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Houston welcomed the first steamboat to the Houston Ship Channel, one of the busiest seaports in the United States, in 1837. In 2013, cruise ships found their way back to the area at the Bayport Cruise Terminal, which cost $108.4 million to build and has contracts with Princess Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line.
Reached through Galveston Bay, the Port of Houston sits on the southeast corner of what's known as Bay Area Houston -- a complex of seven small cities and 35 miles of waterfront that connect Houston and Galveston. The port is 25 miles long and includes the Bayport Cruise Terminal, which sits close to plenty of tourist attractions in the nation's fourth-largest city and in nearby waterside towns. The port is located about an hour from George Bush Intercontinental Airport and 45 minutes from Hobby Airport. The port is also about 30 minutes closer to the airports than the Port of Galveston and half the distance to downtown Houston than Galveston.
Houston is well known as an international city, and its restaurant scene is ranked as one of the best in the country. The Houston Museum District features 19 museums within walking distance. Closer to port are the famous Space Center Houston and Kemah Boardwalk.
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Y'alls Texas Store, which has locations in the Willowbrook Mall, The Woodlands Mall and in Old Town Spring, features a wide range of items that scream Texas, including Dr. Pepper jerky, a "God Bless Texas" pewter cross and Texas Armadillo Droppings (pralines). And don't forget the waffle maker that produces your breakfast in the shape of Texas.
English is spoken in Houston.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Houston's currency is the U.S. dollar. ATM's are available at both airports and also in all Bay Area cities. The closest is Seabrook, which is about three miles from the Bayport Cruise Terminal. Banks also are located in Webster, Clear Lake City, Nassau Bay, League City, La Porte and Kemah.
Several exchange bureaus are located at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). Major banks also provide exchange services. Banks are typically open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday, with many having Saturday hours and some having limited Sunday hours.
Where You're Docked
The Bayport Cruise Terminal (4700 Cruise Road) is technically in the town of Pasadena.
You can be in one of the Bay Area communities for shopping, dining and recreational activities in less than 10 minutes, or you can be in Houston in about a half hour.
By Car: Most rental car companies, including Hertz, Avis, Budget and Enterprise, have offices nearby. Parking at the cruise terminal is $80 per week, $75 if prepaid. Parking is free for disabled American veterans who have the proper paperwork.
By Taxi: Taxi services available at the cruise terminal include Yellow Cab (713-236-1111) and Pasadena Taxi (713-477-6000).
Watch Out For
The smell in Pasadena is overpowering. Because of the stretch of refineries, which produce a burnt chemical odor, the city holds the unfortunate nickname of "Stinkadena."
A short drive from the Bayport Cruise Terminal, you'll find Space Center Houston, where you can take the official NASA Tour. You'll go behind the scenes at Johnson Space Center, where you may get a glimpse of Mission Control. You can see real spaceships and spacesuits, and kids will delight in the Angry Birds Space Matrix, the state's largest indoor play structure. (1601 NASA Parkway, Houston; 281-244-2100; open daily from 9 a.m. and closes between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. depending on the season)
The Kemah Boardwalk is a 42-acre complex that features amusement park rides, midway games, waterfront restaurants and retail stores. Most of the rides were destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008, but they have been repaired, and two new rides were added during reconstruction. (Rides open Sunday to Wednesday 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday to Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m)
The Houston Museum District contains 19 museums or attractions within a 1.5-mile radius of the Mecom Fountain, which is a landmark in the traffic circle at the confluence of South Main Street, Montrose Boulevard and Hermann Drive. Highlights include the Children's Museum of Houston; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; Houston Museum of Natural Science; Houston Zoo; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Want to see five top attractions for less than $50? Get CityPass Houston. Tickets cost $46 for adults and $36 for children (ages 3-11), and they are discounted 46 percent overall from regular admission prices. The ticket price includes entrance to Space Center Houston, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Houston Zoo or the Kemah Boardwalk, the Children's Museum of Houston or the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Downtown Aquarium (with a 500,000-gallon aquarium, rides, attractions and a full-service restaurant).
