The locals will tell it’s the cradle of the Old West. Fort Worth maybe just 30 minutes east of Dallas, but its historic heart serves up the ultimate taste of a real-deal cowboy town, steeped in character and heritage. Basking in blazing Texan sun, we headed straight to the Stockyards District in Exchange Ave, where the movie-set streetscape lives and breathes authenticity. That being said, its preservation is largely designed to titillate tourists as an enduring symbol of the Old West.
Within the Stockyards District, the legendary Livestock Exchange Building towers over proceedings. The adobe-style building, where millions of cattle were once traded, was nicknamed the Wall Street of the West, until livestock auctions were held closer to where they were produced. But in honour of its proud western legacy, a twice-daily cattle drive takes place along Exchange Ave, at 11.30am and 4pm, with a herd of Texas longhorns ambling up the street, corralled by cowboys. The infectious jingle of the spurs and the rhythm of the hoof beats is unabashed tourist bait, but great fun!
Surrounding the building, the old stockyards and stables have been repurposed as hospitality and retail outlets, including Maverick Fine Western Wear, who offer clothing fit for urban cowboys and cowgirls. As does Fincher’s White Front Western Wear, who are seriously old-school, operating from the same store since 1902. Have a cowboy hat custom-steamed as you enjoy an in-store beer. Another charming store is M.L. Leddy’s who have been creating handmade boots, saddles, belts and buckles for nearly 100 years.
Nestled in the Stockyards, ranchers, cattlemen & cowboys have been eating at Riscky’s Steakhouse for nearly a century. Incorporating the Saddle & Sirloin Inn, Riscky’s Steakhouse features a variety of themed dining rooms, Texas-sized flat-iron steaks and their delicious calf fries. You can also tuck into a Fort Worth favourite, chicken fried steak, which has nothing to do with chicken but is similar to wiener schnitzel. It’s a breaded cutlet of steak pan-fried in seasoned flour. Coopers Old Time BBQ is another winning haunt, home to the famed and self-explanatory “Big Chop,” where locals have flocked to devour half a cow for decades.
Pop into the iconic White Elephant Saloon, a stirring old drinking establishment on Exchange Ave, where cowboy hats line the ceiling and live country fills the air every night. You may well recognise it from Walker Texas Ranger. Even more legendary is Billy Bob’s Texas – the world’s largest honk-tonk. Constructed in 1910 as a cattle barn and spanning 127,000 square feet, this colossal complex was later transformed into an extraordinary emporium of entertainment, boasting arcades and casinos, bars, live entertainment, dancing lessons and professional bull-riding in the indoor rodeo bullring.
This larger-than-life neon-splashed club has played host to a galaxy of country music stars, from Willie Nelson to Dwight Yoakam. If you’re a Dallas TV tragic like me, you may recall that Bobby Ewing met Jenna Wade (played by Priscilla Presley) at Billy Bob’s. I loved watching the line-dancing lessons in full swing – and no, I wasn’t inclined to join in, despite being repeatedly invited to do so. www.fortworth.com
Smack bang in the historic district, Courtyard by Marriott Stockyards is a brand-spanking hotel, creatively themed with subtle and playful nods to its western heritage surrounds. Warm rooms provide complimentary Wi-Fi and HDTVs, plus minifridges, microwaves and coffeemakers. There's a cafe/bar, a funky lounge with cowboy-inspired touches, a terrace with a fire pit and a sanity-saver in the summer heat, an outdoor swimming pool. From cosy guest-houses to five-star hotels, wherever you choose to stay in Texas, Booking.com has got the Lone Star State covered. Whether on the website or via the app, Booking.com is super easy to navigate with incredible deals and complete flexibility, if you need to amend or cancel your bookings. www.booking.com
After lapping up the thrills of Fort Worth, I had a date in the northeast of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Situated in Parker, Southfork Ranch, immortalised in the 1980s by one of the world’s most successful television shows, Dallas. As a die-hard fan of the show, I felt like I was taking a dream pilgrimage. Cast as the family ranch and mansion of the mighty Ewings, it was reintroduced to a new generation of audiences just a few years ago with the reboot of the soap-opera. We joined a private tour of the ranch with our delightful guide, Willie, who unpacked a confetti stream of fascinating tidbits about the ranch, its sweep of facilities and on-location shooting.
The landmark home was built in 1970 by Joe Duncan and his family were still living in the house after agreeing to allow CBS to shoot the TV show on-location – with the strict condition that the interior was off-limits, stressed Willie. A studio mock-up of the ranch's exterior (complete with swimming pool) was also used in in California, when the weather made it impractical to film in Texas. Gazing across the expansive grounds, with their quintessential white fences, Willie mused that the longhorns in the paddock are now the oldest continuous residents, who occasionally featured in the TV show.
Following the original series finishing in 1991, an Arizona businessman, Rex Maughan purchased the ranch and has steadily expanded Southfork’s hospitality business, with an on-site events centre. I had to pinch myself as I stood outside the impeccably maintained mansion, gazing at the glorious pool, shimmering in the Texan sunshine like cut diamonds. Fantasy was meeting reality and it didn’t disappoint. I was tingling with joy at how tangible, how tactile everything was. This great vestige of television history and soap-opera royalty looked perfect. The yellow and cream awnings, lustily wrapped around the mansion’s windows are still there. Nothing looked out of place, as hundreds of memorable location scenes flashed through my head.
We posed for photos at various vantage points: sitting around the original outside breakfast table where Sue Ellen Ewing would normally appear hungover, standing on the balcony where JR Ewing would often brood and alongside the pool, that Bobby loved so much. Willie led us inside, where many rooms actually featured in the reboot of Dallas five years ago. She even allowed me to sit in JR Ewing’s chair. Oh – the honour! Back at the visitor’s centre, a thoughtfully crafted gallery brims with footage, memorabilia and exhibits from the show, including the very gun that was used to shoot JR, the subject of one of television’s greatest ever cliff-hangers. Who shot JR? If you’re struggling to remember, it was that little minx, Kristin. Long live Southfork. www.southforkranch.com
Finally, a more contemporary TV show spirited us to one more stop, on the outskirts of central Dallas. Discovery Channel’s Fast N’ Loud is a reality show focused on Gas Monkey garage. Starring Richard Rawlings and Aaron Kaufman, the proprietors of Gas Monkey Garage deal in rusty gold, buying, restoring and reselling derelict American cars. They’ll search barns, fields and auctions all across the USA for forgotten classics, snapping them up and giving them a second life. Everything from 1931 Model A cars to '73 Trans Ams. It’s great fun to visit the garage, ogle some of the derelict cars being reborn and get your stash of Gas Monkey Garage merch from their very industrious shop! www.gasmonkeygarage.com
After driving from Chicago across the heartland, I flew home, direct from Houston. Air New Zealand will start operating non-stop services between from Auckland and Chicago flying up to three times a week from 30 November 2018. One way Economy fares start from $1,019 (including taxes). Fares are also available via Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston with onward connections to Chicago on partner airlines. Visit www.airnewzealand.co.nz to book or for more details.
Driving on the other side of the road can be a challenge. Check that your travel insurance covers you for rental car insurance excess in the event of a few dings, an accident or theft of the rental vehicle. Cover-More’s Options policy covers up to $10,000 for rental car insurance excess on international trips (and $4,000 for domestic travel if hiring a rental car in New Zealand). Cover-More’s 24-hour global assistance centre is just a phone call away. Call 0800 500 225 or visit https://www.covermore.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.