Flights to Africa are not cheap right now. The animals may not be the same, but at least San Antonians can make a short drive to a very comfortable safari tent for special-occasion jaunts into the wilderness.
"Why does it look like you're in Africa again?" questioned one of this reporter's friends via Instagram DM. It's true, we'd been in a nearly identical landscape in South Africa last winter. But this was only an hour's drive away. And make no mistake — it's still expensive, but not more so than a upscale hotel room or Airbnb at $450 a night.
Amani, the sole safari tent overlooking a vast expanse at Marble Falls' Shaffer Bend Recreation Area, may pose a philosophical question about what camping entails. If it's being in a remote area, it certainly fits the bill. The tent is situated at the end of a dirt road, off a dirt road. There's practically no chance of seeing even the odd hiker, unless they've taken the incredibly steep trail up the back way and specifically sought out the tent.
The more challenging question, is does camping include a generator? How about a shower, air conditioning, mini-fridge, plush rug, and king-sized bed? Probably not, but it certainly makes it easy to pack up and hit the woods in any weather. And if it's about enjoying nature, it doesn't really get better than being comfortable while doing so — although the noise from the generator, which powers the running water, is a necessary trade-off.
Photo courtesy of LCRA
A unique idea for honeymoons, girls trips, seniors, or apartment dwellers without much room for storing camping equipment — and verified by CultureMap on an invitation by the park — this is hotel-style travel with the benefit of having absolutely no other visitors in sight. Or earshot. And although the smart interior design gives a glamper anything they'd need to make, serve, and store their own meals (using ingredients from the Marble Falls H-E-B, about 10 miles away), those who want to lean into the luxury may book some gourmet options.
Home chefs who like the idea of remaining separate from the rest of civilization can order a meal prep kit ($55-75 per person, vegan options available) to be delivered to the tent, where they can cook on the grill. The kitchenette, designed with input from a local chef who loved visiting the park before Amani existed, has plenty of grilling tools and dish ware — enough for four people to use even though the space only sleeps two.
More extravagant travelers should seriously consider the most luxurious option: welcoming in a private chef ($300). Chef Cindy Crowe grilled up Amani's first-ever private dining experience on September 16, representing the start of a new partnership between Crowe's company, Bay Kitchens Catering, and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), the government agency that managers the park and rents out Amani.
In fact, it was Bay Kitchens corporate chef, Jay Hunter, who made recommendations on the kitchenette design. And the park is no stranger to luxury dining outdoors; At one fundraising dinner, part of its "Savor the Outdoors" series, park supporters gathered at long picnic tables along the river at Pedernales Falls State Park to enjoy local foods prepared on cool live-fire rigs. The food was delicious, but the friendly breaking of bread between outdoorsy foodies was the highlight of the evening.
The spirit was similar at Amani, although, of course, much smaller in scale. Chef Crowe set up at the outdoor grill and peacefully, efficiently got to work preparing a meal that looked like it came out of an elite, bustling kitchen. Yet, despite all its sophistication, this meal retained the soul of any campsite meal: a simple grilled trout, a summery salad, and a no-bake dessert.
Photo by Brianna Caleri
More specifically, the three-course meal — called the "Serengeti Menu" — included a very tender baby greens salad with toasted pecans and feta, sweet strawberries, perfectly soft orange supreme (essentially naked orange segments), and a refreshing peach-pecan vinaigrette. The very lemony trout was served with crispy skin, a healthy sprinkling of chives, and an almost-rustic side of roasted Yukon gold potatoes and Chardonnay and honey-spiked baby carrots. Chef Crowe rounded out the menu with her Key lime cheesecake, which she dressed with a berry compote and torched Italian meringue, for a low-maintenance, high-payoff finish.
Other menus include bourbon and honey-glazed Atlantic Salmon with marble potatoes and broccolini, or a choice of steak cuts with asparagus and a twice-baked potato. Crowe points out that although the menu isn't very limited, she did have to think about what could be cooked without an open flame. (It'd be hard to cook on something other than propane during a burn ban.) Things like twice-baked potatoes and mini cheesecakes are easy to prepare ahead and hit with a finishing touch at the campground.
"It's simple food, still done well," says Crowe. "Even though I'm out here with these beautiful views cooking on a grill you could buy at Lowe's, I still want to put my stamp on the dishes."
Amani is an experiment for the LCRA, according to Crowe and Cheyrice Brumfield, the park ranger and Cherokee grandmother who appeared at my tent in full glam makeup at 10:20 am to get the water turned back on after a repair before I arrived. If Amani — which officially opened its reservations in June according to a publicist — is as successful as the glamping trend of the past few years would suggest, the LCRA plans to bring similar tents to other parks.
Crowe, during her first run-through of this particular catering experience, was not sure how many people would be join in, but she guesses she could accommodate four people. Bay Kitchen Catering also does bridal brunches and even bulk prep for other restaurants, so the scope depends more on what LCRA is willing to host than the volume the catering company is capable of achieving.
Photo by Brianna Caleri
A private chef experience is obviously not required to enjoy a stay at Amani, but it certainly elevates the occasion, and could be a nice way to mark a special occasion beyond just staying in a nice room. Amani also offers a cold cowboy pool (basically a large trough for seated dip) that a glamper can choose to heat as a hot tub, an electric bike rental for conquering the very hilly roads and exploring Shaffer Bend's 508 acres, and of course, spectacular views all around the park.
It's as easy to scoff at the extreme luxury as it is to fantasize about it (if you, like most of us, contain multitudes), but what is really special about Amani is that people like Crowe and Brumfield are making it happen. It's not one of a dozen new purchases by an international hotel chain; It directly benefits Texas parks, and it's taken care of by warm, relatable Texans.
Amani and the park's other campgrounds can be reserved at reserveamerica.com. The safari tent has a two-night minimum, bringing the minimum rental cost to $900 before tax and fees. Culinary reservations must be made at least 72 hours before the stay. More information about Shaffer Bend Recreation Area is available at lcra.org.