By Alison De Souza
Forty-eight hours in Houston and I still have not seen anyone in a cowboy hat.
I must admit this is a bit disappointing, as it can be when a stereotype falls flat. And stereotypes about big hats, big vowels and big oil were pretty much all I had when it came to Texas, thanks to dimly remembered reruns of the 1970s TV soap, Dallas.
Houston seemed an unlikely holiday destination, though it is now connected to Singapore by a Singapore Airlines flight through Moscow.
It seemed just as unlikely that the first thing I would do here was sweat. But temperatures in this part of the United States reach a blistering 30-something degrees in the summer, with humidity levels that match Singapore's. And Houstonians share the Singaporean passion for air-conditioning, too.
So I am soon whisked from one climate-controlled bubble (George Bush Intercontinental Airport) to another (the Hotel Icon downtown). After cooling down, I discover that there is no shortage of diversions in this booming metropolis.
It helps that energy industries are the city's bread and butter, and they pay for quite a bit of jam, too, such as more museums and restaurants than seems fair, and enough sightseeing and shopping to last a week.
Oil money, in particular, buys a lot of nice things. Before I spot a single 10-gallon hat, I am staring at Dalis and Magrittes in the Menil Collection, which may be one of the best modern art galleries you do not have to pay to visit, thanks to a tidy oil inheritance.
Houston's unique lack of zoning laws churns up some odd architectural combinations, and this is one of them - a world-class museum nestled in a sleepy suburb, complete with lawn sprinklers and a cat brushing past my shins as I walk from one building to another.
These structures are as remarkable as their contents. The main space, a luminous steel and wood creation by renowned architect Renzo Piano, boasts works by a Who's Who of 20th-century European art, including Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse.
Museum of Fine Arts
A few streets down is the Rothko Chapel, which uses changes in natural light to evoke the divine as well as the spooky on 14 head-scratching canvases, and Richmond Hall, which creates another quasi-religious experience, this time with neon tubes.
It is a good thing I came here first, because there is a real risk of museum fatigue in a city with so many of them - 18 in the city's Museum District alone. There is something for everyone, from the impeccably curated Museum of Fine Arts to the wonderfully loopy Beer Can House - a testament to what happens when you drink a six-pack a day for 18 years, and refuse to throw anything out.
Then, of course, there is the mother of them all - Space Center Houston, which is not so much a museum as one big vicarious thrill.
It is actually a visitors' centre attached to a working National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility, the Johnson Space Center, which can be toured. The 1960s facade is one that only a mother could love, but inside is the original Mission Control room used for the Apollo missions - preserved in all its low-tech glory - as well as the flight control rooms for the current shuttle and space station missions.
If this elicits only a tiny rush, there will almost certainly be a bigger one during the visit to the simulation and training room, where real astronauts can sometimes be seen practising on life-size models of the shuttle and station. That and an up-close look at the giant Saturn V rocket are enough to turn me into a space geek, at least for an afternoon.
The sightseeing and heat soon work up an appetite in me. I have read somewhere that Houston is the eating-out capital of the country, putting away more restaurant meals per capita than anywhere else.
Space Centre Houston
There is certainly a lot to choose from, thanks to the Hispanic, Vietnamese, Chinese and South Asian communities who live here (and which may explain why not everyone sounds like President George W. Bush).
But at this point I would not mind a cliche - the edible kind, anyway - and so I head to the Taste Of Texas (10505 Katy Freeway), a steakhouse where I see my first cowboy hat (on another diner), my first cow (a centre-cut fillet of Certified Angus Beef) and my first queue.
There are no reservations here, so dozens of diners are waiting patiently for their numbers to be flashed on an electronic board.
When I eventually get my steak (US$36.95 for 10oz), I can see why. It is gorgeously charred on the outside, gently mooing on the inside, and so tender it melts on contact.
Like elsewhere in this town, portions are not for the faint of heart or small of stomach. You can have up to 32oz of this, if you dare.
Join the Breakfast Klub
There are other terrific meals - at Hugo's (1600 Westheimer Road), a restaurant that rewrites a few cliches of its own for Mexican food, and Reef (2600 Travis Street), which does yummy things with seafood from the Gulf.
