FREDERICKSBURG, Texas — Who would have thought that deep in the heart of Texas sits a little slice of Germany? The town of Fredericksburg was settled in the 1840s by German immigrants and you can still find people with names like Wolfgang and Fritz and Brunhilde. (Well, OK, maybe not Brunhilde …)
There are German biergartens, quaint gastehauses and homemade sauerkraut — sausages as fat as Texas hogs and a klatch of artists who discovered this little haven before anyone else.
Just 63 miles north of San Antonio, Fredericksburg sits in the Texas hill country, circled by rolling topography and the exposed volcanic dome, Enchanted Rock, a favorite hiking trek.
Sprinkled throughout the town are unique one-room “Sunday” houses, built by the early farmers who’d come to town Saturday, overnight in their tiny cottages, and head off to church on Sunday.
Many of these have been preserved, and you can even rent one for your stay. Arrangements for any lodging may be made at Gastehaus Schmidt on Main Street, or try the replicated Sunday houses at the Fredericksburg Herb Farm with its state-of-the-art spa and bistro.
A good place to start is the Visitor Center at the corner of Austin and Lincoln streets, then a quick jaunt to the historic area, including the Marktplatz with its Vereins Kirche Society Church) Museum, which was the town’s first public building. The Pioneer Museum Complex, down the street, with its 10 historic buildings, recalls the early days of the struggling colony.
Through September the Marktplatz is the location of the local Farmers’ Market featuring tree-ripened produce. Peaches are their specialty, and you can even pick your own if you want the exercise.
There are 150 quaint shops along Fredericksburg’s Main Street (once the route of the Butterfield Stage), where you can find everything from ranch supplies to a chocolatier.
Another juxtaposition here is the National Museum of the Pacific War. Miles from the Pacific Ocean, Fredericksburg was the birthplace of Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet during World War II.
While military museums can be less than fascinating to those who haven’t served, this is one of the most compelling in the country. The museum is divided into three zones. The George H.W. Bush Gallery uses multimedia and interactive displays as you witness each battle of the Pacific, complete with recorded eyewitness accounts, actual relics — including a tank that was destroyed and the three-barreled gun that did the firing.
On display is one of the two-man Japanese subs that prowled Pearl Harbor, a crashed fighter plane discovered in the jungle and the real skin of “Fat Man” — one of the atomic bombs that ended the war.
A letter to the president from the frantic mother of the five Sullivan brothers who were killed in the Pacific leaves nary a dry eye in the crowd.
There are nine wineries around Fredericksburg, with 14 varieties of grapes. Especially tasty are the cabernet, vernage, chardonnays and fume blancs. Pedernales Cellars and Messina Hof Hill Country are two examples. East of town lies Becker Winery, which offers six tastings for $10 and a rollicking wine-stomp (a la “Lucy”) in August and September.
Nearby is the Lyndon B. Johnson State and National Historical Park — LBJ’s birthplace, the one-room school he attended and the ranch where he and Lady Bird lived out their lives.
The surprisingly modest home has been kept in pristine condition. It’s as though the Johnsons had just stepped out for a Texas barbeque — a favorite event for the 36th president. Clothes still hang in the closet, the office still sports IBM typewriters and real cowboys still work the ranch.
Another must-see is Wildseed Farms, six miles east of town. The largest working wildflower farm in the U.S., it has become a hot attraction with its cacophony of colorful flowers, gift shop and self-guided tours.
The town holds a full-house of art galleries including Insight Gallery, cloistered in its white limestone frame. The Whistle Pik features many of the luminous works of G. Harvey, who started as a teacher and has had both his studio and his home in Fredericksburg for 27 years.
Drop by the Agave Gallery to gander at John Bennett’s Western bronzes — inspired, he says, by Roy Rogers. And check out the RS Hanna Gallery, where one-time illustrator John Austin Hanna exhibits his colorful oils. The galleries feature an art walk the first Friday of the month.
Antiques abound here. Two of the best shops are the reasonable Red Baron and Lone Star antique malls.
Fresh, local produce helps make some of the town’s 70 restaurants worth writing home about. Altdorf Restaurant and Biergarten, August E’s, the Navajo Grill (try the pepita fish), Bejas Grill, the Cabernet Grill and the scrumptious fare at the Farm Haus Bistro are some of the best.
Accommodations are plentiful. Check out — or rather, into — the picturesque replicas of the Sunday houses at the Fredericksburg Herb Farm, $179-$229, or the Inn on Barons Creek, $177-$241; the Econo Lodge runs about $70. But for a real kick land at the Hangar Hotel, $109-$179. The hotel resembles a hangar and venturing inside is like slipping into the 1940s.
Overstuffed leather chairs, an old telephone switchboard, Samsonite suitcases like your grandmother used — all set the scene. Featured are a fully-equipped 1940s diner, vintage cars and a “USO” nightclub where special events draw crowds dressed like Betty Grable and Tyrone Power swinging to Glenn Miller.
Best of all, it lies adjacent to the small airport where — starting at $75 a person — you can hop a ride with Zulu Helicopters and capture a bird’s-eye-view of the glories beneath. Twirling down Main Street, hovering over Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, are sights you’d never see from the ground.
Side trips can include Luckenbach, population 3, made famous by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, where you’re sure to find some music no matter what time of day. Spelunkers can explore the limestone cave near Enchanted Rock. And on summer evenings you can marvel at 3 million bats evacuating an abandoned railroad tunnel at sunset, just 11 miles from town.
IF YOU GO:
Best time to visit is in the fall or spring. April-May features a rainbow of wildflowers, fall colors are capped by the celebratory Oktoberfest, Oct. 5-7.
Trade Days: massive swap meet featuring 350 vendors, the third Saturday of the month, seven miles east of Fredericksburg; food, music and shopping for everything this side of Mars.
Transportation: Car rentals at San Antonio Airport: all major companies, rates from $38 to $50 a day for a compact.
Farmers Market: Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m.
Wildseed Farms: Open daily 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., (800) 848-0078.
Becker Vineyards: www.beckervineyards.com.
Bat sighting: Call to check exodus times. (866) 978-2287, http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/old(underscore)tunnel.
Reservations for lodging: www.fbglodging.com email infogastehaus.com.
Pioneer Museum: www.pioneermuseum.net. Closed Sundays and major holidays.
Fredericksburg Herb Farm: www.fredericksburgherbfarm.com.
Texas Historical Commission: (866) 276-6219 or www.thc.state.tx.us/travel.
Enchanted Rock State Natural Area: (830) 685-3636, http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/spdest/findadest/parks/enchanted(underscore)rock.
Zulu Helicopters: email-zuluhelicoptersgmail.com, (830) 998-7433.
National Museum of the Pacific War: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. Adults $14 and each ticket is good for 48 hours. www.pacificwarmuseum.org; 311 E. Austin St. (830) 997-8600.
Visitors Information Center, 302 E. Austin; (888) 997-3600.
Info on Fredericksburg: www.visitfredericksburgtx.com.