Tuesday 23 July 2019

Don't mess with Texas: Taking Ireland's direct flight to Dallas

Direct flights between Ireland and Texas take off this weekend. Thomas Breathnach enjoys a trip to the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth

The shimmering Dallas skyline
The shimmering Dallas skyline
Until the cows come home: Fort Worth Stock Yards
Texan-style BBQ
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey, Dallas

Thomas Breathnach

I'm lost in a painting by artist Charles T. Bowling. The scene is a rough-hewn prairie farmhouse, shaded by little else but a windmill and a burnished Southern sky. Artists would call this genre Lone Star Realism, but here in downtown Texas, I couldn't be further from that vision.

I'm in the heart of the state's most infamous city, finding sanctuary in the air-conned refuge of the Dallas Museum of Art (dma.org).

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I'm not alone in my appreciation. With Ireland's only direct route to Texas taking off this weekend - an American Airlines service from Dublin to Dallas Fort Worth International - the saloon doors are swinging open for Irish travellers to the Lone Star State.

Touching down in Dallas feels as epic as the Dallas TV show credits themselves. The city's gleaming skyline is a bold salute to its oil-rich bling and, while it hasn't moved upwards since the Ewing years, it has certainly muscled out. Together with its sister city of Forth Worth, the so-called DFW Metroplex ranks as America's fourth largest conurbation, spanning a suburban Neverland the size of Munster. This is very much a city on the move.

As the financial powerhouse of the South, downtown Dallas feels staidly businesslike at first wander, but it is starting to loosen its collar. A flurry of regeneration is underway, something you'll spot at the trending Arts District, where along with stellar art museums, Klyde Warren Park has become a green patchwork of cool. Its manicured lawns are my first intro to the cast of urban Texas life; from suits grabbing food-truck burritos to hipsters partaking in lunch-time 'goga' (yes, that's yoga with goats).

Dallas' rustic roots, however, run a lot deeper than goga and South Fork ranch (30 miles north of the city, should you fancy the day-trip). The Dallas Farmers Market is one of America's oldest food exchanges, for example, showcasing farm-to-fork fare for over 75 years (dallasfarmersmarket.org).

The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey, Dallas
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey, Dallas
The shimmering Dallas skyline
Until the cows come home: Fort Worth Stock Yards
Texan-style BBQ

I join its morning congregation of friendly granola faithfuls to browse eclectic stalls offering everything from heirloom kale to vintage bricolages. Mudhen (mudheninthe.net) sates with delicious vegan vibes, while the coolest stall I encounter is the inner-city community initiative, Bonton Farms. The project is sprouting new life into the area, boosting employment and providing knock-out veggies into the bargain. I reckon my Magnolia kitchenette could do with some eggplant.

Looking for something more meaty? BBQ isn't just a food in Texas, it's a culture. Spicy slow-cooked brisket flanked with sides and slaw is the main staple and in Dallas, you won't go far wrong indulging in Lockhart Smokehouse (lockhartsmokehouse.com). In Fort Worth, try the food truck-turned-diner Heim BBQ (heimbbq.com).

Come evening, I'm hanging my stetson at Hotel Magnolia, a landmark Beaux-arts beauty topped by the iconic pegasus - a symbol for Dallas (and by little coincidence, Mobil, too). My room, fit for a junior oil exec, is a slick corner apartment suite with wrap-round city views spanning downtown to the horizon. It's hot, hazy and flat out there - and there's not a tumbleweed in sight.

Dallas is home to a seriously vibrant 'burb culture and come evening, I grab an Uber to one of its hottest neighbourhoods, Oak Lawn. Basking in summer al-fresco swelter, its main strip is a vibrant haul of gay bars, home design stores and quirky food shacks.

But with D-Town being the home of the frozen margarita, I head to the funky Taqueria La Ventana (taquerialeventana.com) for my cocktail fix. Marg in hand, I pull up a pew in the lively terrace and take in the street-life: from Mexican-American families on fiesta to herds of burly blokes visiting the North Texas Bear convention. I guess the Big D really is a Texas crossroads.

Leaving Dallas, I hit the spaghetti highways westwards to the city of Fort Worth. Less than 50km separates the city and, though over-shadowed by its bigger neighbour, Fort Worth has been riding the Texan population boom of late - today it's America's 15th largest city. It's a true urban hotbed of Texan culture, too: the so-called gateway to the west is the home of rodeo, honky tonk bars and cattle drives.

Texan-style BBQ
Texan-style BBQ
The shimmering Dallas skyline
Until the cows come home: Fort Worth Stock Yards
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey, Dallas

"Welcome to Cow-town, y'all!" as the saying goes.

Fort Worth charms with a more folksy vibe than Dallas, and nowhere more so than in the city's Stockyards district. Its cobbled crossroads of dusty Mission architecture are the perfect slideshow of saloons, generals stores and gambling parlours - if Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman needed a Happy Hour, here's where she'd find it. With all its tourist-driven preservation, there is a Disneyfied air to Fort Worth, but there's no faking the Texas pride that struts here. Nowhere do I encounter such sartorial nationalism than on the city's North Main Street. I'm actually feeling a little conspicuous without my 'Don't mess with Texas' t-shirt.

If pride comes before a fall, it's most likely to go down at Fort Worth's iconic rodeo arena, the Cowtown Coliseum (cowtowncoliseum.org). With an invite to the Friday night showdown, I enter into the history-steeped venue where a saunter of local cowboys compete for Hall of Fame glory. The thriving sub-culture makes for fascinating viewing and there's entertainment value too (a blindfolded ladies hoe-down, for example). But the main events of bronc-riding and calf-roping leave me chomping at the bit for the curtain call. Luckily, I've got tickets for the after-party.

That comes at Billy Bob's, the world's largest honky tonk bar (billybobstexas.com), where 6,000 dusted-down Texans have pilgrimaged to party. The atmosphere here is magically authentic. Honky tonk bars have made the shift from boogie-woogie to contemporary country over the years, and centre stage tonight is Billboard-charting group, Midland. A sinewy Matthew McConaughey-like figure woos the crowd into a late night swelter with rousing odes to Lone Star life.

"I wanna feel like John Denver", he rasps. "All of my worries I cannot remember." As we all partner up under a rhinestone glitter ball, life couldn't get more carefree.

Last orders necked back, we're corralled into the Fort Worth night, the sound of Dodge Rams and laughter echoing the air. After my knockout week of cowboys and culture, I've learned how down-town Texas offers city break cred to match the likes of Chicago, Boston or Philly.

But it's the tempting hinterland of the northern prairies I'll most likely be back for.

Until the cows come home: Fort Worth Stock Yards
Until the cows come home: Fort Worth Stock Yards
The shimmering Dallas skyline
Texan-style BBQ
The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey, Dallas

This may not be my first rodeo.

How to do it

American Airlines (aa.com) will fly daily from Dublin to Dallas Forth Worth to September 28. Fares start from €585 return.

Hotel Magnolia in Dallas (magnoliahotels.com) has rates from €137. Prices dip in Fort Worth: The Omni (omnihotels.com; €119) boasts plush rooms and a happening rooftop pool.

Planning to tour North Texas? Bookend your trip with a stay in Dallas and Fort Worth city.

American History buff? Head to the Dallas Sixth Floor Museum in the very building from which JFK was assassinated. (jfk.org; $16/€14).

For more info, see visitdallas.com and forthworth.com.

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