It takes the snaking line outside the Breakfast Klub (3711 Travis Street), however, to convince me that Houstonians are serious about their food. As every Singaporean knows, unquestioning queue- joining separates the pros from the amateurs when it comes to eating out.
Breakfast Klub's Wings & Waffles
Here, they are lining 20-deep on a weekday morning for the two house specials - Wings & Waffles (US$8.50) and Katfish & Grits (US$9.45).
There is some debate about how the odd chicken-and-waffles thing came about, but you won't really care when you sink your teeth into these wings, which are salty, golden and perfect.
They go surprisingly well with the sugar-blitzed waffles, too, if you ignore a lifetime of conditioning about not eating dinner and dessert at 10am.
The fried catfish is just as tasty, though the real star on that plate are the grits - a yellow hill crowned by a crater of melted butter - which I have never had before. They look like mashed potatoes but are corn-based, explains owner Marcus Davis, who stops by to say hello and confirm that yes, Beyonce and Jay-Z are regulars.
Having done so well in terms of eating and museum-going, I idly wonder if there is anywhere in Houston I can do both.
There is. At the George Ranch Historical Park - part cattle ranch, part-time machine - visitors can wander through 19th-century homes and farm buildings and talk to actors dressed as sharecroppers, cowboys, blacksmiths and soldiers. They all explain what life was like back in the day.
Nothing says cheesy theme park to me like costumed actors, so it is a bit of a shock to find that all this actually works, and is engaging and entertaining to boot.
Plenty of big hats here, of course, particularly for the cattle-roping demonstrations, which are done on horseback.
Breakfast Klub's Katfish & Grits
The best part, though: They feed you. For a fee, you can have one of the historical meals, which is anything from an eight-course candlelight dinner in an 1860s prairie home (US$50 per person), to a rough and ready lunch at a chuck wagon (adult US$18.50, child US$12.50) - the cowboy equivalent of take-away.
I have the latter, which is a beef stew with biscuits (the savoury, scone-like American kind), jalapeno peppers sauteed with bacon, and a peach cobbler. It is served by head chef Nick Castelberg, who also dishes up a fascinating mini history of the cattle drive and the dirt on what real cowboys would have been like (exhausted and smelly, apparently).
It deflates a few more stereotypes, but by now I am getting used to that.
5 things to do
1 Do indulge your inner child at one of the many kid-friendly attractions in Houston. Apart from the Space Center, there is the Kemah Boardwalk, where you can pet greedy stingrays and ride a bone-rattling wooden rollercoaster; the Museum of Natural Science, where you can stroll through a cloud of butterflies; and the Museum of Health, where you walk through a giant model of the human body.
2 Do eat a swathe through town. Options cover the whole spectrum from rib shacks to fine dining. My favourites: Reef, which serves local seafood I had never heard of, with names like wahoo and sheepshead, as well as the most astounding deep-fried macaroni and cheese; and Hugo's, where you get rabbit, squash blossoms, grasshoppers and other things you would never expect at a Mexican eatery, along with superbly executed classics.
3 Do check out the after-hours scene, which also runs the gamut. The high-ceilinged lobby of the Hotel Icon, a boutique property in an old bank building, throws together posh cocktails and even cold remedies on request, while places such as Pearl Bar draw a younger and more laidback crowd.
4 Do get out of the car to explore smaller neighbourhoods such as the artsy and alternative Montrose, which has tree-lined streets along with historic homes, shops, cafes and bars.
5 Do flex your plastic at the Galleria, a temple of commerce that is one of the largest shopping malls in the US. It has boutiques as well as many of the major department stores, including not one but two Macy's.
1 Don't forget to take your driver's licence along. You will need wheels to get around this sprawling city and its endless freeways.
2 Don't come here at the height of summer, which runs from June to September, unless you are prepared to wilt. It is also the hurricane season.
How to get there
Singapore Airlines flies to Houston via Moscow where it transits for one hour.
A return ticket this month starts at $2,221 per person, including taxes and surcharges, if you book on the airline's website and travel with another person.
On Expedia.com, the rate for a standard room at the Hotel Icon starts at US$159 (S$237) a night, excluding a 17 per cent lodging tax. For sightseeing, a Houston CityPass (adult US$34, child US$24) gets you into all the top attractions, including Space Center Houston, the George Ranch and the Museum of Fine Arts.
This article was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 11, 2008.
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