If you’re smart, you’ve already booked that dream photo safari in Africa or an eating odyssey in Italy. But for last-minute planners (count us in) or anyone looking for a short trip, we have a few ideas. You can stay in Texas to enjoy a sophisticated city getaway or relax at a riverside resort with stunning views. And everything old is new again in Salado. Revel in ship-to-shore activities when you book an adults-only cruise on Virgin Voyages’ sassy Scarlet Lady. Or head to Charleston, South Carolina, where you’ll find a sensory feast thanks to the Southern city’s history, food and architecture. Happy travels.
By June Naylor
Texas Three Step
From sophisticated city digs to riverside tents to a revamped inn with retro vibes, you can vacation close to home
In the heart of the capital city, the Proper is among new options in deluxe downtown properties. Overlooking Lady Bird Lake in the 2nd Street District, the Proper’s appeal lies in designer Kelly Wearstler’s notable interiors that include raw travertine pulled from Hill Country quarries, fiber artworks by Magda Sayeg, ceramics from Rick Van Dyke and photographs by Barry Stone. The 244 rooms and suites also score points with Aesop bath products and beds dressed in Italian linens. When you’re not lounging on the fifth-floor pool deck or enjoying a massage at the Verbena Spa, indulge in the hotel’s restaurant and bars.
The Peacock, with its Mediterranean menu, comes from Austin’s McGuire Moorman Hospitality group, known for Perla’s, Lamberts, Jeffrey’s, Swedish Hill, Elizabeth St. Café. The rooftop pool deck spot is La Piscina, serving Mexican-inspired seafood. The ground-floor Mockingbird is the spot for coffee, pastries and savories, while Goldie’s makes for the perfect cozy cocktail escape in a sunken space. There’s no shame in never leaving the property, but nearby diversions worth considering include walking on the famous lakeside trails, taking in a movie at the Violet Crown Cinema or checking out the beloved Mexic-Arte Museum. Rates start at about $350.
600 W. 2nd St., Austin, 888-333-0546, properhotel.com
Embrace the great outdoors with luxe amenities
After a two-year renovation, Walden Retreats reopens its luxury camping spread along the Pedernales River. Found in a quiet stretch near Fredericksburg, the 96-acre resort comprises 15 enclosed, dog-friendly, safari-style tents — seven suites and eight studios — that envelope you in fancy trappings. Marra, an artisanal Austin brand, designed each tent with its own colors, furnishings and handmade textiles from around the globe. All have king beds by Casper with Kassatex linens, Luna Zorro robes, central air and heat, a kitchenette with cookware, full plumbing and clawfoot tubs. Outside, find wraparound patios, gas grills, fire pits and open-air showers. With an eye toward eco-friendliness, the revamp taps solar power for much of the resort’s electricity; you can buy water at the resort’s general store but it won’t come in plastic bottles.
While away the days floating on the Pedernales (easily one of the prettiest and most underrated rivers in Texas) along 1,500 feet of private shoreline, hiking at nearby Enchanted Rock and lovely Pedernales Falls State Park, and dancing and listening to music at Luckenbach. If you’re into adult beverages, check out any of the dozens of wineries within a few miles, and consider visits to Garrison Brothers distillery in nearby Hye. A special stop along U.S. 290, between Johnson City and Fredericksburg, Wildseed Farms presents a stunning spread of blooms across 200 acres, along with a good retail store for gardeners. Walden Retreats is located an hour west of Austin and an hour north of San Antonio. Rates start at $250.
1388 Gipson Road, Johnson City, 830-321-0295, waldenretreats.com
Shady Villa Hotel
A blast from the past offers cool digs and good eats
Long known as The Stagecoach Inn, the storied lodging recently reclaimed its original name. Extensively renovated a few years ago by Austin architectural firm Clayton Korte, the hotel is now part of Austin’s Bunkhouse hospitality group umbrella (Hotel San José in Austin; Hotel Havana in San Antonio). Bunkhouse’s tweaks include a low-key midcentury modern vibe throughout the six buildings, which loosely frame a large swimming pool and a pavilion/bar, all shaded by centuries-old live oaks. Among the dog-friendly 48 room choices, suites include patio and poolside settings, a kitchenette and full bath; some have a separate powder room by the lounge area. All feature bright rugs and textiles. Artwork includes Texas icons and landscapes captured by photographer Nick Simonite.
