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Lone Star Groovy

If you can't have fun in Austin, Texas, there must be something wrong with you.

by PAUL GERALD

I knew I was in the right place when I found myself sipping a mango margarita at a lakeside restaurant on a 60-degree January day, trying to decide if we should hike in the hills or go hear a band. This, I said to myself, is Austin the grooviest place in Texas.

Yes, Austin, where a person can spend the day having just about any kind of outdoor fun you can imagine, then go out at night and wallow in live music, good food, and cool micro-brewed beer. How varied is the fun to be had in Austin? A top-10 list put together by the readers of the Austin Chronicle includes the following: Watch a colony of 1.5 million bats take flight (that was actually No. 1), tour the nation's largest state capital building, check out Sixth Street (six Victorian-era blocks with several dozen bars and clubs), swim in the always-68-degree Barton Springs Pool ("a favorite local swimming hole for 10,000 years"), spend a day at Lake Travis (where there's even a nudist beach called Hippie Hollow), and hang out in 485-acre Zilker Park.

There are also dude ranches, wineries, an old-timey train trip through the hills, and more hip clubs, restaurants, and bars than you can shake your booty at. In other words, if you can't have fun in Austin, there's something wrong with you.

Its parks define daytime Austin: hiking trails, Frisbee golf courses that feature tosses over wooded ravines or around stands of live oak, picnic areas, swimming holes, fishing ponds, cliffs for rock climbing, a bicycle jump area, golf courses, tennis courts, horseback riding, a few dozen state parks around you get the idea.

All of this, and Austin is still "The Live Music Capital of the World." Everybody in Austin is into music rock, country, jazz, blues, Tejano, whatever and they have more than 100 venues to choose from. I was there just three nights and was introduced to such folks as Don Walser, a 67-year-old, 6-foot-4, 250-pound retired postal worker who also happens to be one of the last yodeling Texas cowboy singers. Asleep at the Wheel is more or less headquartered there, as are Junior Brown, who plays a one-piece steel guitar and electric guitar called a guit-steel, and Herman the German, who wears a World War I German hat on stage and plays a mean polka version of the Munsters theme song. This being Texas, there must be such oddities.

Austin is hip enough to have a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who grew up in Dallas but got his start musically at Antone's Night Club. The legendary Threadgill's did the same thing for Janis Joplin about 30 years ago and is still famous for down-home cooking and red-hot live music. Among the other notables to have cut their teeth in Austin's nightspots are Jerry Jeff Walker, Willie Nelson, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

I sent an e-mail to a few friends in Texas seeking advice on where to hang out in Austin. Here are some selections from their responses. Note the preponderance of margarita references.

EATS: Chuy's: total Elvis kitsch, plus pretty good Tex-Mex. Don't forget to have a swirl (lime margarita swirled with strawberry margarita) ... Shady Grove: a converted trailer park that has an awesome patio with live music and occasional late-night movies projected onto a screen that drops out of the trees ... Hula Hut: On Lake Austin, great place to watch the sunset and enjoy mango margaritas while sitting on a pier checking out the hills and munching on Polynesian/Mexican food ... El Arroyo: Barbecue chicken enchiladas and spinach queso with an atmosphere to die for. Dollar margaritas at happy hour once led to 13 stitches for an unnamed contributor.

DRINKS: Baby Acapulco: Rumor is the food is okay, but no one seems to remember because "the margaritas are lethal." The banana-berry margarita is a must ... Cedar Door: Specialties include Mexican Martinis (?) and lemon drops as well as complimentary ponchos in case you feel the need to sit on the patio in the dead of winter ... Hole In The Wall: Sells more Shiner Bock beer than any other place in the world, and you may be able to catch Mojo Nixon singing there when he's in town.

GENERAL HANGIN': Calle Ocho: a Mexican restaurant downtown. Upstairs on Thursday and Friday nights you can take free salsa/merengue lessons ... Emo's: This is the place to hang on weekends if you've got tattoos, piercings, and an alternative attitude ... The Back Room: Proves that the leather/Spandex crowd of the '80s still likes to rock. This is considered one of the most famous heavy-metal clubs in the world ... Liberty Lunch: Kinda like the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. An intimate mosh pit or love fest, depending on the show.

So, how do you get to Austin? It's about a 10-hour drive (through Little Rock and Dallas) or as low as a $118 round-trip ticket on Greyhound. Most airline fares from Memphis start at over $400, but occasional (and very restricted) discounts are available.

Your best bet by far is to drive to Little Rock and fly from there. Southwest offers $158 round-trip tickets if purchased seven days ahead, and Delta, American, and Northwest have a wealth of discounts available from Little Rock. As always, flexibility and phone calls on your part will keep fares down.

And you really should go. With the music that's happening there, 12,000 acres of greenbelt set aside to be enjoyed as such, and the average high temperature for the next few months in the 50s, Austin just seems a little too groovy to be in Texas.

(If you'd like to know more about Austin, call 800-888-8287 or check out http://visit.ci.austin.tx.us/.)

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