SAN ANTONIO, Tex. -- Remember The Alamo?
How could I forget it?
It's kind of hard to miss, smack dab in the middle of this southwestern American city's downtown core and one of the top tourist destinations in Texas, with millions of visitors a year.
I'll remember it alright and so much more from a spring visit during Fiesta, an annual 11-day event of parades, festivals, concerts, exhibits and food fairs that encourages the wearing of outrageous hats and glasses, not to mention sashes brimming with as many pins as you can find, and decorations of colourful wreaths and ribbons on homes and businesses.
The 2013 edition of Fiesta is coming up April 18-28, so here's a look at what to check out to help you plan your trip:
REMEMBER THE 'A'
On the day we visited, our guide explained in detail the famous 1836 battle that led to the death of a small group of 189 Texians including such famous names as Colonel James Bowie and Davy Crockett -- now known as the Alamo Defenders -- against the much larger Mexican army numbering in the thousands led by General Santa Ana. (Texians were residents of Mexican Texas and later the Republic of Texas before it was annexed by the U.S. in 1846.)
Only a quarter of the original Alamo mission buildings still exist. That's the bad news. The good news? There's a gift shop where you can get a Remember The Alamo coffee mug.
But the really remarkable thing is they still remember the heroes every year with the so-called Pilgrimage to the Alamo during Fiesta, which sees a large wreath-bearing processional walk from the municipal auditorium to the famous mission, where they read out loud the names of every single Alamo Defender. Once inside the site, you can see original artifacts owned by Crockett (his rifle and knife) and cannons used in the battle nestled among the trees in the inner courtyard.
One truly unique feature of this city is the San Antonio River -- that winds its way through downtown -- and the accompanying 24-km-long River Walk on either side featuring hundreds of stores, galleries, restaurants, hotels, living spaces. And while it's one thing to walk along the river -- be careful, apparently 13 people a week fall in -- dining on a barge at night, smelling the fragrant confederate jasmine vine or viewing mosaic murals along the banks is something else altogether.
Many riverside restaurants offer barge service. (In our case it was The Fig Tree Restaurant.) Just bring mosquito repellent if you're eating at sunset when the critters like to attack.
If you'd rather eat on dry land, there's plenty on offer nearby like Boudro's Texas Bistro, where waiters whip together guacamole table-side or serve up chicken enchiladas verdes or prickly pear margaritas. Yum! Or during festival, you could just head over to the Night in Old San Antonio -- NIOSA -- a four-night-long event featuring food and drink stations downtown with fried everything -- from cheesecake to green tomatoes to ravioli -- and more.
SEE WHALES, PET DOLPHINS
You wouldn't necessarily associate the wide open spaces of Texas with SeaWorld, but there it is about 20 minutes from downtown San Antonio. The world's largest marine life adventure park and family entertainment showplace encompasses more than 100 hectares. (The other two SeaWorlds are in Orlando, Fla., and San Diego, Calif.) There's a lot to do including petting bottlenose dolphins at Dolphin Cove, or getting soaked at the killer whale show in the Shamu Theatre (if you sit in the Splash Zone). If real sea creatures aren't your thing, take a dry or wet rollercoaster ride or get your picture taken with someone in a white beluga whale costume for the kitsch factor.
MISSION NOT IMPOSSIBLE
Before heading out to survey the four different historic Spanish Missions in San Antonio Missions National Historical Park by car or on a tour, try the out-of-this-world breakfast at the waterside Guenther House, where you can eat everything from freshly made pancakes to baked goods inside the charming restaurant or outside on a covered terrace.
Once satiated, walk it off exploring the distinct and impressive missions, which are still active Catholic churches and open for services.
One delightful encounter was with Brother Jerome at Mission Espada. Also a gardener and organist, Brother Jerome happily posed for pictures as he raced between his work at two different missions. After, head to La Gloria for some real Tex-Mex with mucho queso (cheese) that will have you asking for seconds -- and possibly thirds.
WAY TO GO WALTER
The King William Historic District is one of the most beautiful parts of San Antonio, and a must-see for art and architecture lovers. We spent about an hour at Villa Finale -- built in 1876 -- the home of serious Napoleon collector Walter Mathis, a civic leader who was responsible for restoring the entire district.
A BELT AND A BLAST
There are endless river parades during Fiesta so before heading out to watch boat after boat of revellers on the San Antonio River, why not have a quick belt at the hotel bar -- right across from The Alamo -- made famous by Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.
We watched more than 40 different floats in the Texas Cavaliers River Parade. As they passed, we threw beads at them and they threw beads at us in return.
One of our local hosts, Krystal Jones, added extra bonus time at the end of the evening by getting 10 of us to sing karaoke downstairs at The Liquid Monkey Lounge. As good as it sounds. Particularly since Jones knew all the words to both Rapper's Delight and Amish Paradise without looking at the lyric guide once. Impressive.
BEERS AND GUACAMOLE
The new Pearl Brewery is one of the anchors of a newer residential and commercial district that is also home to a Culinary Institute of America campus, where we all got to take part in a mini boot camp involving preparing and eating a Tex-Mex-inspired meal. My guacamole got the thumbs up from Chef Brian West.
TAKE A BREATHER
After all this eating, drinking, walking and sightseeing, head about a half-hour out of downtown to the two-year-old JW Marriott in San Antonio Hill Country for a massage in their Lantana Spa. The 243-hectare grounds are also quite spectacular and include a golf course, the River Bluff Water Experience, and an herb garden utilized by the hotel's seven restaurants. The sports bar, called High Velocity, has an oversized screen -- 3-metres tall and 36-metres long. I suggest booking a couple of nights at the end of your trip to help you feel rejuvenated before you head home.
NEED TO KNOW
Air Canada flies to San Antonio with connections. See aircanada.com.
The downtown Home2Suites by Hilton is within walking distance of the River Walk, the Alamo, etc. See home2suites1.hilton.com. For the JW Marriott Resort and Spa in San Antonio Hill Country, see jwsanantonio.com.
Boudro's, La Gloria, The Fig Tree Restaurant, The Guenther House.