By Lori Moffatt
Sharing the spotlight of such international travel destinations as Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Istanbul, and Singapore, Houston ranked #7 in a January New York Times list of “46 Places To Go in 2013.” Echoing a July Forbes magazine story that called Houston “the coolest place to live in America,” the NY Times editors praised the city’s numerous museums and other cultural attractions, and also noted its lively and diverse restaurant scene.
The city’s growing appeal to vacation travelers comes as no surprise to me, as Houston is one of my favorite go-to cities whenever I crave a weekend of museum-hopping, shopping, and intriguing dining options. Another plus: It’s easy to find hotel deals on the weekend. Since Houston is still better known as an industry-and-energy player than as a destination for leisure travel, room rates often drop after the CEOs wrap up Friday meetings.
Intrigued by rave reviews of the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new state-of-the-art paleontology wing, I cleared my calendar for a weekend adventure.
Thanks to a girlfriends’ getaway earlier in the year, I knew that the Hotel Derek—a modern, 4-star hotel at the bustling corner of Loop 610 and Westheimer—made a good home base for exploration. Armed with a list of places we wanted to see and restaurants we hoped to try, my husband and I rolled into town and quickly realized we’d need more than a few days simply to accommodate the new culinary experiences we dreamed of having.
And fittingly, our first stop was lunch. Surrounded by rustic barn wood and red- brick walls at Sparrow Bar+Cookshop, chef and reluctant celebrity Monica Pope’s new restaurant in the Midtown neighborhood, we snacked on chickpea fries and earthy mushroom dumplings while a Houston friend regaled us with more things to see and do. Overhead, chandeliers made of perforated pizza pans cast pinpoints of light onto the table as I tried to keep up. “Have you been to Boheme?” he asked. “They have a wine bar and great burgers! Or Lucille’s? That’s upscale Southern comfort food in the Museum District. And what about 13 Celsius, right around the corner? It’s a fun wine bar in a former dry cleaner!”
Across the table, my spouse’s satisfied expression suggested he had never eaten a scallop quite so delicious. I sampled a nibble and agreed: Simply prepared with a tasty flourish of vanilla-bean aioli, the scallops evoked the sea with each bite.
That afternoon, we had plans to tour the nearby Saint Arnold Brewery, which helped ignite Texas’ passion for craft beer when it opened in Houston in 1994. A few years ago, the brewery moved from its original digs in northwest Houston to a spacious building that once housed the Houston Independent School District’s food-storage facility. Downstairs, 25 enormous, stainless-steel fermenting tanks (the largest holds more than 7,000 gallons) brew the company’s year-round and specialty beers. And upstairs, where giant freezers once held vast aluminum trays of soy meatloaf and chicken nuggets, the space somehow resembles a Munich biergarten during Oktoberfest, with hundreds of Saint Arnold fans seated at long tables quaffing beer from six-ounce glasses, playing backgammon, and enjoying happy-hour picnics. “The regulars know to bring camp chairs in case all the tables fill up,” says Lennie Ambrose, the brewery’s special-events coordinator. “And we make our own root beer, so there’s even something here for the kids.”
Since I was not the designated driver, I can reveal that the extra-hoppy Elissa IPA (named for Galveston’s three-masted 1877 Tall Ship) hits the spot on a warm afternoon, but if you’d like to keep your wits about you, it’s perhaps best not to follow it with the double IPA called Saint Arnold Endeavor. I spent the evening exploring the Heights neighborhood with friends, resisting the urge to dance on tables.
The next morning, breakfast found us at a fast-casual restaurant called Pondicheri Cafe, the second Houston restaurant concept by James Beard-nominated chef Anita Jaisinghani, who turns Indian food on its ear at her popular upscale restaurant Indika. “I had always wanted to open a restaurant where the food was more casual and affordable,” says Anita. “I’m not trying to make it super-traditional, but it is authentic. We have ingredients here in Houston that you’d never find in India; why would we not want to use them?”
