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Got an Instant Message a few weeks ago from my nephew, the Computer Whiz. It went something like this: "Hi, Unk. Just back from Houston. Is there anything there besides pawn shops, nudie bars and drunk drivers?"
Well, Whiz, the answer is yes. And some of it is good.
Houston may be the most disparaged of America's large cities. Detroit, an urban tragedy, gets better press. Even Texans dis it.
"I like it better than Dallas," said a female Texan who works a few desks away from mine. "But I wouldn't go there on vacation."
The woman is from Lubbock.
"Lubbock?" said Barbara Mendel of the Houston tourism office, who should be used to this but isn't. "Come on . . . "
And Dallas people, who think their cows don't stink, sneer at the very word.
Here's the first thing most people don't realize: In the U.S., only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago have more people than Houston's 1,953,631 -- which is interesting statistically but meaningless touristically.
Most who visit the city, probably on business, are introduced to it on the two freeways that creep downtown from George Bush (the Elder) Intercontinental Airport -- and the Computer Whiz pretty much got it right: It's an ugly introduction, a congested jumble of charmless malls and pawn shops and car dealers and billboards and, yes, nudie bars and just crummy-looking stuff.
There is no zoning in Houston, and sometimes it shows, real bad.
As for drunk drivers: It's better than it was in the old days, when by law drivers were required to have Hank Williams on their radios and an open can of Lone Star in their possession at all times.
Truth is, Houston -- more than a lot of cities -- takes a little knowing, and, having lived and worked there a couple of lives ago, I know it a little.
Even with sweat dripping down my arms, I like it a lot.
Everything that's great about great cities exists in Houston, if you look for it. There's quality theater, first-rate restaurants in a mosaic of persuasions, and major league baseball. There are museums, including an art museum with three O'Keeffes and a roomful of Remingtons. There is shopping. There is history, and there is greenery, and there is a theme park with roller coasters, and there is a zoo and, if you hop into the car and drive beyond the sprawl, there's Texas.
And, as important as anything, there is uniqueness: For better or worse, just about anywhere you are in Houston, you know you're in Houston. Especially in summer, when the heat and humidity would wilt any sensible living thing.
A walking town? No. No one in Houston walks farther than from the air-conditioned car to the air-conditioned whatever. There's a port, but it's not for cruise ships and it's not scenic; the closest thing to an in-town waterway is an unnavigable ditch called Buffalo Bayou. There is no surviving grand 1920s movie palace. The city has cockroaches the size of small dogs. Its noxious air was an issue in the last presidential campaign. Its nearly abandoned Astrodome introduced plastic grass, that blasphemic abomination, to baseball . . .
I know. I know all that. Houston is not Boston or New York or San Francisco, certainly not Chicago -- but then, they aren't Houston.
So get ready for a whole mess of terrific things that make Houston and vicinity worth a visit:
One of the few Houston experiences that actually encourages walking. Eight museums and galleries right there (Fine Arts, Contemporary Arts, Natural Sciences, Children's, Holocaust, Health and Medical Science, Jung Educational Center, Rice University Art Gallery) plus the Houston Zoo (with an especially fine primate collection) are clustered close enough to enjoy with one park of the car.
Plus immense Hermann Park, for maybe some music (it's home of the free Miller Outdoor Theater, with plays and concerts almost year-round) or a round of golf. And a statue of Sam Houston pointing toward San Jacinto.
The entire district, which includes Mecom Fountain and a knockout live-oak-lined stretch of Main Street, is as close to Paris as Houston gets. Which isn't that close, but you get the idea.
The cheap line is to say that not long ago, dining out in Houston meant Tex-Mex, barbecue and cafeterias -- but that would be a lie; in truth, there were always steak houses, oysters, a French place or two, attempts at Italian, pretty good Gulf seafood, crawfish in season and lots of Cantonese.
What's changed is they're doing all of the above better -- plus new immigrants from Asia and the Americas have brought authentic new flavors with them, and creative chefs are combining classic cuisines with local flavors. A new generation of Houstonians, unafraid of the unfamiliar, are biting. This has become a great restaurant town. (See also: A taste of Houston.)
More good news: Cafeterias may be going up in steam, but you still won't find better Tex-Mex or barbecue anywhere.
