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In Texas' younger years, seafaring folks arrived at the frontier via the island of Galveston, and the city's port was one of the nation's busiest. But with the construction of the Houston Ship Channel and the first steamship's passage up the Buffalo Bayou to the city itself in 1837, Houston's relationship with the Gulf of Mexico and international shipping changed dramatically. Now the fourth largest city in the country, Houston's immediate connection with the ocean adds to its global significance.
Reached through Galveston Bay, the port of Houston sits on the southeast corner of the city proper in 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 itself reaches 25 miles in length and comprises public and private interests, including the Bayport Cruise Terminal, which sits wonderfully close to plentiful tourist attractions in the big city and nearby waterside towns.
Perhaps you'll be surprised, as are many newcomers to Houston, at its vast international feel. The multicultural diversions range from history museums to markets and dining, with such an assortment that you'd need at least a week in town to even make a dent in the supply. If you have kids along on this trip, you'll most likely want to check out Space Center Houston (maybe meet an astronaut!) or see the spectacular fish and beautiful white tigers at the Aquarium in downtown Houston.
If you have even a passing interest in art, Houston will make you breathless with its selection of art museums. To get a good sampling of the cultural supply, invest in a CityPass. But if you just want to kick back and enjoy a pretty day, head downtown to my personal favorite, Discovery Green, for a walk in the park and a lakeside lunch. Should you decide to stick closer to the port, you'll find diversions in Kemah, where repares from Hurricane Ike's destruction are coming along at an impressive clip.
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Head to any of the legendary Goode Company Barbeque restaurants and pick up a gift box of seasonings, spices, and barbecue sauce to use when you're grilling back at home. The wooden gift box has been branded with the company slogan, "You might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars that you're in Texas." Another favorite, which can be found in nearly any gift shop throughout Houston, is a dark-blue coffee mug inscribed with the famous quote from Davy Crockett as he was leaving Tennessee to move to his new (and fateful) home: "You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas."
English is spoken in Houston.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Houston's currency, naturally, is the U.S. dollar. ATM's, which offer better exchange rates than banks, are available in nearby Bay Area cities. The closest is Seabrook, which is about three miles away from the Bayport Cruise Terminal. Banks are numerous, not only in Seabrook but also in Webster, Clear Lake City, Nassau Bay, League City, La Porte and Kemah.
Exchange bureaus are not commonly found as they are in Europe, but major banks do provide exchange services. Banks are typically open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m., with some Saturday morning hours.
Where You're Docked
Bayport Cruise Terminal at 4700 Cruise Road, Pasadena/Seabrook, Texas 77586.
As the terminal is new, there are few retail opportunities for passengers. That said, you can be in one of the Bay Area communities for shopping, dining and recreational activities in fewer than 10 minutes, or you can be in Houston for some of the nation's best retail and gustatory experiences in a half-hour.
By Car: Presently, Hertz operates a rental counter at Bayport Cruise Terminal. Additional rental companies are expected to begin operation at the terminal soon. Avis, Budget, and Enterprise have rental offices nearby. Daily rentals cost between $50 and $75. Parking at the cruise terminal is $10 a day.
By Taxi: Taxi services operating at the cruise terminal include Yellow Cab (713-236-1111) and Pasadena Taxi (713-477-6000).
From Out of Town: If you're flying to Houston, you'll arrive either at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) or Houston Hobby Airport (HOU). All major car rental agencies are represented at both airports, and there are services such as Super Shuttle (800-258-3826) and EZ Cruise Connection (877-316-5165). Shuttles between both airports and the cruise terminal cost between $50 and $75 per person, one way.
If you're driving from IAH, take Route 45 South through downtown Houston to Route 610. Take 610 North to Route 225 East (to Pasadena). Take 225 East for 18 miles to Route 146 South. Take 146 South for 9 miles to Repsdorph Road. Turn east onto Repsdorph Road. Take Repsdorph/East Meyer to Todville Road. Turn north on Todville Road Follow Todville Road to El Jardin Drive. Turn west. El Jardin Drive becomes Cruise Terminal Road. Take Cruise Terminal Road to Houston's Bayport Cruise Terminal.
