Slow ‘er down with a Southern sojourn to simpler times in east Texas.
In my first 15 minutes in Texas, three people called me “ma’am,” a man offered to carry my bags, and two cowboys tipped their hats to me. I was in the Houston airport, which smelled faintly of fried chicken and Stetson cologne. “I could get used to these manners,” I thought, as the dreamy drawls of Texans lulled me into a Southern belle fantasy and I swooned near the baggage carousel.
The rest of my trip to east Texas – a little town called Brenham in Washington County, about midway between Austin and Houston, to be exact – proved just as transportive. Whether by accident or design, the vaunted “good old days” seemed to be alive and well in this rural stretch, if not throughout the whole state. People said “please” and “thank you.” Men held doors open, offered a hand to help women out of cars and insisted ladies be served first. Hearts were blessed, prayers were said and sweet tea was sipped.
It was a bit of a culture shock for a Southwestern gal with thoroughly modern sensibilities, but I decided not to over-think it and just go with it. I even donned a cowboy hat and curtsied in front of a camouflage-painted wall (left). When in Texas… am I right, y’all?
Texas’ famously abundant land makes for abundant ranches, which make for abundant, charming B&Bs on said ranches. I stayed at Southern Rose Ranch (8580 Dairy Farm Rd., Chappell Hill, 979-251-7871, southernroseranch.com), an intimate guesthouse on Steve and Donna Cummins’ storybook farm with two suites outfitted with everything you could possibly want during your stay, from books and board games in the cupboards to snacks in the pantry and a pint of Blue Bell ice cream – Brenham’s claim to fame and its most fiercely beloved institution – in the freezer. Donna, the consummate Southern hostess, made breakfast from scratch every morning and delivered it with the warmth of a favorite aunt. Her “light” breakfasts were anything but: local sausage, quiche made with eggs laid by her chickens, strawberry crème French toast and pecan cobbler (yes, for breakfast – so Texas) were delectable highlights, but she can customize her menu based on your dietary needs.
I explored a few other lodging options in the area during my stay. Lillian Farms (12570 FM 1155, Washington, 979-421-6332, lillianfarms.com) is a Victorian home converted into a B&B on a 230-acre ranch and animal refuge. Texas Ranch Life (10848 Cactus Ln., Chappell Hill, 979-865-3649, texasranchlife.com) is a “working ranch resort” where you can learn to rope and ride before hitting the hay (see “Farm Folks”). In downtown Brenham, the historical Ant Street Inn (107 W. Commerce St., Brenham, 979-836-7393, antstreetinn.com) has 15 rooms, each named after a Southern city and decorated with a mix of vintage and modern amenities. The most delightfully outlandish is the Memphis room, which boasts a circa-1890s freight elevator in the middle of the room – literally, it’s at the foot of the bed.
Downtown Brenham is walkable in an afternoon, with Polish and German bakeries (remnants of the area’s early European immigrants) dotting the shop-lined streets. Suzy Hankins, who co-owns the Ant Street Inn with her husband Keith, recommended Dona Lynn’s Unique Gifts (100 E. Alamo, Brenham, 979-830-7222, donalynns.com), which turned out to be a wonderland of cutesy knickknacks, décor and miscellanea, from inspirational quote-emblazoned signs and monogrammed wine glasses to sassy baby onesies and fine cigars.
A quick car ride away from Brenham’s main drag is Bliss Candy Company (2307 S. Market St., Brenham, 281/222-2131, blisscandycompany.com), a local confectioner whose treats are sold throughout the state. Sammy and Cynthia Timpa churn out thousands of pounds of Cynthia’s signature toffee (based on her mother’s recipe) every year in almond, pecan and white chocolate mocha varieties. In recent years, they’ve expanded their offerings to include peppermint bark and a zingy, perfectly sweet lemon bark. Stop by Bliss when the Timpas are in and they’ll give you a grand tour and plenty of samples – that Sammy is truly incorrigible with his toffee-pushing. No complaint here.
My favorite spot in downtown Brenham was the Brenham Farmers’ Market/Home Sweet Farm Market & Biergarten (307 S. Park St., Brenham, 979-530-7994, homesweetfarm.com), the teeny town’s answer to our Phoenix Public Market Cafe, but with more fresh produce and grocery items. I could have spent all day browsing its wares: okra and other veggies picked that morning, fresh milk, raw honey, artisanal cheese, Texas pecan oil, local hot sauces, craft beer, wine and a selection of locally roasted coffee from a handful of Texas roasters, available in bags of beans for purchase and for brewing at the bar. After savoring an espresso and a latte made with Houston’s Katz Coffee (katzcoffee.com), I bought a bag of its Texas Hill Country Pecan beans – with rich notes of roasted pecans, vanilla and caramel – to take home.
Ranch life is so pervasive in Washington County that nary five minutes in the car went by without zooming past rolling hills, grazing cattle, frolicking horses and oceans of bluebonnets, Texas’ state flower that flourishes with abandon in east Texas.
