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Eclectic Austin much more than just America’s live music capital – Toronto Sun

A look at downtown Austin, Texas from the south side of the Colorado River.
A look at downtown Austin, Texas from the south side of the Colorado River. Photo by DAVE POLLARD /Toronto Sun

Over the last 20 years, the slogan “Keep Austin Weird” has been soundly embraced by the capital city of Texas.

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What started as a phrase to help promote small, independent businesses has morphed into part of Austin’s being and, really, it couldn’t be more appropriate.

Of course, eclectic is probably a bit more politically correct way of describing Austin, one of the fastest-growing cities in America and a delightful mix of futuristic hi-tech and old-school Texas, along with everything else in between.

But weird works, too.

Tuck into some Texas BBQ at Iron Works Barbecue, a local institution alongside the Fairmont Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
Tuck into some Texas BBQ at Iron Works Barbecue, a local institution alongside the Fairmont Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

Sure, Austin is rightly known as the “Live Music Capital of the World” due to the sheer volume of performances you can check out — peruse the local music listings for yourself — and the explosion in popularity of the South by Southwest festival. But additionally, Austin City Limits is the longest-running music series in American television history (it first aired in 1974), and some of the most popular performers — the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson, to name two — have called Austin home.

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Tourists on Segways snap some photos of the Willie Nelson statue in downtown Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
Tourists on Segways snap some photos of the Willie Nelson statue in downtown Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

But during a four-day mini-vacation I quickly learned just how quirky it is, from the funky Rainey Street Historic District to the music-infused downtown core and the quiet, walking and dog park set alongside the Colorado River, an open space which doubles as the home to the oft-photographed Stevie Ray memorial statue.

That’s to say nothing of the places like Circuit of the Americas (home to the United States Grand Prix), the many music and cultural festivals (SXSW in March) and microbreweries and distilleries that spread out from the heart of the city.

There’s just so much to do in Austin and immediate area, even if you simply enjoy wandering around while taking in the sights.

Paddlers work their way down the Colorado River in Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
Paddlers work their way down the Colorado River in Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

SUN AND SPEED AT THE CIRCUIT OF THE AMERICAS

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Canadian race fans are well aware of the attraction of F1 racing due to the Canadian GP in Montreal, a fixture on the circuit since 1967. Circuit of the Americas, a purpose-built 5.513-km track outside Austin, has been home to the United States Grand Prix since 2012.

Anyone with even a minor interest in motorsports should attend the F1 race at COTA. The experience — it’s not just about racing, people — is second to none and the venue is massive, with something for enthusiasts of all ages to take part in.

Circuit of the Americas, home to the United States Grand Prix Formula One race. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
Circuit of the Americas, home to the United States Grand Prix Formula One race. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

But COTA isn’t just a venue to watch races. You can drive high-end go-karts on an adjacent track that is part of the complex, go ziplining over the facility, or attend concerts.

You can also book a ride in the Audi Driving Experience at Circuit of the Americas. Getting the opportunity to drive a lightning-fast sports car on a F1 track? Yes, please.

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The scene around Circuit of the Americas on race day. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
The scene around Circuit of the Americas on race day. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

HEAD FOR THE HILLS

If you’re looking to take a bit of a road trip and see how they brew beer and distill sotol in the Lone Star State, head about 40 km out of Austin to Driftwood, on the edge of Texas Hill Country. Your adult palate will thank you.

Driftwood is home to Desert Door distillery, where Texas sotol (a plant that becomes booze in the same family as tequila and mezcal) is made, and Vista Brewing, a sustainable destination microbrewery where fresh beer meets fresh air.

Desert Door sotol distillery in Driftwood, just outside Austin, is open for tours and tastings. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
Desert Door sotol distillery in Driftwood, just outside Austin, is open for tours and tastings. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

Desert Door, a relatively new distillery started by a small group of college buddies who served in the military, offers tours and tastings for anyone who wants to learn more about sotol, a unique drink that began in Mexico 800 years ago. It’s worth a visit, especially if you’re into learning more about this family of beverages.

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If you’re in the area, stop by Vista for a cold one — craft beer in a rustic setting is almost perfect — and some lunch. The brewery, which includes a farm where much of the non-protein ingredients used in the food prepared on the grill is grown, is set out over 8.5 hectares of former grazing pasture in a picturesque part of Hays County. There’s even a 16-hive apiary on site.

Aging barrels at Desert Door distillery in Driftwood, Texas. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
Aging barrels at Desert Door distillery in Driftwood, Texas. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

JUST CHILL WHILE TAKING IT IN

Listen, while in Austin you don’t need to DO anything.

Just strolling around town, spending some time walking along the Colorado River (and get a photo with Stevie Ray), can be enough of a break for some. To me, it was a fantastic experience to be walking the acres of parkland near the river and gave me the feeling of completely escaping to the countryside.

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Do the tourist thing and take a photo of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue along the Colorado River. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
Do the tourist thing and take a photo of the Stevie Ray Vaughan statue along the Colorado River. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

Walk around, get a feel for the city. Stop in to any of the many eating establishments downtown, go see a band play at any one of the multitude of venues that offer live music.

And after dark, pop into Rainey Street, a redeveloped former residential area where you can have a sit-down meal, join friends at a bar of even get a quick meal at the gathering of street food trucks.

AUSTIN’S FANTASTIC FAIRMONT

Canadians, in general, are probably familiar with the Fairmont hotel chain, given how prominent some of their properties are in this country — the Royal York in Toronto, Banff Springs in Alberta and the Empress in Victoria, B.C.

Fairmont Austin, which opened in March 2018, is a recent jewel in the company’s crown, the largest (1.4 million square feet) and tallest (595 feet) Fairmont-branded hotel in the chain.

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The stunning seventh-floor pool deck at the Fairmont Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
The stunning seventh-floor pool deck at the Fairmont Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

Located on the edge of the Central Business District, with a skywalk (Red River Canopy Walk) leading to the adjacent Austin Convention Center, and close to Rainey Street, the Colorado River (otherwise known as Lady Bird Lake) and the state capitol, the Fairmont boasts 1,048 rooms on 37 floors. Included are 60 suites and 131 Fairmont Gold rooms.

With Rainey Street and the downtown area steps away, there’s plenty of places to dine nearby — pop into Iron Works Barbecue, tucked neatly between the hotel and convention centre, for some genuine Texas BBQ — but the Fairmont has five restaurants and/or bars on the property. Garrison, winner of a AAA Four Diamond award in 2019, is dedicated to open-flame cooking while Rules and Regs offers a great view of the hotel’s seventh-floor, open-air pool area.

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Additionally, the hotel boasts the largest full service spa in downtown Austin, a salon and a high-end fitness centre. More than 140,000 square feet of meeting space is also available, including two huge ballrooms.

Looking for a little extra nugget? If you visit the hotel, ask about the speakeasy-style “secret bar” that is available to rent for special occasions. But don’t tell them I told you.

A view of Rainey Street at night from high atop the Fairmont Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN
A view of Rainey Street at night from high atop the Fairmont Austin. DAVE POLLARD/TORONTO SUN

HOW TO GET THERE

Air Canada offers direct flights to Austin but there are other options available, including connecting flights through Dallas and Houston.

HOW TO GET AROUND

Well, if you’re interested in seeing more of the greater Austin area, including COTA and Hill Country, you’ll need to rent a vehicle.

dpollard@postmedia.com

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