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Nov 2011 cover image

Weekend in Aggieland

Destination: Bryan-College Station

Travel time from:
Austin – 2 hours
Brownsville – 7 hours
Dallas – 3 hours
Houston – 1.75 hours
San Antonio – 3.25 hours
Lubbock – 7.5 hours
El Paso – 11.25 hours

Two distinct personalities give Bryan-College Station more than just Aggie appeal.

By Melissa Gaskill

When you mention Bryan-College Station, most people think of Texas A&M University, and rightly so. The wooded, 5,200-acre campus, home to 40,000-plus students, holds historic buildings and statues, sports venues and museums, centers for visitors and former students, and even a romantic spot or two (my favorite: an old oak tree near the Academic Building).

People come from near and far for football games at Kyle Field, basketball games in Reed Arena, intramural sports tournaments and university events such as graduations and concerts.

But those who come only for those things, or who explore a bit but never venture beyond the College Station side of these distinctly different siblings — well, you’re definitely missing out. I attended A&M for four years (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth) and lived in Bryan for two of them, so I can say with confidence that while the two towns lack physical separation, each has a distinct personality. They’re like relatives from different generations of the same family.

Bryan plays the older, more traditional member of the family, with a historic downtown, roughly four blocks long and three wide, lately all spiffed up and definitely the place to go. For this three-day adventure, I brought along my husband, Corey, and daughters Holley, 22, and Bridget, 17. Their brother, Collin, 20, currently a student at A&M, met us Friday night at the Lemon Wedge Restaurant on Main Street. We enjoyed a stuffed mushroom appetizer and entrees including chicken topped with a lemon and pecan pesto, a salmon filet stuffed with crawfish and mushrooms and a pasta and tenderloin dish called 308 Main Street that even a college boy couldn’t finish. The restaurant makes its own tasty salad dressings and bakes pies and cakes daily.

On Saturday night, we dined at Messina Hof Winery’s Vintage House Restaurant, which specializes in garden-fresh ingredients and foods prepared with the winery’s products. Founded in 1977 by Merrill and Paul Bonarrigo, who comes from a Sicilian wine-making family, the winery produces more than 18 white, red and dessert wines, as well as a Paulo Signature Series. Holley turned 23 that day, so we celebrated over zesty shrimp creole, creamy pasta carbonara and the chef’s signature dish, cornmeal-crusted Texas redfish. A lovely bottle of Messina Hof’s cabernet and decadent desserts — including cake with a birthday candle, of course — made it a real party. The winery offers tastings and tours as well.

A night at the 10-room villa, designed by Aggie architects, includes a winery tour, a wine-and-cheese reception each evening and a gourmet breakfast. Each guest room sports a unique theme carried out in antique furnishings and touches such as stained glass and artwork. The rooms also have patios or balconies for enjoying views of the vineyards, woods and pond on the grounds.

If staying in the heart of downtown Bryan is more your speed, check into the La Salle Hotel, a nationally registered historic landmark, on Main Street. Built in 1928, the La Salle retains a historic look and feel. After dinner on Saturday, we enjoyed live jazz at Bryan’s Downtown Uncorked Wine Bar. Watching salsa dancing lessons through the window at the Village Café and Art979 Gallery next door, we had to lament the fact we were too tired, and too stuffed, to join them. During the day, the Village Café serves breakfast, organic sandwiches and locally roasted coffee. At night, as Art979 Gallery, it features art events. Lured by a bit livelier and louder sound, the girls stopped for a while at Stafford Main Street, a live music venue in a circa-1913 building.

Also located downtown, in an old fire station, the Children’s Museum of the Brazos Valley entertains the youngest set with a performance area, play grocery store, spaceship and more. The Carnegie Center of Brazos Valley History is the oldest Carnegie facility still in use as a library in Texas. A few blocks away, Corner of Time Antiques and Soda Shop has an old-fashioned soda counter where you can get handmade shakes and malts or more modern coffee drinks.

We ventured out of downtown to visit the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History, small but chock-full of real animal specimens, rocks, fossils, guns and knives, and a live animal room full of snakes, turtles and other live critters (plus taxidermied ones). Outside is a large, shady picnic area, and just beyond it, a short nature trail.