Wildflowers and wildlife abound at Texas Ranch Life (see “Shelter” for contact information), a working ranch and B&B on the 1,800-acre Lonesome Pine Ranch, a plot of land originally settled by one of Texas legend Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300” colonizers in the 1820s. The B&B features eight restored homes from the 1850s and dozens of ways to experience ranch life like Texans throughout the years, including horseback riding, fishing, hunting, tomahawk-throwing, cattle-driving, skeet shooting, mountain biking and even painting and photography. Real cowboys are on hand to demonstrate more difficult and dangerous ranch work, including roping, bronc-riding, bronc-breaking and -training, penning, cattle-branding and steer-doctoring. The ranch is owned by lawyer and former rodeo cowboy John Elick and his wife Taunia. The Elicks and their three daughters run the ranch and treat guests like family – truly: During a big welcome feast of steak, baked potatoes, black-eyed peas, queso dip, cobbler and buttermilk pie, Taunia offered chilly guests blankets to warm up and kept everyone’s coffee cups full.
For a more delicate farm experience, Chappell Hill Lavender Farm (2250 Dillard Rd., Brenham, 979-251-8114, chappellhilllavender.com) offers group tours of its lavender and berry fields by appointment on weekends. Tours last one hour and require two weeks’ notice. When the lavender blooms in the spring and fall, you can cut your own bunch for $5, and pick berries for a snack or to take back to your lodging. I spent at least an hour in the gift shop and left with lavender sachets, lip balm, lotion and even lavender-infused coffee. Verdict: Not as good as the pecan coffee, but fun for a floral change of pace.
Americana is the name of the game when it comes to food in Washington County. Local legend Must Be Heaven (107 W. Alamo St., Brenham, 979-830-8536, mustbeheaven.com) is a sandwich shop and soda counter ripped straight out of Pleasantville, with servers who call you “hon” and a huge case packed full of fresh pies, made daily. Funky Art Cafe (202 W. Commerce St., Brenham, 979-836-5220, funkyartcafe.com) is more kookily homespun, with its namesake art covering every inch of wall space. And of course, no trip to Texas would be complete without barbecue. Nathan’s BBQ (1307 Prairie Lea, Brenham, 979-251-9900, nathansbbq.com) does the tradition proud: I loved the smoky pork, creamy mac and cheese, and tender black-eyed peas.
For a hipper, more urban dining experience, 96 West (103 S. Baylor St., Brenham, 979-421-8388, 96west.com) has an eclectic, seasonally changing menu of tapas, flatbreads and larger plates accompanied by craft cocktails and Bren-ham’s deepest beer and wine list. I inhaled the artisanal cheese plate (sourced from Home Sweet Farm Market & Biergarten) and pumpkin hummus with pita and a glass of house red.
On the subject of red: East Texas is slowly making a name for itself with its emerging wine industry. It doesn’t yet have the same cachet of the state’s more prominent wine regions – namely Fredericksburg and Bell Mountain in central Texas – but a cadre of winemakers are doing their part to make Washington County a wine destination. I visited several during my Texas adventure, including Windy Winery (4232 Clover Rd., Brenham, 979-836-3252, windywinery.com), Pleasant Hill Winery (1441 Salem Rd., Brenham, 979-830-8463, pleasanthillwinery.com), Saddlehorn Winery (958 Farm to Market Rd., Burton, 979-289-3858, saddlehornwinery.com) and Texas Star Winery (10587 Old Chappell Hill Rd., Chappell Hill, 979-251-7282, texasstarwinery.com). Each had its own charms, from Texas Star’s apricot- and pineapple-inflected Starlight White blend and plum wine to Windy Winery’s juicy, jammy Champanel and sprightly, fruity Yellow Rose white wine.
My favorites were Bob and Jeanne Cottle’s vintages at Pleasant Hill Winery. The Blanc du Bois white was sweet yet crisp, and the Sangiovese was rich with a hint of spice. As Bob walked us through the vines, surrounded by vast fields on the earth and mammoth clouds in the blue expanse above, I raised a silent toast to Texas, and to life’s simplest pleasures.
The sleepy, one-horse town stereotype melts away as you explore Brenham and the other wee hamlets of Washington County. Some must-visits, based on your interests:
Washington on the Brazos State Historic Site
The birthplace of the Republic of Texas, this sprawling property includes Independence Hall, the Star of the Republic Museum and the Barrington Living History Farm.
23400 Park Road 12, Washington
Back Lot Gallery
Ant Street Inn owners Keith and Suzy Hankins opened this space, which functions partly as a gallery and partly as an artist-in-residence program/business-plan bootcamp for emerging artists.
308 S. Park St., Brenham
Washington County’s only professional theater is set in a renovated warehouse. It produces six plays a year, hosts children’s theatre groups and provides arts education.
300 Church St., Brenham
Antique Rose Emporium
The Garden of Eden for rose lovers, with dozens of species available for purchase or mere perusal and aromatherapy. Quaint ponds, gazebos, cottages and a chapel make the property even more enchanting.
10000 FM 50, Brenham
Round Top Festival Institute
An internationally acclaimed music institute that draws musicians from around the world for workshops and performances. The grounds also include historical houses, gardens and a chapel.
248 Jaster Rd., Round Top
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