(Photo © Hogaboom Road, Inc.)

Many travelers will spend thousands of dollars for a ticket to the Mediterranean to discover historic architecture, splash in blue waters, dine on amazing food, and gaze upon heart-stopping views. Little do they know that East Texas holds its own Athenian adventure, where travelers can do all of these things and more without the expensive plane ticket.

Contact the City of Athens Tourism Office at 903/675-5131.

Chet Garner is the host of The Daytripper® travel show on PBS.

8:30 a.m. With a growling stomach, I made a beeline to The Cherry Laurel Bakery and found the intoxicating aroma of the fresh-baked pastries that this small café has served for more than 25 years. I grabbed some Mexican egg casserole
and a slice of the famous butter-rum cake (no ID required), and started my day in the sunshine on the outdoor patio.

9:30 a.m. For more time outside, I drove to Lake Athens and discovered the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center, where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department raises both awareness for fish conservation and largemouth bass to repopulate Texas lakes and rivers. The tanks were full of creatures from giant catfish to alligator gar, but the highlight was the underwater scuba show. I tried my luck with a few casts into the fishing pond, but all I caught was the everlasting smell of stink bait on my fingers.

11:00 a.m. In town, the stately Henderson County Courthouse may not be the Parthenon, but it’s monumental nonetheless. Eager to learn more about the area, I headed to the Henderson County Historical Museum, housed in an 1896 grocery store and law office. I found rooms full of knickknacks and exhibits documenting local history, including Athens’ place as the “Black-Eyed Pea Capital of the World.” I also learned that Athens is the “Home of the Hamburger,” thanks to turn-of-the-century café owner Fletcher Davis, who started serving ground meat patties on sliced bread.

12:30 p.m. I walked a few blocks over to the Railway Cafe, which is carrying on this town’s burger tradition and bringing locally sourced, scratch-made food to this historic square. Folks were lined up at the door, signaling that I had found the right place. I ordered a delectable pimento-cheese-bacon burger and left nary a crumb on my plate, yet somehow I found room for a chocolate brownie drizzled with espresso-caramel sauce.

2:00 p.m. As I drove through the tall pines, my eyes caught flashes of water as blue as the Mediterranean Sea. Upon investigation, I discovered Athens Scuba Park, which inhabits an old brick quarry full of crystal-clear groundwater. I rented some scuba gear on site and dove into an underwater world full of sunken planes, school buses, and boats. There were obstacles to navigate and even a scavenger hunt to complete. I could have easily spent the rest of the day here, but I moved on to another adventure that’s way above sea level.

5:30 p.m. I drove all the way to New York (which is just 15 miles outside of town). But rather than views of skyscrapers and an urban city jungle, I found breathtaking panoramas of East Texas hills at New York, Texas Zipline Adventures. After hooking into the proper gear, I flew from tree to tree with nothing below me but the green forest floor, and nothing above me but the big, blue Texas sky. Yahoo!

8:00 p.m. I decided to round out my day at local favorite Rounder’s Pizza. I sat down with what seemed like the entire town and ordered a “Hornet” pie, named for the local high school mascot and topped with pepperoni, ground beef, bacon, and a fiery “bud-burner” wing sauce. I may never taste again, but the pizza was well worth it.

While I didn’t find any Greek ruins, mythological gods, or baklava, I did discover an Athens day trip of mythic proportions, once again proving that to trip Texas is to trip the best place in the world. So whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope to see you on the road.

From the July 2016 issue

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