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The Woodlands' Wonderland

Creating Christmas memories in this forested community north of Houston
Written by Jennifer Babisak.

The 70-foot Market Street Christmas Tree dazzles passers-by with evening light performances. (Photos by J. Griffis Smith)

Each year the hectic pace of the holiday season takes me captive, rendering the days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s a breathless sprint devoid of their supposedly inherent jaoy. Every year I vow to change things the next go-round—to shop earlier, do less, enjoy more. So last December, my husband, Matt, children (Caleb, Madi, and Esther), and I took a drastic approach to carving serenity from the holiday chaos: We shoved the entirety of our to-do list to the side (even skipping Christmas-play rehearsal) and embarked on a weekend getaway to a purported winter wonderland, The Woodlands.

 

We chose our lodging, The Woodlands Resort, based not on its location within 28,000 acres of forest nor for its luxurious suites, but solely because of its special holiday breakfast offerings. So the morning after our arrival, we hurried to the much-anticipated Breakfast with Santa, held in the resort’s dining room. Winding our way past several Christmas trees—dazzlingly decorated with flowing red ribbons and golden ball ornaments—we encountered elegantly appointed tables dripping with sugary confections. The older kids flocked to the waffle station, piling their waffles with sprinkles, M&Ms, chocolate chips, and whipped cream. Esther favored the martini glasses filled with layers of yogurt, granola, and fresh berries, while Matt and I honed in on the protein options—custom-made omelets, eggs Benedict, and breakfast meats aplenty. Sitting down with our stacked plates, we peered through the dining room’s floor-to-ceiling windows to take in the tranquil view of the resort’s pine-bordered lake and golf course.

Enchanted with Santa at The Woodlands Resort.While Matt and I watched Esther, Caleb and Madi eagerly waited in line for a turn to sit upon jolly St. Nick’s lap and confide their heartfelt wishes. Toward the end of the meal, the Ice Princess—an ethereal vision with tiara-adorned platinum hair and a fur-trimmed, pink-taffeta ball gown—called all children to the restaurant’s lobby, where she performed a magic show. She led the children in chants of “1, 2, 3, Hocus Pocus” as she pulled one trick after another from her sparkly, purple magic suitcase, culminating in her pulling an adorably fluffy white rabbit named Sugar Bunny from a wooden train. The children then lined up to stroke the rabbit’s silky fur while beaming for the camera.

With Christmas cheer (and plenty of sugar) coursing through our veins, we drove about a mile to Tinsley’s Treasures Toy Shop to look for a few special gifts. The shop, located on the campus of the private Paddington British Storybook Garden School, carries European specialty toys and clothing. As we stepped into the charming cottage, owner Nicolette Cullen-Hardwicke’s British hospitality became apparent in the offer of complimentary tea and cook-ies. Browsing in the soothing space, decked out in pastel colors and boasting a whimsical chandelier with a dancing harlequin rabbit, I admired gifts for the children like wooden toy castles, cloth ballerina dolls (hand-picked by Hardwicke, a former professional ballerina), and Paddington Bear raincoat-and-wellies sets. My eyes were getting ahead of my wallet, though, so we stepped outside to the grounds and followed the flagstone path into the Discovery Garden. While I sat and sipped my tea, the kids romped through a labyrinth and raked sand in the Zen Garden.

In our newfound state of Zen, we sought out another low-key activity, a tour of The Woodlands Town Center (the area’s central shopping, dining, and entertainment district) aboard a Woodlands Waterway Cruiser. As we cruised the 1.4-mile-long Woodlands Waterway in the glass-topped boat—the windows open on this sunny December day—Captain Ron pointed out interesting sites like the Byzantine glass mosaic murals designed by Houston artist Dixie Friend Gay lining the walls un-der the Waterway Avenue Bridge. We passed the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, and Captain Ron mentioned that Frank Sinatra performed for the amphitheater’s opening weekend in 1990.

The 7,600-square-foot Ice Rink welcomes skaters of all skill levels.

During our tour, the kids spotted The Ice Rink, touted as the largest seasonal ice rink in the Southwest. A tented enclosure shields the 7,600-square-foot main rink, which opens each holiday season. Bordered by oversized nutcrackers and miniature Christmas trees, the rink beckons skaters of all ability levels, with helmets and skate trainers available for rent and a special area where young children can practice unencumbered by their older peers. Though we achieved more slipping and sliding than gliding, the kids delighted in the opportunity to attempt such a quintessential winter sport in spite of our balmy Texas weather.

