Destination of the Week: San Antonio
Sure, you know that's where the Alamo is, but chances are you'll be surprised by the developing eco-friendly scene in this Texas city.
Sat, Dec 19, 2009 at 12:39 PM
Photo: Al Rendon/San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau
San Antonio is most often remembered for the Alamo. So much is happening in this central Texas city, it’s a shame visitors are focused only on that single historic feature. S.A. is one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the U.S. It boasts a mixture of cultural influences and a surprisingly cosmopolitan vibe.
In many ways, San Antonio is an outside city. The central entertainment district is located on a lengthy riverside promenade known as the River Walk. There is also a central plaza and an impressive menu of parks and outdoor festivals.
Still, it is difficult to ignore San Antonio’s growing pains. Water-supply woes, new real estate developments and inadequate alternative transit options are just a few local issues with environmental implications. Though it is lagging behind the pace of development, the green movement has taken hold in certain sectors of the city.
As long as you have some comfortable walking shoes and a bit of information, San Antonio is a good destination for an eco-friendly vacation.
The Holiday Inn Northwest, near San Antonio’s popular SeaWorld, is in the process of renovations that will earn it the highly coveted LEED certification. This will be the first of the worldwide hotel giant’s franchises to earn such green cred. Environmentalists might finally find it palatable to lay their head in the most mainstream of mainstream hotels.
San Antonio's rapid growth has put a strain on the area’s water supply. The generally arid climate and non-stop suburban sprawl have forced the city to implement water restrictions. The Hilton Palacio del Rio Hotel, a towering inn on the San Antonio River Walk, is using new technology in an effort to conserve water. The Hilton installed new toilets that reduce the water used with each flush from 5 gallons to 0.8 gallons. That led to a savings of nearly 6 million gallons of water over the course of a year. It’s not a very glamorous accomplishment, but it is an impressive example of a business taking conservation measures into its own hands.
Most visitors to S.A. end up spending a majority of their time in the central plaza (where the Alamo is located) and along the adjacent River Walk. But there are other neighborhoods worth a stroll. Though it is often necessary to get behind the wheel when moving from point A to point B, foot-powered sightseeing is easy, especially in centrally located neighborhoods.
The River Walk is lined with restaurants, shops and entertainment venues. It also acts as an outdoor art museum. Public art installations make this a worthwhile place to stroll, even if boutiques, nightclubs and dining out aren’t on the agenda. During the summer months, barges float down the sunfish-filled river, offering visitors a different vantage point to appreciate the surroundings. A multimillion-dollar River Walk renovation is under way and slated for competition in 2014. The project will add hiking and bike trails and an aquatic habitat. Natural additions, such as native grasses and thousands of plants and trees, are also part of the expansion.
The King William District is an alternative sightseeing destination. King William is noted for its blocks and blocks of Victorian-era buildings. San Antonio’s West Side, traditionally filled with low-income neighborhoods, boasts building-sized murals that demonstrate the strong Latin American influence in the area.
Each spring, Fiesta San Antonio celebrates the city’s history and culture. It is a 10-day affair with parades, activities and food. Most of the events are outdoors. Nearly 3.5 million people attend each year, making it one of the largest public gatherings in the country. There are other less spectacular events throughout the year.
Green Restaurant sets the standard for low-impact eateries in San Antonio. As the name suggests, the menu is populated by vegetarian dishes. But the building itself also fits with the restaurant’s title. A thermal barrier installed in the roof helps to lessen energy consumption. A renovated turn-of-the-century building provides the foundation (and ambiance). Green also has a recycling program and a large bike rack to accommodate hungry cycle enthusiasts.
Like many fast-growing cities, San Antonio suffers from inadequate public transportation. The VIA Metropolitan Transit system runs a bus (built to resemble a street car) through the central areas of the city. High-traffic routes are served by buses that run every 15 minutes, but regular buses that run every 30 minutes, have fewer stops and generally reach their destination faster. Cars (or a large reserve of patience) are all but necessary for visitors who want to get beyond the River Walk and Central Plaza.
Bike enthusiasts who use their two wheelers to commute complain of dangerous, inconvenient conditions on San Antonio’s roadways. It is possible to pedal through many neighborhoods, but longer commutes are difficult, if not impossible. That said, the 2014 River Walk expansion will include bike paths. Mission Trail, an 8-mile-long paved path that passes four of the city’s historic missions, is a good option for those who want to pedal without fighting for a share of the road. The hills outside the city are crisscrossed with trails for riders who prefer dirt to pavement.
Thumbnail photo: Stephanie Colgan/San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau
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