The San Antonio River Walk or ‘Paseo del Rio’ along the banks of San Antonio River is a peek into the soul of a city peppered with a rich past. One can savor different time spans from the arrival of Spanish explorers and missionaries in 1691 to the present tourist town. The chief attraction is the RiverWalk meandering along with the San Antonio River through the Downtown and other historic areas. The waters were harnessed as flood control measure and regulated to a natural stream before it empties in the Guadalupe River, near San Antonio Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.
We did not follow the River but drove down from Houston, took us nearly three hours, straight to the Rivercenter Mall on intersection of Commerce and Bowie streets. The Mall is one of the ticketing and boarding centers for the River Walk cruise ride* and possibly the shortest way to appreciate the tourist attractions. The entry points to the River Walk is either from Downtown, the North Channel and Bend River Walk or the River Walk Museum Reach connecting existing walk with the San Antonio Museum, Pearl Brewery and art installations along the bank. River taxis and cruise boats are other alternatives for a grand tour.
It was a Saturday and a long ticket queue for place in the cruise boat. Finally, we set off but not before our Guide executed a well-rehearsed cameo pushing the boat and telling us that he would wait for our return only to hop in the minute it left the bank. Seeing some worried faces, his take was that the river, in some places, is just 5 ft deep and one could could just jump in and walk out.
The boat took an about turn from the Rivercenter Mall gliding along boutiques, antiquated houses, dated stone and steel bridges, restaurants and hotels, the art and craft exhibition stalls, past city landmarks such as the towering 33 storey Tower Life Building constructed in 1928 and visible from different points across the city (the upper floors are said to be illuminated during Christmas), the King William district with its Victorian mansions, the Arneson River Theatre with its romantic, mission-bell backdrop and amphitheater featured in Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality.
The theater serves as a river entrance to historic La Villita and the city’s first neighborhood of Spanish settlements followed by German and French pioneers. All this time the boat navigator cum Guide regaled us with anecdotes about the buildings and the city as we passed attractions such as the Hemisfair Park with the Tower of Americas in the foreground, the Hilton Hotel, the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and the Lila Cockrell Theater of the Performing Arts.
The horseshoe bend of the River is a storehouse of antiquity with historical buildings that have been converted into hotels and music clubs. The Hyatt Regency Hotel is a newer construction and starting point of the second River Walk extension, the Paseo del Alamo. One can walk through the hotel atrium and continue up a landscaped water way to the Alamo.The verdant setting of the River Way shaded by Cypresses, Oaks, Weeping Willows and mélange of multi-hued flora highlighted by waterfalls, patios and arty benches giving the entire boat journey a surreal touch.
In between there are areas of quietness and tranquility with only ducks for company weaving their way through water traffic, we missed one, as we cruised along the bank admiring old tree stumps resembling squatting mongoose.
From here it was an about turn towards the entertainment and funky segment of the River Walk.–the boisterous market sounds of music, Latin, German, American, Mexican and Asian flavors intermingling with equally varied languages. There is choice of food and eating places from The Iron Cactus, Hard Rock Café, Rainforest Café, Schilo’s as old as 1917, Casa Rio, a 60-year-old restaurant for Tex-Mex favorites, to name a few.
If spoiled for choice and unable to decide then easy way out is to walk into Rivercenter Mall’s food court or La Villita’s cafes or like us to Le Ole for the biggest/tallest Margaritas served with ample Mexican joie de vivre.
The 2 mile long and 45 minute ride culminates at the Rivercenter Mall and from here we retraced our steps along the River stopping at all the colorful booths displaying intricate stone jewelry, book holders, Friendship and name bands, paintings and candles. Lunched at Le Ole and later strolled to Starbucks in the Rivercenter Mall for refreshing Tea Latte. The area was getting crowded as the two-mile water system is a commercial project highlighted with lush greenery and page-book architecture.
The River Walk is incomplete without a visit to The Alamo also known as Mission San Antonio de Valero and dates back to 1724. It has a checkered war history and was home to missionaries and their converts. At present the Alamo is maintained by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, an association dedicated to perpetuating the memories of Texas pioneer families and the soldiers of the Republic of Texas. The maintenance money is raised through donations and proceeds from the gift shop, which is really a treasure trove of old cookbooks, interest generated by success of Julie and Julia (blog book) and gift items. The entire atmosphere at the Alamo is reminiscently charged as one walks through the Shrine, the Long Barrack Museum, Chapel, the Cavalry Courtyard, Convento Courtyard with a ‘well’ dating to Mission period, strategically placed canons and enthusiastic children wanting to know more about the ancient rifles and women dressed in period costume showcasing various period crafts.
The crumbling structure of Alamo with nearly 300 year old history was witness to battles between Mexican and American solders with the historic Battle of Alamo taking place in 1836. A crowd had collected at the mock Courthouse witnessing a trail enacted by actors in period dresses. There were other weekend activities taking place in different corners of the complex.
Walked to Alamo Plaza, a shopper’s paradise. Picked up Mexican souvenirs from La Tienda and ambled towards Ripley’s Believe It Or Not store and Louis Tussaud Wax Works but being interested in neither returned to the River Walk for one last time. Evening time is fiesta time and already the atmosphere was ‘hotting up’ with live music and surging crowds but we had to return to Houston.
It would be another three-hour drive and left the city before the setting sun did.