If you're driving from Hobby, take Route 45 South to NASA Road 1. Turn east on NASA Road 1, and drive 20 miles to Route 146. Take 146 North (left). Follow 2 miles to Repsdorph Road. Turn east onto Repsdorph Road. Take Repsdorph/East Meyer to Todville Road. Turn north on Todville Road. Follow Todville Road to El Jardin Drive. Turn west. El Jardin Drive becomes Cruise Terminal Road. Take Cruise Terminal Road to Houston's Bayport Cruise Terminal.
Watch Out For
The Texas liquor laws make little sense, for starters, and it's hard for smaller mom 'n' pop-style cafes to obtain a liquor license, so you can't expect to get a margarita or cold beer just anywhere you go. That said, you can usually take your own into dining venues that don't sell alcohol, but note that liquor stores aren't open on Sunday -- but you can buy beer and wine in convenience stores on Sunday, just not before noon. Is that clear as mud?
Want to do the best possible whirlwind tour of Houston? It's pretty much a snap with CityPass Houston, which covers six attractions at a savings of nearly 50 percent overall. Tickets cost $39 for adults and $29 for children (ages 3 to 11) and include admission to Space Center Houston, the Downtown Aquarium, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Houston Zoo. You can also choose from the Museum of Fine Arts or the Children's Museum and the George Ranch Historical Park or the Health Museum. Go online to purchase in advance ( www.visithoustontexas.com and at www.citypass.com).
If you're a sports fan, see which teams are in town. The Houston Astros play Major League Baseball downtown at Minute Maid Park, and the NBA's Houston Rockets play a couple of blocks away at the Toyota Center. The Houston Texans play NFL teams at Reliant Stadium. The world's largest rodeo -- the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- also takes places at Reliant (www.visithoustontexas.com).
Shopping is a full-time occupation for many Houstonians, and you can get in on the action easily. Go to the world-famous original Galleria in Uptown Houston to shop at Saks Fifth Avenue, Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Lucky Brand Jeans and much more. Near the Galleria at Uptown Park, find the Ann Taylor Loft, Bill Walker Clothier, Hanson Galleries and the Cigar Vault, among several exclusive retailers.
Spending a night or two in town before or after your cruise? Houston's night life is becoming legendary, due in part to the brand-new Houston Pavilions. This complex houses Lucky Strike, House of Blues, Pete's Dueling Piano Bar and Cork Wine Bar.
Been There, Done That
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 and the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. Among new attractions is the Saturn V Complex at Rocket Park. Occasional offerings in the tour include a visit to the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory and a peek at astronauts training for future missions (www.spacecenter.org).
In the Bay Area, wander the tiny streets with a camera, and photograph about two dozen brightly decorated fiberglass pelicans, which serve as landmarks in Old Seabrook, a town offering a handful of sweet little homegrown shops and galleries (www.seabrooktourism.com). In Nassau Bay, your destination is the Arts Alliance Center at Clear Lake (TAACCL), a place to see the work of basket-weavers and quilters or musical and dance performances (www.taaccl.org). In nearby Alvin, visit Bayou Wildlife Park to ride a tram past habitats serving as home to creatures from Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas ( www.bayouwildlifepark.com).
You're also close to Galveston County's only winery, Haak Vineyards and Winery, producer of the award-winning Blanc du Bois. Look for the winemaker's lovely olive orchard, too (www.haakwine.com).
Visitors can enjoy the great outdoors, thanks to a new, 12-acre park in the middle of town. Discovery Green replaces parking lots facing the George R. Brown Convention Center. A perimeter of century-old live oak trees provides a natural framework within which designers built the Great Lawn, grand-scale pieces of art, a boating pond, a giant fountain (fun for kids to splash in during hot days), dog fountains and runs, picnic grounds, a playground, an amphitheater, jogging trails and places to play bocce ball, horseshoes and croquet.