Naturally, the Texas A&M campus merits a spot on this agenda, even if you’ve attended a sporting event there. Hit the Sam Houston Sanders Corps of Cadets Center for a crash course in the many important Aggie traditions (even former students sometimes have a hard time keeping up). Newcomers might want to start at the Appelt Aggieland Visitor Center, on the first floor of Rudder Tower, which offers regular campus tours.

A must-see A&M spot, the Bonfire Memorial pays tribute to 12 Aggies killed during construction of the 1999 bonfire and to the tradition of bonfire itself. Located at the ’99 bonfire site on the northeast side of campus, the memorial includes a marker of the centerpole, a portal for each of the Aggies lost, markers commemorating those injured over the many years of bonfire construction and blocks recognizing earlier bonfire-related deaths. It’s a solemn yet beautiful place and special in the hearts of all A&M students, current and former.

Another worthwhile stop, just across University Drive, the A&M Horticultural Gardens remain open dawn to dusk. Make reservations for a guided tour, or just wander the gravel path past 2,500 specimens in 30 plant areas, including a wetland, a desert and a crape myrtle trail. Tables and seating areas scattered throughout allow you to linger.

Our experience at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the southwest side of campus, started with a 15-minute orientation film, followed by a self-guided and self-paced tour of the former president’s life, including service in World War II up through a presidency during the fall of the Berlin Wall and Iraq’s Desert Storm. A wide sidewalk connects the museum and library with the main campus and makes for a pleasant walk between the two for those so inclined.

You’ll want to walk for sure after breakfast at the Hullabaloo Diner in Wellborn, 15 minutes from College Station. The classic diner serves an Aggie Special — a 12-egg omelet — and pancakes as big as hubcaps, with everything made fresh.

Another good place to do that walking, Lick Creek Park nature preserve includes about five miles of dog-friendly natural and crushed stone hiking trails on 515 acres on the east side of town. From the parking lot, we took Iron Bridge Trail until it intersected Raccoon Run Trail, which looped back to Iron Bridge, for a pleasant 45-minute route through bird-filled woods. This park also has an equestrian parking area and nearly four miles of dedicated equestrian trails.

Lake Somerville State Park didn’t exist when I attended A&M, but my friends and I still spent a fair amount of time at the lake — studying, naturally. Now the two-part park includes Birch Creek Unit on the north side of the lake, closest to College Station, and Nails Creek Unit on the south. Birch Creek has tent, RV and equestrian camping; swimming and boating on the lake, with two boat ramps; a fishing jetty and cleaning station; and a variety of diversions including volleyball and basketball courts, horseshoe pits and almost 20 miles of trails.

The best of these is the Lake Somerville Trailway, a 13-mile route joining the two units through gently rolling terrain — wide-open meadows and woods of yaupon and oak — and over Yegua Creek. A Corps of Engineers dam on this constantly flowing creek created Lake Somerville. Much of the trail is sandy surface, and much of it is out in the open. There are two covered shelters with trail maps and several primitive campgrounds. A bird blind overlooks Flag Pond, a water impoundment in a natural depression along Yegua Creek. The pond attracts abundant waterfowl and is a popular hunting spot in season. A trail loops around the pond, intersecting with the trailway at either end. The park’s Nails Creek Unit has campsites, group picnic pavilions, a kid’s fishing pond, fish cleaning station, boat ramps and additional trails. Make the trailway a day hike by leaving a car here or arranging for pick-up. The two units are about a 30-minute drive apart.

I’ll even let you in on a little secret. We’ve camped at Birch Creek as an inexpensive and uncrowded alternative to hotels in town on Aggie football weekends. Just keep that to yourself.

Details:

• Bryan/College Station Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.visitaggieland.com, 979-260-9898

• Messina Hof Winery & Resort: www.messinahof.com, 979-778-9463

• Downtown Bryan Association: www.downtownbryan.com, 979-822-4920

• Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History: www.brazosvalleymuseum.org, 979-776-2195

• Texas A&M University visitors center: http://visit.tamu.edu, 979-845-5851

• Lake Somerville State Park and Trailway: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/lakesomerville, 979-535-7763


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