SAN ANTONIO - Meandering for a mile-and-a-half, below the level of downtown streets, the paved paths and landscaped borders of this city's River Walk are a powerful magnet for visitors. So powerful, in fact, that at times walking single file between rows of restaurant tables is the only way to move.

If you find yourself in that situation, you don't want to do what my niece, Alicia, did a few years ago. A jostling crowed forced her to take a step backward at just the wrong place, and she wound up in the river. It's only three feet deep and she was unhurt, but she reported that the muddy river bottom was quite "icky."

Enjoying most of the River Walk doesn't involve such a challenge, and now there's a new, less congested, and more visually interesting stretch of this unique urban amenity that extends almost two miles north of downtown. I suspect that Alicia will want to return after all.

The River Walk's new "Museum Reach," so named because it will eventually link the river to two of the city's major museums, is the first phase of the $279 million San Antonio River Improvement Project, an effort that took more than a decade of planning by civic leaders to realize.

When the extended River Walk is completed in about four years, local officials say, it will be the nation's longest linear park. Sidewalks and bike trails will stretch 13 miles, linking four 18th-century Spanish missions on the city's south side to 112-year-old Brackenridge Park on the north side, where the spring-fed river rises.

The Museum Reach enables passenger-carrying barges to travel north for two miles beyond the downtown section where they operate now. The barge trips include five minutes in each direction in a miniature Panama Canal-style lock that lifts or lowers boats nine feet to compensate for changes in the elevation of the river.

Besides the lock and less congestion, the Museum Reach experience is different in other ways from what happens on the downtown portion of the River Walk. More sunlight reaches most of the new stretch, and even the shady parts of the Museum Reach under bridges are brighter, with eight works of art - all paid for with private donations - along the way.

My favorite installation hangs beneath an Interstate 35 bridge: 25 seven-foot-long, multicolored plastic fish designed by Donald Lipski, an internationally known public artist who lives in Philadelphia.

When you visit here, know that San Antonio is Texas' most popular tourist destination, and catering to visitors one of its leading industries. Thanks to its two main attractions, the Alamo and the River Walk, the city attracts 26 million out-of-town visitors a year, most of them vacationers or conventioneers. That's almost as many leisure and business travelers as Philadelphia sees annually, and Philadelphia's metro area has three times the population.

The River Walk, lined with dozens of restaurants, bars and other shops, is at its most crowded during festivals, such as Fiesta at the end of April, and when there are big sports events at the nearby Alamodome.

But conventioneers, tour groups, and the locals love this place, too, so there's often no way to avoid sharing space with thousands of other people. San Antonio residents urge visitors to just relax and go with the flow.

"Whatever you're here for, your blood pressure goes down," said Dee Dee Poteete, spokeswoman for the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The tie comes off. You step out of the convention and someone puts a margarita in your hand. You start wearing clothes that don't match."

The city has a population that's roughly half Hispanic, 10 percent African American, and the rest "white and other," and Poteete describes the atmosphere as "a blending of cultures . . . you don't get anywhere else. . . . The warmth is genuine, not manufactured. And there's a sense of place here. There are some cities where you don't have that."

There are two good ways to see the River Walk: walking, of course, or floating, on one of the 40-seat barges operated by Rio San Antonio Cruises. Access points from street level to the walk can be found every block or so, both downtown and heading north or south.

The original portion of the walk, where most of the restaurants are, is in a loop off the river's main channel. The paved paths along the banks continue south from downtown for about six blocks, skirting the edge of King William, a leafy neighborhood of restored 19th- and early-20th-century homes.

Heading north from downtown, you're first on a quiet half-mile portion of the River Walk that was finished in 2002, surrounded by hotels and high-rise office buildings and lush, fully mature landscaping. As you walk or ride up the river, most of the tall buildings begin to disappear. You notice three more mid-rise hotels, a couple of restaurants, the Southwest School of Art and Craft, and then, increasingly, older light-industrial buildings.

The Museum Reach and the eight installations of public art start at the Lexington Street bridge (each bridge spanning the river has street names posted). The first is Shimmer Field by British artist Martin Richman, suspended panels of different colors, designed to move gently in the river breeze. Just past the lock is Under the Over Bridge by Mark Schlesinger, a New York painter now living in San Antonio who has experimented with luminous paint that reflects light.

Lipski's installation, titled F.I.S.H., using plastic models of long-eared sunfish, a species native to the river, is a delightful example of how to make the underside of a highway bridge fun.

"That space under a big bridge can be very spooky and intimidating," Lipski told me. "I'm a scuba diver, and whenever you swim around a bridge footing, there are always fish. That was the image that popped into my mind. . . . It seems like the fish are headed north for the summer."

