I’m crushing on Houston big time. I mean, I’m staying at a downtown hotel that has a lazy river in the shape of the Lone Star state on its roof (yup, a river…in the map of Texas…on its roof!). My plans for today alone include giraffe feeding at the Houston Zoo, feasting on Texas BBQ, and riding the NASA Tram Tour at the Houston Space Centre to see NASA’s original Mission Control.
But first, decisions. Big decisions. Do I have ‘Katfish & Grits’ or ‘Wings & Waffles’ for breakfast?
“Wings & Waffles,” advise my kids on the two signature dishes at the legendary The Breakfast Klub, part restaurant, part tourist attraction, and all culinary goodness. It’s the place Good Morning America once hailed as home to the country’s best breakfast, and H-Town native extraordinaire Beyoncé is said to be a fan.
See, that’s the thing about Houston, the U.S.’s fourth largest and most ethnically diverse city. It surprises. And for family fun, it’s got cred. Over four days, we devoured everything from decadent Mexican churros to the tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly Museum District, where, in mere blocks, kids can join a child-run city, watch elephant baths, and roam a dinosaur hall.
To hit up the highlights, a CityPASS Houston ticket booklet is a great money saver, providing a passport to almost half-off savings if visiting the five included attractions. An adult booklet costs $59 U.S., $49 for children. Along with admission discounts, the CityPASS program (available in 12 North American locations) shows the love with perks like must-see picks in each city and taking the VIP route, skipping most main-entrance ticket lines.
Confession. I want my birthday party at the Downtown Aquarium. Several parties were set up in the Aquarium Restaurant during our visit, and every seat (delightfully decked out in underwater themes) had a view of the enormous 150,000-gallon aquarium where sea creatures from sawfish to shovel-nose guitarfish swam past. Of course, the main draw here is the 500,000-gallon Aquarium Adventure exhibit, home to thousands of fish from all over the world. With some 400-plus species of marine life, visitors can marvel at displays from the Louisiana swamp to the rainforests, from a snapping turtle that likes to hang out near the tree trunks to a shipwreck exhibit. After exploring inside, you may want to wander the grounds, home to games, rides, and a train that traverses the property, stopping in a tunnel below a shark tank.
HOME RUN HOTEL
McCarronConfession two. I’d come to Houston to say I floated down a Texas-shaped lazy river. It’s part of the sixth-floor roof complex at the Marriott Marquis Houston, which wows with sweeping views of the Houston skyline, swish cabanas, a hot tub and infinity pool. The hotel hits a home run—and I don’t say that just because its 5,000-square-foot spa and fitness centre overlook Minute Maid Park, home to the Houston Astros, 2017 World Series Champs. I’ve never experienced such service. I wander into Pure, the spa, and they offer a tour and sample products. I sit for breakfast at Walker Street Kitchen (one of four hotel restaurants, including the buzzworthy Xochi, a fab Mexican restaurant, and bustling, upscale sports bar Biggio). When I said, “I’m set to order,” my server thinks I’ve said “I’m sad” and confides she was going to offer me a cookie! Lobby staff greet me each day “nice to see you again”—though the place has 1,000 rooms!
Houston’s best breakfast? The aforementioned The Breakfast Klub brings the magic. Lines stretch out the door as people queue for ‘katfish’, grits, green eggs and ham. We beat the rush early on a Sunday morning, and fall instantly in love with Ms Mary, a thin sprite of a greeter who whips around the corner, menus in hand, and puts a smile on our faces with her humour. “Did Y’all wake up at once?” she asks our gang of nine. She offers instructions: place your order, pick up your silverware and get some coffee. “We have good coffee, gourmet coffee. It starts as decaf and gets stronger as you make your way right, the last will make your hair stand up!”
If you do one thing at the outstanding Museum of Natural Science, book a Discovery Tour and ask for “Jurassic James,” or James Washington III, a dinosaur loving, energetic, enthusiastic educator, who could easily make it as a stand-up comedian. He makes the museum—a four-floor treasure trove of fossils, gems, ancient Egyptian wonders, Texas wildlife, and one of the largest dinosaur halls in the U.S.—come alive. “What secret stuff?” James mock shouts to get our group to move along to look at the next “really important science and really cool fun thing.”
