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Prince of a Town

Destination: New Braunfels

By Katie Armstrong Nelson

Travel time from:

  • Austin - .75 hour /
  • Brownsville - 5 hours /
  • Dallas - 4 hours /
  • Houston - 3 hours /
  • San Antonio - .5 hours /
  • Lubbock - 6.75 hours
  • El Paso - 9.5 hours /

New Braunfels brims with water fun, rich history, scenic caves and tasty German sausage.

There is nothing more attractive in Texas heat than cool water, especially if it comes in the form of fun as well as a cool drink. In New Braunfels, the Comal and Guadalupe rivers lure people with their blue-green waters and currents perfect for floating downstream. New Braunfels is a Hill Country mecca for tubers and rafters, and it's also home to Schlitterbahn, one of North America's top water parks.

But there's more to New Braunfels than water, because it's also a city that celebrates its German heritage proudly. In 1845 Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels chose land situated near the confluence of the Comal and Guadalupe rivers as a settlement for German immigrants to Texas. Those rivers served as a source of water, power and recreation for the early settlers of New Braunfels – the city Prince Carl founded and named after his homeland.

Although spending three days in the water was tempting, I decided to focus my tour of New Braunfels around its history and heritage, which run as deep as its rivers. My mother Joy and I begin our adventure at an underground spot – 180 feet underground, to be exact. In 1960 four university students discovered Natural Bridge Caverns, named for a stone bridge that crosses the sinkhole near the north cavern.

An attraction since the caverns opened to the public in 1964, the Natural Bridge Caverns complex is a family destination consisting of cave tours, a climbing wall and an exotic wildlife ranch. There's even a mining sluice where young prospectors can pan for gems and fossils in soil bought from the Natural Bridge Mining Company. (Tip: Pricier soil yields more treasures.)

Mom and I opt for a combination tour of the north and south caverns. Our first tour leads us deep into the south cavern, which has only been open for tours since 2002. The magic of the crystallized limestone formations in the south cabin is in their delicacy. In addition to stalagmites that reach up from the floor and stalactites that hang from the ceiling like giant carrots, we see a 14-foot-long soda straw – the second longest in North America.

A thin sheet of cave drapery clinging to the side of the wall catches my eye. Noticing the striations in color, I tell Mom, "That reminds me of pancetta." Our guide informs us that cavers refer to that kind of drapery as "cave bacon." Our tour of the south cavern concludes with the lights out. The cave's velvety darkness and cool humid air swallow us completely – it is so dark, I can't even see my hand in front of my face.

Our second tour takes us into the north cavern, which contains five large rooms, including one the size of a football field. Awe-inspiring formations resemble thrones and mushroom clouds, and one 50-foot-tall column reaches from floor to ceiling. We also peer at blind cave crickets and evidence that bats once called the caverns home – ancient bat guano still litters some areas of the cave, and because of the moist air, it retains its original sliminess.

After nearly a full day in the caverns, we head to town in search of rest and something to eat. Home base for our trip is the historic Prince Solms Inn, built by Emilie Eggeling and Christian Henry in 1898. Located just north of New Braunfels' main plaza, the charming two-story inn was run by the Eggeling family for more than 50 years. The cheerful exterior gives way to high ceilings and ornate furnishings inside.

In addition to providing a rest stop for travelers from around the globe, in the past the inn has hosted murder mystery dinners. It's even rumored that the ghost of a jilted bride inhabits the 110-year-old building. Today cheerful innkeeper Al Buttross and his staff operate the inn as a bed and breakfast, serving a full country breakfast every morning to hungry guests.

From our inn it's a quick stroll to New Braunfels' town center, which revolves around a turning circle. For a Friday afternoon, the streets are relatively quiet – I decide that most people are probably on the water. Our first stop downtown is the farmers' market at the First Protestant Church. The market is held Fridays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., from May 23 to December. Even though we arrive late, there is still plenty of produce and preserves to go around. We leave with plump purple eggplant, bright patty pan squash and a package of doughy cinnamon rolls.

Our appetites whetted by shopping, Mom and I decide on an early dinner at the Huisache Grill. The grill offers sandwiches, salads and entrees in a building dating from the 1920s. As we enter the restaurant, I notice the atmosphere buzzing with conversation and a youthful vibe that belie the sleepy streets outside. We order fried brie with raspberry chipotle sauce as an appetizer – who can resist fried cheese? The sweet and spicy sauce complements the crispy melted brie. For dinner we order twists on classic comfort food: I feast on stuffed chicken breast with penne, while Mom has fried catfish with sweet potato fries. Stuffed and satisfied, we leave happy.

Day two begins as any good day should: with a great breakfast. As soon as we sit down in the main dining room downstairs, we receive a plate of fresh fruit, tasty sausage and the inn's "sunrise eggs," baked in a muffin cup with cheese and herbs. Al kindly prints off the recipe for us (many of the inn's recipes are available on its Web site).

After breakfast Mom and I head over to the Sophienburg Museum, to learn more about New Braunfels' history. The museum, which opened in 1932, sits on a hill on which Prince Carl intended to build his home. But it wouldn't be just any home – he wanted to build a castle and name it after his fiancée, the Lady Sophia. Sophienburg means "Sophie's castle" in German. As the story goes, once Sophia heard about the "primitive" living conditions in Texas, she refused to leave Germany. After only nine months in Texas, Prince Carl went back to Germany to marry Sophia and never returned to his city in the New World.

