The Cultured Pearl of Texas

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San Antonio is particularly fascinating because it has the Mexican warm heart, the Texan pioneer spirit and the Deep South courtesy.

Photography by the authors

You know you’re in Texas when you walk into the Casa Grande of the Westin La Cantera Resort in northern San Antonio. Much of the history of the Lone Star State lies on the resort’s walls and even its ceilings. You don’t wonder who’s who. All are identified and their place on the wall explained. Texas is rightfully proud of its history and this is, after all, the home of the Alamo.

Emily Morgan was the Yellow Rose of Texas: the slave girl captive who possibly “made Santa Anna neglect his business” as the Battle of San Jacinto loomed near. Tio Kleberg managed the famous King Ranch for nearly three decades — his name was given to the resort’s lobby lounge, Tio’s. And the map of buried treasure is taken from the story of Karl Steinheimer who came from Germany to seek his fortune in America. He made his strike, a huge one, in Mexico and headed back to marry his childhood sweetheart in St. Louis. Attacked by Apaches in central Texas and mortally wounded he buried his gold treasure, drew a map, struggled on and succumbed. If you want to go look, you’ll need several mules. The gold is apparently some distance from San Antonio.

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San Antonio. It’s been said the only four really interesting cities in the United States are the four most European: Boston, San Antonio, Santa Fe and San Francisco. They different from the rest of America and, of course, from each other. San Antonio is particularly fascinating because it has the Mexican warm heart, the Texas pioneer spirit and the Deep South courtesy. It has it all so people keep coming, with 25 million visitors 25 million a year. The city also has many new residents and is now the seventh largest city in the United States.

People come for its 50 golf courses, its ever expanding River Walk (“it’s a miniature Panama Canal,” offers Dee Dee Poteete, Director of Communications for the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau with false Texas modesty) and for Sea World San Antonio.

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“It’s the largest marine park in the world,” says Poteete. “And why is that?” she asks and shouts her own answer: “Because it’s in !”

The city has always had a lot going for it such as the largest collection of Spanish Colonial architecture in North America, La Villita, the historic arts village, and the restored Sunset Station special events center. But in Texas nothing stands still. The old Pearl brewery building has been restored so successfully the Culinary Institute of America is opening its third campus there.

Despite all the new things happening, the significant attraction remains the Alamo. Visitors from Texas will never forget the past, says a woman walking past. She explains, “We always say, ‘Dance with the one you brung in!’”

The Alamo interests medical visitors for many reasons. Amos Pollard, a physician from Vermont was one of the two doctors killed when the Alamo was overrun, the other John Purdy Reynolds from Philadelphia. There were five others with medical training killed in the siege.

Several Great Old Dames of the hotel world grace the area around the Alamo. The 13-story Emily Morgan hotel towers above the mission, converted in 1984 from the medical arts building erected in 1924 to house 400 doctors. Once its past is known it may become clear why gargoyles portraying illnesses are crouching above its entry doors. A five-minute walk takes the visitor to the 1859 Menger hotel, the oldest hotel west of the Mississippi in continuous operation, its bar famous for its connections to Teddy Roosevelt.

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There are other hotels with a history: La Mansion was originally a Catholic boys’ school then a law university until two graduates bought the building and turned it into a hotel. The little Fairmount hotel created its own legend in town when it was moved five blocks in 1985 at a cost of $1 million, partly to make way for the River Walk Marriot. The Guinness Book of World Records calls it the largest structure ever moved on wheels. Why wouldn’t it be? This Texas.

The dowager hotels in cities come with their past. What has a new hotel like the Westin La Cantera Resort to do when it comes with no history other than the land (and its story) on which it stands? In 1862 the Texas Homestead Act gave away parcels of 160 acres including one formerly claimed by Horace Beall, a Maryland physician and assistant surgeon in the Army of the Republic of Texas. The abandoned claim, “hilly, rocky and valueless,” passed to Cal Brannon in 1887 and changed hands a dozen times through the mid-1980s.

