By Deepika Shetty
Austin, the state capital of Texas, is also its live music centre and the third largest capital of the American film industry after New York and Los Angeles.
Famous Austinites include film directors Wes Anderson, Robert Rodriguez and Richard Linklater, actors Ethan Hawke, Luke Wilson, Matthew McConaughey and actresses Renee Zellweger and Sandra Bullock.
Singaporean writer Wena Poon has been living there for two years. Hailed as a refreshing new voice in Asian writing, she is in the limelight this year for having her debut collection of short stories, Lions In Winter, longlisted for the Frank O'Connor Short Story Award.
Born in Singapore, she has lived in Hong Kong and the United States. She studied literature and law at Harvard University and now works as a deal lawyer.
She says Austin is "small, hip, artsy and infinitely accessible. As a cultural capital, it is more affordable than New York and less pretentious than Los Angeles".
The best way to get around is...
By cycling. It is the in thing for Austinites as Lance Armstrong, the world's most famous Tour de France cyclist, lives here. Downtown is serviced by cute antique trolley cars called the Armadillo. It is free and you ride it around to all the tourist attractions.
The best time to visit the place is...
During winter. Winters in Austin are mild and dry. For the entire year, Austin averages 88 days below 7 deg C and 24 days when the minimum temperature falls below freezing point.
Austin summers are usually hot and humid, with average temperatures of about 32 deg C from June until September.
Which places really excite you?
Alamo Drafthouse. It is Austin's best kept secret. This is a first-run feature cinema chain with independent programme directors who put together a full hour's worth of painstakingly assembled and very cool previews, snippets and documentaries before the movie begins.
While it resembles a normal stadium seating cinema, every other row of seats has been removed and replaced by a long table. Waiters take your orders for wine, beer, cappuccino, ice cream, snacks or a full gourmet dinner: black pepper bacon pizza, flat iron steak salad or fish tacos.
Alamo also stages special premiere events for blockbuster films. For The Dark Knight, it took everyone by bus out into the country to a batcave to watch thousands of bats stream out into the night. Then they were taken back to watch the movie.
For Sex And The City, it held a Carrie Bradshaw lookalike fashion show and served cosmopolitans in Sex And The City collectible martini glasses. Elaborate gourmet dinners are staged with food-themed classic movies such as Chocolat, Babette's Feast and Big Night.
But my favourite movie event was last summer's Transformers premiere. It cordoned off the parking lot in front of the cinema, brought in the fire department and staged a show by a real-life Transformer robot: a giant car-eating, fire-breathing dino- bot, built from what looked like several fire trucks melded together. The dinosaur robot set fire to two cars with blasts from its nostrils and then proceeded to chew them in its massive jaws.
Austin's motto is: Keep Austin Weird! And it shows.
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema has multiple locations. The one downtown is located at 320 E 6th Street, Austin, TX 78701, tel: 512-476-1320.
The city has so much to offer, where does one start? A good place to get oriented is the Austin Visitor's Center (209 E 6th Street, Austin, TX 78701, tel: 512-478-0098 or visit www.austintexas.org). Just walk in and talk to the guides who are all knowledgeable locals.
Which is your favourite cultural stop?
Austin is a small town but the theatre scene is mesmerising: Directors take incredible risks and audiences are rewarded with cutting-edge theatre that you can never get in larger cities such as London and New York.
For starters, check out the Vortex Repertory Theater (2307 Manor Road, Austin, TX 78722).
This is a tumbledown little shack of a theatre with ruined couches in the lawn and a tiny bar where the play's crew often serve as bartenders as well.
Last year, I saw the US premiere of Wallace Shawn's play A Thought In Three Parts, a comic exploration of love and sex. Theatre legend has it that this beautifully complex and thoughtful play was not produceable, and even Shawn himself - best remembered as the Sicilian criminal mastermind Vizzini in the 1987 movie The Princess Bride - wished the producers luck when they proposed staging it in Austin.
Well, not only did I get to see this wonderful play in Austin, but I also sat right across the aisle from Shawn, who came personally because he could not believe his eyes. The cost of this historic event? Pay any amount you wish.
Another amazing theatrical experience in Austin is The Curtain Theater, a wooden replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. As this is a private estate, check its website (www.austinshakespeare.org) for Shakespeare events and directions before going.
Built by video-game designer Richard Garriott on his private estate Britannia Manor, this open-air round theatre, complete with authentically uncomfortable Elizabethan-style seats, allows you to experience Shakespeare the way the audience during his time experienced it.
You are guaranteed to catch something at the Zachary Scott Theater (1510 Toomey Road, Austin, TX 78704, tel: 512-476-0594).
This is central Texas' oldest professional theatre, located right in the heart of Austin.
Any key festivals to work into one's travel plans?
Austin is famous for two major festivals: Austin City Limits (ACL) in September, and South by Southwest (SXSW) in March.
ACL (www.aclfestival.com) is a giant open-air music festival with famous and indie bands. Last year, I saw Bob Dylan perform on a starry night while people lit paper lanterns that floated into the sky. It was completely surreal.
SXSW (www.sxsw.com) is a multimedia, film and music festival with exhibits and conferences featuring industry gurus. Something for Singaporean artists and film-makers to note: Rather than buy a conference pass, find out on the website how to register as an exhibitor for just slightly more, and help promote Singapore films to the film industry here.
The best bargains are at...
San Marcos Prime Outlets (3939 IH-35 South #900, San Marcos, TX 78666, tel: 800-628-9465).
This is a 30-minute drive from Austin. It is so huge that the carpark looks like that of an airport. You get all the best brands there. My favourites are Kate Spade, Juicy Couture, Barneys New York, L'Occitane, Restoration Hardware and Williams-Sonoma. Ever wondered how Carrie Bradshaw affords Manolo Blahniks on her writer's budget? She probably got them at half price at Neiman Marcus Last Call.
