for a nightcap, listening to a jazz duo at the patio bar. From there, it was just a few steps, through the door, up the elevator, and home. Ah, the good life!

Cactus Pear Margarita
The next morning, we left for the gulf coast to spend a few days in Port Aransas, another slice of paradise on the north end of Mustang Island. But we managed to squeeze in one more afternoon on the River Walk before catching our plane home. Good thing, too, because that’s when we discovered the world-famous Cactus Pear Margarita at Zuni’s!

No matter what you’re looking for, if you love to put a little exploring into it, visit San Antonio, especially the River Walk. Discover its old world charm and the absolute fusion of natural beauty it has to offer. It takes a holiday to the nth degree, especially when sharing it with friends. You’ll not only remember The Alamo, you’ll remember every moment spent in this extraordinary city.


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