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Waylon, Willie and the Girls

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Having written an entire book on girlfriend getaways, you'd think I'd have already been to all the best destinations for traveling with girlfriends. But this spring, amidst the bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush of the Texas Hill Country, I finally found girlfriend getaway nirvana.

This G.G. heaven, a short hop from either Austin or San Antonio, has shopping with a capital "S," wine tours, creative cuisine, one-of-a-kind accommodations, herb gardens, swaggering cowboys who tip their hats when you walk by, and what I now consider a necessity when traveling when my friends -- designer chocolate.

I didn't want to believe it either. I mean sure, Fredericksburg, Texas, has a charming, historic downtown, rests enchantingly amidst the pastoral green hills of the Pedernales Valley. But c'mon, how much can a town with a population of only 10,000 really offer?

Turns out, dern near everything. In fact, Orbitz named Fredericksburg's Texas Hill Country second only to Napa as the country's most popular wine and food destination. All I can add is that Napa, you better watch your back.

At last count, there were 27 wineries on the Texas Hill Country Wine Trail (www.texaswinetrail.com) and while not all of them produce vintages about to make Anthony Dias Blue's list, there are several up and comers that, mark my word, you'll be hearing about. Although most Texas wines are snatched up by Texans, who have a tendency to be snobby about their own, the wines that do manage to escape borders to compete in international competitions bring home medals and trophies.

Texas Hill country wineries offer daily tastings, vineyard and lavender tours and annual special events such as the Harvest Wine Festival that pairs vino with artists, chefs, entertainers and musicians. There are even a couple tour operators that cheerfully take you from winery to winery so you can enjoy the many health benefits of red wine (its antioxidants reduce the risk of cancer, lower the rate of heart disease, improve brain function and, get this, stimulate weight loss) while someone else does the driving.

And as for food, Fredericksburg truly rivals Napa when it comes to culinary innovation with area chefs taking advantage of the region's abundant organic produce, herb gardens, wines and even wildflowers. This is the area, after all, where Ladybird Johnson first fell in love with wildflowers, where the country's largest commercial wildflower grower is located and where salad are just as likely to be garnished with nasturtiums as cherry tomatoes.

Needless to say, Fredericksburg offers the requisite barbecue, Tex-Mex and Angus beef steak houses. But that's just the tip of the cow hoof. Long a peach-growing region, Fred-town also has old-fashioned outdoor peach stands (Das Peach House, started by a former school teacher, sells roasted raspberry chipotle sauce to die for), cheese shops with hundreds of imported cheeses, acres of herb gardens, a pie shop that serves nothing but 24 varieties (available by the slice) of the delectable dessert and dozens of cooking classes offering instruction in everything from vegan desserts to mango peach chutney.

And then there's my favorite Fred-town delicacy -- hand-crafted liquor, coffee and wine-filled dark chocolate. The process is called liqueur praline (French, I guess, for liquid centers) and Lecia Duke, a native Texan, apprenticed under a Swiss chocolate maker to learn what unfortunately is becoming a dying art. Let's just say, every bite of these delicacies is a life-changing experience. One of Duke best customers, a 96-year-old, orders her Jack Daniels-filled chocolates by the case. One a night, she claims, helps her sleep. Duke, who started making liqueur praline in the Bay Area, moved home to Texas in 1984, opening her unique confectionery on Fred-town's main drag.

Speaking of the main drag, Fredericksburg's three and a half mile Main Street, made up of century old native limestone buildings, most of which are on the historic register, has hundreds of unique boutiques, gift shops, galleries and antique stores. The only chains are on the bicycles of the many cyclists that come in for weekend jaunts from San Antonio and Austin, both about an hour (by car) away.

Nearby Enchanted Rock rises 425-feet into the air, making it the country's second largest monolithic dome. American Indians considered this giant piece of granite a sacred, living entity and, while I can't confirm that, I do know I felt a little like the Lion King when gazing out over the valley from the top. Heather, one of the girlfriends I was hiking with, happens to have a second career as a singer, so, after reaching the top of this dome with the view, she rewarded us with a brilliant rendition of "On Top of the World."

Other music heard during our trip was at Luckenbach, Texas. Yes, the place Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings made famous in their 1976 cult classic is a mere 9 miles from Fredericksburg. Every night, this town (population: 3) with its own dance hall, general store and beer joint hosts a menagerie of musicians who come with their guitars, harmonicas and funny lyrics to sit in with the locals.

I could go on and on about why Fredericksburg and the Texas Hill Country is the perfect girlfriend getaway, but don't take my word for it. Call the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau at 888.997.3600 or check out their website at www.fredericksburg-texas.com.