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Golf Digest

The rocky hillside consisted of creamy limestone similar to the beautiful butter-yellow limestone of England’s Cotswold villages. The area became a busy quarry ( is Spanish for quarry). Developers traded land for the quarries. A 7,001 yard par-72 golf course was built in 1995 to be called “the best new public golf course of the year” by . The Westin la Cantera Resort followed — and when its guests complained they couldn’t always get tee times, the hotel, being this was Texas, commissioned Arnold Palmer to design a second course.

The resort sits on a rise above live oaks and cedars. It dominates its surroundings though guests don’t get the long view unless they’re on the golf course. Faced with the challenge of having to start from scratch, the resort clearly had the attitude: Think big. Get it right the first time. Encourage local and state pride. Embrace Texas history.

The main building was modeled on the big house of the King Ranch. The library carries the name Esparza after the two brothers who fought on different sides at the Alamo and their history is on the wall. The library displays a replica on the flag that flew above the Alamo. The flag was created in 1824, 12 years before the battle and bears the two gunshot holes sustained in that event.

Walking the halls tells guests they are Texas. Decor includes old sepia-tone photographs, a Remington bronco-busting bronze and another painting of Tio Klebzy. Those are important touches for a relatively new resort. This is not like the 1929 Arizona Biltmore that can claim as guests every U.S. president since Herbert Hoover.

Golfers have access to two championship golf courses and the Golf Academy. Mark Vardeman, the Director of Golf Instruction, has the concern of most golf instructors these days. How do you keep golfers still interested? How do you grow the game? Handicaps have not got any better over the last 30 years. He understands.

“Golf takes time to play,” he says. “It’s expensive. Only 10 to 11% of players take instruction. Golfers don’t practice their short game, yet a game is won or lost often within 50 yards of the hole.”

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He sees players practicing their drives but, he says, an instructor could spend eight hours with a student on the short game and never run out of things to do. He could have added the game of golf difficult!

Compared to all that, shooting a shotgun sounds downright simple. La Cantera works closely with a neighbor a half-hour drive to the north, Joshua Creek Lodge. This game hunting resort is the only Beretta-designated lodge in Texas. The only other states with Beretta Double Trident Lodges are Georgia, Oregon and South Dakota. And Argentina. Only 5% of shooting lodges carry this approval (which does not require the lodges use Beretta guns).

Guests receive the important safety warnings about eye and ear protection and safety first. The clay shooting group is using Beretta 687 Pigeon II 20 gauge 28 inch barrel shotguns because all are novices with no ambitions to become Texas Rangers. Each end up getting at least one great shot that shatters a clay pigeon.

“The normal person with average eye hand coordination can achieve significant competence within a few hours,” says one of the guides, Jesse Grace, sitting opposite at dinner that night. “Joshua Creek (also known as ‘Paradise in Texas’) helps people get rid of their fear of guns, improves their sense of space, expands their field of vision including peripheral and teaches them patience — because all shooting is mental.”

You could argue there’s one thing that’s not mental about shooting: the discomfort in your shoulder until you get the butt positioned right. There is also nothing mental about the aroma of cooking and that’s another activity La Cantera offers guests who come as a group: an opportunity to compete in a culinary event where teams face off against others preparing a meal from scratch, farm to table, with the help of senior resort chefs. Part of the fun is seeing how seriously the chefs play their part. They really suffer if their team doesn’t win.

If not becoming chef-of-the-day bothers a guest, there’s always the resort’s Castle Rock Health Club and Spa. A Deep Tissue Massage, a gentler Stone Works Massage or Texas Wine Maker’s Massage might bring back satisfaction.

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And outside in this busy city can be found two oases of tranquility, the serene enchantment of River Walk and the compelling attraction of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo. The Alamo still sends a message — not just to all Texans, but to the whole nation — a point as true today as it was on February 23, 1836. If you want freedom, you have to for it.

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The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called