January 15, 2013

Houston, TX

Houston is the fourth largest city in the US, right after New York, LA and Chicago. Last time we'd visited Texas we were just hours away in Austin and didn't make the drive to see the sprawling cosmopolitan city, so this time we decided to head there first. We had high hopes for Houston and were super excited for it to be our very first destination on this leg of our trip. Unfortunately, bad weather, bad RV park choice and LOTS and LOTS of traffic added quite a negative tone to our Houston experience.


After doing some research on RV parks in the area we opted with the South Main RV Park because of it's proximity to downtown. Also, the park had a slightly higher price tag and we figured the higher the price the nicer the park. Well...after staying at that park for a full week I would say that I would not recommend someone visiting Houston with an RV to stay there- the nearby highway noise is obnoxiously loud, and the placement of the park pretty much guarantees that no matter which spot you pick you will be bombarded with a cacophony of cars all night long. Also, the grounds were nothing to write home about, mostly gravel lots with trees dispersed throughout. There were only two restrooms/showers for the whole park and they came in the style of a home shower- bathroom and shower all in one room. The park did have decent WIFI and offered a free shuttle to the medical center, which was a nice touch, but we had no need for the shuttle and therefore did not use this benefit.

We arrived in Houston on late afternoon on Saturday. After parking and settling in we got in touch with an old friend who we'd worked with in Memphis and made plans for dinner. Mark and his wife Lianna suggested that they could come pick us up and we jumped at the chance; driving on our first night in the massive and sprawling Houston, after dark, just didn't sound all that exciting. They took us to one of their favorite pizza places and we split a massively large and super yummy eggplant pizza. This was also a bring your own alcohol type of restaurant (my personal favorite), and we shared a bottle of wine and some beer that we'd bought on the way over. Mark and Lianna have done some very interesting traveling themselves and they had lots of great stories to tell. In fact, they were heading on their next adventure just that week- Costa Rica! After dinner we made our way next door to a wine bar and had another round of drinks over great conversation.

Friends at a wine bar in Houston, TX
Lianna, Mark, Skyler and I at the wine bar
Sunday was an excellent day weather wise and we used the opportunity to go the coast to Galveston (I wrote about that here). Monday we ran random errands in the morning and then took the dogs for a five mile hike at Memorial Park. After the hike we stopped by Central Market (an upscale version of the grocer HEB, akin to Fresh Market or Whole Foods) and spent nearly an hour perusing their shelves on a hungry stomach. That was a bad idea...We ended up with a shopping cart full of food and a tiny refrigerator to put it in. I'm not complaining though. :o)

Tuesday was very rainy and we spent the day trying to find ways to entertain ourselves. I looked up local health clubs and found a free guest pass to a nearby LA Fitness. We looked up their class schedule and found a yoga class. We got to participate in the class and go swimming in their swimming pool for no charge, and with very little sales pitch at the end! Wednesday turned out to be just as rainy as Tuesday and after waiting for the day to improve well into the afternoon we decided to head to the Houston Space Center.

A spaceship at the entrance of the Houston Space Center.
The Houston Space Center
The Space Center is just half an hour outside of Houston. We purchased our tickets online before we went and got a decent discount, although we still had to pay for parking once we got there. Arg! Given what the Space Center cost ($17/person plus $6 parking) we found the museum to be not quite what we were hoping for. The main portion had an amusement park feel to it, with lots of places where a visitor could spend more money if they wanted to. We toured the exhibits, watched several movies, listened to a talk about the Mars Rover and then went on a 90 minute trolley tour around the Space Center campus. The tour was the best part because they took us to THE CONTROL ROOM...where those rocket scientists controlled all the space ship flights...as in "Houston, we have a problem". We also go to visit the huge warehouse where new technology is being tested and we got to see a real rocket ship up close. Those massive rocket thrusters are jaw dropping just by themselves.