ENRON FIELD AND DOWNTOWN
The Astros abandoned the Astrodome for their new ballpark last season, and this one's a retractable-roofed beauty. It has added momentum to the revival of a downtown business district that five years ago was on life-support. From the former Rice-Rittenhouse Hotel (where JFK spent his last night before Dallas) to Enron a few blocks away, restaurants and upscale clubs have blossomed, and more are on the way. The Rice, vacant for years, is now condos. New hotels are under construction. Townhouse developments are going up.
It's about time.
(The Dome, by the way, still stands, dwarfed by a mammoth football stadium under construction in the parking lot for the expansion Houston Texans in 2002. It's standing, near Houston's Six Flags theme park, because the city is eyeing the 2012 Olympics and needs venues -- the Summer Games -- which sounds absurd, given the weather. But maybe not. Reminded tourism's Mendel: "Atlanta did it.")
SPACE CENTER HOUSTON
The first word spoken from the moon was "Houston." Houstonians like to tell you that. Lots of Space Center Houston, at NASA's Johnson Space Center, is interactive doohickeys for kids, but what's special: Mission Control, the one in "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13," is here, you can see it, and it looks just the way it's supposed to look. They also take you to the new Mission Control, operational since 1996 -- and on my visit we watched personnel monitoring a mission by the space shuttle Discovery. "A lot of times they have the payload doors open and there's a camera there," said a young guide named Kendra. "And you can see the Earth."
If space travel has lost its sense of wonder for you, this -- and a tingle-generating introductory film -- will revive it. Big time.
It's only about an hour's drive, depending on traffic, from the center of Houston to Galveston's Gulf beaches and Victorian remnants. The much-ballyhooed downtown revitalization remains a work in progress, but its restaurants and shops (and whatever's playing at the Grand 1894 Opera House) make an overnight stay worth considering.
As for the miles-long beaches: The sand is the color of light brown sugar, the water is warm, the access is easy, the style untrendy and the mood whatever you bring to it.
Not long ago, Kemah and Seabrook, on opposite sides of the Seabrook Boat Channel, were places to pick up cheap shrimp, oysters and snapper right off the boats, plus a couple of pretty fair places to eat.
Seabrook hasn't changed all that much, except that it's been overwhelmed by Kemah, which has been boardwalked (complete with carousel, ferris wheel and carney games) and given over to corporate restaurants (Joe's Crab Shack, Landry's Seafood House, etc.). Curmudgeons may curse the change, but it's a hit.
Down Texas Highway 146 on Dickinson Bayou (look for the parked shrimpers), Hillman's Seafood Market is a cozy throwback, even if the adjacent restaurant is gone. "Hurricane Alicia got us," said Mary Stapp, with her sisters a third-generation owner of the place. "1983. Sure did. Ain't nothing like it used to be."
But check out the glistening piles of shrimp, buy some gumbo to take home, say hi to Mary and mingle with the fishermen. It's close to what it used to be.
SAN JACINTO BATTLEGROUND AND BATTLESHIP TEXAS
The battleground is just a flat piece of land, but it was here in 1836 that Gen. Sidney Sherman suggested the Texan army "remember the Alamo." They did: This battle was over in 18 minutes. Santa Anna lost 630 men, Sam Houston lost nine, and Texas became Texas.
On the spot, atop a small but good museum, is a 570-foot obelisk topped by a lone star. "We're 15 feet higher than the Washington Monument," said a ticket lady. "It was an accident on purpose, but we done it anyway." The battleship, anchored nearby, saw action at Normandy on D-Day.
If you go, consider taking yourself on an . . .
'URBAN COWBOY' TOUR
Yeah, this is a stretch, but that movie, at the time (1980), was so Houston, and there are remnants. Mainly, we're talking refineries and other petrochemical installations off Texas Highway 225 in Pasadena and Deer Park. Don't yawn: It's something to see. "It's really beautiful at night, when it's all lit up," said a security guard after gently suggesting I stop taking pictures of the installations.
The movie centered around once-nearby Gilley's -- "World's Largest Honkytonk" -- but the joint burned down in 1989; happily, the sign survived and was planted outside a Pasadena restaurant called the Cowboy Ranch. Mickey Gilley was there in December 1997 when the lights went back on. Jerry Mathers was there later.
On Gilley's original 4500 Spencer Highway site: a "24-hour Fitness" outlet and a Smoothie King.
Ain't nothing like it used to be . . .