Ready for a lunch break, we made the five-minute drive to Hubbell & Hudson Kitchen. This upscale market—sister to The Woodlands’ full-scale gourmet Hubbell & Hudson Market—offers more than 200 wines, a selection of fresh produce and specialty foods, and a counter-service eatery serving a variety of gourmet fare. “We’ve become a real community hangout,” said General Manager Amy Birdwell.

Matt and I opted for the Build Your Own Burger: My custom creation included a cheddar and jalapeño-laden cowboy patty sandwiched between ciabatta slices with a side of Parmesan truffled fries. The kids squealed over their all-beef hot dogs atop buttered challah buns.

Though Kitchen offered a tempting array of artisan chocolates and fresh-baked goods, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit a dessert locale that recently gained fame with an appearance on Food Network’s “Cupcake Wars.” We stepped into the decadent world of Frost Bake Shoppe, and true to its name, the cupcake shop glimmers with steel tables, metallic chairs, ice-blue walls, and light fixtures dripping with crystals. Though I wanted to try a seasonally flavored cupcake like egg nog or candy cane, the confections looked too rich to tackle alone. So Matt and I split a vanilla cupcake topped with a rich swirl of chocolate icing and a candied Christmas tree while the kids dug into a cookies ’n’ cream version.

Glass-topped Waterway Cruisers ply the 1.4-mile Woodlands Waterway. Next, we made our way to Waterway Square, a one-acre plaza featuring rushing waterfalls and dancing fountains choreographed to the melody of holiday songs. As evening approached, a caroling quartet—outfitted in Dickensian costumes—led the gathered crowd in song. The sweet strains lulled most of the audience into jovial relaxation, lounging about on blankets, partaking of picnics, and sipping the complimentary hot chocolate from a nearby drink station. However, I knew my girls were itching to dance, and when the carolers broke into a high-spirited rendition of “Jingle Bells,” Madi and Esther could sit still no longer. 
They jumped to their feet, leaping and pirouetting to the tune, and begged me to join them. I gave in, of course, and the three of us grasped hands and whirled about until our cheeks were rosy and our heads spinning.

Just steps from the festivities of the Square, we found La Lupita, a traditional Mexican restaurant proclaiming the motto “No Tex. Just Mex.” We sat on the covered patio, which is perched directly above the waterway. Our table’s waterside location gave us unobstructed views of the glowing blue lights lining the Waterway Avenue Bridge and the twinkling trees along the water’s banks.

As we munched on housemade chips and dips, including pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa, we saw Captain Ron cruising down the waterway, waving to us while educating a new crowd of tourists. I chowed down on my favorite traditional Mexican dish, sopes (thick tortillas topped with chicken, chorizo, and Cotija cheese served atop banana leaves), while Matt opted for the Tacos Campechanos (a mix of flank steak and chorizo in corn tortillas) and the kids feasted on crematopped chicken taquitos.

After dinner, making our way toward the shops of Market Street, we walked through the two acres of twinkling lights called Winter Wonderland. Here, brightly colored bulbs form the shapes of toy trains, teddy bears, and giant candy canes, and the kids gasped in wonder as they took in the fantastical creations. We heard a soft whinny behind us and turned to see one of Town Center’s many mounted patrol officers astride a chocolate mare. When the kids giggled and reached out their hands toward the gentle steed, the officer guided the horse over and allowed them to stroke its coarse hair.  

Reaching Market Street’s Central Park, we found a grassy expanse surrounded by high-end shops and restaurants like Jasper’s (acclaimed chef Kent Rathbun’s “gourmet backyard cuisine” venture) and the only Tommy Bahama Island (retail and restaurant combo) in Texas. The whole area was dominated by the 70-foot-tall Market Street Christmas Tree, aglow with 25,000 lights and topped with a towering eight-pointed star. Couples posed in front of the colorfully lit tree, and parents struggled to snap Christmas-card-worthy photos of their wriggling children. Swarms of children rendered the lawn abuzz with activity as strangers united over games of touch football and tag.

But all activity ceased and hundreds of startled faces turned skyward as the booming first notes of “Deck the Halls” brought the tree to life. For this performance, which occurs every half-hour, the tree’s lights flash in pulsating bands of red, gold, and green, keeping time with classical and contemporary instrumental tunes. And for the performance’s five-minute duration, all was still, with young and old alike mesmerized by the magic of dancing lights.

We, too, found magic in The Woodlands, the wonder of exchanging stress for revelry and the gift of undistracted time to peek into our children’s hearts as they took in the sights and sounds of Christmas. Looks like the makings of a new Christmas tradition.

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