Bandera's Flying L: Casual golf, and cowboys to boot

By Brent Kelley, Contributor

The golf course at the Flying L Guest Ranch in Bandera is like that favorite old putter you've been playing with since high school.

It's not the prettiest putter; in fact, it's a little dinged up. There are better putters on the market. But darn it, you like it. It's fun. It's comfortable. So you keep going back to it.

"Comfortable" is a good word for the Flying L Guest Ranch itself. The Flying L isn't an upscale golf resort. It's a western-themed getaway whose casual comfort draws both business retreats and leisure travelers. Those looking to realign their chakras in a chi-chi spa need to look elsewhere. Those looking for a quiet, peaceful, family vacation spot -- or a simple round of golf -- will likely enjoy the Flying L.

That laid-back approach to life and golf probably has much to do with the Flying L's setting in Bandera. The small town (population 1,000, not including the cows and horses) and self-proclaimed "Cowboy Capital of the World" is about 30 minutes from the northwestern edge of San Antonio.

And it is a real cowboy town. Visitors will know it from all the dirt-encrusted pickup trucks, not to mention the dirt-encrusted cowboys stopping off in town on a break from one of the area ranches. Horses clopping down side streets, cowboys astride, are not an unusual site.

"You half-expect to see a guy in Wranglers and boots tee it up on No. 1," said San Antonio golfer Daniel Calderon following a round at the Flying L. "And I wouldn't be surprised to hear that's happened more than once."

The Silver Dollar Saloon, one of the oldest dance halls in Texas, features a real sawdust dance floor and typifies the atmosphere along Bandera's main drag.

On weekends, the town swells in size as tourists from San Antonio and around the Hill Country arrive. Some come for a taste of Bandera's cowboy flavor; others are passing through on their way to nearby Lost Maples State Park, Hill Country State Natural Area or Medina Lake.

Those looking to stay for a few days often wind up at the Flying L. The 722-acre guest ranch offers 1- and 2-bedroom villas and suites, plus a bunkhouse for larger groups. There's a general store, swimming pool and tennis courts; for kids, a "petting corral," playground and Indian village.

Food and drink options include the Spike-n-Spur Grill, breakfast and dinner served in the Main House, cowboy cookouts along the San Julian Creek, and the Branding Iron Saloon.

Activities include horseback rides and hayrides, rodeos and western musical entertainment. A whole spate of children's activities are offered, especially convenient for parents who want to do some exploring on their own.

All of it is in a casual setting. The golf course plays around many of suites and villas, which, outwardly, have the appearance of mid-range apartment homes. Nothing fancy to look at, in other words, but they get the job done are nice on the inside. Besides, if elegant luxury is what you want, San Antonio's upper-crust resorts are just a short drive away. Just take a bigger wallet.

And the golf course? Fun and comfortable, as long as you aren't expecting luxury.

"You won't mistake it for a country club or a resort course," Calderon said. "It's the equivalent of a well-kept municipal course, but that includes the green fees."

Green fees for daily fee golfers are $25 on weekdays and $35 on weekends. Both figures include cart.

The Flying L, Calderon said, "is the course your grandfather might come to for a quick 18, a couple beers and a game of cards after the round."

But don't let Grandpa have all the fun.

The course is fairly flat and a little rough around the edges, but the Tifdwarf greens are usually in excellent condition - smooth, quick and, in many cases, small.

While there aren't many hills along the course that sits in the Medina River Valley, there are plenty around it. The Hill Country backdrop adds to the experience without making the course difficult to walk or play.

Doglegs appear regularly around the 18 holes, with a couple not bending until a mere 75-100 yards before the green. That makes placement off the tee paramount; missing the landing area, or winding up on the wrong side of the fairway, can make par a good achievement.

One of the favorite holes one the course is No. 7, a 170-yard par 3 that plays slightly downhill to one of the larger greens, but one protected by a water hazard across the front and a rock wall. No. 7 provides one of the best views, too, of verdant hills in the distance.

Another rock wall shows up backing a waste bunker that fronts the No. 13 green. The par-5 hole plays to 495 yards. The other par 5s on the course tip out at 509, 544 and 529 yards, making all of them reachable in two for players with a little length.

And after the round? There's plenty to do at the Flying L. Including drinking a cold one (or two) and playing cards.

For any family that wants a slice of cowboy life -- but still plans to get in a few rounds of golf -- Bandera is a hop, skip and yee-haw away from San Antonio's airport. Just be sure to bring spikeless boots.

Stay and Play

There are 26 villas, four "Ranch View" suites and 12 "Golf View" suites at Flying L. Both one- and two-bedroom units are available.

All have private baths, separate bedroom and sitting room, microwave, refrigerator, telephone and cable TV.

Fall/Winter rates range from $80-$99 per adult; Spring/Summer rates from $98-$118. Children under 3 stay free; other children are subject to reduced rates depending on age.

Rates include breakfast and dinner. Guests can request a golf package or a horseback riding package; to do both during a stay requires a surcharge.

There are a handful of motels in Bandera, plus several dude ranches. More lodging options can be found at the Bandera Visitors Bureau Web site,

Dining Out

If you're staying at the Flying L, there'll be no need to leave the ranch for grub and suds.

But for those venturing into Bandera in search of one or both, most of the restaurants and saloons are on Main Street.

Barbecue aficionados should check out The Meat Works Barbecue Joint. Other spots on Main Street worth a visit: Billy Gene's Restaurant, Cabaret Cafe & Dance hall and the Fool Moon Cafe & Coffee House.

The Mansion in Bandera, on Hackberry Street, offers something a bit more romantic and upscale, but reservations are required.

A trip to Lost Maples State Park takes the visitor near the tiny town of Utopia. Take advantage and stop at the Utopia Cafe for a slice of their famous homemade pies.

Fast Fact

The Texas Travel Industry Association voted the Flying L's breakfast buffet the Best in Texas.

Brent Kelley, Contributor

Brent Kelley covers Texas, the Gulf Coast Region (Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and West Florida) and Florida.

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