Often regarded as a "blue island" in the conservative red sea that is Texas, the Lone Star State's capital city of Austin is also the 11th-largest city in the country (population 845,000, and growing rapidly). Just an hour-or-so north of San Antonio (it's well worth trying to spend time in both places when in the region), Austin is one of the top destinations in the South and Southwest (it can arguably be considered a part of either region) among gay and lesbian travelers, owing in large part to the city's liberal mindset, creative vibe, collegiate presence (it's home to the main campus of University of Texas), and outdoorsy appeal - it's worth noting that Austin's Hippie Hollow Park is one of the most popular gay (and clothing-optional) beaches in the country.
Austin's hotel landscape has been in a boom phase for some time now, and it shows little sign of slowing down. Right in the downtown core, where several shiny skyscrapers have gone up in recent... years, you'll find a number of noteworthy, stylish properties, from historic old-world hotels that have long been popular with visiting dignitaries and politicos to swanky newcomers - most of Austin's gay bars are downtown. Across the river, around the hipster-minded South Congress neighborhood, you'll find a number of distinctive, gay-popular options, from affordable motels to design-y boutique hotels to gorgeous B&Bs. Other relatively central pockets of both hotels and inns include the I-35 corridor north of downtown (toward University of Texas campus), and another big stretch of I-35 several miles farther north, extending from the junction with U.S. 290 north to around Rundberg Lane. Up in this area, you're just a 10-minute drive from downtown, but you'll find far lower rates. In northwest Austin, around the Arboretum area, and a 15- to -20-minute drive from downtown (bear in mind that there is a bit of a traffic problem in this part of the world), you'll find a number of mid- to upscale business-oriented hotels, and then well west of downtown out in the Hill County and around Lake Travis (and aforementioned Hippie Hollow), there are a handful of outstanding resorts, inns, and even additional chain options.
Another helpful resource for learning about accommodations in the area is the Austin CVB Lodging site, which lists more than 200 properties in the region.
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The endearingly old-school Austin Motel (1220 S. Congress Ave., 512-441-1157) is one of those family-owned, low-frills, independent "tourist courts" that proliferated throughout the country during the mid-20th century and is now, at least in most big cities, a rarity. This particular 41-room motel opened in 1938 and retains its vintage vibe, its units containing old-fashioned tile bathrooms, hardwood floors, offbeat murals and framed paintings, and unpretentious but well-chosen antiques - no two rooms are quite the same, and the staff (including friendly feline lobby clerk Rocky-Zuko) is welcoming and friendly. The motel is situated along one of the trendiest stretches of indie-spirited retail, bar-hopping, and dining in the city, South Congress - dozens of fun hangouts are within walking distance, and it's just a 15- to 20-minute walk across Lady Bird Lake (the Colorado River) to the heart of downtown. Accommodations range from small, simple, and extremely affordable... standards with one bed to larger units with two beds to about 10 fancier and larger suites - some of them opening directly to the pool and sunning area, and some with unusual features, like Saltillo-tile floors and substantial sitting areas. Rates for the simplest rooms start at $95 with tax, which is an unheard-of bargain in this part of town. On-site amenities include bike rentals and the adjacent Snack Bar restaurant, an open-air eatery serving creative brunch, lunch, and dinner fare (baked egg hash with sweet potato and Brussels sprouts, vermicelli noodle bowls, mac-and-cheese, Korean fried chicken), using local ingredients - there's a notable cocktail, wine, and craft-beer list, too. Here's a bit more about the Austin Motel.
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It may be in the heart of downtown Austin, steps from hip restaurants and gay bars, but the elegant Four Seasons Austin (98 San Jacinto Blvd., 512-478-4500) feels surprisingly peaceful and almost resort-like, with its location on Lady Bird Lake (the Colorado River) - its leafy grounds overlook the lake and offer direct access to the pedestrian trail along the water (as well as Congress Avenue Kayak, where you can rent both kayaks and paddleboards). Also in this peaceful area behind the hotel, guests can swim in the hotel pool, relax on a patio, and enjoy an alfresco meal at the outstanding Trio restaurant, which serves three meals daily (with an emphasis on creative seafood and steaks) and also has one of the best happy hour deals in town (5 till 7 pm, Monday - Saturday, with $5 off everything on the bar menu, 50% off wines by the glass, and complimentary valet parking), and a great Sunday brunch, also. Furthering the luxury-hideaway vibe is the 5,500-square-foot Spa at Four Seasons... Austin, an expansive, beautifully designed space with eight treatment rooms (it's open to nonguests by appointment). The 291 generous-sized rooms overlook the city or lake (both views are nice, but the lake-side rooms help you to feel even more like you're on a relaxing vacation) and have undergone and extensive recent renovation - they're outfitted with terry bathrobes, iHome alarm clocks, DVD players, and L'Occitane bath products; many have small balconies. Austin's Four Seasons opened in 1987 and has been a favorite address of visiting politicos and dignitaries ever since.
