FIVE HIDDEN TEXAS GEMS

By Lily Jang

Photo credit: Berry Medley, Dibrova, Anthony Aneese Totah Jr. Anton Sokolov, Tapatio Springs Hill Country Resort, Dreamstime

Texas is enormous. The distance from El Paso to Beaumont is 831 miles and the landscape is as diverse as the meaning of the phrase, “Bless your heart.” If you don’t know what that means, ask a Texan and enjoy the various responses. The possibilities are endless when it comes to learning and discovering the Lone Star State. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam, but I grew up in Southeast Texas, moved to the Hill Country for college, and began my career in the Panhandle. I’m tellin’ ya, Texas has multiple personalities. It’s impossible for me to write about all of the extraordinary places I think you should see in just one article. For example, it would be remiss to leave out a natural wonder such as Enchanted Rock in central Texas. It’s mystical and magical. I should also include Big Bend National Park on this must-see list because it truly is God’s Country. The Napa Valley of Texas deserves a mention because Fredericksburg has become one of the top wine destinations with 70 wineries and counting. You’ve probably already seen the Alamo, the San Antonio River Walk, Johnson Space Center in Houston, and the beaches of South Padre. I’m here to help you escape the beaten path. I’ve narrowed the choices down to my five personal favorites. I hope you will visit them and let me know how you enjoy them.

THE SALT CAVE
Just 45 minutes outside of San Antonio and tucked away in the quaint Hill Country town of Boerne is the beautifully renovated Tapatio Springs Hill Country Resort. It’s a golf lover’s paradise. In fact, the resort recently spent $1.5 million improving the grounds. I explored Tapatio Springs for a quick weekend getaway and discovered that this is not only a golfer’s dream, it’s also home to the best kept secret in Texas: the salt cave inside the Pure Sol Spa.  I have traveled the world and never knew such a unique place existed in my own backyard. The folks at the spa flew in 20 tons of salt from Poland for this cave that some argue is the healthiest spot in central Texas. Why? Experts say the microclimate inside a salt cave is rich in ions, minerals and particles. Breathing in the air has therapeutic and healing effects that help keep your body alkaline and healthy. These elements are naturally absorbed into your body by breathing the saturated air into your lungs. Research has proven the therapeutic values of salt caves in the treatment of such illnesses and diseases as asthma, cardiovascular diseases, and post heart attack conditions. Their positive effects on sinus conditions, blood circulation, blood pressure, and concentration are also well-known. The spa itself is worth the drive for my next girls’ trip. A 30-minute session is $20, and a 45-minute session is $25. This little secret hideaway is gaining popularity, so make sure you call ahead to make an appointment. Tapatio Springs is also family friendly and pet friendly. Bring the entire family and make s’mores over the many fire pits on the property. While you’re visiting the resort, you gotta stop by Main Street in Boerne. It’s lined with the cutest shops and restaurants, and it is Texas through and through.

SWIMMING IN THE GROTTO
I am a lover of all things Austin. I am a proud Texas Longhorn (Hook ‘em), and I challenge you to find a more scenic area in Texas. One of the best swimming holes I’ve dipped my toes into is Hamilton Pool, about 30 miles west of Austin off of Highway 71. It’s been a couple of decades since my college years when my friends and I would pack a lunch and head out to escape a blazing summer day. Oh, how I wish we had social media back then to document our escapades.  But it’s nice to see that some things never change. It looks the same, and families are still enjoying this natural oasis surrounded by large slabs of limestone by the water’s edge with views of the emerald-green grotto. The history of this area and how it came to be is pretty interesting. The preserve is a natural pool created when the dome of an underground river collapsed due to massive erosion thousands of years ago. There’s also a 45-foot waterfall creating the swimming hole. Grab your flip flops, a picnic lunch and take a road trip. Bring your sneakers as well. There’s a hiking area near the nature trails along the creek. This area is a beautiful nature study for the family. Heads up for parents: there’s no lifeguard on duty, and the cost to enter varies depending on the season. For Hamilton Pool information, call (512) 264-2740. I’m happy to see that visitors are asked to respect the rules for preserving the park’s unique beauty for generations to come.

