Cool rules in Austin, the Lone Star state's capital city, writes Rachel Muir.
With a Texas-size shiny, red boot kicking up its heel on the roof, Allens Boots was hard to miss. Inside were more than 10,000 pairs of cowboy boots, silver belt buckles ranging from merely shiny to massive statement and stack after stack of Stetson hats.
Not to be outdone, Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds, a few doors down on South Congress Avenue, was crowned with an outsize statue of its own: a 3.5m zebra in full Carmen Miranda costume. Inside, clothing racks were packed with costumes and vintage clothes: Cleopatra to Care Bears and almost everything in between.
On the same block was Uncommon Goods, a self-described "emporium of transcendent junk," where a stuffed bobcat frozen mid-pounce vied with risque tarot cards for customers' attention. The Austin Motel, a couple of blocks down, looked like it had surfaced from a groovy time capsule with its longtime billboard proclaiming itself "So Close and So Far Out." Across the street, a busker gamely spun his drumsticks in front of a "Willie Nelson for President" mural.
There was not a Starbucks, Gap or Walmart in sight.
We were in Austin's SoCo neighbourhood — the offbeat heart of the capital city famously described by former governor Rick Perry as "the blueberry in the tomato soup" of Texas.
Austinites assured us we weren't exactly in the Lone Star state.
"I could never live in Texas," said tour guide and musician Jason Weems. "This is Austin."
We spent four nights in the city, attracted by little more than a sale airfare and a sense that Austin was cool.
After a late-evening arrival, we spent the morning of our first full day on Austin Detours' two-hour "Real Austin" tour. The small group van tour, led by Weems, included stops at some of the capital city's highlights. Our tour started in SoCo and headed north over the Colorado River on the Congress Avenue Bridge.
We saw Austin's landmarks: its towering, sunset-red state Capitol building — its taller-than-the-US Capitol stature a bragging right for Texans everywhere, Weems said — and the expansive University of Texas campus, including its clock tower, famous as a campus centre and infamous as the site of the first mass shooting of the modern era. Also, the LBJ Presidential Library is there.
Our progress was marked by street art, from the "Hi: how are you?" frog mural near the university famously worn on a T-shirt by Kurt Cobain, to the pretty, looping cursive "I love you so much" on the side of Jo's Coffee in SoCo, originally written by a woman to her partner but widely seen as a love letter to the city itself.
We also stopped to see street art on an almost dizzying scale at the Hope Outdoor Gallery, an abandoned construction site turned into a community graffiti park. Colour, tags, cartoons and slogans blanketed every discernible space of the three-storey, one-acre park. In my line of vision were Count von Count from Sesame Street, an alien, a Viking hat and the phrase "Global warming is a hoax." It was a little like looking into a strobe light.
Weems also introduced us to our first Austin food trailer, Gourdough's, with its immensely satisfying — and just plain immense — doughnuts. (A waiter at another restaurant told us he only lets himself eat one a year.) Consumed: the "Flying Pig", pastry the size of a salad plate, covered in maple glaze and topped off with a mound of bacon.
We tried the popular Odd Duck for our first dinner. The restaurant, which got its start in a trailer, focuses on pairing locally sourced ingredients in unexpected ways, including the salty, delicious pretzel pig-face carnitas and a tasty redfish ceviche with sweet potato curry and grapefruit.
The next day we checked out three Austin retail legends that are within a block of each other on the busy thoroughfare of Lamar. We browsed at Waterloo Records, an Austin legend at which customers can hear any of its massive collection of CDs and vinyl before purchase. I bought my first CD since 2009 (the awesome live music sampler KGSR Broadcasts, Vol. 24).
Next, we marvelled at the 7500sq m Whole Foods, now topped with an ice rink, just a few iterations from the humble natural food store that opened its doors in Austin in 1980. Finally, we made our way to Book People, the city's largest independent bookstore, a place close to heaven on earth for an avid reader.
After perusing its stacks, laden with handwritten staff-pick cards, and chatting with employees seemingly at the ready with offbeat recommendations for any genre, I emerged with five books by authors unknown to me.
We concluded our day at
, a restaurant that aims to "celebrate the soul of the South," which reminded me how excellent Southern cooking can be. The legendary biscuits (more like a savoury scone) are fluffy, buttery, served steaming with a heavenly pork spread. The restaurant also offers up a fantastically crispy fried chicken and multiple savoury variations of that Southern staple, grits (cornmeal).
Since we were celebrating the soul of the South, we made it a point to schedule a Texas barbecue stop. My pulled pork sandwich at
, a food trailer in Cesar Chavez Park favoured by locals — was perfect, tangy barbecue balanced with a chipotle coleslaw.
With temperate weather much of the year, a lot of life in Austin is lived outdoors. We made a short-lived attempt to follow suit, embarking on an afternoon bike tour that was cut short by rain.
"Lady Bird Lake is absolutely beautiful," said John Mutchler, our guide from
Rocket Electrics, which runs the company's daily bike tours along the lake trail.
We had an expansive view of the Austin skyline across the water, one Mutchler says is constantly changing given Austin's exponential growth in the tech sector, and of the few crew teams that braved the rain to practise. The trail winds around to Barton Springs — an outdoor pool fed by natural springs and open year-round — and the city's much-photographed Stevie Ray Vaughan statue.
Like Weems, Mutchler is a working musician as well as a tour guide. "Music is what brought me," he told us. Austin has about 250 live music venues, he said, ranging from annual festival Austin City Limits to clubs on Red River St, north of the Colorado River.
My daughter, at 18, was too young to get into most of the city's clubs, but live music permeates the city — in coffee shops, on restaurant patios, street corners, in parks. We stopped to watch the "Washboard Tie Guy", clad in trademark cap and percussive tie (yes, he plays it), set up his stage on South Congress Avenue.
On our last night in Austin we ate at a place we still can't get out of our heads — Uchi, the storied sushi restaurant that a decade ago catapulted Austin into a new class of food city. Certainly it revolutionised the way I think of sushi, which admittedly had not been particularly sophisticated. We tried "biendo," a take on spring roll of shrimp tempura with slivers of grapes on top; a variation on what Japanese children have for breakfast with salmon and green tea (which seems to have ruined cereal for Sophie); and "hot rocks" with wagyu beef. Each dish was a micro work of art.
Early the next morning, I wandered down to a still mostly empty SoCo for a last look and coffee at Jo's before we packed up and headed to the airport.
Return Air New Zealand flights to Austin, with a three-night stay, are priced from $2175pp, twin share.