The interstate highway system – enacted by President Eisenhower in 1956 – makes travel straightforward and convenient. “More than any single action by the government since the end of the war, this one would change the face of America,” Eisenhower remarked.
Interstates also allow travelers to quickly bypass the charm of nearby small towns and to leave cultural attractions unexplored. I’ve made the trek on Interstate 35 between Dallas and Austin dozens of times without detouring to explore the charming destinations along the way.
WACO FAMILY FUN
I remedied this with a weekend getaway to Waco, a town on I-35 that I usually drive through. With my children along for the fun, we set out to explore Waco’s surprisingly extensive family-friendly attractions.
Our base for the getaway, the Hilton Waco, is located downtown on the banks of the Brazos River. Our ninth-floor room gave us a birds-eye view of the river, the stately buildings of Baylor University and construction of Baylor’s new football stadium.
The hotel’s lavish breakfast buffet, complete with a waffle and omelet station, fueled us for exploration.
The Texas Sports Hall of Fame displays a variety of antique sports equipment and uniforms. The museum also contains photographs and biographical information on Texas’ elite athletes, coaches and sports journalists. The kids enjoyed the interactive school song exhibit where they pushed buttons to hear the songs of Texas’ major universities.
Nearby, the Texas Ranger Museum showcases the history of these legendary lawmen. With a fantastic collection of Western art, scads of antique weaponry and a dramatic play area equipped with costumes, the museum captured the interest of my adventurous brood.
The museum’s sixteen discovery rooms contain treasures such as the skull of a 3,000-pound humpback whale and a replica of an East Texas forest. My kids especially enjoyed the geography-themed traveling exhibit called Weebles Coast to Coast, which has an activity for each of the 50 states.
The children also loved exploring the outdoor historic village consisting of nine wooden-framed, late 19th century buildings, including a planter’s house and a school.
Most anticipated was the Dr Pepper Museum. The 1906 building houses three floors of exhibits chronicling the history of Texas’ most famous soda. The museum showcases everything from vintage soda bottles and coolers to an exhibit detailing the architectural styles of the Dr Pepper headquarters. We concluded the visit at the old fashioned soda fountain where we drank Dr Pepper freshly prepared by a soda jerk
Come nightfall, we walked from the hotel to the glamorous downtown coffee shop, Dichotomy.
While sipping creamy hot chocolate on the rooftop patio, we took in a majestic view of McLennan County’s Renaissance Revival courthouse (architect J. Reily Gordon supposedly based its design on St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome).
The next day, our visit coincided with gorgeous weather so were eager to spend time outdoors at Cameron Park Zoo. We were impressed by the natural-looking exhibits constructed of weathered wood and stones, waterfalls and foliage. We saw dozens of animals, including elephants, giraffes and a playful pregnant orangutan.
For more outdoor discovery, we headed to the Waco Mammoth Site where a building encloses an archaeological dig.
Paleontologists discovered remains of 22 Columbian mammoths here, including the only Pleistocene mammoth nursery herd discovery in the United States. Instead of removing all the mammoth remains to a museum, they left several exactly as they were found. Visitors can walk around the perimeter of the dig site with unobstructed views of the fossils.
On our way out of Waco, we stopped at Homestead Heritage, a traditional crafts village.
On a horse-drawn wagon ride (pulled by gorgeous chocolate Percherons June and Velvet) through the 500-acre community, we saw the antique buildings housing the shops of working craftsmen, including a blacksmith, fiber arts craftsman and a furniture maker.
The village’s eatery, Cafe Homestead, commands an hour-long wait on weekends, but the delectable fare is well worth it. We savored queso – made with the village’s own pepperjack cheese – and burgers made from only grass-fed beef. We topped off our meal with scoops of house-made organic ice cream.
At the village’s cheese shop, we sampled several varieties before picking horseradish pecan cheddar and raw Brie to bring home.
We left astounded that such a bounty of Waco family fun exists just beyond the interstate. We definitely plan to detour through Waco again soon.