Texas is decidedly conservative and Republican, except for Austin; the booming hipster city with its astonishing live music scene, 1600 food trailers, cyclists, street art and tacos for every occasion. Coming from San Antonia into Austin, where the flat plains give way to rolling hills, is like arriving in another country altogether. We'd seen all the stereotypes on our road trip across the state – cowboy hats, cowboy boots, and gas stations so large they make the local Woolies back home look small. And we'd eaten a staggering amount of meat.
Austin's main strip, Sixth Street, looked sleepy in the heat of the afternoon, but already you could feel this place was different. For one thing plastic bags are banned, pan handling (begging) is not allowed and unlike the rest of Texas, you'll find many cyclists (Lance Armstrong lives here) and hybrid cars on the road. Our guide, Susan, tells us Austin has one of the fastest growing populations in the US, many alternative residents, including a stack of vegans. And it more than lives up to its title: "Live Music Capital of the World". Willie Nelson pioneered Austin's legendary music scene. Even on a Monday you'll find more than 30 bands playing; on weekends at least 100 acts perform nightly across the city. "It started with country and the blues, but now there's all different music styles. If you drink enough beer, they all sound good," she says dryly.
We explore the quirky city over a few days from our base at the Driskill Hotel, the oldest and most historical hotel in the heart of downtown Austin. Opened in 1886, the Driskill retains a true Texan feel given it was owned by wealthy cattle baron Jesse Lincoln whose portrait can still be found in the opulent lobby with its soaring ceilings. It's said that he still haunts the hotel having never got over losing the deeds to the property after the family lost their fortune in a severe drought. Bizarrely, I see shadows under my door in the early hours of the morning, jet lagged and unable to sleep. I open the door but there's no one there.
The landmark hotel has been the setting for many political events over the years. In the 1960s, Texan President Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy waited here for the election results. Johnson proposed to his wife here. Downstairs in the elegant Driskill Bar, I half expect to find oil tycoons and cattle barons chewing the fat. Instead a cool band is belting out some tunes to an enthusiastic crowd, including a raucous hen's party.
Nearby, Sixth Street, colloquially known as "Dirty Sixth", is where most of the action happens. There's live music on practically every street corner, and it has the feel of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, albeit cleaner and safer. Tonight a large chunk of the street is closed to traffic, making it fun to stroll past the drinking dens full of college students downing cheap drinks. We watch a girl in denim shorts and a cowboy hat ride a mechanical bull through the window of one bar.
Unlike the rest of the bars that line the strip, Midnight Cowboy, a modern speakeasy housed in a former brothel, is a serious cocktail bar. To get in you need to first check if the red light bulb is on, press a certain button and tell the person who answers the door you've come to see Harry. Be sure to read up on the house rules before you go (there's a two-drink minimum) and make a reservation online.
If you prefer to hear conversation while you drink, laidback Rainey Street is probably more your style. It offers a strip of historic homes cum bars, many of them bungalow style, in downtown Austin. We drink prosecco in the pretty courtyard of the Drafting Room, soaking up the happy vibe before hitching a ride home on a pedicab – the female cyclist having to work twice as hard when one of the tyres goes flat.
Feeling decidedly dusty the next morning we seek out the city's famous breakfast tacos at El Alma, with its bright Mexican artwork, cool, tiled floors and bottomless cups of coffee. Tacos are a staple of the Austin diet. I can't resist and order the huevos franceses as well, a dish of poached eggs and spinach nestled on top of the house-made corn pudding, served with a chipotle hollandaise.
The day is already stifling hot when we set off to explore the colourful Hope Outdoor Gallery, an abandoned construction site which is now home to the artwork of many famous street artists including Shepard Fairey. We then take a tour of the State Capitol Building (larger than the White House) before driving through the Texas State Cemetery where American sniper Kris Kyle is buried. "This is the shortest state highway in America," Susan from Access ATX Tours tells us as we meander along the short road that winds through the burial place of Texas politicians, honoured members of the military and public figures. She stops the car for a moment, before announcing: "George Bush will be buried here."
Over the past three decades, Austin, once a sleepy university town and the capital of Texas, has evolved into a big city with world-renowned festivals, a glittering skyline and a population of 1.8 million – making it the second fastest growing metropolis in the US. It's home to the Texas Longhorns, Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Andy Roddick and director Robert Rodriguez. Dell's headquarters is also here. Many are drawn here because of the city's liberal views, its fantastic food, the tech industry and Austin's enduring love affair with music. It's a city that not only accepts differences, but also welcomes them, trying its utmost to live up to its unofficial motto of "Keep Austin Weird".
One of Austin's hippest neighbourhoods is South Congress Avenue (otherwise known as SOCO). We head there after lunch at one of the fantastic neighbourhood food trucks to try Austin's famous Amy's Ice Cream, before browsing the eclectic strip. Here you'll find Lucy in Disguise with Diamonds (where Bob Dylan bought some of his cool retro clothes), Yard Dog Art Gallery, Allen's Boots, Monkey see Monkey Do, Big Top Candy Shop and a bunch of retro and vintage stores.
Again, there's music everywhere including on the street where a ragtag duo and their dog busk with a banjo and guitar alongside a sign that reads "Travelin Broke & Hungry". They have the look of vagrants, but then again they could be bearded hipsters who've taken things too far. Either way they look hungry. I place a couple of dollar bills in their red hat and start to walk away. "Hang on a minute," they yell after me, "we owe you a song." I stop on the sidewalk and listen. It's surprisingly good, although the lyrics are at times a little odd. Not unlike Austin really. Sometimes being a little weird is a good thing.
Air New Zealand launched new non-stop Auckland to Houston (America's fourth largest city) flights up to five times a week last year on newly refurbished Boeing 777-200 aircraft. Connecting flights are available from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. See airnewzealand.com.
The historic Driskill offers 189 guestrooms including 14 suites in the heart of the city's entertainment and historic districts. Rooms start from $US344 a night. See driskillhotel.com.
Explore the hip South Congress's boutiques and eateries and stop for a drink at Hotel San Jose (sanjosehotel.com). Choose from eight food truck options at SOCO's food trailer park. While you're there, pick up a cupcake from Hey Cupcake (heycupcake.com) housed in a silver Airstream (1511, South Congress). Watch millions of bats emerge at dusk in search of food from the Congress Avenue Bridge, or from the terrace at the Four Seasons Austin (March-October). Explore Sixth Street's bustling bars and listen to terrific live music after sundown any night of the week. To find out what's on see 6street.com. Local hotspot Rainey Street is also fun for a night of bar hopping. See raineystbars.com.
Sheriden Rhodes travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.