If you’ve been sheltering in place or not leaving your house except for work and groceries for the past few months during the coronavirus pandemic, two things are probably true by now: 1) You’re desperate for a getaway, and 2) the getaway has to be within a short drive and offer plenty of low-risk, outdoor activities.
Those factors drove me to Fredericksburg for my first real trip away from home since January. I packed a supply of masks and a fresh bottle of hand sanitizer and hit the road for that Central Texas bastion of peaches, wine and German cuisine.
At the time of my visit in late June, most establishments were open for business, and tourists had been flocking steadily to the town under the state’s phased reopening starting in May, with downtown restaurants, bars and stores busy even in the middle of the week.
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"What I feel is that people are just ready for something normal, and if going to the Hill Country to get peaches was something that they always did in the summer, they’re eager to come out this way," said Terri Vogel, who owns and operates Vogel Orchard in Stonewall with her husband, Jamey.
"Our retail business has been booming. I think people are just so happy to be able to go out and do something that’s relatively safe. Being an open-air market, there’s less potential for spread, and my kids and I do a really good job of sanitizing door handles and high-touch surface areas."
Though mask usage and social distancing were not regularly being observed by out-of-towners when I visited, Gov. Greg Abbott’s face covering order took effect soon afterward.
Joann Fisher of Houston was on a Hill Country vacation with her husband, son and friend, all wearing masks while shopping for peaches at Burg’s Corner in Stonewall.
"We’re all public workers, and so we’ve been out of school since March, and we’re a little stir crazy," she said. "So it’s like, we’re going to find a way to do this and just work around it. We come here every year to this spot. We come here to get the peaches. We don’t want to get anyone sick, and we don’t want to get sick ourselves."
Here are some ideas to help build your itinerary for your next Fredericksburg getaway, whether you choose to go this summer or at a later date. Note that with the rapidly changing landscape of the pandemic, travelers are advised to wear face masks and social distance as well as check with individual businesses for changes of hours of operation prior to their trip. They should also make reservations as early as possible when necessary. VisitFredericksburgTX.com also has local updates, advisories and travel information.
Head to that crowning pink jewel of Hill Country, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, for the ultimate Texas fitness challenge. The 1,823-foot climb to the summit is equivalent to climbing the stairs inside a 30-to-40-story building.
In the mood for a different challenge? Explore some of the other trails that snake around the base of the batholith, many of them providing welcome summertime shade and offering stunning views of nature-sculpted rock and wildlife like the brilliant colored painted bunting.
Advanced park reservations are required (tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/enchanted-rock; $8 per person age 13 and up). Especially during summer, it’s a great idea to arrive at the park early, and bring plenty of water for your hike.
Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park
The 600-acre land upon which you’ll find the home of President Lyndon B. Johnson is open for driving tours only for now and the foreseeable future — no reservations are required. LBJ was the original telecommuter, spending about 20% of his presidency working at his so-called Texas White House.
The Johnsons’ house itself closed to visitors in 2018 to undergo a massive renovation to remedy structural issues with the home. You can see the original one-room schoolhouse that he attended when he was 4 years old and the Johnson family cemetery, plus exit your car and snap a pic in front of Air Force One-Half, which delivered the president to his ranch from Washington, D.C.
A digital audio-guided tour is expected to be released by the National Park Service soon, according to Brian Vickers, deputy manager of interpretation.
Driving through the grounds, you’re likely to see wildlife roaming freely — jackrabbits, raccoons and opossums make their home here.
"It’s truly a special place," Vickers said, watching families of deer graze along the banks of the Pedernales River under the live oaks. "Now you know why he (LBJ) came back so many times to recenter himself." Learn more at nps.gov/lyjo/index.htm.
Lyndon B. Johnson State Park & Historic Site
LBJ State Park is where you’ll find the charming historic Sauer-Beckmann Farm, looking new after a COVID-19 spruce-up with fresh paint and exterior restorations. At the time of my visit, the interiors of those buildings were not open to the public, but people could roam around the exterior, including the garden and farm. The park continues to host monthly outdoor events when possible, including Knit in Public Day and a planned Seed Stomp to plant wildflowers in September.
"We’re trying to do things where we’re not doing actual face-to-face with our visitors," said park superintendent Dennis Smith. Advance free reservations for day passes are recommended at tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/lyndon-b-johnson.
Old Tunnel State Park
Austinites are proud of our Congress Avenue Bridge urban bat colony, but the winged mammals who hang out in Fredericksburg are spectacular, too, numbering as many as 3 million by the end of July at Old Tunnel State Park (tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/old-tunnel).
