Las Colinas: romantic, extravagant, and possible only in Texas

On a mesquite plain 15 minutes north of Dallas rises a new settlement that could only happen in Texas. Las Colinas (Spanish for ''the hills'') has canals and bridges that call up Venice, modern office buildings reminiscent of Renaissance palaces, and a hotel with bush-jacketed bellboys straight from the mysterious East.

It was in the dining room of the hotel, the Mandalay Four Seasons, not many nights ago, that I considered the oak-pillared plushness and the rack of lamb wrapped in pastry on my plate and asked myself: Was I really sitting beside a central Texas road only six hours earlier, eating barbecue brisket and potato salad from a paper plate?

Anything is possible in Texas, and that's why Las Colinas belongs nowhere else. In California and Florida it takes a Disney to bring fantasy to life, but here reality intersects neatly with make-believe in a commercial and residential development that is as much part of the state as the Dallas skyscrapers on the horizon or the Brangus cattle that still graze on surrounding ranchland.

Only a few years ago Las Colinas was all ranchland, 12,000 untamed acres of it owned by an agriculturist, financier, and cattleman named Ben Carpenter. Commercial sprawl was closing in, livestock profits were dwindling, and Carpenter, a dreamer and doer in the great Texas tradition we know from movies and TV, undertook to build his own city. He dug a 62-acre lake and named it for his sister Carolyn, carved out a series of canals, and opened some office buildings much more interesting than the gleaming norm.

''Ben Carpenter didn't want a Glitter Gulch,'' said a Las Colinas man as we strolled the new frontier town one morning. ''He wanted something pleasing, all-purpose, and long-lasting.'' Though he has visions of a work force of 150, 000 and a population of 50,000 by the year 2000, Carpenter has so far disturbed only a fraction of the rolling plain and keeps 500 acres of the original Hackberry Creek Ranch in operation.

We were on foot because it was too early for the Italian-made teakwood water taxis, which ply the Mandalay Canal from 10 to 6 daily. In time, there will be a 51/2-mile monorail running through the growing settlement. Already well entrenched is a canalside row of shops and restaurants built to blend in with a bell tower and bridge suggestive of Venice. There was something familiarly American about the first shop I peeked into. It was a well camouflaged McDonald's - no golden arch, no Big Mac smells, all in all the most poshy burger joint I've ever seen, done in quiet earth tones with oak paneling, red-tile floor, and skylights.

We crossed a little stone bridge and came to an equally well-concealed parking garage. Carpenter didn't want cars sticking out of concrete ramps, so he built seven or eight connecting town house facades, complete with wrought-iron balconies and ivy growing up the brick and stucco walls. You open the big oak doors and - presto! - step into a several-story parking lot.

There are shiny rounded office towers very much at home in the 1980s, but the buildings at Williams Square that anchor Las Colinas have the solid and classical lines of Renaissance palaces. These and other buildings Carpenter supplied with peaked roofs, some with dormers peeking out. Already the copper roofing has taken on an aged greenish tint, lending an air of maturity to the little boomtown. Sculptures are scattered across the lawns and in front of office buildings, none more commanding than the nine bronze mustangs made in England by Robert Glenn, whose lions grace Trafalgar Square.

If you wonder why the hotel and canal are called Mandalay, a hint may be that Carpenter won a Silver Star in Burma during World War II. Other hotels are planned for Las Colinas, but for now the stylish Mandalay (part of the well regarded Four Seasons chain) can handle the business and tourist traffic that lands in this seeming pocket of Orientalia. The public spaces are dense with foliage and statuary.

Though I got my constitutional by jogging the highway shoulders around the hotel, a better choice might have been to submit myself to the Las Colinas Sports Club, the last word in exercise parlors. For $15, a hotel guest gets transportation in the greenhouse limo and full run of the club. This 200 -yard-long bunker of a building is all brass railings, rust carpets, shiny wood floors, pots of flowers, and spotless workout equipment.

Scott Brogan, the director of fitness, opens the daily regimen at 6 a.m. with a series of classes like aerobic dance, stretching, and karate. You can also use the racketball, squash, and tennis courts, or jog on the eight-mile rubberized skylit track.

Outdoors there are tennis courts, a golf course with one green shaped like the state of Texas (and a sandtrap like Oklahoma), and riding stables for those who want to roam the still wide open spaces.

Golf and tennis stars who have passed through the club have found the locker rooms, with their carved oak lockers, brass fixtures, and tireless attendants, unmatched on the circuit.

Another Las Colinas asset is the short drive to the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. It makes you want to book the next flight to Rangoon or Venice, just to see if Texas does it better.

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