Say howdy to Houston, party town and culture hub

If you’ve never said howdy to Houston, there’s no better time than right now, pardner.

There is a palpable frisson in this city, still exuberant over its success as host city of Super Bowl LI. The Big Game helped to spotlight Houston’s diversity: More than just Big Oil, it is also a party town, arts and culture hub, and culinary destination.
On a recent visit to the Bayou City, my husband and I discovered Houston was in party mode yet again. This time the city was celebrating its signature event, the 20-day Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, where twang is optional but Stetsons and cowboy boots are de rigueur.

There’s a trade show and carnival but it’s the rodeo that’s the main event and, naturally, it’s behemoth in Texas. At the 72,000-seat NRG Stadium, we watched bronco-busting by the pros, calf scrambles by teens vying for scholarship funds, even an adorable mutton bustin’ event featuring helmet-clad youngsters determinedly clinging to lambs just as determined to shake them off. A concert followed – Alicia Keys the night we attended – on a giant stage rolled out over the stadium’s dirt floor.
If barrel racing isn’t your thing, head to the Houston Museum District, with 19 museums and galleries in a beautifully designed walkable area.
With our CityPasses, we made the Houston Museum of Natural Science our first stop. From the striking dinosaur hall to the thousands of gentle butterflies whirring about in the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the museum has something for all interests.

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 13 works of hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck were on exhibit. We saw sculptures of an older couple at the beach, two old women gossiping, a woman giving birth.

To take in Houston’s top attraction, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and its official visitor facility, Space Center Houston, we set aside a full day. Top marks to this brilliant attraction, especially Historic Mission Control, from where NASA’s brilliant minds sent astronauts to the moon and back. Their capabilities at the time comprised five IBM computers that collectively had nine megabytes of power – the equivalent of about five digital photos today. Especially cool: Seeing the speaker from which those famous words were heard: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Houston’s proximity to Mexico and Louisiana, not to mention its ethnic diversity, means its cuisine has a unique blend that draws food lovers from all across North America.
Caracol, an authentic Mexican restaurant helmed by five-time James Beard-nominated chef Hugo Ortega, is set incongruously within a cluster of office highrises. Make sure you try the Gulf oysters roasted in chipotle butter.

Another evening we devoured Louisiana-style crawfish at Ragin’ Cajun restaurant. It was scrumptious, and totally worth the mess.
Houston is sprawling and it can be exhausting, but we found respite at two attractions right in the centre of the city: The Downtown Aquarium is a soothing oasis in a sea of concrete. And if you want to find your bliss outdoors, you can cycle, kayak or just people-watch at Bayou Buffalo Park, 160 acres of tranquillity with the skyline as your backdrop.
At the end of our day, we were always glad to return to the decadent comforts of the St. Regis Hotel. From the Bose sound system and the illy espresso maker, the St. Regis Houston is luxury writ large.
Much obliged, Houston … we hope to see y’all again real soon.

If you go

⇝ Plan your trip:
⇝ Sightsee: The Houston CityPass saves 40 per cent on five top attractions (Space Center Houston, Downtown Aquarium, Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston Zoo or Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Kemah Boardwalk or Children’s Museum of Houston) and allows you to skip the line.
⇝ Stay: St. Regis Houston is in a second hub known as Uptown Houston – the size of Denver. The luxury hotel is close to the upscale Galleria shopping district.
⇝ Fly: Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver and other cities fly non-stop to Houston.


There’s much to see in the south of Texas, and the best way to experience big cities and small is with a leisurely Gulf Coast road trip.
Our three-day, 600-km drive started in Brownsville, so far south we could have walked across the border to Mexico. We spent our first night in nearby South Padre Island, a frothy resort town on a barrier island narrow enough that you can stand on the main street and see both shores of the island.
The next day we headed for the palm tree and sailboat-dotted paradise of Corpus Christi. En route, we browsed the artisan shops of Port Isabel and stopped to check out the roadside stands selling pecans and avocados. We ramped up the quirk factor with a stop in San Benito to visit the Freddy Fender Museum.
On a whim, we decided to visit the Bolivar Peninsula before heading to Houston — what a great decision that was. Our highlight here: Seeing the pastel-hued houses perched up to six metres in the air on hurricane-defying stilts, just feet from the mighty Gulf of Mexico. A close second: Sampling frogs’ legs and catfish at one of the local restaurants.


For more travel inspiration check out my Instagram, @JuanitaNg.