“This is really special. I’d hug her, but I’d get fired,” he says at the T-Rex exhibit before going full-on science and pointing out cool facts. Another tip? Come early. There’s much to see, and you could easily spend the day.
Art created by gunpowder, you say? You bet. “Odyssey,” in the Chinese art gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts is a captivating and stunning gunpowder drawing, created by combining gunpowder, layers of paper, and brick. It is one of the thousands of fascinating revelations found inside one of the largest museums in the central U.S. The underground tunnel of light, “The Light Inside” by artist James Turrell connects the museum’s two buildings, and is what visitors remember most, says senior docent Margaret Hansen. After a morning exploring sculpture gardens and artist galleries, drop by the MFA Café for satisfying sandwiches and salads, or browse the MFA Shop, perhaps picking up some art supplies for your budding creator.
Picking the best thing about the 90,000 square feet of fun that is the Children’s Museum of Houston is nearly impossible. There’s so much to do. Kids age eight and up can enlist in S.E.C.R.E.T, Houston’s only digital spy interactive experience, and go on special missions to help save the museum. Yes, that means even moms like me can manoeuvre through a darkened room, gingerly stepping over green laser lights until you cash in or make it to the other side. Downstairs, kids may want to beeline it for Kidtropolis, a city for and run by kids, or test their creativity at the Maker Annex. From a toddler room to science stations, the museum is set up so kids can explore, invent, climb and create. The museum is popular, and people typically spend over four hours. Best tips for parents? Wear comfortable shoes and be patient as your kids run, discover and learn.
Arriving early is a good idea at the Houston Zoo. If you come first thing in the morning, the animals are the most active, the crowds are not as busy, and you can watch the elephant baths at 10 a.m. The zoo, located on a 55-acre property, opened in 1922 and one of the nice things about this long history is a lot of the trees onsite are over 100 years old. It’s easy to spend hours learning about lions, bears, giraffes and those slick sea lions! Do check out the daily schedule for ‘meet the keeper’ animal encounters and hands-on activities. For $7, you may even want to feed lettuce to the giraffes, a favourite attraction.
FLY ME TO THE MOON
Want to touch a rock from the moon? See the spacesuit that astronaut Pete Conrad wore on the moon? Or even walk on the same platform as those who have dedicated their lives to space exploration? Guests have fantastic access at Space Centre Houston, located about 42 kilometres south of downtown Houston. Here it’s the real thing that stars at the 250,000 square foot education complex, opened in 1992, that annually attracts over one million people. Inspiration can be found in every nook and cranny and nowhere more so than at historic Mission Control at NASA Johnson Space Centre where you stand in awe realising it was about 90 percent brain power and only 10 percent technology that first put a man on the moon.
In Houston, it’s easy to taste Texas diversity through its food. One of the first things you should do is get yourself to a mouthwatering Texas BBQ. Goode Co. on Kirby Drive has been serving up mesquite-kissed brisket (not to mention ribs, chicken and sausage) for over 40 years, so you know they’re doing something right. “Don’t forget a slice of pecan pie,” says a server as I go through the busy cafeteria-style line to take a seat outside with my meal at the communal-style picnic tables. No sir, I won’t! For other tasty explorations, book a Taste of Houston Food Tour through the Montrose neighbourhood.
Stops include BB’s Café where Maw Maw’s bread pudding (after owner Bob Bassler’s grandmother) is the only dessert on the menu because, for him, it is the only dessert, El Real Tex-Mex Café for amazing tacos and enchiladas and the fun factor of being in a former 1930s movie theatre; and Hugo’s—where the motto is ‘no shortcuts.’ Everything at this Mexican restaurant helmed by famed James Beard Chef Hugo Ortego is made from scratch, and, oh, that Mexican hot chocolate and churros!