GEORGE RANCH HISTORICAL PARK
Cowboy country, the rural kind, kicks in west of the Brazos River, maybe 30 minutes out of town, and that's where you'll find this working cattle ranch owned by descendants of Albert Payton George.
The full story dates back to the 1830s, and some of the buildings almost that far. "It's a much bigger story than 'Giant' ever thought of being," said cowboy Jim Hodges. You'll be treated to some of that, plus cowboys doing what cowboys do -- all traditional cowboying" -- and you'll get a sense of ranch life before helicopters and feedlots took away much of the romance.
It is a tight little bar on what's left of Old Market Square downtown, housed in a crumbling brick building dating to 1860 that's standing on faith. Candles build wax towers tall as termite mounds, the beer is cold, and its great jukebox mixes equal doses of Piaf and Patsy Cline. It may be the best room of any kind in all of Houston.
THE THEATER DISTRICT
We're still downtown, on the other side of the Rice. Here are venues for the Houston Grand Opera, Houston Symphony, touring Broadway shows, concerts of all kinds and the Alley Theatre, a resident company nearly 30 years older than Chicago's Steppenwolf and no less a treasure. Broadway musicals "Jekyll & Hyde" and "The Civil War" were created at the Alley; the company won a special Tony in 1996.
RICHMOND AVENUE AND THE GALLERIA
Southwest of downtown, the Galleria introduced ice rinks to indoor malls. Twice expanded since its creation in 1970, it holds 300 stores (including Tiffany and Versace) and spawned "the Galleria Area" -- a concentration of upscale malls, plus hotels and office buildings.
Richmond Avenue extends west from the Galleria. If you can't get fed, quenched, two-stepped and/or entertained over the next few miles, you belong in Lubbock.
And finally . . .
Pick a direction. Get off the interstates when you can. Head out west, toward La Grange, where it's hilly and there's cattle. The actual "Best Little Whorehouse" was there. It's not anymore, but it's still La Grange. Find little towns with creaky beer joints where dominoes slam and clatter at mid-day.
Or go east. Texas turns Cajun around Beaumont and Port Arthur -- watch for boudin stands on back roads -- and delight in the fact that the Louisiana border is just 90 minutes from the Alley and Enron Field.
Trace Texas history in towns like Gonzalez and Goliad. Find the Big Thicket. Try other Gulf towns. Search for the ultimate chicken-fried steak.
Then come back to a city that is everything a fourth-largest American city should be.
Of course, you'll want to shower . . .
IF YOU GO
Houston is a Continental hub that's well-served by other airlines (American, United, Northwest, among them) as well, which keeps fares very competitive. A recent check found non-stop fares as low as $206 (American, Continental, United; all subject to restrictions and change).
Houston hotels are typically less expensive than those in other cities its size, particularly on weekends. Shop around and ask about packages. All major chains are represented. Best locations: Galleria Area for shopping and restaurants; downtown for theaters and Enron Field baseball. Lodgings around the Medical Center, not far (but unwalkable) from the Museum District, can be well-priced, if you don't mind being surrounded by hospitals. Motel chains, as always, hug the Interstates.
Everybody drives. You will too. Taxis are rare, buses take time to learn, and a light-rail system is years away. New highways and widened old ones mean traffic isn't the infamous 24-hour jam it once was; as for the drivers -- if you can handle Chicago, you can deal with Houston.
WHEN TO GO
Best times are spring (April is freshest) and fall (wait for October). Summers are notoriously hot and muggy (with afternoon thundershowers), but just about everything except the zoo is air-conditioned. If you can tolerate moments of heat, you'll pay less for hotels in summer, learn to appreciate refrigerated baseball and really enjoy Galveston's beaches. December and January are notoriously unpredictable.
Expect surprises. There's still plenty of Tex-Mex and barbecue around (don't miss Goode Company for the latter), but the adventurous will find plenty of interest. Hottest trend: variations on Central and South American cuisine. Established favorites remain tony Tony's, Cafe Annie and Brennan's (the New Orleans family); the Confederate House, another old-timer, has rallied after a slump; Damian's continues to satisfy lovers of upscale Italian; Ragin' Cajun's two locations are fun for buckets of crawfish; Mark's, Tasca, Americas and Simposio are winning critics' raves; and for Mexican, Irma's (daytime only, except when the Astros play at night) and Ninfa's on Navigation (not the branch locations) will get you where you want to go. So many more . . .
Call 800-4-HOUSTON (the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau), or check the Web at www.houston-guide.com.