If you're a sports fan, check for which teams are playing in town. Downtown venues include Minute Maid Park for Major League Baseball (Houston Astros), Toyota Center for the NBA (Houston Rockets) and BBVA Compass Stadium for Major League Soccer (Houston Dynamo). Travel a short way to Midtown's Reliant Stadium to see an NFL game (Houston Texans). The world's largest rodeo -- the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- also takes places at the Reliant complex.
Shopping is a popular pastime in Houston, and the Galleria in Uptown is probably the most famous spot. Stores include Neiman Marcus, Gucci and Saks Fifth Avenue.
Been There, Done That
If you're a foodie who's always wanted see the inner workings of a real restaurant kitchen, consider heading downtown for Brennan's of Houston's "Chef for a Day" experience. It's a bit pricey, but you'll receive a personalized chef's uniform, a souvenir knife, a cooking lesson from Executive Chef Danny Trace and dinner in the dining room for you and up to five others. (Note: This activity is best for those who are spending time in Houston pre- or post-cruise. Call ahead -- 713-522-9711 -- for scheduling details, or complete the online "Chef for a Day" form.)
In the Bay Area, you can wander the tiny streets and take pictures of about two dozen brightly decorated fiberglass pelicans, which serve as landmarks in Old Seabrook, a town offering a handful of little homegrown shops and galleries. In Nassau Bay, check out the Arts Alliance Center at Clear Lake, a place to see the work of basketweavers and quilters or musical and dance performances. In nearby Alvin, visit Bayou Wildlife Zoo to ride a tram past habitats serving as home to creatures from Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas. (Open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. depending on the season)
For anyone interested in history, check out the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, which is home to the San Jacinto Monument and Battleship Texas. The monument marks the site at which Texas won independence and became its own nation, and the battleship is the only one that served in both world wars and is still afloat.
You're also close to Galveston County's only commercial vineyard, Haak Vineyards and Winery, producer of the award-winning Blanc du Bois.
The Heritage Society at Sam Houston Park offers guided tours of historic homes in the park, which lies in the shadows of downtown's high-rises. Hiking and biking trails also wind through downtown along Buffalo Bayou.
Houston is known for two types of cuisine: barbecue (Texas is known for its brisket, cooked slowly over indirect heat and wood; barbecue sauce is optional) and Tex-Mex (heavy on the cheese, meat and tortillas).
At the port, you'll find plenty of dining options. In addition to the restaurants listed below, a handful of area chains on the Kemah Boardwalk offer seafood and other cuisines.
In the Bay Area:
Cullen's Upscale American Grille, near the port on Space Center Boulevard, is run by chef Paul Lewis, who studied in England and earned his stripes at the Four Seasons in Houston. Signature dishes include Asian noodle salad, pizza from a wood-burning oven and short rib ravioli. (11500 Space Center Blvd.; 281-991-2000; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday and Monday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 10 p.m.)
Boondoggle's Brewery Pub in El Lago offers hearty bar food like wings, calzones, meatball subs and Reuben sandwiches. It also offers beers from around the world. (4106 NASA Parkway; 281-326-2739; open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to midnight)
Tommy's Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Clear Lake features hot and spicy barbecue shrimp, New Orleans gumbo, yellowfin tuna po-boy sandwiches and seafood platters. (2555 Bay Area Blvd.; 281-480-2221; open Monday toThursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.)