The $122 million project includes restaurants like The Grove, a Robert Del Grande operation serving American rustic cuisine with lots of rotisserie specialties; the Treehouse, a super-casual drinks and snacks place; and the Lake House, a fast, casual spot serving burgers, hot dogs, salads, shakes, wine and beer. Green is key here, as all concessions are eco-friendly and utilize biodegradable products. A full schedule of performing arts includes opera, blues, jazz and ballet on various stages, and monthly offerings include authors' readings and ballroom dance lessons, Pilates and yoga classes, kids' writing workshops and much more (www.discoverygreen.com).
Sam Houston Park, in the shadows of downtown's high-rises, offers guided tours of historic homes in the park (www.heritagesociety.org). Hiking and biking trails also wind through downtown along Buffalo Bayou (www.buffalobayou.org ).
In the Bay Area: The most popular destination for dining near the cruise terminal is along the famous Kemah Boardwalk, but some restaurants are still closed due to Hurricane Ike damage.
Cullen's Upscale American Grille, nearby on Space Center Boulevard, is run by chef Paul Lewis, who studied in England and earned stripes at the Four Seasons in Houston. Signature dishes include Asian noodle salad, pizza from a wood-burning oven and short rib ravioli (www.cullenshouston.com; brunch: weekends, 10:30 a.m. until 3 p.m.; lunch: daily, 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.; dinner: Sunday and Monday, 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. or 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday).
Boondoggle's Brewery Pub, in Seabrook, offers hearty bar food like wings, calzones, meatball subs and Reuben sandwiches. Also offered is beer from around the world (www.boondogglespub.com; Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. and Sunday, 12 p.m. until 2 a.m.).
Tommy's Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Clear Lake is your destination for hot and spicy barbecued shrimp, New Orleans gumbo, yellowfin tuna po-boy sandwiches and seafood platters -- with a hefty dose of gracious hospitality on the side (www.tommys.com; Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. until 10 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. until 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. until 11 p.m.).
Closer to Houston: You could spend a month checking out Houston's great restaurants and still not put a dent in the supply. Good bets that are fairly accessible to the port include:
Pappas Bar-B-Q has multiple locations around the city and is committed to filling you up with real Texas barbecue. You can't go wrong with combination platters of sliced beef brisket, pork ribs, smoked sausage, ranch beans, potato salad and coleslaw (www.pappasbbq.com).
Ninfa's, on Navigation Boulevard in southeast Houston, is where you go to find the roots of the national fajita craze. It began with tacos al carbon, created by Mama Ninfa, which you'll find here in Tex-Mex heaven (www.mamaninfas.com).
Total Splurge: Try South Shore Harbour Resort and Conference Center in League City because its 240 rooms (including seven suites) are the best luxury digs you'll find near the cruise terminal. Its 185-foot-long pool with swim-up bar, fancy 70,000-square-feet fitness center and two nearby golf courses set it apart from typical accommodations. Or, try the Crowne Plaza Houston Suites in Sugarland. It's close to Hobby Airport and is still convenient to the Galleria; on top of that, the rooms in this all-suite hotel feature two 32-inch plasma TV's, posh linens, microwaves, refrigerators and wet bars.
Middle of the Road: 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. With a stay at Marriott TownePlace Suites at Clear Lake, you get free access to nearby Bally Total Fitness. The smoke-free suites provide two rooms and fully equipped kitchens.
On a Shoestring: Hampton Inn NASA-Seabrook has clean, comfortable, affordable rooms and a palm-fringed swimming pool. Holiday Inn Express Seabrook has fancy pillow-top mattresses and a free breakfast.
Staying in Touch
Wi-Fi is available (for a fee) at FedEx Kinko's on Bay Area Boulevard; Coffee Oasis on Clear Lake City Boulevard in Houston and NASA Boulevard in Seabrook offer free Wi-Fi for customers (www.coffee-oasis.com).
For More Information
On the Web:
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Gulf Coast Departures
The Independent Traveler Message Boards: Southwest
--by June Naylor, Cruise Critic contributor