Byline: ALEX HANNAFORD
IT IS small, green, hilly, surrounded by lakes and rivers and very, very cool.
Boasting more live music venues per square mile than anywhere in the US, it is no wonder Austin plays host to the most eagerly-anticipated yearly music industry conference and festival on the calendar. Home to the State capital and the University of Texas (the largest in the US), the city supports a politically charged and culturally rich environment. It has a population of one million.
WHO'S DOING BUSINESS?
Apart from pretty much every record company on the planet sending a representative or two to Austin at the end of March each year for the annual industry shindig South by Southwest (SXSW), the city is one of the fastest-growing centres of computer development in the country.
IBM, Motorola, Texas Instruments and Dell have been here for years, it is the legislative centre for Texas and was once home to a certain George Bush, who still likes to spend time at his ranch near the city.
The University of Texas (UT), which now boasts more than 55,000 students, is a major research institution.
American Airlines (via Dallas), United (via Chicago), and Continental (via Houston) all fly from London to Austin and flight time is around nine hours.
Continental flies from Gatwick once a day. A return business-class ticket costs [pounds sterling]4,813 and an economy ticket from [pounds sterling]337 including tax.
To book visit www.thomascook.com or call 0870 0100 436.
Austin Bergstrom International Airport is eight miles from the centre of town. There is only one terminal so it's very quick and hassle-free. A cab takes 20 minutes to town and costs $16 ([pounds sterling]9.70) from American Yellow Checker (tel: 512 452 9999); the number 100 bus leaves the airport every 35 mins and costs just 50c.
But by far the best bet is to hire a car (see Time to Spare): Thrifty Car Rental UK has an international reservations line (01494 751 600) and online booking facility at www.thrifty.co.uk. One week's hire costs from [pounds sterling]211 (including CDW, mileage, liability insurance and local state taxes).
HOTEL DIRECTORY Business is booming The Austin Marriott at the Capitol (001 512 478 1111, www.marriott.com) has 365 rooms, the reception is big and impressive, it has a plush new lobby bar, parking is easy (in a large multi-storey next door) and reasonably priced. It has a restaurant - Rojo Red, two swimming pools with whirlpool and sauna, a gym, 21 meeting rooms and business centre.
Rooms start at $159 ([pounds sterling]97).
On a healthy budget The Hampton Inn and Suites (512-472-1500) is a great hotel - in location and for the general design and ambience. The rooms smell new (probably because the hotel opened only last December) and have traditional-style furniture.
There are 209 rooms and suites and it boasts a nice open-air swimming pool on the fourth floor; the adjacent fitness centre is small but adequate.
Although breakfast is provided, there is no bar or room service - the hotel uses the smart Chinese restaurant PF Chang's over the road. It's worth booking a suite - the views over Austin and Town Lake in the distance are great - but book early: spring and autumn are peak seasons.
The main nightlife area of 6th Street is a stone's throw away, and the huge Convention Centre is opposite. Rooms start at $169 ([pounds sterling]102) midweek.
Summer rates are cheaper.
The Holiday Inn, Town Lake (512-472-8211; email:
email@example.com) is in a perfect location on the banks of Town Lake, only 10 minutes from Austin Bergstrom International Airport, and about a $4 ([pounds sterling]2.30) cab ride (or 15-minute walk) from downtown. It has 320 rooms, the Pecan Tree Restaurant, which offers a wide variety of Texan dishes, and a heated outdoor pool overlooking the lake. It also has a modest exercise room, and - apparently unique among Austin hotels - a ballroom with stunning views over the water. During SXSW it is packed with bands and people on a budget.
Rooms start at $69 ([pounds sterling]42).
RESTAURANTS If you like Tex Mex and steaks, then you'll never go hungry in Austin. There are a few Thai and a couple of Indian restaurants, but the Texan appetite for Mexican food and red meat has meant a proliferation of eating houses specialising in it. Boozy "working" lunches have never been a hallmark of US business and Austin is no exception. Fast Tex Mex at lunchtime and a leisurely evening meal is the done thing.
To clinch the deal Four Seasons Hotel restaurant (512 478 4500) is immaculately designed, very spacious, cool and breezy with low-key lighting.
A beautiful patio with fans and wooden parasols offers views over Town Lake.
As well as the regular menu, which includes Gulf shrimp ($13/[pounds sterling]8), pan seared beef ($22/[pounds sterling]13) and grilled venison ($26/[pounds sterling]16), there's an Italian buffet ($28/[pounds sterling]17 per person, excluding drinks) with a choice of perfectly-presented pizza, salad, cheeses, smoked cold trout salad, chicken stuffed with zucchini and pork saltimbocca.
The hot one Threadgills (512 451 5440) is an Austin institution. Janis Joplin was a regular at the bar's Wednesday night jams. In 1974 the business closed, but seven years later was resurrected by Eddie Wilson who started a restaurant. Everybody eats here - musicians, businessmen, students and visitors - and you can get everything from burgers and steaks (an 18oz T-bone is $17.95/[pounds sterling]11) to meatloaf and fried Mississippi catfish ($8.95/[pounds sterling]5.45), Gulf shrimp, black-eyed peas and fried green tomatoes.
A dining room of my own Fleming's steakhouse (512 457 1500) is near the Convention Centre and the steaks are out of this world. Off the large, airconditioned main room there are two private dining rooms which can accomodate groups of up to 60. With its low-key orange lighting and Art Deco wood panelling, Fleming's attracts business people in the week and families and couples at weekends. The wine menu is extensive. Although you can order chops, chicken, seafood and salad, unless you're veggie, go for the prime steak - but be warned, you won't be able to move after eating the 16oz ribeye ($27.50/[pounds sterling]17).
MONEY AND TIPPING There are plenty of ATMs downtown and most places take credit cards. Tipping is 20 per cent in the US. At the time of going to press [pounds sterling]1 is $1.64.
COMMUNICATION International calling cards are essential if you want to keep costs down and come in denominations of $5, $10 and $20. If you're taking your mobile make sure it's a triband. If you want to pre-order a mobile for your trip try www.triptel.com.
It charges as little as $5 a day and, using Federal Express, it will send or pick up your rental phone anywhere in the U.S.
TIME TO SPARE This is when a rental car is a must. The 358-acre Zilker Park is just 10 minutes from downtown and is home to the wonderful Barton Springs - a natural watering hole which is a constant 20 degrees all year round; Lake Travis is about half an hour's trek north-west of Austin and well worth the trip - the 19,000 acre lake is great for sunbathing and boating.
Mount Bonnell is a natural limestone formation that stands about 200 feet above the city. It's more like a big hill, but it provides a striking view, rising up out of the greenery, with the Colorado River snaking below.
For people-watching downtown, try the 1886 Bakery Cafe (512 474 5911).
Part of Austin's oldest hotel, the Driskill, you can grab a coffee or gourmet pizza or burger. Its 1920s hexagonal tiled floor, etched glass and Art Decostyle chandeliers make this a bright, pleasant place to relax.
DATES TO AVOID If you are in the music industry you may be heading to Austin for SXSW. If not, avoid the end of March.
OUR MAN IN TEXAS Iain Murray is HM Consul General, based at the British Consulate General in Houston.
The central telephone number is 001 713 659 6275.…