The spirit is solid 1960s with saltillo tile floors. Luxe touches include Sferra linens, a cool minibar and room service from the celebrated Stagecoach Restaurant, a landmark Salado stop for generations of travelers. The creaky wooden floors speak to nearly two centuries of serving hungry wayfarers, which today means modern dishes with a hint of Southern tradition, all made with local ingredients. Don’t miss the signature hush puppies served with honey butter, the brunch spread or the Strawberry Kiss dessert. Cocktails of note include the jalapeno-pineapple margarita and grapefruit collins. In the hotel’s shop, find a cotton striped robe, a fabulous selection of sunglasses, body products, puzzles and books. Rates run from $155
416 S. Main St., Salado, 254-947-5111, shadyvillahotel.com
By Michael Hiller
Virgin Voyages sails in new directions to chart good times on its adults-only line
Where is Bimini, again? Oh, right, about 50 miles east of Miami — the Bahamas’ closest point to the U.S. mainland. And Costa Maya? That’s north of Belize, on the Caribbean edge of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. A remote island and a fishing village hardly seem like marquee ports of call for a cruise line helmed by Richard Branson.
Yet after a few days aboard the billionaire entrepreneur’s first cruise ship, those obscure waypoints seem in line with the Virgin Voyages philosophy: The journey should be at least as much fun as the destination. Branson launched the line in 2021 to appeal to millennials, first-time cruisers and the “young at heart.”
We are welcomed aboard the 1,408-cabin Scarlet Lady by pulsing ’80s dance music, champagne toasts and crew members dressed as mermaids. I’ve no doubt that this is Branson’s ship. A record store near the entrance sells limited-edition vinyl, right next to a mixing board manned by a staff DJ. There’s a tattoo studio, as well. Red and purple dominate, a reminder that this is a Virgin-branded experience.
Dance parties, pub crawls and rooftop pajama parties are on the itinerary. So are shows featuring a sex therapist, Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, karaoke, live music and magic tricks, each in small nightclub-size venues.
The usual cruise buffets and cavernous dining rooms have been replaced by an assortment of 20 smaller eateries, including an all-day food hall and restaurants serving Korean barbecue, Italian pasta, poke bowls, gourmet Mexican, Mediterranean meze plates, modern cuisine and vegetable-forward menus.
Free Wi-Fi (the Scarlet Lady is wired to be the most internet-connected cruise ship ever) and Virgin’s mobile app allow you to make table reservations, order room service, book show tickets and fitness classes, and summon champagne. The app also activates a wristband that acts as a digital cabin key, ID and wallet. Alcohol, casino games and shore excursions cost extra, but waiving gratuities as well as Wi-Fi and dining surcharges is a new proposition for the cruise industry.
“It means shareholders won’t make any money,” Branson joked at a media event last year. “We want everyone to leave Virgin Voyages thinking, ‘Wow, we got our money’s worth.’”
The ship’s designers did a solid job reimagining the look and feel of an adults-only cruise ship. My spacious room is thoughtfully designed with a bed that can be split and rotated to form an L-shaped couch. The bathroom is a tight squeeze, but the outdoor balcony terrace is roomy enough to sit back with your feet up or lounge in the lipstick-red mesh hammock.
I love exploring the ship, discovering tiny bars with as few as 10 seats, narrow hideaways ideal for canoodling and an unmarked, seemingly undiscovered, workout room kitted out with kettlebells, rowing machines and sea views.
I find a gaggle of the guests whom Virgin describes as “young at heart” on the seventh floor, painting wall-size murals. Call me old at heart, but I adore the Sip Lounge and its afternoon champagne and caviar service (although the out-of-the-way coffee bar that serves
morning pastries and Intelligentsia pour-overs might have been more restorative after late-night drinking games and dance parties).
And Bimini? That turns out to be a highlight of the trip. Virgin runs a beach club there — a broad curl of sand and turquoise water hemmed by a resort pool complete with a nonstop party fueled by high-energy DJs and powerful cocktails. Slow-roasted lechon pork, a Bahamian specialty, is what’s for lunch.
“This trip is better than anything in Las Vegas,” I overhear a 30-something guest tell her cruising partner as they lounge in their shady cabana at the beach club. “It reminds me of The Cosmopolitan, but without the creepy people or the crazy resort fees.”