Going inside a spaceship at the Houston Space Center
Going inside a spaceship!
Reenactment of live in space exhibit at the Houston Space Center
Reenactments of life in space!
The inside of a spaceship cockpit at the Houston Space Center
The inside of a spaceship cockpit! 
The Houston Space Center Control Room
The Houston Space Center Control Room!
Warehouse of NASA technology at the Houston Space Center
The latest NASA technology
A retired spaceship on display at the Houston Space Center
Saturn V on display
Spaceship thursters on display at the Houston Space Center
THE THRUSTERS!
Thursday was our 11 year dating anniversary and Skyler started the day off by making me crapes in the morning. I even got one heart shaped crape, which totally made my day. The weather was much nicer and the sun had come out so we spent the day walking around Houston downtown. We got free parking at Herman Park and then caught the downtown trolley the rest of the way. We visited the Discovery Green, walked by the Minute Maid Park, and then went to the 60th floor of the Chase Tower to the Sky Lobby (a free observation section for tourists). Afterwards we took the escalator down into the Houston underground tunnel system and walked a portion of the tunnels. I had expected the tunnels to be like an indoor mall, with stores, restaurants and booths, but what they turned out to be were mostly bleak tunnel connections between office towers, with a couple of restaurants thrown in. Again, nothing to really write home about (just interesting enough to write on this blog, I guess, ha!).

Chase tower in downtown Houston, TX
Chase tower
The view from the Chase Tower Sky Lobby in Houston, TX
The view from the Chase Tower Sky Lobby
The view from the Chase Tower Sky Lobby in Houston, TX
Me in the Sky Lobby
Inside the Houston underground tunnel system
Inside the Houston underground tunnel system
Thursday is also the day when some of the Houston museums offer free admission in the afternoon. We decided on the Museum of Natural Science (free after 2pm) and spent the remainder of the day touring the very neat exhibitions there. My most favorite was the precious stone showcase, where gorgeous stones were on display jewelry store style.

Display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
At the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Foucault Pendulum on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
The Foucault Pendulum
Precious stones collection at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
The precious stones collection
Quartz from Hot Springs, AR
Quartz from Hot Springs, AR
When the museum closed at five we walked along the Rice University campus on Rice Blvd to the Rice Village. The sidewalk along the boulevard ran underneath a beautiful canopy of trees. It is part of a three mile running loop around the university campus, and we encountered an amazing number of walkers and runners that night. At the Rice Village we perused a couple of boutiques and then met up with another friend of ours, Essau, at a local bar called the Ginger Man. We shared a few brews and then headed to the Montrose district where Essau took us to his favorite English pub for dinner at the Black Labrador.

The running loop along Rice Blvd in Houston, TX
The running loop along Rice Blvd in Houston, TX 
Dinner with friends at the Black Labrador in Houston, TX
Essau, Skyler and I at the Black Labrador
Friday was our last day in Houston and it was once again gorgeous weather outside. We ventured back out to Memorial Park for the day and brought the pups along for the ride. Memorial Park is one of the largest urban parks in the US and offers lots of recreational venues. Skyler took his mountain bike on the collection of single track trails and I ran on the Seymour Lieberman exercise loop. The loop is a full circuit around the main portion of Memorial Park and is just under 3 miles long. I ran the first lap with Chloe, we warmed up at a 10 minute pace. The second lap I ran with Sammy and we sped the pace up to 9:30. I ran the third lap by myself and ended up with an 8:40 pace, so overall around a 9:25 pace for the 9 miles total. Right now I'm working on building a good distance base for my running and I hope to add speed work and hill work in the coming future. Speaking of running, if you are in the Houston area and are looking for places to run I would highly recommend running this loop at Memorial Park and the Rice University loop. Both had lots of runners of all abilities and were well lit.

Like I said earlier, the main downers of Houston were the weather we had while we were there and the bad pick on the RV park. Our other huge downer for Houston was the sheer SPRAWL of the city and the amount of traffic on the roads. Houston is very similar to other large Texan towns in the sense that the city is very spread out. There are massive highway interchanges, unending shopping malls and the final effect (in my opinion) is a lack of cohesive personality. Unlike other cities where there are distinct neighborhoods where a large population of the city dwells, shops and works, Houston's population is spread out over hundreds of square miles (656.3 to be exact) and suburban sprawl is alive and well here. Anytime we chose to go somewhere, even if it looked nearby on the map, it seemed to take twice as long to arrive at our destination, and we would be fighting bumper to bumper traffic there, no matter then time of day. So in the end, even though we had a great time visiting our friends, seeing the coast and a semi-decent time at the Space Center, we will probably not be adding Houston to top ten list of our favorite places in the US. We're excited about moving onto to Austin, a Texan city like no other!

To see more pictures of Houston, click here.

Happy Texas Traversing,

M.

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