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WHEN HEADED SOUTH, SAMPLE THE TEX-MEX CULTURE

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - "Come on, Dad! San Antonio?"

My teenage sons, Rich and Chris, couldn't understand why we chose to take our annual family spring vacation in a city they knew very little about, San Antonio.

Their strong preference was Walt Disney World in Florida.

"It's been a long winter. Mom needs a warm-weather vacation," I said. "We've heard great things about San Antonio. I was born in Texas, and I've always wanted to go back there. Besides, we checked on Disney, and it's pretty much booked up."

By the time our week-long visit to San Antonio was over, our whole family was glad we had to "settle" for a vacation in this fun, festive and friendly Texas city. San Antonio was a gas.

I don't think I'd advise going there in the summer, when temperatures often soar into the high 90s. But I wouldn't hesitate in recommending San Antonio to any Western New York family searching for something just a bit different from the standard Florida vacation.

Proud of its history, brimming with Tex-Mex culture, music and food, this beautiful old city somehow manages to be lively and laid-back at the same time. It's a place where one can find spectacular architecture and a strong lesson for Buffalo on how to make use of waterfront land.

The party spirit of New Orleans can be found in this city of nearly 1.2 million people, but the whole family is invited to this bash.

"We party hard here. We have lots of bars, just like they do in New Orleans," the pilot of one water taxi told us on the San Antonio River.

"But the big difference is, you won't see anything here that will make your regret you brought the kids. The women in San Antonio don't take their tops off for beads."

Without a doubt, the city's centerpiece is the 2.8-mile Paseo del Rio, or River Walk, which snakes through the downtown area and is one of the true waterfront gems of America. Built by the Works Projects Administration during the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency, the River Walk owes much to an architect named Robert H.H. Hugman.

A true hero of his time, Hugman decided in the 1930s that he would put aside his busy practice and devote himself - virtually without payment - to making the River Walk one of the great tourist attractions of the American Southwest.

He, and those who pitched in with him, succeeded. For those who love to walk, eat, drink, party, listen to music or people-watch - or any combination of the above - it doesn't get much better than the River Walk. Cobblestone walkways and stone bridges follow the winding and narrow river, about 20 feet below the downtown streets. Walkways are shaded by tall oak, willow and cypress trees, with lush flower gardens and greenery everywhere.

The sound of music - from strolling mariachi bands, to Mexican minstrels on boats, to jazz, to Texas blues - is everywhere. The smoky smell of barbecue hangs in the air, but almost every kind of restaurant can be found along the water's edge. The water is just four feet deep and jade green in appearance, but only because of the algae on the bottom. The water itself is actually quite clean, and in fact, this whole section of the river is sealed off, drained and replaced with fresh water once a year.

We made sure to book a room at one of the many hotels near the River Walk, and that proved to be a smart choice. We were drawn to the river night after night, often returning in the daytime. Even our two teens enjoyed strolling and watching thousands of people in the dozens of restaurants, outdoor cafes, music clubs, beer halls and shopping centers along the way.

We especially enjoyed the bustling area around the Rivercenter Mall - not so much for the mall, but for the exotic music of Andean Fusion, an amazing band from Peru who perform outside the mall almost every day. I can still hear their haunting version of "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly," the title song from an old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western.

As I walked along the river, it pained me each time I thought about how Western New York has failed, again and again, to come up with a waterside attraction like this. Then again, I thought, it still isn't too late for Buffalo to develop its own showplace project. Maybe the Adelphia waterfront development is a step in the right direction ... Oh well.

Once a year, in April, San Antonio erupts into a huge nine-day party called "Fiesta San Antonio." We didn't catch the fiesta on our trip, but it sounded worth returning for someday. We were told that the River Parade, with hundreds of floats on the water, is spectacular.

The River Walk, by itself, was almost worth the trip, but we found many other highlights in San Antonio.

To name a few:

- The Alamo. The battered fortress where Davey Crockett, Jim Bowie and others died in the fight for Texas' independence is a must-see for anyone with even a mild interest in history. Tour guides do a fine job telling the story of how Texas freedom fighters were overwhelmed by Mexico's General Santa Anna in 1836. A nearby museum and IMAX theater help flesh out the stirring tale.

- The Menger Hotel. The rustic grandeur of this 142-year-old hotel leaves one with a real sense of what life was like for the wealthy folks of the old West. Among the many guests in ages past were Theodore Roosevelt, who would hold court into the wee hours at the Menger bar, and actor John Wayne, who stayed in the hotel while making a movie about the Alamo.

- Market Square. Transform the Broadway Market from Polish to Mexican, add a beer hall, and you have a pretty good picture of Market Square. The market has some of the downtown area's best Tex-Mex food, and is the headquarters for many activities at the annual fiesta.

- San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. Four missions, which are a combination of churches and fortresses, were built in the 1720s and 1730s. They're still standing, still hosting some religious services and still worth seeing, especially for the adults.

- King William Historic District. Just off the River Walk is this elegant neighborhood, with dozens of striking mansions built in the 1800s by San Antonio's wealthiest residents. A couple of the homes have been turned into museums, and one of them, the amazing Guenther House, has a very nice outdoor restaurant. We spent one of our favorite afternoons walking through this lovely neighborhood.

- San Antonio Zoo and the Japanese Sunken Gardens. A first-rate zoo, with some offbeat animal exhibits, including a very cool hippo pond and an Australian Outback area. (Watching two warthogs getting into a nasty fight was a real eye opener.) The Japanese gardens, just across the street, features tropical flower gardens, tranquil pools, winding walkways and the perfect admission fee - none.

- Buckhorn Saloon & Museum. The original 118-year-old bar, where cowboys used to trade cattle horns for a drink, still serves cold Lone Star beer. The museum is a monument to every one of Texas' excesses. Generally, I don't much care for the idea of shooting, stuffing and displaying animals, but I must say the display of animals here - including a sheep with three heads - is rather amazing. The kids will enjoy this place.

- Sea World of Texas and the Six Flags Fiesta Texas theme park. OK, amusement parks can be built anywhere, but a successful family vacation often depends on having one or two of these places nearby. We didn't get to Six Flags, but all four of us had a fine time at Sea World. We especially enjoyed the dolphin pool, where we were surprised to find that park patrons are allowed right up to the water's edge to pet these athletic sea mammals.

We didn't get to see everything in San Antonio, but we found plenty to fill up a week. And plenty to keep two teens interested enough that they never once said a word about Disney World.

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