After mugs of stout Indian coffee sweetened with jaggery syrup (an unrefined sugar that tastes a bit like molasses), my husband tucked into an omelet made with spinach, mustard greens, and the Indian fresh cheese called paneer while I made my way through a “Morning Thali.” This picture-perfect sampler platter comes with fresh fruit, house-made yogurt, a carrot flatbread called a paratha topped with a fried egg, and half-cup servings of potato curry, beef keema, and stoneground grits dressed up with peas, mustard seeds, cauliflower, and peanuts.
Saffron-colored curtains both divide the space and temper noise, and vibrant tangerine walls imbue a lively energy. By the time we finished our meal and took a stroll through the world of high fashion at the adjacent Tootsie’s flagship store, we were ready to explore the world of dinosaurs at the nearby Museum of Natural Science.
Surrounded by dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, it’s easy to feel small and to ponder your place in the universe
In the summer of 2012, the museum unveiled its new football-field-size Morian Hall of Paleontology, which features more than 30 dinosaur specimens, including an all-bone T. Rex skeleton said to have the best-preserved hands and feet of any T. Rex skeleton ever found. A Quetzalcoatlus soars on 35-foot-wide wings, a Stegosaurus balances on its tiny feet like a Jurassic ballerina, and Deinonychus (the carnivorous “kickboxing dinosaur”) inspires chills. But the museum’s timeline delves much earlier than the Jurassic period, when the first dinosaurs emerged. The hall begins with a series of beautiful fossils from the pre-Cambrian age, then quickly immerses visitors in the world of trilobites, sea scorpions, the “tentacle terrors” related to today’s squid and octopi known as nautiloids, and delicate Devonian-era seed-fern fossils.
There’s more of a Texas focus than I expected; an entire section of the hall is devoted to findings at the Craddock Ranch near Seymour, where paleontologists have found some of the finest intact Dimetrodon fossils in the world. (The reptile resembled a crocodile with a curved sail on its back.)
Surrounded by all manner of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures—many posed as if engaged in battle or courtship—it’s easy to feel small and to ponder your place in the universe.
Curator and paleontologist Robert Bakker, who served as a consultant for the first few Jurassic Park movies, made a special effort to illustrate the vagaries of science. “We wanted to show people that science is not all known,” says Bakker’s colleague, Associate Curator David Temple. “For example, what was the purpose of the proportionately tiny arms of the T. Rex? There are at least five theories, ranging from grooming and clutching prey to courtship. Science is based on an attempt to isolate a single variable, but the truth is that the arms probably had many different functions. The beauty of science is that knowledge is never constant. There is always something new to discover.”
The same could be said of Houston.
I recently made a quick trip to Houston to take care of some medical appointments, which got me thinking about the idea of â€œhealth travel,â€ or even the vague concept of â€œsecondary travel.â€ For example, even if my main reason for visiting a city is to catch up with family, see a hotshot out-of-town specialist, or to attend a work conference or other event, I do try to squeeze in some recreation. In Houston, I try to visit a museum or gallery, a favorite shop, and a restaurant or bar Iâ€™ve been hearing about. This time, I joined up with two longtime Houston friends to check out El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, the new (yet old-school) Tex-Mex restaurant dreamed up by food writer/historian Robb Walsh and restaurateurs Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd. I had heard raves about the cheese enchiladas with chili gravyâ€”that classic Tex-Mex comfort-food concoction served with orange cheese, lard-laden (and I mean that in a good way) refried beans, and Spanish rice. Well-deserved raves! Tart margaritas and a salvaged dÃ©cor from the shuttered El Fenix Restaurant completed the experience. Iâ€™ll look forward to future visits once I can fit into my jeans again.
