Feature Article: Austin Travel
A boutique b&b guaranteed to make you a happy camper
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photography by Ryann Ford
The world can be separated into those who loved camp and those who hated it. Even if you didn’t technically go to camp, it’s easy to predict whether you would have made a good or bad camper. How are you with crafts? Group activities? Impressing intimidating adolescent authority figures?
Much to my chagrin, I hated camp. I tried to love it; I longed to make perfect lanyards and braid Sally-the-cool-counselor’s hair. Instead, I counted down the minutes to Turtle Time, when you could read antisocially on your cot.
Until I discovered Camp Comfort, I’d borne the deep wound of camp inadequacy for years—I’d even come to accept it. But the minute I drove up to the boutique bed and breakfast, perched on the edge of a swirling creek in Comfort, Texas, I knew my camp-hating days were done. I’d booked a one-night stay, but I never wanted to leave.
If camp as a kid is all about trying to fit in, Camp Comfort is all about coming back to yourself. In fact, that’s just what owners Phil and Lisa Jenkins did with the property itself, a historic German bowling alley, or “Turnverein,” built in 1860. “It needed a lot of love,” Lisa explains to me in the Social Hall, a whitewashed, light-filled space with soaring wooden ceilings that the couple brought back to life, one hardwood plank at a time. Phil, a builder, repurposed materials from the original structure and the bowling lanes, now the six “alley” rooms behind the hall.
Coming from Austin—where historic homes often seem to disappear overnight, or get unfeelingly flipped, their interiors stripped of any original spirit, with cheap fixtures slapped on with about as much effect as when I put on makeup in the car—it’s a profound relief to encounter Camp Comfort’s careful reconstruction. Take the gorgeous bathroom doors, created from old floor joists. Or the whimsical triangular sculpture at the back of the Social Hall, which Phil fashioned from two-by-fours beneath the bowling lanes. Or the art adorning the room walls, featuring letters Lisa received from former Verein members when they heard she was restoring the place.
Such a project could have come off feeling like a museum, but thanks to Lisa’s ebullient artistic vision, Camp Comfort’s two cabins, six “alley” rooms, courtyard, and Social Hall are an inspiring blend of Shaker, mid-century modern, and contemporary design. When you encounter true aesthetic authority—a clear, distinct voice—something in you relaxes, and you feel a giddy urge to follow your own instincts.
And it seems the entire property is begging you to do just that. There’s the lullaby of the creek, framed by gracious cypress trees. Is it time for a dip in cool water or a nap on the grassy knoll? Or there’s the table under the shady trellis, heaped with Chinese trumpet vine, whose ochre perfectly matches the flirty metal chairs around the fire circle, which reminds you of the s’mores you saw in the Social Hall that you’re dying to try… Or maybe it’s time to draw the shades in your room and snuggle onto the comfy teal leather chairs with a thriller from the bedside table? Or take a soak in the astonishingly deep air-jet tub?
The point of being kind to yourself, on vacation or otherwise, isn’t to retreat into blind solipsism, but to remember why you’re here in the first place. My best trips have brought me into closer relationship with who I want to be and the work I want to do. Spending time in places that honor creative vision—be it in a café with great food, or a museum with transcendent paintings—nurtures my own inspiration, and Camp Comfort is a case in point. It’s no coincidence that this spirit has driven all of Lisa and Phil’s collaborative passion projects, from the first home they worked on together in Gruene. Most couples have difficulty stringing Christmas lights together without getting into an enormous fight, but somehow Lisa and Phil have found a way to marry their talents while staying happily married.
Lisa and Phil’s Recommendations in Comfort and Nearby
Wood-fired pies that even the foodiest of foodies will love.
No trip to Comfort would be complete without High’s comfort cuisine.
Chef Kuykendall’s passion project has drawn rave reviews.
FAVORITE PLACES TO SIP AND SHOP:
Go for the drool-worthy home décor, plus beer and wine out back.
Hill Country Distillers
Raise your spirits with jalapeño and prickly pear-infused moonshine.
Eighth Street Market
Great finds, displayed in a hip, appealing warehouse space with killer cappuccinos.
FAVORITE OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES:
Hiking at Joshua Springs
Prairie loops, lookouts, and bluebird nesting boxes!
Mountain biking at Flat Rock Ranch
Release your inner daredevil on 1,300 acres of rugged biking trails.
FAVORITE RAINY DAY ACTIVITIES:
Touring local wineries
Sample the region’s award-winning wines at Bending Branch Winery, Newsom Vineyards, and Singing Water Vineyards.
Board games in the Social Hall
Whether Monopoly’s your jam, or you’re a Boggle kind of guy, Camp Comfort’s stock of board games has you covered.
“She has incredible vision,” says Phil. “All I do is try to build what she sees, no matter how many times it takes.”Sometimes it takes a few tries. Like a porch he rebuilt three times. “It’s helped us learn how to communicate,” says Lisa. They’re both autodidacts when it comes to building and design: what they had a “knack” for they’ve now fully given themselves over to. They delight in subtle creations like the Social Hall chandeliers, made from wire and glass bottles, an homage to shuttlecocks and camp sports. (Before it became a bowling alley, the original deed referred to the property as a camp.) Phil picked up furniture crafting in 2005, when a good friend and furniture-maker was losing his eyesight, and needed an extra hand. “He offered to teach me everything he knew, in exchange for a little help,” says Phil.
They delight in subtle creations like the social hall chandeliers, made from wire and glass bottles, an homage to shuttlecocks and camp sports.
This philosophy—slowly teaching yourself a craft, or asking a neighbor how to do it—is all too absent from our service-driven economy, although it’s been crucial to the survival of tiny towns like Comfort. According to Phil and Lisa, that generous ethos still characterizes the unincorporated town. “When a big storm came through, and there were tree limbs down everywhere, neighbors come out to help neighbors,” says Lisa. “It was amazing.” And while the Jenkins were originally drawn to Comfort by the ad they saw for the dilapidated bowling alley, they quickly fell just as in love with Comfort’s inhabitants.
“Comfort was founded by Freethinkers [Prussians fleeing religious and political tyranny in the mid-1800s], and a lot of their descendants are still around,” says Phil. “The town has a creative, artistic spirit, and it draws people who are passionate about what they do.” Phil says the locals have been more than welcoming to the bed and breakfast and its out-of-town guests. “After a recent wedding party, our neighbors invited everyone from the wedding to join them at their party across the street,” laughs Phil. “The newly-weds loved it!”
The Jenkins admit that they’re surprised to still be in Comfort; usually, says Lisa, they move fairly swiftly from project to project, hungry for new inspiration. But they’ve found plenty at the camp to keep them going: new cabins will be ready for guests beginning in September. One friend, a singer-songwriter, expressed surprise that the couple would even consider moving on after all the time and energy they’d poured into Camp Comfort. Lisa paused and put it in musician’s terms for her friend. “That would be like saying you could only write one song,” she said. “Eventually you’re going to be inspired to write something new.”
It’s taken a while to hone her own aesthetic, she says, and to find confidence in her unique blend of influences and eras. Ultimately, it comes down to trusting what you’re instinctually drawn to. “I think if you fall in love with something enough to bring it home, it’s part of who you are,” she says. “And that’s going to blend in with the rest of what’s already there.”
Read more from the Travel Issue | May 2017