Austin is consistently ranked as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. High-rises have mushroomed, and housing prices have skyrocketed, yet enclaves dedicated to preserving the city’s cherished slogan, “Keep Austin Weird,” are alive and well. Quirky antique stores sit adjacent to upscale boutiques, country dance halls are overshadowed by residential towers, and Eeyore’s Birthday Party, an idiosyncratic festival founded in the early 1960s and named after one of the characters in the Winnie the Pooh children’s stories, continues to draw locals, alongside the more elaborate and equally beloved Austin City Limits and South by Southwest music festivals.
New hotels have burgeoned in tandem with Austin’s growth, yet they have been aimed primarily at young travelers in the high-tech and entertainment sectors of the local economy. The bedrooms tend to be small, the dining areas crowded and noisy, and the staff, often students at the University of Texas, well-meaning but in need of training. I have been waiting for a property of distinction to arrive on the scene. My wish appeared to have come true last June with the much-anticipated debut of the Commodore Perry Estate, the first urban property from the Auberge Resorts Collection. But due to the pandemic, it is only recently that I have finally been able to pay the hotel a visit.
Perched on a knoll and surrounded by a 10-acre estate, the Perry mansion is a 10,800-square-foot Italianate structure that dates from 1928, the height of the Jazz Age. It was built for cotton shipping tycoon Edgar Perry, nicknamed “Commodore” by his friends after his boat washed away during a flood on Lake Austin. He and his wife, Lutie, were known for hosting lavish Gatsby-esque parties. In 1944, Perry sold the house, as it was, in his opinion, “too big to live in.”
Today, the property is enclosed by a stone wall and includes manicured English-style gardens dotted with fountains and sculptures, immaculately maintained rose gardens and an oval swimming pool surrounded by a small bar, bright canary-yellow-and-white-striped umbrellas and comfortable loungers. The 54 guest accommodations are divided between the mansion and a newly built inn with a more contemporary design.
As we stepped into the lobby, we paused to admire the 360-degree mural depicting a calm Texas Hill Country landscape. Check-in was handled efficiently in a lounge located just off the foyer, which was decorated with a large portrait of Perry, a heavy brass armillary sphere and striking ebony sculptures. When Auberge purchased the estate in 2017, the highly regarded Ken Fulk was brought on board to design the property’s interior décor. He painstakingly collected furniture and decorative objects, many from the Original Round Top Antiques Fair, a two-week event held about an hour from Austin.
The rooms in the inn are set around a central Spanish-style courtyard. It was once shaded by palm trees, but unfortunately they did not survive the snowstorm that hit the city in February. As a result, the courtyard lacked shade and was uncomfortably hot. Matters improved greatly inside. Our Night Jasmine Junior Suite featured a spacious interior with a crisp white couch, French doors opening to a Juliet balcony, a four-poster king-size bed and a shower-only bath with a walk-in dressing area and colorful terra-cotta tile floors. Highlights of Fulk’s whimsical design included a light fixture resembling an oversize Mason jar filled with small strings of bulbs and a 1920s-style bar cart. Sunlight streamed in and we felt far removed from the city, even though the property is only 3 miles north of downtown. Minor annoyances included an absence of electrical outlets beside the bed, and the busy signal we frequently received when calling the front desk.
Sunlight streamed in to our Night Jasmine Junior Suite and we felt far removed from the city, even though the property is only 3 miles north of downtown.
The historic mansion comprises several tranquil lounges, a circular wood-paneled library and an intimate cocktail bar, as well as four grand guest suites. (Toward the end of our stay, we toured the suites. Each is individually decorated and a sight to behold. The most astonishing was the LaVerne Suite, with its floor-to-ceiling, pattern-on-pattern pink décor.) Meals can be taken on a loggia overlooking the gardens, in a dining room appointed with deep-eggplant-colored booths or in the solarium (our favorite space), a bright, naturally lit room with high ceilings and green floral curtains. As much as we loved relaxing in the solarium, service there was disappointingly slow. On one occasion, it took nearly 45 minutes for our glasses of wine to be served. And at breakfast, our drinks didn’t arrive until the end of the meal. The hotel’s main restaurant, Lutie’s, offers “Texas heritage cuisine.” Both my sunchoke falafel starter and grilled quail with hominy were tasty, but the prices are high, the portions are small and the service, once again, was sluggish.
Throughout our stay, we wondered how the service could be so glacial when the hotel was not booked to capacity. We speculated that COVID-related staff shortages could be to blame. However, we also learned that a membership program with 250 participants (each of whom pays roughly $10,000 to join, plus a monthly $175 fee) grants unrestricted access to the resort’s facilities and gives priority for reservations at Lutie’s. Members were relatively easy to recognize – many being solitary individuals spending hours in the public areas on their laptops — and hotel guests seemed at times to be in the minority. Possibly, Auberge has extended membership to more people than was wise.
