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You gave them the cowboy outfits for Christmas. Now take them to a place where they can actually wear those get-ups! (And we don't mean Disney World's Frontierland.)
Just an hour northwest of San Antonio, there's a real, live western town that'll thrill your little rustlers down to their cowboy boots. It's called Bandera.
For generations, this Hill Country outpost was a well-kept secret -- only Texans spent time here. But now, the word's out -- and families from everywhere are flocking to Bandera's dude ranches, rodeos, and outdoor sporting events. So don your hats and chaps. It's giddyup time!
Bandera calls itself the "Cowboy Capital of the World." And for a good reason. It was once a staging area for cattle drives during the 19th century. When cattle raising fell on hard times in the 1930s, an enterprising rancher decided to take in "dudes" to help him through the Depression.
Today, there are 10 dude ranches in the area. Most are geared to beginner-level riders. And all specialize in introducing tenderfeet to the cowboy life -- without the saddle-sores.
While these Texas spreads are not working ranches in the true sense, they offer vacationers a taste of the "dude life": horses, campfire meals... maybe even a few cattle. But there are also swimming pools, supervised kid programs, tennis courts, good beds and professionally prepared meals. Rustic-style cabins sleep families with two or three kids. And some of the ranches don't have phones or computer hook-ups in the rooms.
A typical day begins with a hearty country breakfast, served family style, followed by a trip to the stables to pick out a horse for that morning's ride. After a picnic-style lunch, the kids can participate in the ranch's daily children's program of roping lessons, scavenger hunts, cap pistol shoot-outs, hayrides, or arts and crafts sessions.
At dinner, the family reunites for a third hearty meal followed by a campfire with marshmallows, where ranch hands tell stories and provide other entertainment.
Don't know the difference between a filly (a female horse) and a foal (a baby horse)? Not to worry. The Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau can help rookie ranchers pick the right spot for their family; their handy printed brochure and website describes each area facility.
Two of the most family-friendly spots: Mayan Ranch and Flying L Guest Ranch. Both offer trail rides, swimming, inner-tube trips, fishing, and evening entertainment, as well as children's programs staffed by trained professionals. Kids can learn basic roping, riding, and other cowboy skills, or get down and dirty on scavenger hunts and in silly mini-rodeos.
Wherever you stay, make sure to ask about the age groups and riding levels they serve, and any hidden costs. Most ranches charge a flat rate per person, which includes lodging, meals, and activities.
Bandera is also home to more than 30 family friendly guesthouses and B&Bs, each with its own unique character. Most don't have on-property horseback riding or outdoor programs, though proprietors will readily direct you to reputable local outfitters.
Now that the kids have learned about horseback riding, it's time to show them what cowboys and cowgirls do on their time off:
Type of travel: Horseback riding, western entertainment, outdoor sports
Best ages: 9 and up
Ideal trip length: Three to four days
Distance: San Antonio (45 miles), Houston (251 miles), Dallas (310 miles)
Best time to go: Summer for the greatest number of family-oriented activities and events; September and October for fewer visitors but good weather
Weather: 90/65 degrees in summer; 60/35 in winter
Lodging: Ranch rates include two meals a day and all activities.
Squirm factor: None
Hill Country State Natural Area Route 1077, Bandera Phone: 830-796-4413
Frontier Times Museum 510 13th St., Bandera Phone: 830-796-3864
Love Creek Orchards Cider Mill and Country Store Hwy 16, Medina Phone: 800-449-0882 or 830-589-2202
Mayan Ranch Bandera Phone: 830-796-3312 or 830-460-3036
Flying L Guest Ranch Bandera Phone: 800-292-5134
Contact: Bandera Chamber of Commerce Phone: 800-364-3833 or 830-796-3045
Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau Phone: 800-364-3833 or 830-796-3045
Favorite local spot: O.S.T. Restaurant 305 Main St. Phone: 830-796-3836 This old-fashioned, locally revered Tex-Mex joint serves hearty enchiladas, chicken-fried steaks, and the like. Wash it down with gallons of iced tea.
Best souvenir: Cowboy and cowgirl duds (if they don't have them already!) at The Cowboy Store, 302 Main St., 830-796-8176.
Traffic alert: The highways in and around Bandera can get a bit busy during summer holiday weekends, but nothing like traffic in big cities.Annual events:
Local foods: Anything BBQ or Tex-Mex.
The Hill Country is an oasis in a pancake-flat state. And Bandera is one stop on a driving loop through this rolling landscape that's considered among the prettiest in the state. Depending on which roads you take, the loop can total more than 300 miles, so don't plan on doing it all in one day.
Heading west from Bandera, the loop turns north and then east to Kerrville, a popular weekend getaway spot. From there, you'll go north and east to Fredericksburg, with its distinctly German feel and look, and then on to several sites honoring the life of Lyndon B. Johnson, America's 36th president. From the town of Johnson City, head south back to San Antonio or Bandera on Hwy 281. Or head southeast for a detour through New Braunfels, another German-influenced town.
Reviewed April 2004.