THE GRAND CANYON OF TEXAS

After I graduated from UT Austin, I began searching for my first job in TV news. I had never visited Amarillo until I accepted an Anchor/Reporter job at KFDA. I spent my weekends discovering the Panhandle, which, despite being a Texas girl, was new to me. I was surprised to learn that Texas has its own Grand Canyon. Who knew? Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in the country, and many Texans haven’t even heard of it. Although Fodor’s named it one of America’s 10 Best State Parks in 2014, it’s only visited by 300,000 people a year compared with the Grand Canyon, which gets over 5,000,000. To get there, fly into Amarillo, and it’s a quick 30-minute road trip from there. Be prepared to be stunned by the beauty. Palo Duro measures approximately 120 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 800 feet deep. Carved out of the surrounding rock by water, the canyon features steep walls, multi-colored rock layers, and a surprising variety of plants and wildlife. This is where I learned to ride a horse, and I began to really appreciate the great outdoors. Enjoy breathtaking views from the rim, then drive to the bottom and explore the canyon through more than 30 miles while hiking, biking, horseback riding, wildlife watching, picnicking and/or camping. Cabins and restaurants are available as well and they’re reasonably priced. Here’s another treat: Palo Duro Canyon comes alive during summer nights when the Texas Outdoor Musical resumes at the Pioneer Amphitheatre. More than 60 actors, singers, and dancers take the stage to kick off the show all about Texas history that millions of people from around the world have come to see. Nightly fireworks highlight the grand finale. I’m happy to have stumbled upon this Texas treat that USA Today has included in the “Top 10 Must-See Theatres in the USA.” Talk about an underrated Texas gem.

A SPIRITUAL MECCA
I’ve driven through Fort Bend County hundreds of times but never knew something this majestic existed in Stafford. The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is an incredible architectural beauty. This is the first traditional Hindu Mandir of stone and marble to be constructed in the United States. If you’re unfamiliar with a mandir, it’s a place of worship and prayer. It’s a house of God for followers of Hinduism, but open to everyone, including those of us who are not Hindu and would like to learn. It is astounding that this temple, made from Turkish limestone and Italian marble, which was hand-carved in India, was completed in a mere 16 months. It truly is a remarkable piece of work. You’ll feel like you’re in a different country. The Mandir opened to devotees, well-wishers, and visitors after the Pran Pratishtha ceremony performed by His Divine Holiness Pramukh Swami Maharaj in 2004. Since then, it’s been visited by people from all over the world. Regardless of your faith, this is a feast for your eyes. Take in a daily public tour. Just remember, as with any place of worship, wear your Sunday best. 

WILD WILD WEST
Okay, I know this isn’t really a “hidden gem” but it’s still one of my favorites. Time to channel your inner cowboy and cowgirl for some true Texas fun. The Stockyards in Fort Worth is a blast. It’s a large historic district with an Old West vibe offering tours, entertainment, shops and restaurants, all with a honky-tonk theme. From the weathered brick streets to the saloons, this is a place in Texas where time has stood still. The last time I visited the Stockyards was in 2004. It still looks just like a set from an Old West movie. There’s history about how this was a once-remote frontier, but today, it consists of entertainment venues, an indoor rodeo, and the twice-daily cattle drives. Cowhands drive a herd of Texas longhorns down Exchange Avenue every day at 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Every detail of the cattle drive - from the saddles and chaps to the boots and hats - is authentic and historically accurate. If that’s not enough Texas flair for you, take in some honky-tonk. Billy Bob’s Texas, the world’s largest honky-tonk venue, includes a 127,000-square-foot dance hall, outfitted with over 30 bar stations and the capacity to hold up to 6,000 people. There’s even live indoor professional bull riding every Friday and Saturday night. This authentic Texas gem cannot be missed. 

ADVICE
Pack your bags, fuel up your car, and tour Texas. Your state-wide adventure awaits. I live by this rule: once a year, visit a place you’ve never been before. You’ll have a new way of seeing things. 

I leave you with a profound quote that speaks to me about why travel is my prayer. Safe journeys, my friends. 

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain
 

Lily Jang is a news anchor at KHOU in Houston.
She’s worked all over the country in Seattle, Birmingham, Alabama and Amarillo, Texas.

Lily is an Emmy-nominated journalist who leads the country when it comes to social-media interaction with viewers. She is an avid social-media user with a loyal following on both Facebook and Twitter. Lily has been honored twice by The Huffington Post as a Twitter Powerhouse.

Lily is happy to donate her time and energy to worthy charity causes in the community. On a typical weekend, you’ll find her emceeing a nonprofit event in the area, throwing a tweetup, or speaking on a panel about social media. Lily is also fluent in Cantonese and Vietnamese.
 

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