Throngs of delicate, birdlike creatures swarm across a pink-blue sky. Audible gasps abound.
Austin, Texas comes alive at night. The same, of course, can be said of its resident urban bat colony.
In spring and summer, on an almost daily basis, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailers soar from under Congress Avenue Bridge into the twilight sky. And you know what they say about nature putting on a show…
Across Lady Bird Lake, another nocturnal animal catches my eye. The Frost Bank Tower – which looks uncannily like a sitting owl – is catching fractions of dying light.
Between the sunset and Downtown Austin’s ultramodern cityscape, not to mention those bizarre winged creatures, I can’t help but think of the famous ‘keep Austin weird’ tagline; of how I never imagined ‘weird’ could mean, well, wonderful.
But that’s Austin for you: full of wonderful surprises, from the sheer ubiquity of its live music to its world-class dining.
Then there’s the fact it’s so progressive (read: LGBTI-friendly). This, of course, contrasts with how the Lone Star State is often perceived as a whole.
‘Individuality and pride are Texan values’
‘“Keep Austin Weird” speaks to the culture here,’ openly gay Council Member Jimmy Flannigan tells me, when I drop by City Hall to meet him. ‘It’s about honoring and supporting people in whatever form they want to take.’
‘It’s Texan in its way, about individuality and pride,’ he adds. ‘Those are Texan as much as they’re LGBT values. There are parts of the state that have twisted those around. But when you come to Austin, you feel it.’
Austin, or course, is known for being a liberal oasis. ‘There is something special about it,’ explains Flannigan. ‘The Mayor often calls it “The Magical Place.” I would agree. It speaks to the LGBT community about being laid-back, open and welcoming.
‘I’m the first openly gay man to be on the city council here, and I represent the most conservative district . I’m the far edge, suburban area. When I was running for office in ’14 and ’16, it was harder to be openly Democrat than it was to be gay! It really was never an issue.’
‘This is where people like me come’
The Texan capital’s reputation as an LGBTI magnet is reflected by the size of its August Pride festival: 400,000 attended last year. Then there’s the abundance of queer spaces, from the sticky floor charm of Oilcan Harry’s (catch RPDR’s Mayhem Miller here on 22 April) to the equally dragtastic Rain on 4th and the hipstery Cheer Up Charlie’s.
For me, Austin’s queer credentials were best summed up via Tuezgayz at Barbarella video bar. A cool, cavernous clubnight populated by local LGBTIs (many from the University of Texas at Austin, home to 950,000 students). I’ve never seen so many effortlessly cool, quirky queer people in the same place on a Tuesday before. Most looked under 25, but knew all the songs to the Mariah marathon, while also living for Barb’s trademark Selena tribute.
‘I’m from New Orleans [in Louisiana],’ one handsome partygoer told me, as I admired his oversized overalls and bleached afro.
‘Why did you leave?’ I asked, given NOLA has a reputation for being pretty cool and gay-friendly itself.
‘This is just where people like me come,’ he replied with a shrug and a smile.
Our quick-fire guide to Austin
To celebrate Norwegian’s new route from London Gatwick direct to Austin (we were lucky enough to be on last month’s inaugural flight, where we enjoyed ample legroom in Premium; complimentary cocktails meant we were buzzed before we even touched down), here’s our brief overview of the best of Austin…
Where to drink
The hippest bar in Austin is tucked away in an underground parking lot. Because of course it is. Try the Indian Paintbrush (2015 Official Drink of Austin), made of vodka, grapefruit, lime and rosemary.
An earthier alternative is this three storey behemoth, where the irresistible combo of beer, bowling and fussball is my type of mixology. Typically soundtracked to live music.
If, like me, you haven’t heard the shrill creek of a hostel bed frame in over 10 years, prepare yourself for a shock. Discount digs like Native Hostel have evolved to offer comfort and style plus a buzzing bar experience. Definitely try the Grapefruit Negroni and/or the Lone Star Tall Boy, but do not leave Austin without trying my favorite beverage: the curiously addictive Topo Chico sparkling mineral water, which I became as obsessed with saying as drinking.
