College Station, Tex.
THE college in College Station is the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, a k a Texas A&M, home of the Aggies. Beyond the sprawling, oak-lined lawns of the university, alumni Aggies have established vineyards, restaurants, hotels and enough bars and honky-tonks to claim plausibly that College Station and the neighboring town of Bryan have more drinking establishments per capita than anywhere else in the United States. College Station also has the George Bush Presidential Library, extraordinary Texas Deco architecture and the sort of relaxed cowboy atmosphere where, even if youve never uttered a yall in your life, youll feel downright natural about putting on a hat and boots for the weekend.
1) SMILE WHEN YOU SAY HAT
Bryan is College Stations twin city and the original town to A&Ms gown. And nothing is more Texas cow townie than Catalena Hatters (203 North Main Street, Bryan; 979-822-3353; www.catalenahats.com), where real cowpokes get their headgear and the place to start going native for the weekend. The rows of hats include pink felt numbers that would have made Annie Oakley proud and classic 10-gallon models that will have you staggering out on Bryans renovated Main Street shooting your fingers in the air.
2) PUDDING, PLEASE
Get dinner reservations at one of the most popular places in Bryan, Square One Bistro (211 West William Joel Bryan Parkway, 979-361-0264), whose main dining room consists of scarred wooden kitchen tables scattered about in a brightly painted former mortuary. The food is so fresh youd almost swear the vegetables were growing in the back. Try the cream-of-asparagus soup, made from scratch ($4), and the rosemary roasted pork loin in sherry sauce ($14.95). Complete your meal with the house specialty: bread pudding ($3.95).
3) TWO-STEPPING TIME
The Texas Hall of Fame (649 North Harvey Mitchell Parkway, 979-822-2222; www.texashalloffame.net) is a cavernous honky-tonk on the southern edge of Bryan with live music and a gregarious crowd of students and ranchers (still have that Catalena on?) doing some fancy boot-scooting to live music that covers the spectrum from country all the way to Western. Willie Nelson, Pat Green and other stars of the prairie circuit regularly perform in this vast concrete hall, where $1.50 iced longnecks are liberally doled out along with shots of stronger stuff.
4) HOT AND COMFY
Roust yourself awake at Mi Cocina (326 George Bush Drive, College Station; 979-695-6666) with huevos rancheros ($4.25) and barbacoa (seasoned beef with eggs, $4.95) near A&Ms sports fields. This is where you want to start your day in Texas: murals, flashing lights, slightly divey atmosphere and excellent spicy comfort food.
5) GIG EM, AGGIES!
Get a closer look at the gorgeous campus of Texas A&M, whose central cluster of beige and brown buildings rise out of College Stations rolling fields like a deco vision of Oz. Aggie undergraduates lead hourly tours from the first-floor Aggieland Visitor Center in Rudder Tower (979-845-5851, www.tamu.edu/visit). If youre lucky, theres a game on somewhere (check www.aggieathletics.com for schedule), and if youre really lucky, that game is football. Students filling the vertiginous stands at 82,600-capacity Kyle Field do not sit down, all supposedly ready to rush into the game as the Aggies 12th man. Throughout, they flash the A&M hand signal, a fist with thumb upturned, and yell Gig em, Aggies! a 75-year-old gesture meant to evoke the act of impaling a horned frog, symbol of their archrival, Texas Christian University. Dont miss halftime; youd have to go to North Korea to match the choreographed pageantry of A&Ms band and corps of cadets.
6) TAKE AN ART BREAK
The jewel-like Forsyth Center Galleries in A&Ms Memorial Student Center (979-845-9251, http://forsyth.tamu.edu) is set up like a living room, with wing chairs, sofas and thick carpeting amid its excellent collection of paintings by American masters like Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Thomas Hart Benton, Childe Hassam, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell.
