Russell Dandridge also contributed to this article
Not sure where to head for your last vacation before the fall sets in, how about New Braunfels, Texas where it’s a small town feel with a big town list of activities on the menu.
Two of the most interesting things to do there begin at Natural Bridge Caverns (www.naturalbridgecaverns.com) and Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch (www.WildlifeRanchTexas.com).
For spelunking, the caverns offer a look at the largest cave system in Texas. A variety of options depending on your level of comfort underground includes a Discovery Tour along a paved lighted walkway or the Lantern Tour illuminated only by the light of your cave lantern or the Hidden Passages Illumination Tour where you are in both the light and dark with a state of the art lighting system and a chance to look at some of the most decorated and rare formations found in Natural Bridge Caverns.
Next to the Caverns is Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch. Having been to Africa a number of times we were a bit leery when we were told “Africa in the middle of Texas Hill Country.”
It was a nice surprise, particularly as we entered the park and saw giraffe heads peeking over the trees at us. There are 400 acres to explore however, so there was a lot more to be found in the ranch’s four compounds; the Massai Savannah, Kenyan Preserve, Kilamanjaro Overlook and the Tatonka Range. The actual drive through is four miles in length and takes about an hour to complete and each vehicle that enters the park is provided with a container of feed.
Like most visitors I was able to feed the animals from my vehicle and yes, the animals will come right up to the vehicle to grab a tasty morsel.
I was never more surprised when I was actually able to touch one of the White Rhinoceros’ (forget about even seeing one of these creatures in the wild unless you’re really lucky – I have only seen one a few times). The ostrich reminded me of a nosy mother-in-law at the ranch — the one I encountered tried to stick its head in the car for food – I didn’t let him because he was so aggressive. There was also zebra (my encounter had the zebra sticking his head in the car too and actually taking a bag of food right out of my hand) and of course there is the reticulated giraffes, such lovely creatures and again, at the ranch you can get up close and personal as the giraffe eats right out of your hand with his wet little tongue. There are also a plethora of deer from the African plains including kudo and waterbuck, two southern North American Buffalo and wildebeest. In fact, there are more than 500 animals of 40 exotic, native and endangered species living at the ranch.
Many endangered species find Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch a safe home-away-from-home and two highly-successful breeding programs for the Scimitar Horned Oryx and Addax have enabled these animals to survive at the ranch much more successfully than they could in the wild.
The ranch also has Lemurs, a highly endangered species native to the African island of Madagascar. The Lemurs have also produced offspring at Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch, which has helped maintain the viability of this species.
What we appreciated at the ranch was how up close and personal you can get to the animals. On safari in Africa the animals are observably a bit squeamish. The only thing you’ll see over there in the zebra family are their butts as their running away and the wildebeest on the Massai Mara know they need to run from just about everything.
Opened on June 1, 1984 Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is the longest running safari park in Texas. However, at one time the ranch yielded only cattle and goat. These days it’s designated as a Texas Land Heritage Property and has been in the same family who have been operating the ranch for over 100 years. The sixth generation of the family continues to live and work on the ranch these days.
One place you definitely won’t want to miss while visiting New Braunfels is the Gruene Historic District (www.gruenetexas.com). While many folks know about Gruene as the perfect place to float the Guadalupe River, it’s also an excellent place to just hang out and do some shopping or relaxing at Gruene Hall. The hall is “Texas Oldest Dancehall” and on the National Historic Register for Historic Places. Just as an aside too, George Straight who lives nearby might play a set there and the Hall was also featured in films such as “Michael” and many music videos and commercials.
Dry Comal Creek Vineyards (www.drycomalcreek.com) is one of the best winery in the area and for a quick drink or an afternoon, it’s a must. We sat with the owner and tried every wine on his list. For spitting, we dumped the wine on the floor just like he told us too. He’s working on making his new floor looked “used” we were more than happy to help.
For more wine visit Water 2 Wine (www.water2wine.com) in downtown New Braunfels where you can mix your own poison (that’s short for blending your own wine and bottling) or just try a few choices from the massive menu of 100 wines from 13 different countries .
Got some time for the weekend then head to New Braunfels or make it a weeklong adventure, flying in to Austin or San Antonio and it’s only an hour or less from either airport. We like it, so will you.
Where to Stay
LaQuinta Inn & Suites
365 S. State Hwy. 46
New Braunfels, TX 78130
Where to Eat
Gristmill River Restaurant & Bar
1287 Gruene Road
New Braunfels, TX 78130
In the historic part of Gruene, this restaurant is located in a 125-year-old cotton gin on the banks of the Guadalupe River.
Myron’s Prime Steak House
136 N. Castell St.
New Braunfels, TX 78130
Located in the old Palace Movie Theatre in historic downtown New Braunfels, the speciality is the Chicago prime beef and there’s a full bar and extensive wine list too.