Where to eat
Barnstorming bands, a million mezcals and carb coma-inducing Tex Mex are what this local institution’s famous for. The service is charmingly salty. The extensive margarita menu is even saltier. (And infused with chili.) Be sure to try the crispy Gulf oysters and the Texas Gulf Coast crab and fish cake.
After hitting 616’s epic dessert platter hard the night before, I eschewed the elaborate pastries on offer at 1886 the next morning, opting instead for lighter fare: fried chicken. This dish was a succulent and spicy choice, marinaded in serrano-buttermilk, served with eggs, biscuits and sausage gravy. A charming eatery, 1886 is one of several dining options at the opulent Driskill Hotel, Austin’s oldest (built, you guessed it, in 1886) and apparently America’s third most-haunted.
Texas is synonymous with bombastic barbecue; Lambert’s delivers exactly that, but in chic surroundings and through a refined, hipster filter. The crispy wild boar ribs and baked mac and three cheese went down a storm. My only issue: the restaurant was so darkly-lit, I could hardly see what I was eating.
An as pioneering a dining concept as any I’ve tried can be found at Revue, located within the newly-opened Fairmont hotel (more on which later). Here, four completely different restaurants coexist in one space. Thus, a bit of a nightmare for the indecisive, but heaven for those who like a bit of everything.
Marry sumptuous Italian delicacies (lobster ravioli!) with Asian intricacies (crispy Chinese chicken packed with cabbage and cucumber!). Then, choose between Texas oak-smoked meat or the ultimate in seafood satisfaction: the ‘Indulgence’ platter. Consisting of 12 oysters, 12 shrimp, crab cocktail, salmon sashimi, tuna poke and a whole lobster, I want it as my wedding cake. Utterly amazing.
What to do
Given it enjoys 228 sun-drenched days of dry heat a year, a ramble around this immensely-walkable city is essential. But for the days when it’s too hot – or for those who want or need to take it easy – exploring the city’s geography on a battery-powered bike such as Rocket Electrics’ (pictured above outside the stunning Texas State Capitol Building, opened 1885) is a godsend.
Alternatively, explore the city’s sights (such as the fascinating Graffiti Park at Castle Hill, pictured above) on four wheels, with an informative tour guide to fill in the blanks. I’ll raise my hand and admit I had no idea Texas was its own country from 1836-46. Humiliated.
The fourth largest natural spring in Texas is nestled near the edge of the sprawling Zilker Park. A three-acre aqua wonderland, the magnificent blue-green tones are so irresistible, I almost jumped in fully-clothed.
A 20-minute drive from Downtown is this state of the art racing track, regularly playing host to Christmas grinch Lewis Hamilton and other Formula One stars. After a quick tour, my group belted up for a thrilling COTA go-karting race; I almost gave myself a heart attack but managed to come second.
Where to stay
Box-fresh: that’s how I’d describe The Fairmont, a 37-floor, 1,048-room luxury hotel in the business district.
Open only a matter of days when we stayed, it was positively sparkling. And despite its newness, there were no teething problems with the staff, who were uniformly excellent.
At 590 feet, the Fairmont is now the second tallest building in Austin. (First is the Austonian at 683 feet; my favorite, the Frost Bank Tower, or the ‘owl building’, is fourth at 515 feet.)
With its high ceilings, fabulous chandeliers and full-size imitation oak trees, the reception area is probably the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, the absurdly glamorous outdoor pool on the seventh floor is sure to be Austin’s hottest ticket this summer.
Finally (or technically, firstly) traveled to Austin from Gatwick bright and early on a Tuesday morning. It made sense to stay the night before at the Hilton London Gatwick, almost a stone’s throw from the South Terminal. The Park & Fly package clocks in at £117 ($164, €134).
For more information about Austin, head to visitaustin.org.
Norwegian is continuing the expansion of its trailblazing long-haul network with the launch of a new direct route to Austin – the only non-stop service from London Gatwick. Norwegian operates three weekly flights year round non-stop from London Gatwick to Austin International Airport. All flights are operated by a fleet of brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft with two cabins. (Premium and economy). Fares start from £159 ($200, €182) one-way and £309 ($460, €353) return in LowFare economy and £585 ($689, €669) one-way and £1,075 ($1,515, €1,230) return in Premium including all taxes and charges and subject to availability.
To book visit Norwegian.com/uk or you can also call 0330 828 0854.