Despite the resort’s relative proximity to a busy street and a strip mall, it sits adjacent to the historic Hyde Park neighborhood across from a nine-hole golf course dating from 1899. From the gardens of the estate, we heard an occasional car honk and could see an unattractive Goodyear Tires sign, but these should no longer be of concern once the trees grow in. Plans to build a second pool, tennis courts, a spa and several stand-alone residences are in the works since only five of the property’s 10 acres have been developed. Clearly, there are a few kinks, with service issues and staff training a top concern, but overall the Commodore Perry is a sophisticated property that is a welcome addition to the roster of Austin hotels.
The one-of-a-kind decorative appointments handpicked by noted designer Ken Fulk; the welcoming lounges; the manicured gardens.
The consistently slow service; members greatly outnumbered hotel guests.
The hotel’s Vintage Society offers complimentary tastings hosted by local winemakers and sommeliers on most Tuesdays.
The new Hotel Magdalena opened last September and is situated in Music Lane, a mixed-use complex of high-end boutiques, offices and restaurants in the popular South Congress neighborhood. Part of the Bunkhouse Group, the Magdalena is the sister property to the Hotel Saint Cecilia, a distinctive hideaway located just a block away and recommended since 2009. Comprising 89 rooms within four buildings linked by outdoor walkways, the hotel is centered on an outdoor pool and the Summer House on Music Lane restaurant. The expansive grounds have large green spaces planted with mature bigtooth maple, little gem magnolia and live oak heritage trees.
The land on which the property stands was the site of the Austin Opry House, a music venue created by Willie Nelson in the 1970s.
Driving up to the entrance, we found an unmanned valet desk. There was no signage for parking or the lobby. We left our car and wandered around until we found reception. At check-in, the young staffer explained in a rehearsed speech that the hotel is the first North American property of its kind to be constructed in the ecofriendly prefabricated mass-timber style and that its interior design is meant to resemble a classic 1950s Texan lake house. The land on which the property stands was the site of the Austin Opry House, a music venue created by Willie Nelson in the 1970s. The décor pays homage to this period with original black-and-white pictures taken by local photographer Scott Newton, who cataloged the start of Austin’s flourishing music scene.
In our Sunset Suite, the cold entry space — described on the hotel website as a “spacious seating area for lounging” — came with concrete floors and two small barrel chairs. Aside from yellow sculptural bedside lamps, the room lacked adornments of any kind and had very little light. As our lodging was situated beside the pool, we were often disturbed by noise and, from our screened-in patio, we could overhear full conversations coming from the rowdy crowd at the poolside bar. When we asked to change rooms, we were told that noise would not be a problem in the evening after the bar had closed. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case, as guests brought drinks to the pool from the restaurant. We kept our windows closed and our blinds down to maintain a sense of privacy.
When checking in, the receptionist had suggested we make dinner reservations in advance because Summer House on Music Lane tended to fill up quickly. She declined to call them on our behalf, instead directing us to the hostess, who quickly said she could seat us no earlier than 9:30 p.m. As hotel guests, we were surprised that she would not make an exception and disappointed that we had not been told when booking that this might be a problem. I left my phone number so she could let me know if an earlier slot became available. Luckily, the restaurant did call. Our waitress, Elora, greeted us effusively. She had overheard our interaction with the hostess earlier and wanted to do everything she could to make amends. The kitchen specializes in wood-fire grilling, rotisserie-roasted meats and breads and pastries, and she insisted that we try all the house favorites. She presented us with complimentary treats throughout the meal and did the same the next morning at breakfast. Elora’s professionalism and enthusiasm were the best aspects of our stay.
Aside from vintage records, Newton’s archival photographs and antique record players, the Magdalena bears little resemblance to the Hotel Saint Cecilia. It attracts a youthful, boisterous crowd and lacks any feeling of exclusivity or gentility.
The archival photography on display throughout the property; the proximity to the South Congress neighborhood.
The noisy pool bar; the depressing décor of our room’s seating area.
Make dining reservations prior to arrival, as hotel guests are not guaranteed seating.
I wasn’t quite ready to concede that the Saint Cecilia is the only property worthy of recommendation south of downtown, so I booked a stay at Colton House Hotel, an all-suite property in a modern brick structure, which opened in January on South Congress.
Upon arrival, several guests were checking in. The groups were surprisingly varied: one older couple with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel; a family with three children ranging in ages from maybe 5 to 16; four younger women dressed to impress; and a solo traveler in an immaculate double-breasted suit with a stylish leather Hermès briefcase. We strolled through the lounges adjacent to the lobby. Patricia Rios of Troo Designs has done a magnificent job in creating elegant and restful public areas throughout the hotel. Over the course of our stay, we kept discovering rooms furnished with inviting sofas, long working tables with conveniently placed plugs and well-stocked bookshelves. The Club Room has a kids’ corner where two children were playing with an old-fashioned rocking sheep and a dinosaur puzzle.