7) LONE STAR PORT
Over the last three decades, the sandy soil of the Brazos River Valley has proved to be well suited for grapes, as youll find at the Mediterranean-style Messina Hof Winery & Resort (4545 Old Reliance Road, Bryan; 800-736-9463; www.messinahof.com). Messina Hof was started in 1977 by the Aggie alumna Merrill Bonarrigo and her husband, Paul, who worked with A&Ms viniculture experts to create some of the most-honored wines in Texas. Grab a light lunch in the winerys Vintage House restaurant, stroll the vineyards and sample the wines. Messina Hofs chardonnay is fruity and refreshing, but the biggest surprise is the port, which is almost as smooth as the Brazos River on a summer afternoon ($39.99 for a bottle of 2002 Paulo Port ).
8) INTO THE BREECH
On your way back to town, stop at the humid green meadows and clustered oaks of Tonkaway Ranch (16373 Tonkaway Lake Road, College Station; 979-776-1476; www.tonkaway.com), where Kyle Kacal and his crew will provide you with guns, gear and instruction to shoot your way through his cunning sporting-clays course, set up along 10 stations ($100 to $150 a couple, depending on level of instruction and rentals required). You can also arrange to hunt ducks and quail on the 2,400-acre ranch. Mr. Kacal serves up a delicious dinner after your shotguns have cooled off.
9) CRITICAL MASS OF BEER
The Dixie Chicken (307 University Drive, College Station; 979-846-2322; www.dixiechicken.com) in the Northgate neighborhood, the center of A&Ms night life, says it serves more beer per square foot than any bar in the country. Get your suds on, shoot some pool and take in the excellent vibe of this tavern revered by several generations of Aggies. The uniformed students you may see here are members of A&Ms military corps, and the ones in the handmade leather riding boots are seniors. This is a very friendly crowd, happy to welcome newcomers, so prepare yourself for a lot of where yall from?
10) PRESIDENTIAL BRUNCH
When former President Bush comes to town to visit his presidential library, his meals are catered by Christopher Lampo, unless Mr. Bush just shows up at Mr. Lampos restaurant, Christophers World Grille (5001 Bonnville Road, 979-776-2181; www.christophersworldgrille.com), a 1913 former ranch house on the north edge of town with carved Victorian mirrors and leopard-print rugs. The brunch itself specialties like chilaquiles (scrambled eggs on green salsa-tossed tortilla chips, $10.95), chili-crusted crayfish salad ($11.95) and a bananas Foster French toast ($10.95) will make you want to yell yeehaw, though you wont want to jeopardize your chance of being served the houses excellent bloody Marys and mimosas, $8.95 each.
11) COLLEGE STATION VIA YALE
Resolution, Mark Balmas 12-by-12-foot painting of President George H. W. Bush and his Gulf War advisers, keeps watch over the lobby rotunda of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum (1000 George Bush Drive West, College Station; 979-691-4000; http:bushlibrary.tamu.edu; admission $7), above. In a film, the Yale-educated Mr. Bush explains why he chose the A&M campus for his library: because of College Stations unique Aggie spirit. Wander through a life-size reconstruction of an Air Force One cabin and a room at Camp David, complete with golf clubs, campaign memorabilia, video exhibitions and declassified briefing reports.
American Airlines and Continental fly to College Stations airport, with stopovers in Dallas and Houston. Forget about public transportation; rent a car at the airport.
There are several charming alternatives to the major hotel chains in College Station. The LaSalle Hotel (120 South Main Street, 866-822-2000; www.lasalle-hotel.com), which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is right on Bryans reviving Main Street. Built in 1928, the hotel was completely renovated in 2000 and features rooms with antique furniture and great views. Accommodations are $90 to $210.
Until now, the best-kept housing secret in College Station was the immaculate, faux-Victorian guest rooms at the Memorial Student Center, right on A&Ms main green, the Simpson Drill Field. Anyone can rent these rooms for $65 to $110 a night and be right at the heart of the action. To make a reservation, call (979) 845-8909 or send an e-mail message to firstname.lastname@example.org.