Destination: La Grange
Distance: 100 miles
Driving time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Think you can't reach the Hill Country in under 100 miles? Plug La Grange—the town, not the Tex-Mex restaurant in Montrose—into your GPS and you'll find that it's an even 100 miles from the dead center of Houston.
While it's accepted fact that the Hill Country definitively exists west of I-35, outside of Austin and San Antonio, arguable exceptions can be made for La Grange: it's home to the same blend of German/ Czech/ Mexican culture that's predominant in the Hill Country; it's anchored by the same Colorado River that plays an important role in Hill Country outdoor activities; and, most importantly, it possesses actual hills.
For further proof of this latter argument, make Monument Hill State Park your first destination upon arriving in La Grange. Here, you'll find scenic views on par with Mount Bonnell, including the lattice-like stretch of bright white bridge that spans the Colorado River where it's crossed by Highway 71—a prettier bridge than the Pennybacker Bridge for our money, even if that statement might get us banned from Austin.
While you're there, explore the crumbling ruins of the Kreische Brewery in a small valley just below the bluff; creeping vines and wildlife have overtaken much of the brewery's stone foundations, which were first laid in 1860. By 1879, it was the third-largest brewery in Texas, though it didn't last long after the death of its founder, the German-born Heinrich Ludwig Kreische, in 1882. It closed in 1884 and has been mostly abandoned since, save a few wooden decks added to the foundation a few years ago for the purpose of guided tours, which take place every Saturday.
For a look at a brewery that's still functioning, head to the Rohan Meadery, where they make their honeywine with honey from their own Hill Country bees. Owners John and Wendy Rohan started with an apiary at their adjoining Blissful Folly Farms (which also sells goats and goat's milk products) before deciding to turn their bees' hard work into traditional mead, which now comes in a variety of flavors including kumquat and peach. It's also blended into Texas wines made with locally-grown Blanc du Bois grapes (some of the only grapes hardy enough to withstand the withering summers here), which you can sample at the meadery itself or at the upcoming La Grange Uncorked Wine & Food Festival in the town square on March 19.
Speaking of which, no visit to La Grange is complete without taking in the majestic Fayette County Courthouse that dominates the charming small-town square. The fourth incarnation of the courthouse—the third was built by Heinrich Ludwig Kreische himself in 1855 at a cost of $14,500, but was structurally unsound by 1889—has stood here since its completion in 1891.
In true Texas style, the three-story Romanesque Revival building was made with stones quarried from around the state: blue sandstone from Muldoon and white limestone from Belton, red Pecos sandstone and dappled Burnet granite. But to only examine the courthouse from the outside would be to miss its signature feature: an inner courtyard with glassy atrium roof stretching to the sky.
Just across the street is La Grange's famous Prause Market, where five generations of the Prause (that's "prow-sey") family have been smoking and selling meat for over 120 years. If you arrive at 7 a.m. when Prause opens, you can enjoy their post oak-smoked brisket for breakfast, cooked over a brick pit in the middle of the restaurant. Around lunch, lines for the famous pork chops get long, so prepare to wait—and don't make the mistake of trying to go on a Sunday, when Prause is closed.
The same holds true at Lukas Bakery, just around the corner from Prause Market on the town square. Lucille and Raymond Lukas started this family favorite in 1947, now owned and operated by their daughter Carol and her husband. The pair still bake Czech kolaches, klobasneky (called pigs in a blanket here) and cookies according to the Lukas's original recipes starting at 5 a.m. every day of the week except Sunday. Between Lukas and Prause, you're looking at the perfect picnic for that hike up to the bluff at Monument Hill, not to mention the pairing of two of the Hill Country's best cuisines.
For further proof of La Grange's status as the gateway to the Hill Country, there's the upcoming Best Little Cowboy Gathering in Texas, which takes place each year on the first full weekend in March. If you define the Hill Country by its dance halls—by its Gruenes and Luckenbachs—the Best Little Cowboy Gathering throws down in one of La Grange's many dance halls, and also includes a barbecue cook-off and a real-live Sunday morning cowboy church in which to repent for your gluttonous sins in the morning—though what would a road trip to Central Texas be without gorging on barbecue and kolaches?