When I visit the Bayou City, I often stay with friends, but this time, I tried an experiment. I had heard about travel websites like www.lastminutetravel.com and www.hotwire.com, which offer unsold hotel rooms at steeply discounted prices, and I decided to give lastminutetravel a try. Hereâ€™s how it works: You go to the site, pick your city and general area, plug in your dates, and the website finds available rooms. In my case, I found a â€œfour-star hotelâ€ in â€œdowntown Houstonâ€ for $95. The site provides photos of the hotel, and a list of amenities, but you donâ€™t learn the name of the hotel until youâ€™ve booked the room. (This makes sense to me: While the hotels want to sell their unsold rooms, they donâ€™t want to advertise that theyâ€™re willing to drastically undercut their rack rates. And be aware that after you reserve the room, you canâ€™t cancel or change your reservation.) For my one-night stay, this worked beautifully: My hotel turned out to the Hyatt Regency, where rooms normally start around $180 per night. The hotel has a great rooftop pool, and its central location proved perfect for exploring on foot. When I returned to the office, I poked around these sites to see what other hotel deals I could find in Texas: I pretended to want to book a room four days out, and I turned up a â€œfour-starâ€ hotel in Galveston for $96 and a â€œthree-starâ€ hotel in downtown Fort Worth for $68.
Have you tried these sites for Texas travel? Care to share your experiences?
If the essence of a culture can be discovered through its food, no ethnic cuisine fits this notion better than Chinese. The consummate guide to all flavors Chinese—at least in Texas—is Dorothy Huang, who has hosted food tours of Houston’s Chinatown, along with her legendary cooking classes, for more than 35 years.
The January issue of Texas Highways includes a feature about the oddball attractions of sophisticated Houston. As a native Houstonian, I enjoy recalling those quirky sites. Of course, I'm living in Austin now, where, luckily, there's no dearth of "quirky" here.
Needing an escape from city stress, I packed a bag and drove 45 minutes west of my hometown of Fort Worth for a stay at the new Double J Hacienda, a 12-acre retreat just outside Mineral Wells. Almost as soon as I arrived, I realized I had found a favorite getaway destination.
Blessed day, as it is, the Easter memory that I always enjoy recalling involves a special Easter egg hunt at Bastrop State Park. Mom asked if we wanted to go on an Easter egg hunt. What kid says no" to that? Even though we fully expected that a hunt would be in our plans that Sunday, we were jumping for joy, as if it were a surprise. I was already imagining (and salivating over) the kind of treats we'd find hidden inside the eggs. Mom is very creative! As we rode along, empty baskets guarded carefully on our laps, time passed and eventually we started chiming in with "Are we there yet?" We were still clinging to our excitement of the hunt, but a little put out that we still hadn't reached our destination.
It turns out Mom thought it'd be nice to do the Easter egg hunt at Bastrop State Park. Did I mention we were living in Houston?
What a blast we had, though, and what a great idea Mom had! After nabbing the hidden eggs, we just enjoyed the park, and the picnic mom had prepared for us. I absorbed, as much as I could, this rare sight of fresh air and greenery in such a vast amount of space. This atmosphere was as much a treat to me as the one time I had seen snow (at the time). I remember how beautiful this was to me and the sound of pine needles crunching underfoot. I remember the CCC cabin, too.
Ever the rockhound, I found a rock that I thought was utterly fabulous and brought it home. I have it still. It's special because it reminds me of that perfect day. Anytime I visit or drive past Bastrop State Park, that memory resurfaces.
As an adult, I still appreciate Bastrop State Park and its beautiful trails. I also now better appreciate that my widowed mom made time, though I can't imagine how she found it (or the energy), to do this for us four kids. The deep-seeded pleasure and the lasting fond memory of this road trip is true testament that one can never forget the value of a simple road trip and quality family time.
On a recent visit to Houston, I had dim sum with my daughter and my siblings at Yum Yum Cha Cafe in Rice Village. Dim sum, sometimes called "Chinese tapas," are bite-size dumplings, buns or tofu filled with meat, seafood or vegetables. Houston's Chinese food aficionados know that most of the city's dim sum restaurants are clustered in the southwest area's Chinatown, so Yum Yum Cha, nestled near the Museum District in the 610 Loop, is a rare find. Even better, Yum Yum Cha also serves dim sum on weekdays and most evenings. Traditionally, this diminutive treat is only served during weekend brunch-time.
For a relaxing break from city hustle, venture down the following urban trails…and learn about nature along the way. Regulations vary, but everywhere, follow the hiker's credo: Take only photographs and leave only footprints. Stay on marked trails to prevent erosion. Wear sturdy walking or hiking shoes. Carry insect repellent, sunscreen, and plenty of water, plus a camera and binoculars.