Brennan's of Houston (Part of the Commander's Palace family) is the place to go if you're celebrating a birthday, anniversary, graduation or other milestone. Executive Chef Danny Trace puts a creole twist on Texas cuisine that features fresh meat, fish, seafood and produce sourced from local vendors. Menu offerings include turtle soup, smoked shrimp and okra gumbo, fried green tomato and blue crab, blueberry creole and cream cheese pancakes, quail & waffles, shrimp and grits, and the restaurant's signature bananas foster dessert. There's also an extensive wine list. Bonus: you can snag 25-cent martinis when you buy an entree. If you're a foodie who's always wondered what it's like to work in a high-end restaurant's kitchen, check out Brennan's of Houston's "Chef for a Day" program. (See our "Been There, Done That" section for details.) (3300 Smith Street; 713-522-9711; open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily for lunch or brunch, 5:45 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily for dinner)
Gatlin's BBQ in the Heights earns raves in a state that's serious about its barbecue. Highlights include the fatty brisket, crisp sausage links, ribs, dirty rice and peach cobbler. It's wise to call ahead to make sure they haven't run out of meat. (1221 W. 19th St.; 713-869-4227; open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
The Original Ninfa's on Navigation in southeast Houston is, as its Web site states, "where Mama Ninfa first stuffed chargrilled sliced beef into a handmade flour tortilla and launched the national fajita craze." In addition to the signature tacos al carbon, you can find Tex-Mex classics such as enchiladas, tacos and nachos. (2704 Navigation Blvd.; 713-228-1175; open Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Best for a Splurge: Check out Hotel Icon for a unique experience in a bank-turned-hotel. (Look for the door to the old vault behind the main desk.) The elevators, hallways and individual rooms will make you feel a bit like you've stepped back in time. Accommodations are richly decorated, and bathrooms are spacious. You'll also find free hotel-wide Wi-Fi, as well as a restaurant, bar, spa and surprisingly well-equipped gym on the premises. Additionally, a free shuttle is offered to take you anywhere within a three-mile radius of the hotel. (220 Main Street; 713-224-4266) Try South Shore Harbour Resort & Spa in League City because its 240 rooms (including seven suites and two bi-level penthouse suites) are the best luxury digs you'll find near the cruise terminal. Its 185-foot-long pool with swim-up bar, fancy 130,000-square-foot fitness center and two nearby golf courses set it apart. (2500 South Shore Blvd.; 800-442-5005) Or, try the Crowne Plaza Houston Suites near Sugar Land, which is close to Hobby Airport and still convenient to the Galleria. The rooms in this all-suite hotel feature two 32-inch plasma TV's, posh linens, microwaves, refrigerators and wet bars. (9090 Southwest Freeway; 713-995-0123)
Middle of the Road: Having just undergone several million dollars' worth of renovations, Royal Sonesta Hotel Houston is a great option that offers free hotel-wide Wi-Fi; modern, spacious and comfortable accommodations; pool and fitness facilities; an onsite restaurant and club lounge; and easy access to The Galleria mall. (2222 West Loop South; 713-627-7600) La Quinta Inn and Suites in Webster offers free high-speed Internet access, free breakfast, an indoor pool and a fitness center, and is close to NASA. (520 West Bay Area Blvd.; 281-554-5290) With a stay at Marriott TownePlace Suites in Clear Lake, you get free access to nearby Bally Total Fitness. The smoke-free suites provide two rooms and fully equipped kitchens. (1050 Bay Area Blvd.; 281-286-2132)
On a Shoestring: Hampton Inn Houston NASA-Johnson Space Center in Seabrook features 70 affordable guest rooms and a free breakfast, and it's located 1.5 miles from the Kemah Boardwalk. (3000 NASA Road 1; 281-532-9200)
Staying in Touch
If you have your laptop or tablet, Coffee Oasis on Clear Lake City Boulevard in Houston and NASA Boulevard in Seabrook offers free Wi-Fi for customers.
Best for First-Timers: The four-hour Houston Landmarks excursion takes disembarking passengers on a coach tour to city highlights, such as the San Jacinto Monument and Hermann Park, before dropping them at George Bush Intercontinental Airport for their flights home.
Best for Space Buffs: The 3.5-hour Space Center Houston tour brings disembarking passengers to the visitor center at NASA's Johnson Space Center. Visitors will have two hours to explore the exhibits or take a tram tour to see Mission Control and the astronaut training center. The tour ends with a transfer to George Bush Intercontinental Airport for flights home.
For More Information
On the Web: Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, Port of Houston Authority and Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Gulf Coast Departures
IndependentTraveler.com: Southwest Travel Guide
--by J.M. Lee, Cruise Critic contributor