The richest variety of products can be found at...
The Austin Neiman Marcus store (3400 Palm Way Drive, Austin, TX 78758, tel: 512-719-1200). Launched in 1907 by siblings from Dallas, Texas, Neiman Marcus is the ultimate in luxury department stores. Since there are no Neiman Marcus stores in Asia, it is worth a look. It is not just a store, it is a cult. You either love it or hate it. Legend has it that you can buy anything from its fabulous Christmas catalogue to even His and Hers airplanes. Couture sales are in January and July.
Do not leave Texas without trying its barbecue. Sink your teeth into this chopped beef sandwich served with raw onions, pickles, jalapeno, coleslaw and potato salad at Ironworks.
Do not leave the place without...
Trying Texas barbecue. Singaporeans seem to be genetically programmed to like roast meat - think satay and char siew - and will probably like this.
It is impossible to tell you which is the best barbecue joint without rousing heated debate among Austinites, so I will recommend three: Salt Lick - downtown location (3801 N Capital of Texas Hwy, Austin, TX 78746, tel: 512-328-4957), Rudy's Country Store and BBQ (11570 Research Blvd, Austin, TX 78759, tel: 512-418-9898) and IronWorks BBQ (100 Red River Street, Austin, TX 78701, tel: 512-478-4855).
The best breakfast is at...
Las Manitas Avenue Cafe (211 Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78701, tel: 512-472-9357). Las Manitas is an old Austin institution and the politicians stationed nearby at the Capitol are alleged to have their breakfast there. It is actually a cheap, shanty-like Mexican joint and the food is so-so, but Austinites love it because it has been around for a long time. It was threatened by urban development and the Austinites went crazy saving it, calling it "the battle to save Austin's soul". Go there to imbibe the atmosphere in the mornings. It is open weekdays from 7am.
The best brunch is at...
Enoteca Vespiao (1610 S Congress Avenue, Austin, TX 78704, tel: 512-441-7672). Enoteca Vespiao is a casual Italian bistro with the most delicious breakfast entrees. Everything it makes turns out great because it is cooked with care.
Good American fare can be found everywhere, such as the Shoal Creek Saloon, and Austinites (below) enjoy doing it alfresco
The best lunch is at...
El Chile Cafe Y Cantina (1809 Manor Road, Austin, TX 78722, tel: 512-457-9900). Famous for its smoky, almost blackened salsa and chips and its mole (spicy chocolate) sauce, El Chile is a casual joint whose decor captures the Austin zeitgeist perfectly: open-air, Mexican-influenced and genteelly rustic. Order anything with mole sauce. Also try queso. Queso means cheese in Spanish, but in Austin, it also refers to a cheesy dip that everybody likes, often with chorizo in it.
The best dinner is at...
Truluck's Seafood for oysters, dungeness crab and American traditional favourites (400 Colorado Street, Austin, TX 78701, tel: 512-482-9000), Lambert's Downtown Barbecue for hearty upscale American food with live music (401 W 2nd Street, Austin, TX 78701, tel: 512-494-1500) and Ranch 616 for creative Southern fare (616 Nueces Street, Austin, TX 78701, tel: 512-479-7616).
These are all appropriate for dates or a romantic evening. Go to www.yelp.com to read foodie reviews before heading out so that you know what you are getting.
The best drinks are at...
The Oasis (6550 Comanche Trail, Austin, TX 78732, tel: 512-266-2442).
Nurse a margarita and catch the sunset over Lake Travis at the top of a hill at the touristy Oasis restaurant, with generic American fare. While the decor is cheesy and the food is nothing to write home about, the panoramic view - you feel like you are up in an eagle's nest looking down at Hill Country - is worth it and makes you forget that you are in landlocked Texas.
Where is the coolest place to chill out?
Ski Shores Waterfront Cafe (2905 Pearce Road, Austin, TX 78730, tel: 512-346-5915).
Ski Shores is a little rustic burger shack right on the water with its own dock. There is an outdoor fire pit in winter. There is nothing like that in Singapore, so come on down, enjoy the waterfront view and soak up the laid-back life.
What is your favourite drink?
A lot of Southerners drink iced tea. In fact, some claim that this is the drink of Texas. I take it with no sugar and with a lemon wedge. If you want to be loyal to Austin in your choice of iced tea, ask for the brand Sweet Leaf Tea. It is like Snapple but is an Austin-owned business, offering flavours such as Pomegranate Green and Mint And Honey. Here is some trivia: If Texans say tea at a restaurant, they really mean iced tea. It is so hot in Texas that no one would consider drinking hot tea.
What is there to explore?
Austin is surrounded by the Texas Hill Country, which is characterised by golden-yellow scrub, rolling hills and limestone cliffs. These elements are echoed in Austin's modern architecture. Around the Hill Country are little Germanic towns such as Fredericksburg, which are worth spending a few hours in just to look at the Victorian lace-front houses and cute Swiss Family Robinson inns.
Any other sites that would appeal to Singaporeans?
If you have time, check out the ultra-luxe Lake Austin Spa Resort (1705 South Quinlan Park Road, Austin, TX 78732, tel: 800-847-5637) for a day trip or overnight stay. While the massage treatments are risky because you never know what kind of therapist you will get, the Hill Country architecture of this gorgeous spa complex is the reason you should spend a day there.
Remember to take lots of photographs. The swimming pool, for example, is housed in a contemporary high-ceilinged barn. The blue-coloured drawing room reminds one of Sofia Coppola's elaborate sets in Marie Antoinette.
IN AUSTIN WITH...
Occupation: Lawyer and author
Length of stay: two years
This article was first published in The Straits Times on September 14, 2008.