You've no doubt seen our great driving roads stories that have been a new addition to the CarAdvice portfolio. It’s an obvious subject to cover given any of us who love driving, have a predilection for hunting down – and mastering – the great roads we’ve all read about around the globe.
If you’re like me though, not every day needs to deliver a racetrack experience, and more often than not when you’ve got a partner in tow, hooking into 100 hairpins back-to-back at warp speed, might not be the smartest way to prolong your relationship.
That’s when a relaxed cruise down a range of country B-roads is the order of the day and one of my favourite places to do just that is the United States.
In fact, the US is probably my favourite place to head off on a road trip anywhere in the world. The freeways are amazingly well planned if you need to get somewhere fast, the secondary roads are just as good and rarely choked with traffic, fuel is cheap, and there are so many places to stop for a meal, you’re almost spoiled for choice.
The other factor that has the US so high on my driving list is the variety of landscape on offer and the quality of the roads.
A few years ago, I left Las Vegas with the temperature at 30 degrees and headed north through the desert. Four hours later, I’d wound up and and over an amazing mountain pass (with no one on it) and rolled into Mammoth Lakes as snow started to fall. That’s just one example of the variety you can tap into, and if mountain passes are your bag, head to Colorado, where the roads compare with some of the best in Europe.
It’s never been easier or cheaper to get to the US either, and even though they drive on the right (wrong) side of the road, it’s nothing to be intimidated by if you’re never done it.
Not so long ago, Australians had two, single-flight points of entry to the United States – Los Angeles and San Francisco. Add Hawaii to that if you want to nitpick, but I’m referring specifically to the mainland. That changed though, when Qantas started flying direct to Dallas, Texas out of Sydney.
Immediately, accessing the south and all it has to offer became a whole lot easier. The West Coast of the United States appeals for its beaches and relaxed lifestyle, but if you want a taste of real America, southern comfort food and sweeping, open plains, you need to head south.
We recently went on a 5000km road trip from Dallas to Nashville and back on a three-week US holiday, that took us through Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, Louisville, St Louis, Kansas City, Wichita and Oklahoma City. If you’re flying into Dallas though and you want to hit the road, there’s some sensational scenery, beautiful small towns and incredible local food to be sampled if you drive down to San Antonio. It won’t require a 5000km commitment either.
While most of you will fly into Dallas and head down into San Antonio, we went the other way for obvious reasons. So, for this story we did the drive in reverse and started in San Antonio, but it’s even easier if you fly into Dallas and start there.
Collecting a hire car is a cinch from Dallas Fort Worth airport, and as you’d expect of a major transport hub, all the main hire car companies have offices there. In the past, I’ve had great experiences with Dollar Rental, Enterprise, Alamo and Hertz in the States. Keep in mind if you want to access any of the off-road driving we’ve listed here, you’ll need to hire a 4WD that is covered for a bit of off-road fun.
San Antonio to Dallas direct – if you use the interstate – is a 441km (approximately four hours) run up the I-35 N, but there’s way too much to be seen by taking a circuitous route, which will take a little longer but reward a whole lot more. You’re on holiday though, right? So stay off the interstate and head for the country roads. You won’t regret it.
First up, we stayed at the amazing Hotel Emma in San Antonio. It’s a renovated brewery that has a fascinating history and retains much of the original equipment inside its immense walls and soaring ceilings. Part of the larger ‘Pearl’ development, the former factory site is now a broad community with shops, cafes, and numerous restaurants.
Hotel Emma is perched next to the river, which gives direct access to the meandering river walk into the heart of downtown San Antonio. Grab a coffee at Local Coffee around the corner from Hotel Emma; it’s right up there with the best we’ve had in the US. Make sure you ask one of the hotel’s staff to fill you in on the history of the brewery and why it’s called Hotel Emma as well.
We meander north-east out of San Antonio on the 35 in the direction of Selma, then New Braunfels and San Marcos. Take a detour to Canyon Lake if you want some pretty scenery and check out the River Road Treehouses for accommodation of a different kind. Detour off the 35 at San Marcos and head for Wimberley on state road 80. You’ll then pass through Woodcreek en route to Driftwood.
