AUSTIN, Texas - Joe Willie "Pinetop" Perkins walked slowly across the stage at Antone's. A hush fell over the crowd at the divey blues joint. Then, the 94-year-old former sideman with Muddy Waters lit into a blistering rendition of "Got My Mojo Workin'," and the place went wild. Perkins, who earned his first Grammy a few weeks later for his part in "Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas," is a living legend, and we got to see him.
That and so many other experiences we had over four days were why my girlfriend and I chose the funkiest city in Texas for a reconnecting getaway. We had strict criteria for a destination: great music, good restaurants, eclectic non-mall shopping, pampering and R&R, and ethnic and cultural cachet.
Austin exceeded our expectations. The capital and the only blue dot on a big red state, its unofficial slogan is "Keep Austin Weird." Enough said.
Dubbed the coolest city in America by Forbes magazine, it is also one of the brainiest, with more than 40 percent of adults holding bachelor's degrees. And Austin continues to attract educated professionals and California-ex pats to its hefty concentration of high tech industries. It's a young town, with some 110,000 students enrolled in seven area colleges and universities. Residents have a penchant for health and fitness. Mornings when we walked around Lady Bird Lake, a reservoir on the Colorado River directly behind our hotel, we had plenty of human and canine company.
The entire city is walkable to the point that we didn't need to rent a car. A free trolley runs between big attractions and downtown neighborhoods, and public transit makes getting around a breeze.
"It's all about lifestyle," said Lisa Wineland, a commercial realtor who relocated from Washington, D.C., four years ago. Wineland, a native of Lubbock, is the first to say that Austin isn't like other places in Texas. "Everybody's fit and into organic food here. Austin is also at the forefront of the green movement in Texas, and the weather's great. People are genuinely nice and happy to see you."
That lifestyle component is one of the reasons celebrities including Luke Wilson, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Lyle Lovett, Lance Armstrong, and Willie Nelson live here.
Austin is on the national music map for two main reasons: the annual South by Southwest indie fest and the rootsy "Austin City Limits" PBS show. Austin has a soundtrack for every music lover. Into a crazy club scene? Head to Sixth Street, seven blocks of neon-lighted honkytonks that draw a (mostly) college-age crowd to a wide mix of nightclubs and lounges, including Light Bar, Fuel, and Momo's, which has an awesome rooftop deck overlooking the city. Our highlight was taking in Esther's Follies, a comedy revue that pokes hilarious fun at current events and politicos.
A few blocks away is the Warehouse District, an entertainment zone that covers a lot of musical ground. Drawing an older crowd to hot spots along 4th and 5th streets, the area is where we found Antone's. It's also home to the eclectic Alamo Drafthouse, a pub/art-movie house that sometimes features live music. Another happening spot is the basement at the Elephant Room on Congress Avenue, a draw for jazz groups.
We took a cab to what became our favorite bar in town, the Mean Eyed Cat. Located in a former chainsaw factory, it is a live music venue and a Johnny Cash tribute bar, complete with velvet paintings and prison photos. And yes, "Ring of Fire" is on the jukebox. We caught a favorite locals band called Reid Wilson & His So-Called Friends.
For a good dose of Austin weirdness, it doesn't get any better than SoCo, the South Congress Avenue neighborhood south of Lady Bird Lake. Lined with funky shops, art galleries, cafes, and music venues, SoCo is the city at its hippest. Shops like Lucy in Disguise for costumes to rent or buy, New Bohemia for retro collectibles, and Uncommon Objects for Texas-made artsy accessories, kept us happy for hours.
For lunch, we stopped at the venerable Güero's Taco Bar, where a band was setting up for an afternoon jam session. Dessert meant crossing the street and lining up at Amy's Ice Cream, with homemade flavors like Mexican vanilla, sweet cream, and even Shiner Bock, inspired by a local micro brew.
Eats in Austin range from down home Tex Mex, including breakfast at Las Manitas, with its mix of starving artists and local power brokers, to fresh and healthy cafe fare at the gigantic Whole Foods, the brand's flagship store, or its grass-roots counterpart, Central Market. Barbecue is taken to new heights at Lamberts Downtown BBQ, a magnet for twenty- and thirtysomethings who like a little extra sauce with their lounge scene. A few other notable spots include Wink, Jeffrey's, Aquarelle, the Driskill Grill, and The Belmont, with its fun, retro vibe.
Trio, the recently renovated restaurant at Four Seasons, topped our list of swank dining spots, thanks to chef Todd Duplechan's emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients and a top-shelf wine list, including 60 by the glass. For brunch, gospel music at Stubb's, with its $16.95 buffet laden with red-eye gravy, grits, biscuits, brisket, and barbecue chicken, is a must.
We couldn't leave Austin without a spa visit. Or two? The new spa at Four Seasons emphasizes treatments incorporating native Texas plants and flowers like Hill Country lavender, yellow rose petals, Hill Country grapeseed, and Colorado River mud, all in a setting of luxe serenity. At Milk + Honey, a day spa in the heart of the downtown Second Street shopping district, we were scrubbed, rinsed, and kneaded.
The only complaint we had about our long weekend? Way too short.
Beth D'Addono, a freelance writer in Belmont Hills, Pa., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.