GETTING THERE: There aren't any commercial airports in the desert mountains, so you have to fly to Midland, Tex., then rent a car to drive two hours into the mountains (the vistas make every mile worth it once you hit Scenic Highway 17). American and Continental offer one-stop flights (via Dallas and Houston, respectively) out of BWI to Midland/Odessa at $314 round trip.
WHERE TO STAY: In Fort Davis, the historic Hotel Limpia (on the town square, 800-662-5517, www.hotellimpia.com) is a charming throwback to the frontier days of the Old West, with broad porches, a Victorian lobby, wide corridors and high-ceilinged rooms and suites. And it's a bargain: Double rooms start at $89 per night, less if booking online. On our last trip, my family stayed in the hotel's cottage, a delightful 1940s two-bedroom bungalow with original furnishings nestled in the shadow of Sleeping Lion Mountain, for $139 a night. The Limpia's sister hotel in Marfa, the Hotel Paisano (207 N. Highland St., 866-729-3669, www.hotelpaisano.com), is equally beguiling, in more of a Southwestern, Spanish-hacienda style. You can ask for the James Dean room or the Rock Hudson or Elizabeth Taylor suites. Rooms start at $79 per night.
Alpine offers the historic Holland Hotel (209 W. Holland Ave., 800-535-8040, www.hollandhotel.net), in the middle of downtown, with 14 rooms and suites starting at $45 per night double.
WHERE TO EAT: With its old-fashioned soda fountain, the Fort Davis Drugstore on Main Street is great for breakfast and lunch; I love the BLTs. If it's Mexican food you crave, head for La Casita (1102 E. Avenue H) in Alpine. The ambiance isn't much, but locals say the food is the best north of the border, and I'm with them. Lunch for four is less than $30.
For dinner, Pop's Grill (Highway 17 just west of Fort Davis) offers good down-home food at reasonable prices, although there's no wine, as Jeff Davis County is dry. Dinner for four is about $60. For a somewhat fancier but still moderately priced meal, try Jett's Grill at the Hotel Paisano in Marfa, where dinner with wine runs about $120. For a splurge, the Reata Restaurant (203 N. Fifth St.) in Alpine serves great steaks; dinner for four with wine was just under $200. Maiya's (103 N. Highland Ave.), down the street from the Paisano in Marfa, will deceive you into thinking you've stumbled into someplace on the Upper West Side, with its avant-garde menu, chichi decor and New York (or at least D.C.) prices; dinner with wine came to nearly $350, including the tip. Good, though.
WHAT TO DO: The largely restored Fort Davis National Historic Site (432-426-3224, Ext. 20, www.nps.gov/foda) is considered one of the best remaining examples of a frontier military post. The McDonald Observatory (17 miles from Fort Davis on Highway 118), a major astronomical research facility, hosts constellation-viewing "star parties" three nights a week, as long as the weather is cloudless. Details: 432-426-3640, www.as.utexas.edu/mcdonald/mcdonald.html.
In Marfa, the Chinati Foundation (1 Calvery Row, 432-729-4362, www.chinati.org; $10) is a contemporary art museum that sculptor Donald Judd founded in the late 1970s. Dedicated to permanent installations of large-scale works, it features art by Judd, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain and others. The Scenic Loop, a 75-mile drive through the Davis Mountains, is full of surprises, from Sawtooth Mountain to the cattle that just might be taking a snooze in the middle of the road.
INFORMATION: Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce, 800-524-3015, www.fortdavis.com; Marfa Chamber of Commerce, 800-650-9696, www.marfacc.com; Alpine Chamber of Commerce, 800-561-3735, www.alpinetexas.com.
-- Zofia Smardz