Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Austin Is Even Cooler Beyond SXSW

Any time someone mentions Austin, most people make an immediate connection to South by Southwest (SXSW), the music conference and festival that draws thousands to central Texas. If not for the music alone, then for overlapping interactive and film components of the 20-day event every March.

While SXSW is a spectacle that brings the indie scene to Austin every year, many attendees never consider that Austin is dynamic year round. Even without crowds of people competing for elbow room, walking up and down the Sixth Street Historic Entertainment District is always memorable as live music ranging from rock to blues seeps out from the long corridor of bars, clubs, pubs, and music venues.

Weekdays or weeknights, it doesn't matter. The music, mood, and tempo change up every 20 feet. All you have to do is pick one and stumble inside, something like B.D. Riley's on a Monday for open mic night. It's always a good call: local brews on tap, a few dozen imported whiskeys, and fish & chips with hand-dipped cod fillets.

B.D. Riley's is next door to The Driskill Hotel, the most haunted place in Austin. 

While there are other places to stay a block or two off Sixth Street and several blocks south toward the Austin riverfront, nothing really beats the location or history of The Driskill Hotel. The property was built in 1886 by local cattle baron Jesse Lincoln Driskill, a man who would win and lose more than a few fortunes in his lifetime.

The hotel might be among his most bitter losses, as he is one of several ghosts occasionally seen wandering the halls. There are plenty of other stirrings and sightings that have been reported too, including a strange incident witnessed by singer Annie Lennox, who laid out two dresses before choosing one for a concert. When she came out of the shower, only one remained. The other had been returned to the closet.

While the areas reported to be the most haunted are in the original hotel (and especially room 525), the balance of the rooms located in the 1920s tower edition are not exempt. While the hotel is too bustling to ever create a sense of creepiness, my wife was awakened one night by unexplained whispers.

The Driskill has a historic, homey feel that defies what some call casual luxuries. 

The rooms are comfortable, well appointed, and have had a few modernizations like flat screen plasma televisions and extra desk plugs for portables (but no refrigerators). So unless you upgrade to a suite or one of the historic rooms, most will feel just a step up from standard, especially when the throw pillows remain stacked in a corner after day one. The benefit of a view from a Cityscape room makes up for it.

Most of the staff are genuinely nice, but the mood is sometimes mixed. The unsolicited promises of milk and cookies upon arrival never happened, but some staff were ready to bend over backward to extend our stay another night (despite being booked full) after the April hurricanes caused dozens of connecting flights out of Dallas (including ours) to be cancelled.

The sporadic ebb and flow of extremes is connected to some misplaced attentiveness. The ones who befriend you will make you feel like The Driskill Hotel is more home than hotel. And the ones who don't will carry an air that reminds you every stay is borrowed time. While I won't hesitate to stay again, there will be an adjusted expectation that this is elegant ranch house luxury as opposed to boutique luxury.

The entire city makes a great case for Austin any time of year. 

With The Driskill Hotel being in an ideal location, you won't be there all too often. Austin is experiencing a cultural renaissance of sorts, with different districts delivering different experiences. Aside from Sixth Street, the Market District is shaping up to become a big brand retail environment (even if the best of it is the last independent bookstore, Bookpeople), and Sandra Bullock is making an effort to add some class to the Warehouse District just north of it.

The Colorado River (Texas) riverfront still needs more work, but it is well worth the walk a few blocks from Sixth Street. There are more and more restaurants opening up nearby, even if the biggest attraction happens at dusk. The well-used river walk is also home to 1.5 million bats under Congress Avenue Bridge in the spring.

Heading north toward the state capital and university, the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum, Blanton Museum of Art, LBJ Library & Museum among them. And in the opposite direction, across the river, is the developing DIY SoCo neighborhood, which is home to another art and music scene more reminiscent of Sixth Street. And that's but a sliver of offerings that SXSW attendees never have time to find.

The Driskill Hotel In Austin, Texas, Plays At 5.8 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.

The city, of course, rates higher than the hotel. The Driskill is still a cool place, but needs to remember that it's also competing with everything around it. The fourth-largest city in Texas is steeped in everything from history to entertainment, with an explicit slant toward toward the smaller venues. Nearly perfect.

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