Visitors coming near sunset are treated to a tremendous tornadolike swarm of Mexican free-tailed bats out for their daily buggy meal at the site of an old railroad tunnel.
New considerations during the pandemic mean reservations are required both for the upper deck observatory (which is free but limited for crowd control), as well as the lower tunnel area, which includes a narrated talk and costs $5 per person. Reservations fill up fast, particularly for weekend dates, so book early.
Wine tasting and social distancing might seem awkward at times, but it can be done. (When I did an indoor wine tasting, I wore a mask and simply unhooked it for sips). Many wineries in Fredericksburg have spacious outdoor patios for enjoying either tastings or a glass of wine.
Newcomers on the scene include Augusta Vin (augustavin.com), a truly breathtaking tasting room built by noted Austin home builder Scott Felder, situated on an expansive estate vineyard with stunning views outside its cathedral-like windows.
Heath Sparkling Wines (heathsparkling.com), a new venture situated next to Grape Creek Vineyards, currently offers a $25 wine and food pairing by reservation. The business is poised to offer much-anticipated on-site sparkling wine production within the next five years.
Southold Farm + Cellar (southoldfarmandcellar.com) is a bit of a drive out of town and offers tastings of their natural wines by appointment only for $10 per person. The view of the terraced hillside from the back porch swings is spectacular.
Pedernales Cellars (pedernalescellars.com) and Kuhlman Cellars (kuhlmancellars.com) both have spacious patio areas ideal for sipping a chilled glass of local rose or viognier outside.
Though I have mainly opted for carry-out during COVID-19, I dined outside at restaurants in Fredericksburg a few times where patio dining was available.
Now considered classic visitor faves, Otto’s German Bistro and Vaudeville both earned top marks for attentive service and delicious cuisine when I visited.
Otto’s (ottosfbg.com) patio features fans and shade to keep things as cool as possible, and they’ve recently hired a new chef from Germany and made a few tweaks to their menu (don’t worry: popular mainstays like Flammkuchen and Duck Schnitzel have stayed put). Since it’s peach season, I was delighted by the dessert Duo of Schokolade and Peaches, featuring tender, sweet sliced local peaches served alongside a refreshing peach jelly and dark chocolate mousse.
At Vaudeville (vaudeville-living.com), a spectacular sidewalk French-inspired lunch showcased a perfectly crisp quiche served alongside roasted asparagus with a glass of sparkling wine.
Chase’s Place (chasesplacecocktails.com) is a brand-new restaurant/bar that opened just prior to the pandemic and is owned by a charming couple, Tara and Chase Guthrie. Their outdoor patio can host visitors for a round of inventive cocktails next to a nascent herb garden that the resident mixologists use in creating their concoctions, including drinks with house-made syrups and tinctures. The Woodstock Mule includes a CBD-infused ginger syrup. Pair your drink with an order of the bacon-wrapped quail bites, and don’t forget to say hi to the resident chickens.
Though the wine industry has somewhat dwarfed this original Hill Country chief agricultural product, peach season remains at its juiciest in the hot summer months in Fredericksburg.
Ask a local and you might luck out and get a tip for a favorite mom-and-pop you-pick-style orchard.
Besides Vogel Orchard and Burg’s Corner, Jenschke Orchard continues to do a brisk business. Swing by to pick up a bushel or two, and order up a slice of freshly made peach cobbler with a scoop of ice cream on top.
"More people are interested in where their food comes from and showing their kids how it’s grown," said co-owner Lindsey Jenschke, noting that COVID-19 hasn’t really made a dent in the numbers of people stopping by their roadside stand on U.S. 290, situated right on their orchard. They allow pick-your-own peaches by reservation, but the limited slots have been filling up quickly.
"Being a farmer, you just learn how to go with the flow — you really realize you’re not in control," she said about operating a business during a pandemic.
WHERE TO STAY
Locally owned "Sunday houses" and bed and breakfasts are a popular way to stay near the heart of the action in Fredericksburg while maintaining social distance. A brand new option is Ololo, located six minutes from downtown, a venture by Jill Elliott, who also owns boutiques Blackchalk Home + Laundry in the Warehouse District and Haberdashery on Main Street.
Ololo (stayatololo.com; $130 and up per night) is a collection of four guesthouses situated on a quaint country plot (you’re likely to spot deer and goats roaming the property and hear cows mooing from a neighboring farm). Each guesthouse is filled with chic decorations culled from Elliott’s expeditions to Morocco, Kenya and Europe, and each features a private hot tub out back and a porch facing a magnificent courtyard.