Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remember the Avalon: Out and About Near -- Rather Than In -- San Antonio

Toyota invited me to drive its redesigned Avalon at a shindig it threw in San Antonio recently.

San Antonio being the location of the iconic Alamo, as in, "Remember the..."

Well, it was sort of San Antonio. We stayed at the J.W. Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort and Spa. You can substitute the "Hill Country" in the name with "but not really."

In fact, this property is about 20 miles north of the city. Santa Anna wasn't much farther away -- albeit to the south rather than the north -- when Travis, Crockett and company realized that the wily old general hadn't waited for spring after all when he began marching his army on the little outpost kicking off a 13-day siege, and eventually delivering a very bad day to the boys manning the walls.

Obviously the general hadn't mastered the concept of "manana."

I love San Antonio; it's one of my favorite cities. Unfortunately, whenever a car company decides to host an event there, it chooses a hotel in the boonies, as Toyota did. So, we never get to take advantage of the city's great downtown.

Seeing the Alamo for the first time is always a bit of a shock. The conversation goes something like:

"Wow, look at that; they made a scale model of the Alamo right in the middle of downtown. Cool; now where's the real thing?

"That's it."

"What do you mean that's it? What's it; that little thing? Where's the rest of it?"

"That's all there is."

"Are you kidding me? I came 2,000 miles to look at something that I can fit in the back of my Chevy Suburban and take home? What a ripoff!"

You've heard cameras put 10 pounds on people; well, movie cameras and Hollywood creative license has doubled the size of the mission's central building in films and on television. But I still get a little choked up when I see it.

This Marriott is a convention and conference center. Boasting 265,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, more than 1,000 guest rooms and suites, six restaurants, a Starbucks, a full-service FedEx facility, two 18-hole golf courses, and a spa where you can get things, rubbed, waxed, painted and powdered, it requires a GPS to get from one area to another.

There are people who have headed out in the morning for a bagel never to be heard from again. This is a big, honkin' place.

Apparently the Attorney General of Mexico and his entourage were sharing the facilities with us. We never did see him, but had to navigate around big, security types sporting ear pieces, the obligatory scowl, and probably heat.

One of the nicest conference hotels I've stayed in, the J.W. Marriott is impressive on many levels. Usually everything from service to the food quality in the restaurants at an uber-big convention hotel is a compromise resulting from the volume of guests swarming around the place at any given time; not so this Marriott.

Service was attentive and the food fabulous. On our second night there, I had a ribeye steak the size of a manhole cover grilled to perfection. I took full advantage of the tequila bar in the Cibolo Moon restaurant. Had a few sippin' shots spread over my two nights there.

My overall opinion was also elevated when Toyota served Silver Oak Cabernet at dinner both nights. It's one of my favorite Cabs. It made me happy.

I must admit, I wasn't chomping at the bit to drive the redesigned 2013 Avalon. For years I quipped that the Avalon was the Mercury Grand Marquis for blue hairs who didn't want to buy American. Obviously I can't say that anymore; Grand Marquis bit the dust along with the Lincoln Town Car and the Ford Crown Victoria.

As if reading my mind, Toyota product planners created an Avalon Livery Package in the hopes of picking up some of the limo business abandoned by Ford.

Toyota mapped out three routes of varying lengths for us to put Avalon through its paces. What we discovered is a remarkably quiet, comfortable ride-and-drive experience.

Toyota is quite pleased with itself that Avalon went from concept to manufacturing in North America. Interior and Exterior styling were from American designers. Inside and out the styling is a huge departure from the stodgy plain-Jane Avalons of yore.

Kentucky workers are already assembling Avalons in Georgetown for a December on-sale date.

Pricing begins at $30,990 for the gasoline-engine version and $35,555 for the hybrid.

The gasoline-engine Avalon gets its go from a 268-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 hitched to a six-speed, driver-shiftable automatic transmission. The EPA expects it to get 25 mpg in combined city/highway driving.

There's gobs of rear-seat legroom and the trunk is huge. The stitching you see around the cockpit is all done by humans not robots.

All in all, it's quite a fine effort.

Although the Alamo wasn't close to the resort, thank God a micro brewery was. Sitting on a little bluff along Ranch Road 12 in Wimberley, Texas, the Middleton Brewing Co. has been making beer for a year or so.

I tried the Black Lab Porter. It was full flavored and quite good.

Bought a tee-shirt, too.

It wasn't quite a substitute for the Alamo, but it still rounded out my trip nicely.

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