Before viewing the exhibits, we watch a museum video about the history of New Braunfels. Prince Carl was the first commissioner general of the Adelsverein, a group of German noblemen who aimed to establish a new Germany on Texas soil by means of mass emigration. From 1844 to 1847, more than 7,000 immigrants came from Germany to Texas. Why were so many Germans willing to leave their home for a faraway land? Plagued by overcrowding, class differences, heavy taxation and adverse economic conditions in their homeland, German immigrants looked to Texas for a fresh start and a future for their children.

After the video, we head into the exhibit hall, a treasure trove of 19th- and early 20th-century artifacts. As we enter, we see a model of the interior of a ship that carried immigrants to Texas. The rest of the exhibits are organized like a town, with recreations of a home, pharmacy, schoolhouse and more. I enjoy seeing a Studebaker carriage from 1875, and I imagine myself wearing the garb of a woman in the late 1800s: boots, a corset, knickers and a delicate full-cover cotton dress. Looking down at my flip-flops, jean skirt and T-shirt, I give thanks for today's less modest clothing standards. All of the artifacts in the museum's collection were either brought over from Germany or made in New Braunfels by the settlers. Descendants of those original founding families have donated items to the museum since it opened.

In addition to the exhibits, the Sophienburg also has archives focusing on German-Texan genealogy. The archives contain more than a million photographs, newspapers, original written records and government and church records. Instead of perusing these, Mom and I decide to wrap up our visit at Sophie's Shop, a year-round Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) full of dainty glass ornaments. I leave with a pickle ornament, which in German tradition is the last ornament to go on the tree.

From the Sophienburg, we drive over to Gruene (pronounced "green"), known as the home of Gruene Hall, Texas' oldest dance hall. The area was settled by German farmers in the 1850s, and in 1872 the Gruene family purchased 6,000 acres in the area. In 1878 Henry D. Gruene built a general store, a cotton gin and a dance hall to serve the families sharecropping his family's land. Although now contained in the city limits, Gruene retains an independent spirit that's reflected in the town slogan: "Gently resisting change since 1872."

But Gruene does more than resist change, as nearly all the town's attractions revolve around history. Mom and I wander into the Gruene General Store, with a soda fountain, homemade fudge and souvenirs. From there we browse the many antique shops. My favorites are The Gruene Antique Company, with more than 8,000 square feet of antiques and collectibles, and Fickle Pickles, a tiny shop with antiques ... and pickles. Mom tries one and pronounces it sweet, tart and crunchy: a perfect pickle.

After refreshing Italian sodas at the Gruene Coffee Haus, Mom and I take a late lunch at the Gristmill. The restaurant is located on the site of Gruene's original cotton mill, and it serves up casual classics in Texas-size portions. As we wait for our food, I enjoy the breeze in the open-air, wooden interior and come to a realization: Gruene has got that upscale-rustic thing down. Of the many menu selections, neither Mom nor I can resist the Gristburger, an enormous beef patty smothered in queso. Indulgent? Ab-solutely. But before I know it, I've eaten my entire burger, along with the crispy onion rings and delectable "gruene beans" we ordered on the side.

After lunch we waddle next door to Gruene Hall. The hall has earned fame for its age and for helping to launch the careers of music greats like George Strait. Even in the late afternoon the place is buzzing, as the Lost Immigrants play 1970s rock tunes to a sizable crowd. Gruene Hall has live music seven nights a week during the summer, and three to four days a week the rest of the year. While most night shows require advance tickets or a cover, Mom and I enjoy the afternoon concert for free.

From Gruene Hall we walk down to the Guadalupe River, where Mom and I dip our toes into the water and watch tubers shoot over rapids and drift downstream. Two tube rental companies service this part of the river, Rockin' R and the Gruene River Company. Families and groups of young people pass us by, looking happy and cool. Relaxing by the river is a nice way to wind down after a long day.

Despite beginning day three with another hearty inn breakfast, Mom and I can't resist stopping at Naegelin's Bakery, which was founded by Edouard Naegelin in 1868. The historical marker on the front of the building proclaims it is the oldest bakery in Texas. I can't help but notice a trend – is it fair for one city to have so much history? The bakery's offerings don't disappoint, and we leave with sweet German pretzels, spiced cookies and scrumptious chocolate cookies.

From the bakery we head to Landa Park, a scenic 196-acre park and golf course near downtown. The Comal River flows gently through the park, which also has an arboretum, miniature golf, a spring-fed pool, paddleboat rental and a miniature train. I relive my childhood a little by hopping on the miniature train with Mom, from which I see kids playing and families fishing and having picnics. Landa Park is also adjacent to grounds where Wurstfest is held every fall. Wurstfest, New Braunfels' "10-day salute to sausage," is a German heritage extravaganza complete with oompah bands, lederhosen and lots and lots of sausage.

Inspired by seeing the Wurstfest grounds, Mom and I decide our last stop in New Braunfels should be a German lunch at the Friesenhaus. The restaurant is run by the Dirks family, who immigrated to New Braunfels from Germany relatively recently, in 2005. A German bakery is located up front, and in the dining area dirndl-clad waitresses serve up traditional German food and beer. Our selections, pea soup and the sausage sampler plate, arrive quickly. The pea soup is tasty and hearty, while the sausage sampler comes with potatoes, warm sauerkraut and three different kinds of wurst. My favorite wurst, the delicate Bavarian weisswurst, brings me back to the biergartens of Germany, where I recently honeymooned.

With full stomachs we return to our car and I leave with the sense that New Braunfels is a place that embraces Texan culture while honoring the land of its origin. Whether it's the rivers or the wurst that brings me back, I know I'll return. But for now, it's auf Wiedersehen, New Braunfels.

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