Our ‘accidental’ lunch stop proved to be a sensation and I’d recommend everyone stop in at the incredible Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood. It’s amazing what entering ‘best BBQ’ into Google can reveal… The huge fire pit is the first thing you see as you walk through the door and the vast array of BBQ meat is on display as it’s being cooked on the open flame. Take a seat at the long timber benches and loosen the belt buckle; you’re going to need to.
After a day on the road, you’ll want a decent brew – coffee or beer – and we discovered just the right place on the outskirts of Austin. Take the 45 out of Driftwood, through Sunset Valley and into Austin, and head for Brew and Brew. Thirsty drinkers will find plenty of beers on tap, not to mention a genuinely good coffee. Brew and Brew has that typical American feel of the modern built inside the old, and it’s a cool vibe.
Once you’re settled in your hotel in Austin, I’d recommend everyone go for a walk downtown. Austin is a very cool, bustling town that has plenty of restored buildings, but also a modern feel and if you head for the right part of town at night, there’s live music on every corner. There’s a kinship with Nashville in the way live music is the feature. And if you're into Hot Rods and custom cars, drop into Austin Speed Shop, which is a very cool window into custom car culture in the US.
Hankering for a burger at dinner, our research led us to Hopdoddy Burger Bar in South Congress, a very cool part of Austin, just outside the main downtown area and over the Colorado River.
There’s plenty of seriously good cuisine to choose from at South Congress if burgers aren’t your bag, but if they are, Hopdoddy is amazing – one of the best burgers I’ve eaten anywhere.
On the morning of day two, we head back to South Congress for breakfast and stumble upon Cafe No Se, a funky local secret that is situated under the South Congress Hotel. The dining room looks like something out of an expensive magazine photoshoot on how to best set up a country home. It’s a beautiful space to spend a few hours working remotely, or hanging with friends over breakfast as we did.
Anything on the breakfast menu looked pretty amazing, but I’d advise you try the fresh croissants as a minimum – Amanda Rockman, executive pastry chef, works at Cafe No Se and her pastries are a must try. As we’ve experienced a few times in the US, the coffee at Cafe No Se explodes the myth that you can’t find a decent cup in the States.
Head north west out of Austin on the 71 toward Bee Cave, Spicewood and eventually Marble Falls. As we discover every time we drop off the main road to sample some small town we’ve never heard of, there’s something interesting to explore around every corner, so don’t be afraid to head off the beaten track. Marble Falls is yet another beautiful little river town and well worth spending a few hours in.
Make sure you stop in at Marble Falls to sample the Blue Bonnet Cafe at the very least. It’s been in the same place since 1929, and while the menu is extensive, it’s most famous for its pies. A slice of cherry pie with ice cream does the trick, and the filter coffee won’t win any awards, but it’s good enough to wash a quality slice of pie down.
Our roll into Dallas takes us along the 281 into Lampasas and through Hamilton en route to downtown Dallas, where our hotel is a decent walk from the John F Kennedy memorial. The highlights of Dallas are too lengthy to go into here, but seeing the Kennedy memorial is an absolute must along with the Texas Museum nearby which delves into the history of the Lone Star State.
Our final dinner of the road trip is at the Cheesecake Factory in Dallas. Call us boring, but it’s a must and one that Australians love sampling when they head to the US. Just listen to the Aussie accents waiting up to two hours at the Cheesecake Factory in Honolulu if you don’t know how much we love the institution.
The Cherokee Trailhawk might be a weapon off-road, but it's once again proven to be a comfortable and effortless road trip cruiser too. Granted, it feels a little small among the full-sized pick-ups on American blacktop, but it's just about perfect for the drive we did. Read our thoughts on the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk in our review.
At the conclusion of another US road trip, I’m reminded just how much variety there is to sample by avoiding the usual LA/San Francisco/New York angle so many Australians take. Those cities are beautiful there’s no doubt, but the South has so much to offer.
Texas alone is such a large, diverse state. You could get lost for months touring around trying to try all the best BBQ joints.
Perhaps the most attractive element of touring this part of the United States is the fact not too many Aussies do it. Plenty of Aussies get to Dallas now or go looking for the ghost of Elvis in Memphis, but outside of the main cities, most locals have never even met an Aussie, believe it or not.
I know I’ll be back, and I'll be rolling along the highways when I do.