On a recent trip to the liberal bubble of Texas, I quickly discovered how much Austin had changed since my last trip there over five years ago. Standing in downtown, looking up and around, I didn’t recognize any of the buildings, and the streets were littered with electric scooters while the traffic seemed to never end. This wasn’t the Austin I once knew, but putting aside the congestion and new skyline, the city was still giving off that incredible energy.
Everywhere I looked, I could see “BETO for Senate” campaign posters and yard signs. The quirky street art was still there, and the iconic bars and music venues still stood proudly in their original locations. I was in town for the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 United States Grand Prix, although secretly, I was really more interested in one of the performers that would be taking the main stage on closing night, and couldn’t wait to hear those infamous words from her pre-recorded dance track: “It’s Britney, bitch.”
Fast Cars and Superstars
The racing weekend brought in thousands upon thousands of fans, all there to watch their favorite drivers and teams lap around the track. I must admit, it was really exciting to see and hear these impressive machines as they sped around each curve. Having watched Formula 1 on television before, being there in person really did bring a new level of excitement and interest. It also helped that we were watching from inside the COTA Club, an exclusive, tented VIP area where the food and drinks were flowing, which helped make the days there a bit more entertaining.
Bruno Mars provided night one of the scheduled entertainment, someone I always looked at as an incredible performer, but wasn’t really thrilled to see, mainly because I was just too excited for my childhood pop princess to take the stage. Looking back, his performance that night was pretty out of this world, and came with a pyrotechnics show that blew our minds. His dancing, his vocals, his entire show were outstanding. By the end of the night I had regretted all the negative things I had ever thought or said about him because he truly proved himself to be the mega-star that he is. The following evening, when Britney took the stage, I couldn’t have been more excited and terrified at the same time. Excited because I was finally seeing Britney Spears live and terrified because I knew that by the end of the night, all my hopes and dreams of seeing her perform would fall flat, leaving me disappointed.
This was the final performance of her Piece of Me tour, her first tour in many, many years after completing her Las Vegas residency and one day after announcing another, new Las Vegas residency at Park MGM. Her show felt as if someone had pressed play on a 60-minute-long remix of all her hits; Britney was a robot, just performing the same moves over and over again while flipping her hair between moves. She spoke to the crowd for all of 14 seconds, greeting the Austin crowd with nothing more than, “Hello Texas, thanks for being at the final performance of my tour,” said in a heavy British accent. I had forgotten that sometime between her breakdown and that night, she had picked up a British accent. The entire show was painful but somehow still exhilarating. I’m still trying to figure those feelings out, but they are real.
Electric Bikes, Street Art and Gluttonous Food Trucks
Outside of the main events for the long weekend, I also spent some time experiencing Austin and one thing I was all about was the food scene. Rocket Electrics sells, rents & repairs electric bikes, and also offers a variety of tours on the bikes. I opted for the Foodie Tour that took me around to a handful of food trucks/trailers while stopping for Instagram worthy street art shots. Two noteworthy stops along the way included Biscuits + Groovy, with a menu that consisted of all sorts of concoctions including The Gloria Gaynor that consists of the Biscuits + Groovy original recipe plus three scrambled eggs, thick sliced peppered maple bacon, jalapeños and colby jack cheese.
The second, and my favorite stop, was at Gourdough’s, a donut lover’s heaven. Each donut is served in a small tray that is then piled high with different toppings and fillings. The Funky Monkey comes with grilled bananas, cream cheese icing with brown sugar, while the Mother Clucker is one of their savory choices that comes with a fried chicken strip and honey butter. Having the electric bikes doing most of the work for us as I cruised around Austin getting plump did help as my body seemed to be shutting down after all that food intake.
Head to Hill Country
During the visit to Austin, there was an opportunity to leave the city limits for a bit and head to the hills. Departing the bubble was a bit frightening mostly because there was a high probability of running into folks who actually support Ted Cruz, a fearful reality. Putting politics aside though, the day trip outside of Austin proved to be worth it. The late morning was spent at Garrison Brothers Distillery, home of the first and oldest legal whiskey distillery in Texas. The tours here allow visitors to learn about the bourbon making process from start to finish while also just spending time on the massive and inviting ranch. The highlight here was sitting around a wood fire in a rocking chair with a flight of their bourbons; learning about all the ways the distillery gives back to the local community and state through fundraisers and donations. I might have been drunk by the end of the experience, but everyone at the distillery was welcoming and friendly, making the trek out there totally worth it. Afterwards, I made my way (via driver) to Salt Lick BBQ, a Texas original since 1967. It would have been sacrilegious to be in Texas and not eat BBQ, and this being one of the most famous BBQ spots in the state, a visit here was immanent. The Family Style option here is an all you can eat option that includes beef brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, coleslaw and beans. I of course went for that option, adding a side of bison ribs into the mix, which left me comatose with a case of the meat sweats.
The Live Music Capital of the World
No visit to Austin is complete without a visit to some of the iconic bars and music venues. The Continental Club, which just celebrated its 60th year, is one of the oldest continuously running clubs in all of Austin. Legends of music have and still perform there. The historical landmark has live music 7 nights a week. After a couple hours of soulful jazz and blues, it was time for a honky tonk, and if I was going to immerse myself in that type of environment, there was only one place to do it; The White Horse. This was the type of place where I was more an observer, a fly on the wall, just watching people dance and drink, while feeling 110% out of my element. It was like I was in a different world, one that I enjoyed visiting for a short moment, but one I didn’t want to spend all night in.
Where To Stay: Fairmont Austin
The long-weekend was centered on Austin’s newest and most luxurious hotel, The Fairmont Austin, which is located along the lush greenery of Palm Park and Waller Creek, with direct access to the Austin Convention Center. Opened in March of 2018, the 37-story hotel features an unprecedented 1,048 guestrooms and 60 suites, including the exclusive Fairmont Gold rooms and lounge with dramatic cityscape views. Inside the city’s most beautiful building which dominates the city’s skyline are five restaurants and bars. Garrison is a modern American grill house while Revue provides guests the opportunity to journey through four distinct culinary worlds. Fulton is their massive lobby bar that seems to be the city’s meeting place and Rules & Regs, located on the 7th floor is more the late night party atmosphere.
Beyond the incredible food & beverage, the hotel spa now ranks among the best spas in Austin. I indulged in the Texas Hill Country Awakening experience, 120 minutes of pure bliss that included a body scrub using local ingredients and a full body massage. Afterwards I lounged in the saline soaking pool and spent time inside the eucalyptus steam grotto. The Fairmont Austin worked closely with the Circuit of the Americas to provide guests with various F1 packages, which they will offer again in 2019.