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Innkeepers and life partners Bess Giannakakis - a long-established chef - and Blaise Bahara - who has a corporate background in events management and interior design - bring together their passions and talents at the unpretentiously stylish and wonderfully inviting Gateway Guesthouse (1001 E. Riverside Dr., 512-326-2646), a centrally located compound within walking distance of Lady Bird Lake and the hip South Congress retail and entertainment district. The property has six eclectic, upscale accommodations that suit pretty much every style of travel - there's everything from a spacious and romantic Master Retreat suite on the second floor of the main house, which has a private deck, views of the downtown skyline, and a classic decorative scheme, to boldly envisioned studio with a 12-foot ceiling, outdoor sitting area, and a crisp, urbane black-and-white color scheme. The Loft has a private deck and entry and interior stairs leading to an inviting sleeping area, while the Carriage... House has its own kitchen and living room and is ideal for longer stays. There are also a couple of smaller, more economical rooms in the main house. The outbuildings in back are separated from the main house - a 1919 stunner in historic Travis Heights - by a small yard, elegant lap pool, and adjacent in-ground hot tub. You can enjoy a full-cooked breakfast on the back terrace or in your room - Bess's creations are creative and delicious, and she can also, on request, prepare poolside happy hour fare, picnics to take with you on outings to Lake Travis, and memorable four-course dinners. The owners have also developed a distinctive and very popular Texas Town to Country package with friends of their who operate the stunning Tres Lunas inn a couple of hours west in the scenic Texas Hill County - the deal includes two nights at each property, on-site spa services, limo transport, cooking classes, dining, and more - it's a pretty amazing way to experience both Austin and the Hill County in supreme style.
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With its secluded, hilltop setting in the foothills west of the city, near Lake Travis and gay-popular Hippie Hollow Park, the stylish and relaxing Travaasa Austin (13500 Farm to Market Road 2769, 877-261-7792) makes a perfect getaway for visitors seeking an outdoorsy spa getaway that's close enough to downtown Austin to enjoy local nightlife and dining. A stay at Travaasa can be as relaxing or active as you wish - this 210-acre spread offers a wide range of diversions, including treatments in a gorgeous spa with 11 treatment rooms, a hot tub and dry sauna, and access to an inviting saline infinity pool. But guests can also sign up for classes on cooking, wine-tasting, sketching and drawing, ecology, Texas two-step dancing - even playing the harmonica (the sometimes offbeat programming here is definitely part of the fun). There are also outdoor fitness courses to conquer, and opportunities for hiking, horseback, archery, biking, yoga, and - this is Texas after all - a workout on a... mechanical bull. The slew of things to do make this a very fun getaway for couples and groups of friends. There's also a stellar restaurant, the Preserve Kitchen & Bar, serving contemporary Texas fare. And accommodations are plush and inviting - try booking one of the rooms with a balcony overlooking the canyon on which the property is perched. The resort has a fabulous sister property, the Hotel Hana Maui Travaasa, in Hawaii.Continue to 5 of 5 below.
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Downtown Austin upped its glam-factor greatly when the sleek, 37-story W Austin Hotel (200 Lavaca St., 512-542-3600) opened in 2010, just a couple of blocks north of Lady Bird Lake (the Colorado River) and a couple of blocks south of the gay-bar strip in the Warehouse District. Like other members of Starwood's design-drive W brand, this glitzy urban resort is a blend ultra-cushy amenities, bold color schemes and patterns, decadently comfy guest rooms, and buzzy and fun public spaces. Rooms fit city's techie-rocker-hipster mindset - think plush beds with soft white goose-down duvets and Sferra throws, leather headboards, and LED lights. Amenities include iPod docks and high-tech work desks, and the dapper bathrooms are stocked with Bliss spa products. Super-swish suites come with massive sitting areas and deep soaking tubs. Of course, you're in Austin - it's an open question as to just how much time you're going to spend in your room. The W has some of the most... playfully invited common spaces of any hotel in the city, including a long rectangular 4th-floor pool with poolside Kasbah and Cabana rentals available. On the same floor, you'll find the serenely inviting but unfussy AWAY Spa, with an extensive range of treatments that include what may be the best combination spa offering in town, the rock-themed, 105-minute "Over The Hills and Far Away" treatment, that includes full body massage, coconut-sugar scrub, full-body dry-brushing, parafango wax, a mini facial, and a few more happy moves. Off the lobby, the inviting Living Room comprises several natty social spaces, from a Records Room decked with 8,000 vinyl LPs and warmed by a fireplace, the Tequila Bar, the cozy Secret Bar, and the breezy Screened Porch, which is really the street-side patio of the W's exceptional restaurant, TRACE, where you can nosh on superbly crafted mod-Texan cuisine, from wild game to local artisan cheeses.