In Austin, Texas, appreciating the luxury tucked into the weirdness

Alan Behr/TNS Server at Garrison presents the dessert wine in Austin, Texas.

Mattiee, a massage therapist at Fairmont Spa Austin, holds Sigmund the comfort monkey. (Alan Behr/TNS)

Alan Behr/TNS Hot tub in the men's section, Fairmont Spa Austin, Texas.

AUSTIN, Texas — Business travel being to travel what business writing is to literature, drawing a bit of elegance out of a business trip can sometimes take effort. Now that several of us had moved on to Austin after all useful nuggets had been mined from the conference we had been attending in Houston, key diffewwrences quickly made themselves known between this, the state capital, and the purposefully commercial city we had just vacated. “Keep Austin Weird” is the official slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, and the city seems to be on a collective mission to reach that sensible objective.

That helps explain why our first activity was to go bat watching. A 1980 renovation of the Congress Avenue Bridge in the center of town turned it into an ideal home for migrating Mexican free-tailed bats — a rodent ponte vecchio. We arrived punctually, just before sunset, at the purpose-built observation platform off the northern bank of the Colorado River. Crowds gathered with us and along the eastern rail of the bridge; boats sailed into viewing position. Then, as the sun pressed below the Texas prairie to the west, more than 1,000 bats swarmed out as a colony in pursuit of insects. It was such a macabre yet fascinating spectacle, one that made me appreciate the grandeur of nature so fully, I immediately upgraded my stay to a room with a view at the best hotel in town, the Fairmont Austin. I was joined in this sensible diversion by one of our number, who, to keep it Austin-grade weird, I will identify here as Bats Belfry.


The next day, just after lunch, we went to the hotel’s spa for treatments, splitting forces for an hour of monastic hedonism. Bats had an enjoyable facial, given by the skilled and patient Tanya, and I went in for a Himalayan hot stones massage. I was greeted by Mattie, a young ex-Houstonian. She was immediately charmed by Sigmund, my (plush) comfort monkey, who serves as an icebreaker in travels worldwide.

Mattie had a great touch and, just as important, a soft, sympathetic demeanor. It was rather like a full-body conventional massage, in which you are oiled and rubbed from toes to fingertips, except that it is punctuated by having comfortably hot, slightly rough stones scrape across your back and shoulders. I told Mattie I was a bit sore from daily workouts; she responded that I profited from them by being so well-toned. The ego boost all but lifted me off the table — adding to the gain that validates the pain. It was all quite reminiscent of a spa experience in the best Alpine resorts, only here the sexes are divided for quality time in what we Germans call the Nacktbereich and what was known locally as the clothing-optional zone. That is how I found myself naked, bubbling like contented Thanksgiving leftovers in a large indoor hot tub, Sigmund comfortably sitting it out poolside.

The next stop, back on South Congress Avenue, was Allens Boots. It was my second visit to a cowboy outfitter in Texas, and for the second time I was the only one in the building who had really grown up on an American ranch. I bought a rather rakish, packable brown Stetson made at the hatmaker’s factory in Garland, Texas.

We next took in the famous music scene of Austin. There were so many music venues within a short walk that I was reminded of New Orleans and Vienna — cities where music seems to come from random doors and windows, then to follow you, slowly dimming, down streets and around corners. Crowds populated indoor venues and a courtyard bar with picnic tables and a bandstand, all for blues, rockabilly and beer-from-the bottle libations. The mood was gently celebratory, with the audiences genuinely interested in hearing the bands. In my Stetson, I apparently passed as a local. Young men in cowboy hats asked about my ever-present Leica. Older couples danced.

We our concluded our stroll down South Congress at an Amy’s Ice Creams shop, for the cognoscenti and, because I’m serious about maintaining that fit and well-toned label, a small sorbet for me.

The culmination of our visit was our night back at the hotel, at its signature fine-dining restaurant, Garrison, where a team led by the amiable Chef Jakub Czyszczon serves Texas-accented American contemporary cuisine at his open kitchen while you look on and practice mispronouncing his name. Bats ordered the highly recommended tater tots — you read that right: a somnolent, comfort-food dish grandly reawakened with aerated Gruyère cheese, black truffles and the optional Kaluga caviar.

But this is Texas, right? You must have steak at least once. Ours was the 24-oz prime porterhouse of Wagyu beef in a Bordelaise sauce, topped with a hockey puck of ramp butter. The first sensation on biting into it is of the spice-impregnated crust, followed by the smooth, gently cooked interior. Garrison showed how it is done in the state where grilling beef is an art form.

If I had to categorize the experience, it would be Austin weird, the luxury edition. I have since worn my new Stetson down Fifth Avenue back home in New York City. Although, in truth (and trust me about this), on a working ranch, no one cares what kind of chapeau you are sporting, I was proud to help Austin export a style note to another city where weirdness remains the norm.

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