Bastrop had been on my mind since last fall, when I spent a couple of hours poking around the picturesque downtown, which nestles against the banks of the Colorado River southeast of Austin. With a wealth of historic buildings and several intriguing restaurants, this destination had Day Trip written all over it.

A return visit proved my instincts were correct. Bastrop is indeed worthy of a trip, but I was wrong in one respect—you’d be hard-pressed to enjoy all that this small town offers in a single day. The other surprise: Not all the action is downtown.

I began my tour by driving to ROSCAR Chocolate, on the outskirts of Bastrop, just off Texas 71 East. About a year ago, longtime chocolatier Frans Hendriks and his wife, Roselly, opened a tasting room and retail space in a handsome, cedar-clad building in front of their one-room chocolate factory. Glass cases display an alluring array of bonbons and truffles, while bookshelves and tables around the perimeter hold jars of chocolate ganache, packages of Belgian chocolate bits, vanilla bean-flavored sugar, and teas and coffees with exotic names like Dragon Pearl and African Autumn.

As I savored a pecan-amaretto truffle, I exchanged knowing sighs with another chocoholic who had stopped in to pick up some business gifts. Another customer soon joined us. Evidently, I’m not the only one who considers 10 a.m. a fine time to sample chocolate.

After my breakfast of champions, I headed to the Bastrop “Old Town” Visitor Center on Main Street, where I picked up maps and brochures, including one for a walking tour of downtown. Stephen F. Austin himself established the town in 1832, and because it now has more than 130 sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, Bastrop claims the title of “most historic small town in Texas.” Many of the downtown buildings have been restored and now house businesses, shops, and restaurants. It’s a win/win situation—downtown retains its character, while residents and visitors enjoy shopping and dining in memorable, one-of-a-kind spaces.

I popped into the 1891 R.A. Green Mercantile, and talked briefly with one of the tenants, Dianna Mincey, the proprietor of Love, Hope, & Soap. A recent transplant from Arizona, Mincey specializes in soaps and lotions made with natural ingredients. I sniffed a sage green bar labeled “Lost Pines—Made in Bastrop,” and sure enough, it had a delicate pine scent reminiscent of the area’s signature evergreens.

“I have trouble keeping the Lost Pines soaps in stock,” said Dianna. “They sell out fast. We also tuck them in–to almost all of the gift baskets we make as a way to include something that’s representative of Bastrop.”

Other venerable store fronts beckoned, including Lock Drug, in the W.J. Miley Building, where Miley opened a drug store in 1905, complete with a soda fountain that’s still in operation. Many Bastrop visitors enjoy a malt or a scoop of ice cream in this nostalgic setting.

Continuing down Main, I came across Fat Cat Kitchenware & Catering, which, appropriately enough, occupies the site of a former grocery store. The culinary boutique offers upscale kitchen supplies and equipment, cookbooks, and freshly dried herbs, as well as cooking demonstrations on many Saturdays.

Farther down the street, Big Mouth South-western Grill began calling my name. The historical plaque on the outside of the building noted that William Kesselus opened a tailor shop here in 1891, but the colorful, red-brick interior belied any trace of such activity. I was more curious about the Southwestern aspect. Where did that come from? I wondered. I pondered the menu for a clue, to no avail. However, some of the entrées sounded intriguing—loco yolko enchiladas (two blue corn tortillas layered with fajita chicken and topped with a fried egg, shredded cheese, and green chili sauce), blackened salmon, and mesquite-smoked prime rib. I wavered between the green chili burger and the green chili-chicken soup, and finally opted for the soup with a side of green chili-cilantro rice.

Both were excellent, and so satisfying that I decided against having a slice of iron skillet apple pie, which is served on a hot skillet with vanilla ice cream and drizzled with a brandy-butter sauce. Something to savor on another trip.

I did, however, find out about the restaurant’s Southwestern influence before I departed. “Two brothers from Tucumcari, New Mexico, Monty and Jory White, own Big Mouth,” Manager Dustin Minear told me. “They just wanted to offer Texans some New Mexican-style food. It goes over well here, but our biggest seller is still chicken-fried steak.”

My next stop was the Bastrop County Historical Society Museum. In addition to housing the museum, the 1850 building is one of the oldest structures on Main Street. Originally the home of early settler John Cornelison, it was also home to a ferryboat operator and later served as a furniture-manufacturing shop. Today, it displays artifacts including the lower skull of a mastodon—found in 1992 in the Colorado River south of town—and fine Victorian furniture from local landmarks. With exhibits about the Republic of Texas and Civil War eras, the museum provides a good introduction to Bastrop’s pioneer past.

Next, I walked across the street for a peek inside Apothecary’s Hall Antiques. Named for the first business on this site—the 1839 Apothecary’s Hall—the shop offers a mix of vintage items and genuine antiques.“I like Art Deco, and I almost always find something here I can’t live without,” a local resident told me as she purchased a piece of pink pottery. The shop also has a varied selection of old linens, one of my own weaknesses.

I decided to stop at the Green Chai Café for a glass of iced tea so that I could enjoy the view of the Old Iron Bridge from the sunny patio.(The building dates to 1848.) No longer traveled by cars, the 1923 bridge has been converted to a scenic walkway/bike trail over the Colorado River. I considered ordering a bowl of the soup du jour—sweet potato-chipotle chili—but I knew I had to pick up the pace to make it to my final stop.

The Deep in the Heart Art Foundry lies southeast of town in the Bastrop Industrial Park. Established three decades ago, it casts bronzes for sculptors around the nation. And if you call a few days ahead, the folks at the foundry will give you a tour for a nominal charge. Once you know all the steps in the lost-wax process, you’ll understand why large bronzes often cost thousands of dollars. Stay tuned: Deep in the Heart will open a gallery and sculpture garden this spring.

There you have it: a day trip to downtown Bastrop bookended with fine chocolates and a foundry tour. You’d best get an early start.

From the March 2009 issue
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