Published: Jan/Feb 2004

Above: Learn about the U.S. space program at Space Center Houston. Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau photos

Below: Minute Maid Park will host the 75th anniversary All-Star Game.

Before You Go
For more information, contact:

• The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.visithoustontexas.com or call 1-800-4HOUSTON (800-446-8786);

• The Galveston Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.galvestoncvb.com or call 1-888- GAL-ISLE (888-425-4753).

To plan your Houston trip, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides.

Blast Off
Have an out-of-this world time in Houston, which is in high gear preparing for the Super Bowl, All-star game.

By Elaine Warner

As the fourth-largest city in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Houston is big, bewildering and busy. Getting off the high-speed highways that girdle downtown to reach the heart of the city was a relief, although navigating downtown on a recent visit was tricky. Streets were torn up and we found ourselves weaving through a maze of orange cones and construction.

Kirsten Brown, concierge at The Magnolia Hotel, explained the hubbub. “Everything is in high gear in preparation for the 2004 Super Bowl,” she said.

The biggest construction culprit was the installation of a light rail system. Also, three new downtown hotels, the Hilton Americas-Houston (official hotel of the National Football League during Super Bowl week), the Inn at the Ballpark and the Hotel ICON, will add 1,500 rooms to their properties. Convention space has more than doubled. The airport has expanded terminal and runway space. This is a city on the move.

As host city to Super Bowl XXXVIII on Feb. 1, as well as Major League Baseball’s 75th anniversary of the All-Star game on July 13, 2004, Houston has no plans of slowing down.

LIVE LIKE A PRINCESS,
SLEEP LIKE A LOG

The Magnolia and the Sam Houston Hotel are decidedly upscale and geared to business travelers, but they offer many advantages to leisure travelers, too. Special weekend rates and packages make it possible to enjoy the luxuries of these boutique hotels without overburdening the budget.

Both hotels occupy historic buildings but have very different personalities. The Magnolia is sleek, chic and modern. The lobby has a futuristic feel, while the bedrooms have an almost Asian simplicity.

On the second floor in the Magnolia Club, with its billiard room and library, guests gather for a complimentary breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and late night cookies and milk. The hotel boasts one of the largest, best-equipped workout facilities I have seen and a rooftop lap pool. Needless to say, the rooms are spacious and accommodating.

When the Sam Houston Hotel opened in 1924, it represented the height of luxury. Abandoned in the 1970s, it has experienced a $14 million resurrection.

Renovated in accordance with strict preservation standards, historic references peek through the contemporary styling. Decorating touches are subtle and often humorous, such as the West-meets-Wall Street pinstripe and cowhide upholstery on some of the chairs.

Rooms are highly functional and unbelievably comfortable. Bathrooms feature Russian Labrador granite, a beautiful chocolate color with bits that glow like blue Morpho butterfly wings. We were a short walk away from the Minute Maid Park, but opted to watch the Astros on the 27-inch flat-screen television in our room.

BYE-BYE, BOREDOM

Being in the heart of downtown provides access to some wonderful dining and entertainment venues. Our busy schedule didn’t lend itself to leisurely dining, but we managed to find some great grub on the go.

The menu at the Blue Water Grill featured interesting entrees, including “shareable plates,” tapas-style servings that enabled us to taste a number of items without overeating or overspending. The Riviera Grill in the Sam Houston Hotel has a reputation for fine cuisine and, if our breakfast there was any indicator, the lunches and dinners should be superb.

Visitors will stay busy in Houston, no matter what the season. Sports fans have major league baseball, professional basketball (both men’s and women’s), football and hockey teams.

Culturally speaking, the downtown theater district encompasses facilities hosting the Alley Theater, the Houston Ballet, the Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Symphony, plus others.

The museum district couldn’t contain all of Houston’s museums, galleries and learning opportunities, but a stop here will hit some of the larger attractions.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is a superb blend of up-to-date exhibits and old-fashioned study collections. There’s an extensive seashell display, which includes the world’s largest snail shell, the 30-inch Australian Trumpet. Glowing gems, slick exhibits on oil, a live butterfly center and dinosaur bones kept us fascinated, and we only managed to see a portion of the huge museum on our visit.

A major presence in the district is the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. In addition to its main buildings, the museum has three off-campus centers devoted to decorative arts: Rienzi, Bayou Bend and the new Beck Building.

Near the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is the John P. McGovern Museum of Health and Medical Science, which was more fun than the name implied. It features giant replicas of the mouth and teeth, the brain and other organs and, with its interesting and interactive exhibits, entertained and informed.

Nearby is the Children’s Museum of Houston, an attraction families should visit.

If shopping is high on your list of favorite vacation activities, Houston can accommodate. Upscale areas like the Galleria and Uptown Park cater to affluent shoppers. Near Rice University is Rice Village, an eclectic retail neighborhood. Savvy residents and visitors head to Harwin Street for discount home décor items, funky jewelry and designer knock-offs.

GET OUT OF TOWN

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Houston isn’t in Houston. Space Center Houston is in Clear Lake City, just southeast of Houston. The noise and jumble of games and interactive exhibits in the visitors’ center is a bit disconcerting but children love it.

Beyond the pizzazz, there’s a lot of information here. In the visitors’ center Starship Gallery, watch “On Human Destiny,” an inspiring movie about the space program. Walk through exhibits that include artifacts, spacecraft mock-ups and moon rocks. Tram tours visit several areas of the Johnson Space Center, including Hangar X, home of experimental spacecraft, and the historic Mission Control. A discount for AAA members is offered on admission.

Visitors who are serious about learning more should make advance reservations for the Level 9 Tour, a four-hour foray for guests 16 and older, which will give you a more in-depth look at astronaut training.

Kemah Boardwalk is a trendy, touristy spot for shopping, eating and entertainment. Watch the boat traffic move in and out of the bay while enjoying tasty seafood.
When Houston residents head for the beach, they go to Galveston Island, not just for the seashore, but for the historic homes, museums, restaurants and Moody Gardens.

Lush landscaping surrounds the buildings in the Moody complex. No one can miss the three glass pyramids that house an aquarium, rainforest and exhibits on many aspects of science. There are IMAX® movies and ride-films, a paddle-wheeler, hotel and a pool complex with its own beach.

Houston deserves far more time than we spent there. Plan your trip for more leisurely enjoyment of its many attractions. You’ll have a blast.

Elaine Warner is a contributor from Edmond, Okla.

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