Off Duty: Houston

It used to be said that "a few days in Houston isn't a getaway, it's a sentence". Not any more...


Why?


The website
houstonitsworthit.com recently invited residents to say what they liked about their sprawling oil-rich city. One answer ran: "If Houston were a dog, she'd be a mutt with three legs, one bad eye, fleas the size of corn nuts and buck teeth. Despite all that, she'd be the best dog you'll ever know."

America’s fourth-largest city isn’t pretty but it’s energetic, gutsy and BIG. Houston’s reputation rests on big fortunes, big egos and big portions. No one does anything by halves in Houston, especially in restaurants. But there’s a subtler, self-deprecating side, too. Don’t forget this is the city that produced America's ambassadors of cool Wes Anderson, Owen Wilson and Lyle Lovett. There’s more to enjoy here than margaritas, barbecues and NASA.

This spring is a good time to be in Houston because the city is showing off how cultural it can be. From 28-30 March, there’ll be the annual outdoor gallery at the Bayou City Art Festival Memorial Park ( bayoucityartfestival.com) featuring 300 artists working in 19 different media plus wine cafés and entertainment on the performing arts stage (admission $10).

In April, over two weekends (19–20 and 26–27), iFest, the 37th Houston International Festival ( ifest.org), honours arts “Out of Africa”, with continuous music and dance on 10 stages. The line-up includes the Wailers, performing the classic hits of Bob Marley, Chicago blues guitar hero Buddy Guy, and New Orleans funk masters the Neville Brothers, plus South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela leading a Pan-African finale on 27 April.

This is followed on May 1 by Ensemble Theatre ( ensemblehouston.com), the city’s leading black company, opening its new show “Ashes to Africa”.

As for the plastic arts, during March and April, the Museum of Fine Arts in Bissonnet St ( mfah.org) is hosting exhibitions of 5,000 years of Korean Art and Culture, a Retrospective of 50 prints by Bill Brandt, contemporary art from the People's Republic of China and the first US showing of Damien Hirst’s End Game. Get out there and enjoy, people.

What?

No one comes to Houston for the architecture. The city has seven miles of pedestrian air-conditioned tunnels precisely so that you don’t have to look at it. What’s inside those buildings is fascinating, however.

The Museum of Fine Arts is a must, as is the Menil Collection at 1515 Sul Ross Street ( menil.org) for its Surrealist collection. The Rothko Chapel, also on Sul Ross Street ( rothkochapel.org), offers free admission to see 14 of Mark Rothko's largest canvases.

Bayou Bend Collection at 1 Westcott Street ( mfah.org/bayoubend) houses one of the biggest collections of North American decorative arts inside a 1920s ante-bellum pastiche mansion (Admission $10). The new Byzantine Fresco Chapel on Yupon Street ( menil.org/byzantine.html) contains a rare pair of 13th-century frescoes smuggled out of Cyprus.

Where?

Food is a way of life in Houston. For Cajun try Soul on the Bayeaux, at 3717 Dowling Street, "The Ultimate in Creole Dining" in the heart of Houston's rehabilitated Third Ward. Ask if the fried alligator appetiser ($5.95) is available.

Goode Company Barbeque chain, at 5109 Kirby Drive, is great for a snack of ribs and potato salad and jalapeño beans ($8.95). The wine bar La Carafe, at 813 Congress Street, once served as a stop on the Pony Express. Now it’s an ideal downtown pitstop before an evening out.

Blanco's Bar & Grill, at 3406 West Alabama Street, has live country acts on Thursdays and Fridays to get you dancing

For somewhere to lay your head, see if there are rooms at the bijou Patrician Bed and Breakfast, 1200 Southmore Boulevard ( texasbnb.com/no_frames/sites.htm), one of the few establishments within walking distance of many of the city's attractions. Rooms cost from $85 a night midweek.

Alternatively, the 315-room ZaZa, at 5701 Main Street ( hotelzaza.com), is in easy walking distance of the museum district and is glittery and wholly over the top. The lobby is dominated by a sculpture of a woman crouching in a cage and fashion plates that are decidedly risqué by American standards. Rooms begin at $255.

Wow!

Make sure to visit Hermann Park off Fannin Street to catch the monument to Sam Houston. Not many people know that between 1836 and 1845 the eponymous Houston was twice elected president of the independent Republic of Texas.

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