I still recall my last trip before the onslaught of COVID-19. I traveled from my current home in the Austin, Texas area to Portland, Oregon where I tasted single malt whiskey at Westward Whiskey’s distillery and visited the exceptionally dramatic Multnomah Falls. Fast forward eight months and we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic. Worldwide, more than 50 million cases of coronavirus have been recorded to date. So while I desperately yearn to travel right now, I’m currently content with staying put and re-discovering my love for the Lone Star State.
Particularly Austin and its surroundings, known as the Texas Hill Country.
With coronavirus cases in Texas on the rise, it behooves Texans with a penchant for travel to remain in our hometowns. Even taking a low contact road trip to another part of our vast state presents its share of risks. Such risks can be lessened by following safety protocols specific to preventing the spread of the virus. Social distancing, along with washing your hands and wearing face masks, is proven to be effective. Taking such safety measures is akin to driving carefully — you do it not only for you but for the other drivers sharing the road with you.
Throughout Austin and the neighboring Hill Country, various places of lodging (hotels included), National Parks, museums, and other businesses have been approved by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to reopen. Ultimately, your decision to visit these reopened locales are contingent on your comfort level and personal assessment of risk factors (and how far you’d have to travel to get there).
This is all to say, this guide to ATX and the Hill Country might be relevant to some of you right now. But for the majority of readers, it offers yet another spot to file away for when COVID is better contained.
Stay at the swanky Austin Proper Hotel, Austin, TX
Easily one of the best (and my favorite) luxury hotels in downtown Austin, Proper is committed to keeping guests safe and super comfortable. Out of the 244 rooms and suites, some have a view of Austin’s famous Lady Bird Lake. The hotel hosts The Peacock, an indoor/outdoor restaurant with some of the tastiest Mediterranean eats in town.
You’ll definitely want to sit on the patio since it overlooks Shoal Creek. Who doesn’t like a seat with a view?
COVID Precautions: temperatures are taken at the door before entering the hotel, masks are required in public spaces, and keyless entry is now an option.
Discover new art at West Chelsea Contemporary, Austin, TX
Formerly Russell Collection Fine Art, West Chelsea Contemporary revealed its newly remodeled and rebranded space last month in October. The new vision for the gallery is already off to a great start! Running now through December 31, 2020, is the Concrete to Canvas exhibition — showcasing some of the biggest names in street art. From Banksy and Basquiat to KAWS and Keith Haring, this show pays homage to graffiti, street art, and the artists stemming from these movements. The creative works from the aforementioned artists are rarely shown in Texas, so this is an awesome opportunity for locals to check them out in-person.
COVID Precautions: Guests of the gallery are required to wear face masks at all times. Additionally, hand sanitizer stations, reminders for social distancing, routine cleanings of the entire gallery, and close monitoring of entrances and exits are all part of the safety measures WCC is taking.
Picnic at Mt. Bonnell, Austin, TX
Mount Bonnell, Austin’s crown jewel, is the city’s highest point at 775 feet. It’s been a top attraction since the 1800s. You have to trek up 106 stone stairs – which leaves me winded every time – but it’s worth the effort. Bonnell offers picturesque views of downtown, Lake Austin, and the Hill Country, making it the perfect picnic spot for you and a significant other.
View Ellsworth Kelly’s Austin at Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, TX
Artist Ellsworth Kelly gifted his beautiful final masterpiece, Austin, to the Blanton Museum of Art. An 18-foot totem made from California redwood towers over visitors before entry. The 2,715 sq. ft. stone building features multi-colored mouth-blown glass windows and 14 black and white marble panels. Depending on the time of day you go, you’ll have a different experience of the structure’s ambiance and lighting. If you go in the morning or afternoon on a sunny day, the glass windows project a vivid rainbow of hues across the interior walls.
COVID Precautions: Masks are required by all visitors. Social distancing is enforced. Also, you must secure timed tickets in advance to gain entrance into the museum.
Sleep in the trees at Lofthaven Treehouse, Spicewood, TX
There’s something whimsical about living out your Peter Pan dreams by staying in an actual treehouse. Nestled in the Hill Country, the Lofthaven Treehouse is a yurt built around the trunk of an old cypress tree. If that’s not cool enough for you, there’s the epic bathhouse and kitchenette that rests on a ravine connected to the bedroom by a *gasp* 40-foot suspension bridge.
I’m also struck by the heated waterfall because winters in the Hill Country can be a bit chilly.
Sip the finest from Texas’ unique terroir at Fall Creek Vineyards, Dripping Springs, TX
When you think of wine, perhaps France or California comes to mind first. Well, here in Texas we’re proud of our distinctive terroir and winemaking style. There are over 50 wineries spread throughout the Hill Country, with Fall Creek Vineyards being part of the count. For $20, you can enjoy what they call their “Tasting Experience” which consists of five pre-selected wines. Be sure to give their 2018 Tempranillo a swish and sip.
COVID Precautions: Fall Creek practices six feet of social distancing in their tasting room.
Go underground at Inner Space Cavern, Georgetown, TX
This cave was first discovered in 1963, before it was opened to the public three years later. The cave has beautiful formations and even houses some prehistoric animal bones. One of the coolest things about this underground cavern is it’s constant, year-round 72-degree temperature. No complaints there.
If you’re a true adventurer, you’ll want to do the wild cave tour, which consists of hiking, crawling, and climbing through a maze of formations.
Enjoy a dram at Milam & Greene Distillery, Blanco, TX
If you’re itching for a trip outside of the city and into the Hill Country, Blanco is the place to visit – all the more so if you’re a whiskey drinker. As is the case with the local wine scene, Texas whiskey makers have their own way of creating the brown spirit, thanks in part to the warmer climate.
The quaint town of Blanco is home to Milam & Greene, one of my favorite bourbon and rye whiskey creators. Their tasting room recently reopened and you’re able to purchase bottles and enjoy a delicious cocktail.
COVID Precautions: The distillery is currently operating at 50% indoor capacity and face masks are required.
Get in touch with nature at Jacob’s Well, Wimberly, TX
The awe-inspiring beauty of Jacob’s Well is something to be appreciated every season. In the warmer months (May-September), you can swim in the artesian spring. When cooler months arrive, you can hike the 80 acres of surrounding trails. Jacob’s Well is the second-largest fully submerged cave in Texas with the deepest part of the cavern being 140 feet below sea level.
COVID Precautions: There are guided morning tours that allow a maximum of 10 persons. Everyone is required to wear a face mask for the duration of the tour. Individuals in different families or social groups will be asked to remain socially distanced from other touring guests.
Enjoy whiskey and gin at Still Austin Whiskey Co., Austin, TX
I know, I know. “Didn’t you just list a distillery?”
Sorry, not sorry. I’m a fan of quality, Texas-made booze and Still Austin is among my favorite producers. Their newest grain-to-glass Straight Bourbon Whiskey is as good neat as it is in a craft cocktail.
COVID Precautions: They recently reopened their tasting room at limited capacity and masks must be worn while in the distillery.