Texas: Houston's all hospitality

Houstonians love their city and love to share it, writes Leena Tailor.

Houston, Texas. Photo / Visit Houston
Houston, Texas. Photo / Visit Houston

It's day three when I'm asked, "What's your favourite thing about Houston?"

Images of jewel-encrusted gowns, touching the moon and hanging in Rihanna's old penthouse flash through my mind, yet it's good old southern hospitality that leaves a striking impression.

It may be the fourth largest city in the US, but there's a small-town charm when it comes to Houston's welcoming locals.

"The thing about Houstonians is they love Houston," says one Texan. "They want to share every bit of it with you."

It starts on Friday afternoon, when over coffee-infused Rocket Fuel beer at 8th Wonder Brewery, staff eagerly compile a list of hotspots I'll need weeks to get through.

Like many of the places on their hit-list, 8th Wonder is the product of young entrepreneurs, helping revitalise the inner city ahead of the 2017 Super Bowl, which is expected to bring a party of 200,000 to town.

"Entrebrewneur" Ryan Soroka started the craft brewery with his mates in 2013, naming and modelling the dome-shaped warehouse after Houston's Astrodome baseball park, the first dome-shaped stadium in the world and known locally as "the eighth wonder".

The tap room has become so popular it's being expanded into a beer garden with batting cages and live music, and the entrance hosts the brewery's own food truck, Eatsie Boys (NZ's Yeastie Boys Brewery politely turned down a collaboration based on their similar names).

List in hand, I swap beers for blancs, heading to European wine bar 13 Celsius. It's a simple concept — chill bottles at what wino aficionados consider the ideal temperature of 13C, which is said to aid balanced ageing and enhance the aromatic aspect of drinking wine, since vapours form as the glass warms with room temperature.

Owner Ian Rosenberg studied architecture in Bordeaux, before heading to Houston and discovering the 1920s, mid-town property.

"I wanted to create something that was inspired by the building," he says.

"I walked in and it felt European with its Mediterranean tiles and French-style courtyard."

The corner spot stocks about 2500 wines, including rare, hard-to-find varieties.

Rosenberg insists I check out his other neighbourhood spots, driving me down the road to bakery/restaurant Weights and Measures and industrial, ivy-covered Mongoose versus Cobra, the result of "two drunk guys talking about opening a bar".

No one looks twice as he parks half on the footpath and encourages me inside, my 13 Celsius wine still in hand, slightly warmer now in the 32C autumn heat.

It may be inspired by The Jungle Book, but it's Downton Abbey I flash to as I'm served an elegant miniature bottle of house-made tonic to "pour to taste" into my gin.

A 10-minute car ride brings me back to Hotel Icon, a bank-turned-hotel formerly co-owned by Magic Johnson.

With rainfall showers and a grand circular lobby bar, the property also houses a lavish 12th floor, three-storey penthouse, which has hosted Rihanna, Bianca Jagger and epic parties.

From the patio, sweeping city views are sound-tracked from below by the bustling nightlife, like local favourite Okra Charity Saloon. Another work of young Houston, Bobby Heugel co-founded the concept, where each drink purchase earns a vote for which charity should receive the bar's profits that month. Three years since opening, donations have totalled almost $620,000.

Further demonstrating local hospitality, Heugel walks me to La Carafe, a dim, cosy bar in the oldest building in Houston, where the "Lady in White" is believed to haunt the stairway.

Many of these downtown hotspots are in original buildings from the city's founding days, I'm informed during a city tour with Richard Cook, of Texana Tours the next morning.

True to the welcoming vibe of all the locals I've encountered, Cook's company slogan reads, "We will treat you like a long-lost cousin from out-of-town." And he does, whizzing me around the city, which started as a cotton hub, before oil was discovered.
Oil brought money and that brought the arts.

Arts and culture isn't what most associate with Houston, yet the scene is staggering — a theatre district only second in size to New York's, one of America's biggest ballet companies and 19 museums, ranging from health to the Holocaust.

I wander from the jewel-adorned royal gowns at the Contemporary Arts Museum to the Louis XIV-style chair carved from Brazilian agate at the Museum of Natural Science — also home to a palaeontology exhibit, which will make you feel as if you're walking through the remains of Jurassic Park.

There are also street works one has to be in-the-know to find, such as the Big Bubble (a 9m bubble emerging from the Buffalo Bayou once a secret red button is pressed on the Preston St Bridge) or the "art cars" still bedazzled from the annual Art Car Parade.

But the works of art that truly drop my jaw lie in the fancy River Oaks district, an opulent neighbourhood, where Terms of Endearment was filmed. More eye-opening than the fanciest streets of Bel Air or Beverly Hills, here palace-like mansions dominate multiple blocks, front-yards the size of public parks house animal topiary gardens and trees drip in chandelier-style fairy-lights.

Nearby is The Galleria, another fancy spot where tourists flock to shop. Traffic lights hang on spotless silver posts, chrome archways frame the road and shiny, ring-shaped street signs float above traffic.

It all feels very spacey, however a true venture into the cosmos lies 40 minutes south at the Nasa Johnson Space Centre.

Activities range from lunching with an astronaut, perusing 400 space artefacts and sampling space food (which has been "spiced up" by celebrity chefs like Rachael Ray) to touching a 3.8 billion-year-old moon rock brought back to Earth by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972.

A tram tour also swings by Rocket Park for an up-close look at Saturn V, which at 32-storeys high was one of the largest rockets built during the Apollo era, the sheer, up-close size hard to fathom shooting into space.

Visitors can also step inside the former VIP viewing area for the room that served as Mission Control when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and stated "the most famous words ever spoken," in 1969.

What's more mind-blowing is reflecting on the technology. In pre-PC times, consoles were wired by hand to five giant computers a floor below, each the size of a small room, requiring six people to operate and typically holding a mere 2mb of memory.

"We were dealing with less than 10mb of memory to fly astronauts to the moon," says our guide.

"Open an app on your smart-phone and you have more computing power in your hand than we had in this entire building back then."

IF YOU GO

Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Houston five times a week.

Further information: See visittheusa.com

- Spy.co.nz

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