Having checked us in, the charming receptionist, Tyler, carried our bags to our two-bedroom, two-bath suite. This hotel’s 80 one-, two- and three-bedroom residential-style lodgings range from 460 to 1,170 square feet, and many come with washer-dryers, kitchens and spacious living and dining areas. Though our suite was bigger than we needed (it had been the only accommodation available when our agent booked our stay), the décor was fresh; the furnishings pristine and ideally placed; and the space immaculately clean. The full-size kitchen was equipped with numerous appliances, plus high-end cutlery and dishes. Other highlights of our suite were strong water pressure in the showers, and the abundance of storage and hanging space. The views of an apartment complex across the street left something to be desired, but the large windows let in an abundance of light. Our only real complaint was that the water had a rusty taste, and there was no filter.
The full-size kitchen was equipped with numerous appliances, plus high-end cutlery and dishes.
The hotel’s bar-lounge, Simona’s Coffee + Cocktails, advertised “delicious, gourmet grab-and-go snacks.” On our first day around lunchtime, the only meal left was a boxed salad with cranberries, beets and mixed greens. The bartender informed us that a new shipment would be arriving in the morning. The next day, we noticed the same sad-looking salad sitting on the otherwise empty shelf. Aside from the lack of food options, Simona’s is a lovely spot decorated with leather Chesterfield sofas, vintage chandeliers and bistro tables. The signature Colton House Punch, available by the glass or carafe, mixes Waterloo Antique gin, Bigallet thyme liqueur, Lillet blanc, Liber & Co. fig syrup and ginger-curry bitters. The bar faces out to an expansive backyard with a spacious deck, fire pits and a swimming pool. Because several excellent restaurants are within a short drive and hotel staff can arrange food delivery to your room, we were not especially disheartened by the absence of on-site dining options. Colton House is a stylish, well-located hotel with notably accommodating staff.
The spacious residential-style rooms; the stylish décor with a strong sense of place; the exceptionally hospitable staff.
The lack of a formal restaurant; the subpar grab-and-go items sold at Simona’s Coffee + Cocktails.
Private yoga sessions can be arranged upon prior request.
Our final stop was The Wayback, a quaint hideaway just 20 minutes, but a world away, from downtown. Situated on a 3-acre property bordering the Barton Creek nature preserve, the hotel is near the heart of the Texas Hill Country, a picturesque region known for its wineries, distilleries and outdoor recreation areas, including Enchanted Rock and Lyndon B. Johnson State Park. The Wayback opened in late 2018 as a passion project for Vicki Bly and her daughter Sydney Sue. After Bly purchased the land, the mother-daughter team planned to open a small coffee shop, as they felt that the area needed a place for friends to gather. Both women are amateur artists and, though they lacked formal training in architecture, they “drew every square inch of this property on graph paper.” As they worked out the particulars, the project began to grow. In the end, they had created a boutique hotel with a collection of eight guest cottages, a swimming pool and a café.
At reception, Bly greeted us warmly and asked if we needed any tips for sightseeing. We were disappointed to learn that the restaurant had already closed at 3 p.m., but she was quick to offer us a glass of wine. And the chef was insistent on making us a meat-and-cheese board despite our assurances that we would just head to a restaurant in the vicinity. (At checkout, we were surprised to see that we had been charged for both.)
Since there was no one to help with our bags, we dragged them down the gravel pathway, where their wheels kept getting stuck. Our unpretentious board-and-batten cottage was small but cozy. The interior featured a rustic-chic farmhouse décor with light wood floors, a restful blue-and-cream color scheme, a gas fireplace flanked by two sea-green upholstered chairs and a small kitchenette. As we settled onto the couch with our glasses of wine, we spied a minuscule television in the corner that was little bigger than a computer screen. A white tufted ottoman served as the room’s “coffee table,” but we were disinclined to use it for fear of leaving a permanent stain. Our booking confirmation had come with an intimidating list of strictures: The property would claim compensation for “damages to furnishing, including, but not limited to wine and blood stains;” “fire pit fires are RISKY and must be tended by Wayback staff only” (though we never saw a staff member on the premises in the evening); and any visitors “must be approved in writing.”
Since there was no one to help with our bags, we dragged them down the gravel pathway, where their wheels kept getting stuck.
We were looking forward to our meals at the restaurant, as it had been a popular brunch spot for Austinites before the pandemic. The lunch and dinner menus turned out to be rather similar, however, with potato-leek-spinach soup, crab cakes and crispy chicken breast dishes featured on both. We found the soup unoriginal despite its being highly recommended by our server. The crab cakes offered a generous portion of meat, but the crust was not crunchy because the yuzu vinaigrette from the accompanying shaved fennel salad had soaked through the bottom. Fortunately, our main course at dinner proved more appetizing: The blackened snapper paired with a corn succotash was delightfully flavorful thanks to chile powder and jalapeño. And a molten chocolate cake dessert, though not thoroughly heated through, was accompanied by delicious rich cardamom-infused whipped cream. Alas, at breakfast, my avocado toast was bland and a homemade croissant was cold and stiff. Though The Wayback provides an escape from the city during hot Texas summers, the friendly owners are inexperienced, and the food is frankly average.
The welcoming mother-daughter owners; the attractive central swimming pool.
The lackluster restaurant fare; its situation off a busy highway.
This is a convenient base from which to visit distilleries and wineries in the area.