Lipski loves to work in large public spaces, and he said he found this one "spectacular. . . . It's like being in a cathedral."

A few hundred feet farther north, your jaw will drop at The Grotto, 40-foot-high faux bois, or "false wood," concrete creation, with river water tumbling through it, created by San Antonio artist Carlos Cortes.

Among the barge stops is one for the oldest VFW post in Texas, housed in a 19th-century mansion, which has a bar and outdoor seating open to the public. Another is at the San Antonio Museum of Art, housed in the century-old former Lone Star Brewery. The museum has built a new shaded pavilion and terrace backing to the river.

The last stop is at another local landmark, the former Pearl Brewery, which is being redeveloped into a multi-use shopping and residential complex. Among the tenants already are a farmer's market and a branch of the Culinary Institute of America.

The River Walk is an asset that makes cities worldwide envious - because none of them have been able to duplicate it or match its appeal to visitors and locals alike. Enthusiasm for the extension has been running high here for months and reached a crescendo three weeks ago when Mayor Phil Hardberger and other leaders pushed a button to start the operation of the lock and the opening of the Museum Reach.

Thousands of people, most of them San Antonio residents like Benny Bellamy and his wife, Lou, waited patiently in line for more than an hour to take one of the free barge rides on the Museum Reach that were available on the first weekend.

"I like this," Bellamy said after disembarking from the boat ride. "We don't just wait until visitors come to town. We love to go to the river any time. We've lived here 28 years, and it's a good place to be."

The opening coincided with the last days of Hardberger's four years in office. He is a former judge who once lived on the river, had his law office there, and has bought burial plots for himself and his wife, Linda, in a South San Antonio cemetery on it.

Hardberger had wanted to see the River Walk extended since he tried canoeing from his home to his office, on what is now the Museum Reach, decades ago. He found the river an overgrown, trash-filled ditch. After years of planning by his predecessors, Hardberger is widely credited with pushing the City Council after taking office in 2005 to complete the Museum Reach, as a way to both sustain tourism and provide a unique amenity for residents.

Hardberger waxes poetic about the river at every opportunity, describing it as San Antonio's beating heart since the city's founding three centuries ago.

"It's the reason there is a San Antonio," he said in an interview. "It was always a green spot in hard country, a place surrounded by lots of cactus and rattlesnakes and not much else."

"We know people were here 10,000 years ago," he said during the opening ceremony. "We've been here 300 years. The river has bound us together. It is the major artery of this city. It is the most beautiful part. The river is timeless . . . and eternal."

If You Go

Getting there

Southwest Airlines has the only nonstop flights between Philadelphia and San Antonio International Airport. Connecting service is available on AirTran, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United. Southwest's nonstop fare is $232 for travel later this summer; connecting flights on other airlines are slightly more.

Places to stay

San Antonio has 12,000 downtown hotel rooms, with every chain represented. The better the view of the original portion of the River Walk, the more expensive rooms generally are.

San Antonio Marriott River Walk, 889 E. Market St., 1-800-648-4462.

Omni La Mansion del Rio, 112 College St., 1-800-292-7300.

Holiday Inn El Tropicano, three blocks south of the new Museum Reach, 110 Lexington Ave., 877- 863-4780.

Crockett Hotel, next to the Alamo, 320 Bonham St., 1-800-292-1050.

Places to eat

Lone Star Cafe, on the River Walk, 237 Lasoya St., 210-223-9374, casual, with a variety of steaks, sandwiches, and seafood.

Biga on the Banks, 203 S. St. Mary's St., on the River Walk, 210-225-0722, upscale with a menu that changes frequently.

Casa Rio, on the River Walk, 430 E. Commerce St., 210-225-6718, the original Tex-Mex restaurant, with long rows of tables on the river.

Barge rides

Rio San Antonio Cruises (www.riosanantonio.com) sells tickets for barge rides at a booth on the walk below the 100 block of West Commerce Street, across from the Hilton Palacio del Rio hotel; at the RiverCenter Mall; the lower level of the Aztec Theater; and at the lock at Brooklyn Street. A 24-hour Museum Reach pass is $10 and three-day passes are $25. Single rides are $8.25 for adults. River taxis also are available for $5 per person.

More information

San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.visitsanantonio.com) has information about the River Walk and numerous other visitor attractions, including the Alamo, the site of one of the key battles for Texas independence from Mexico in 1836 (www.alamo.org), and the region's two major theme parks, Six Flags Fiesta Texas (www.sixflags.com/fiestatexas) and Sea World (www.seaworld.com/sanantonio).

- Tom Belden

EndText