With an extended layover in Houston, Stephanie Holmes steps out of the airport and into outer space.

Flying back to New Zealand from Costa Rica last year, I ended up with an eight-hour stopover in the Texan city of Houston. I'd chosen this route because it meant only two flight connections, not three, and because my other options for getting home meant going through LA and San Francisco.

LAX is much improved in recent years, but getting through security can be a slow and sometimes intimidating experience. San Francisco may have therapy dogs and yoga classes but, connecting through there can sometimes mean long queues and missed onward flights.

Houston, on the other hand, was as close to a delight as an airport experience can be.

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George Bush Intercontinental Airport was light and airy, the queues were almost non-existent and the TSA agents were friendly and welcoming.

But what to do with eight hours — a standard workday — to kill? It would be a waste to spend all that time in the airport, no matter how nice it is. So instead, I took a whirlwind city tour, to find out what this stopover destination has to offer.

1 Everything's bigger in Texas . . .

Of course Richard Cook, my guide from Texana Tours, picked me up in his giant SUV. Cars are super-sized here and you'll see more SUVs than not on the freeways — which incidentally are also huge.
Richard took me for an orientation drive around the city, starting with a glimpse at one of his favourite spots — the workshop and studio of sculptor David Adickes. In a non-descript industrial area of the city, this working studio has become somewhat of a drive-by destination. Here you'll find gigantic sculptures of historical figures, mostly former presidents.

Presidential sculptures at David Adickes' workshop. Photo / Stephanie Holmes
Presidential sculptures at David Adickes' workshop. Photo / Stephanie Holmes

We hopped out of the car for a quick walking tour around the parking lot, home to startlingly life-like representations of Clinton, Obama, the Bushes snr and jnr, Reagan, Carter . . . all the way back to Jefferson, John Adams and Washington.

We whizzed past a few of the city's burgeoning craft breweries — St Arnold's, Karbach and Eighth Wonder; then past Union Station — formerly a working train station, now the entrance to the baseball stadium Minute Maid Park; and Graffiti Park, a few blocks of the city's East End where all the buildings are covered in colourful street art.

But the next big thing to worry about was my rumbling stomach. Jackson St BBQ has been feeding Houston's hungry hordes for four years and its bright red exterior is hard to miss. Walking in, the smells from the kitchen were sublime and the staff were super friendly (just like those TSA agents).

Richard recommended the Trinity — a tasting plate of meat and one side dish, all for just US$9.95 ($14.50). You've guessed it, this, too, was huge and I was thankful I'd skipped breakfast on my morning connecting flight.

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2 You'll need more than a stopover for the museums

There are 19 places to see in the Houston Museum District, connected in four walkable zones, covering a diverse range of topics including the Holocaust, Fine Arts, Buffalo Soldiers and contemporary crafts.

We took a quick walk through the Museum of Natural Science and I instantly wished I could have stayed longer. There's so much to see you could easily spend a whole day here — from the planetarium to the three-storey butterfly garden; the huge collection of dinosaur skeletons and fossils to a hall dedicated to Ancient Egypt. The must-see exhibit is the Weiss Energy Hall, with floor-space almost the size of an American football field, designed to look like a 21st-century offshore drilling rig. The hall shows the history of oil in Texas, and also looks to its future, with a range of interactive exhibits that the kids will love.

3 The Space Center is out of this world

Space nerds young and old will lose their mind over the Space Center Houston and its more than 400 authentic Nasa artifacts (don't even go there, conspiracy theorists). The Center is geared towards fun, interactive education and encourages kids to get excited about careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As well as the world's largest collection of moon rocks (one of which you can touch), there's a full-size replica of the shuttle Independence mounted on top of the original Nasa carrier aircraft (which you can walk through), plus spacesuits, rockets, command modules and lunar roving vehicles.

Across the road, the Johnson Space Center is Nasa's working Mission Control Center and training base for the current breed of astronauts. It's also home to Rocket Park, where one of only three of the remaining Saturn V rockets is on display. At more than 110m tall, it was part of the Apollo programme that took mankind to the moon, but this particular rocket never made it into space. Left to rust in a field for years, a warehouse was finally built around it and the rocket was restored to its original glory. It's hugely impressive.

Spare enough time for a visit to the gift shop — you'll definitely want to stock up on souvenirs, official merchandise and memorabilia.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

United Airlines

flies direct from Auckland to Houston, with code-share partner Air New Zealand, with onward connections to domestic and international destinations.

GETTING AROUND

Richard Cook offers

personalised tours

around the Houston region.

DETAILS
visithoustontexas.com
traveltexas.com
visittheusa.com