No problem Houston

Houston

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It might not top the travel list of many people, but Houston and its surroundings has much of interest. Chris Berry takes a look.

There are plenty of cities around the world that have found fame in song titles, but very few that have become part of such a famous quote as “Houston, we have a problem” from Jim Lovell of Apollo 13.

However, I didn’t visit Houston because of any problem, nor was I to visit the Lyndon B. Johnson NASA Space Center. I was here for a wedding some 50 miles south-east of Downtown Houston.

The city where the wedding was to take place was immortalised in song by Glen Campbell and I must admit to having a romantic notion that this would be a lovely place. This was soon dispelled.

Galveston was a US Billboard Top 10 hit in 1969 and contains the lyric “I still hear your sea winds blowin’”. I feel compelled to tell Glen that nothing’s changed in the last 40-odd years on this sliver of an island on the Gulf Coast although I think I caught Galveston on a bad day. When we made for the beach, the day after the wedding, you could still hear those winds clearly and I could just as easily have been in Withernsea. That may be slightly stretching a point.

Its seafront was windswept and the rain torrential, but its traditional historic harbour where we ate when the sun came out was a delight. I still wouldn’t hurry back, but I would return to Kemah, 20 miles from Downtown Houston.

Kemah Boardwalk is where families visit in tens of thousands every day. It only opened in 2001 and is an unashamedly brash seaside resort. Private boats cruised past as we enjoyed oysters and catfish in one of the many restaurants. But for me the star attraction was the Boardwalk Bullet, a rollercoaster constructed completely of timber. This is truly a masterpiece.

Houston itself isn’t somewhere you might immediately put on your travel itinerary, yet it is a fascinating city that was founded in 1836 on the banks of Buffalo Bayou when a pair of brothers, the Allens, purchased more than 6,000 acres of real estate for $9,428. The city is named after the President of what was then the Republic of Texas, General Sam Houston who commanded the Texan army and won the Battle of San Jacinto. This battle paved the way for Texas to become an independent country and no longer part of Mexico. Sam Houston must have organised his forces adroitly because the battle lasted all of 18 minutes and only nine Texans were killed. More than 600 Mexicans died. Texas became a US state 10 years later.

Today, Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States and the largest in Texas with a population of 2.1 million and a metropolitan population more than six million. Rapid expansion took place when oil was discovered in 1901 near the town of Beaumont and its high-rise Downtown Houston skyline took shape in the 70s when the market hit its peak.

The city is connected to the Gulf Coast via the Houston Ship Channel and the Port of Houston is No.1 in international waterborne tonnage hauled from the US.

While the petroleum industry isn’t what it once was Houston is still home to more Fortune 500 headquarters than any other city except New York. Its main industries are petroleum, oilfield equipment manufacture, shipping, health care and air-conditioning.

With a humid tropical climate that sees an average summer temperature of about 90F for nearly 100 days, and a winter average that can still reach the mid 60s, Houston became known as the most air-conditioned city on earth back in 1980. It is also regarded as one of the world’s most ozone-polluted cities.

But the thing is you don’t really notice that if you come from Yorkshire. All you think about is that it’s nice and warm, and if you didn’t know about an ozone problem you wouldn’t be bothered as you walk around Downtown in awe of skyscrapers such as the JP Morgan Chase Tower.

Investment is clearly being made to improve transportation with the very new, bright and shiny Metro Rail system. The modern light rail network opened in 2004 and other lines are still to come.

Downtown includes a theatre district, museum district and Minute Maid Baseball Park, home of the languishing Houston Astros. There’s also the Toyota Center, home of the professional basketball team Houston Rockets.

As you might expect, given its Mexican heritage, half the population of Houston has some form of Hispanic or Latin background.

Travel just an hour north of Houston and everything changes.

San Jacinto County is one of the smallest counties in Texas with a population of just over 26,000. Ten per cent of its area is taken up by water with the 90,000 acre Livingston Lake reservoir being one of Houston’s major water providers; and another large proportion of the county is the Sam Houston National Forest.

The combination of pine trees and this huge expanse of water (Lake Windermere 28 times over) has made the county a haven for fishing, boating, camping, hunting and hiking.

Coldspring is the county seat of San Jacinto, and it’s where all the action happens. There seems no rule of thumb over what constitutes a city here as Coldspring only has a population of 841.

If you want true “in the sticks” America then this is it. I ate grits at Bubba’s the local diner. Think porridge, but gritty, and you’re on the right lines.

Coldspring is a world away from the hour’s drive south to Houston. It is a peaceful, easy-going community with seemingly no desire to be anything other than that.

Old Town Coldspring is well worth a look. It is a collection of old buildings headed by the 1887 Jail, which is now a museum. This included one of the few hangman’s trapdoors in the US.

My tips for visiting Houston and its neighbouring cities – of whatever size – would be to take a look at Downtown Houston’s spectacular skyline; get out into the wonderful countryside and old style America of Coldspring; probably avoid Galveston, take in Kemah and marvel at the Boardwalk Bullet.

Getting there

Chris Berry travelled to Houston via Delta Airlines, from Manchester to Atlanta and then on to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston.

The homeward flight left from Houston’s other large airport – William P. Hobby Airport.

Houston has the third tallest skyline in North America and one of the Top 10 in the world.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, 150,000 of its population was sheltered in Houston.

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