When Judy and John McClung set out in search of an undeveloped piece of property they had no clue of the difficulty of their task. After reading multiple books on how to be an innkeeper Judy was ready to take on the project of building a Bed & Breakfast for birders. John foresaw the opportunity of a new life after retirement catering to birdwatchers seeking an authentic experience in the semi-tropical terrain of the Rio Grande Valley.
Judy, a registered nurse from Arizona, and John lived in California for some time, and eventually moved to Maryland where John lobbied for the food and vegetable industry in Washington DC. For John, Texas was the heart of the produce industry, and to his surprise fate bestowed the opportunity to come to the Valley as the President of the Texas International Produce Association. He served for fifteen years until his retirement two years ago. Their search for the perfect real estate began in 1999. They envisioned a thick-brushed-sub-tropical paradise, but soon found out those were practically impossible to find. “For the most part, undeveloped land is occupied by local, state or federal government nature parks,” said John. The couple opted for a little over seven acres of an open field adjacent to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas. As a result, on top of designing and building an inn, they faced the monumental task of landscaping an empty field. But nothing would deter them from fulfilling their dream of the Bed & Breakfast they opened in 2002. They named it Casa Santa Ana.
With the help of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge’s botanist, and master gardener friends, the McClungs soon conquered the barren field. “For many years we birdwatched all over the world, and stayed at many bed & breakfast facilities. We know what birders and nature enthusiasts look for, and we seek to provide a ‘home stay’ feeling for them,” said Judy. Casa Santa Ana is a small and cozy 5-bedroom inn surrounded by the coveted silence birds and birders desire. There are no TVs in the rooms, but fast and effective internet is available. A priority is to keep the refrigerator and pantry fully stocked. The lounge area is a comfortable place to dine, fix meals and watch television if so desired. A full kitchen, a washer and dryer and an outdoor grill are available for guests at all times.
The days waiting for trees and shrubs to grow are long gone. Today, Casa Santa Ana boasts a lush subtropical landscape including a pond a few steps from the main patio area and a walking trail. John delights in packing bird feeders to attract Valley specialties and migrating birds for guests to enjoy. “Most of our guests are birders and wildlife photographers, but things have slowly progressed into butterfly, dragonfly and even moth people” said John. The couple run all aspects of the business except for one cleaning staff. Judy prepares breakfast for the guests and John is available as a guide. At the end of the day it is the interaction with the wildlife community and meeting interesting people what Judy and John enjoy the most.
After thirteen years in the business, Judy is not sure what the future holds other than continue to provide the services that have made Casa Santa Ana a top choice among the birding world. “It has been a good business, we don’t get rich but do break ahead and there’s a tax benefit. If we really wanted to be more profit able we would have to add more rooms,” said John. “We enjoy it, but it would bore me to tears if this was a general purpose bed and breakfast.” Judy recommends to find a niche market that you enjoy -like ecotourism in their case – and cater to it. It is the key to success in her opinion.
Regarding the many books she read about becoming an innkeeper Judy says there is nothing like the actual experience. Read ahead and be prepared to give up travel and family for at least 5 months out of the year. The recent heat has shortened the season, but for the most part John said if it is ski season in Colorado, it is birding season in the Rio Grande Valley.
For more information please visit CasaSantaAnna.com