Tale of three Texas cities
History and charm dominate the Lone Star State
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On a road trip to the rural areas around Houston this past fall, my impressions of Texans being of one personality and lifestyle got blown away by my experiences, which over a week of travels through three fascinatingly different close communities, I came to define as a tale of three cities.
The Woodlands. A corporate creation
If was ranked as the best city of its size in the US to live in for the second time in — and the best city in America in which to raise a family as well. It seemed logical it might be the excellent place to visit as well.
These ratings come from the ranking organization Niche, which annually uses a wide range of criteria like crime and safety, health and fitness, and walkability, to come to its determinations.
I quickly discovered why it ranked high in walkability with creative public art benches scattered throughout the city and especially along its waterway which winds through its centre on its way to Lake Woodlands.
Along the waterway are some of the best restaurants, an open-air amphitheatre, where regular free entertainment is scheduled, and a quaint downtown area with a mix of unusual shops with many dining options awaiting locals and visitors alike.
If you don’t feel like walking hop aboard the free on-and-off trolley as I did. It took me on a tour of the of past these shops and restaurants along popular Hughes Landing, through its largest mall, and past park settings with more public art to stroll by.
What makes this city different than most others is that it was a master planned community — existing only because of the vision of the Howard Hughes Corporation — who saw the potential of attracting homeowners who worked in the drivable Houston employment area.
While previously seen as affordable, its popularity has changed that dynamic to a considerable degree. Its ranking and reputation has attracted more and more people looking for more upscale housing and tourism market that seems to follow that path as well.
As Elizabeth Eddins, the executive director of Visit the Woodlands underscored, “We have 14 luxury hotels that satisfy visitors who come for our attractions, like the waterway and fine restaurants.”
I stayed at The Woodlands Resort, overlooking one of its two championship golf courses and its own Forest Oasis Waterpark. It is as picturesque as an accommodation can be.
Conroe. Salt of the earth Texan.
This city is much more like the Texas I thought I would find throughout my visit. In the very nicest of ways, it is the real Texas, straight talking, affordable, with a strong Christian bent to it, and a welcoming attitude which has always been a Texas reputation for drawing people in.
It is situated nearby Lake Conroe which helps make it such a liveable and desirable place to visit. It is mostly in its foundational downtown area where most of the popular bars and restaurants are, along with a historic live theatre venue that highlights some of its cultural commitments.
It was a Sunday morning when I arrived in the outskirts of Conroe, much too early to check into my accommodations, so I stopped for an early breakfast at the Pie in the Sky restaurant. With 22 different pies to choose from, I was not alone in changing my breakfast plan to a sweeter version. With no regrets for that decision, I followed that sugar high with a morning walking tour of the commercial downtown district — even though most stores had not yet opened. I would return but first went along with a suggestion to go for lunch at the Honor Café, “because it was likely to be different than other venues you will likely experience elsewhere”.
It definitely was! The United States is known for its strong support of its troops and the men and women who serve. That is the singular reason that Chris Sadler, a former service marine, decided to open the Honor Café in 2020.
Throughout the premises, which seemed to have once been a large warehouse, on the walls are hundreds of artifacts and photos from veterans, or their family members, to honour and remember those who served, many of whom made the ultimate sacrifice.
Sadler expressed that “This was a faith-based endeavour,” and his decision to open was because “I felt it was a message from the Lord. He wanted me to do this.”
Perhaps because of this dedication, even in this large space, it is a quiet place, with what some might readily define as spiritual overtones.
The attached gun shop, with obvious signage references to freedom and Second Amendment rights, it might seem counterintuitive to many Canadians. But the two sides fit hand in glove in underscoring his beliefs and commitment to what he believes “helped build America.”
In 2018, Conroe was designated a music friendly city by the Texas Governor’s office. My wish to experience some live music was about to be satisfied at the downtown Red Brick Tavern, even though it was still early afternoon.
It took a few songs before I turned to a fellow beside me at the bar and asked “Are all of the songs based on Gospel music?” “Yaa,” he joked, “We like to go to church in the morning, then come here and swig a few beers and eat fried foods in an aura of forgiveness.”
Just around the corner from the Red Brick is the completely restored 1934 Crighton Theatre. Beautifully brought back to life, I was able to get tickets for a performance of Rent, a musical whose language, gay lifestyle and raunchiness seemed incongruous to all the strong Christian based messages I had received in my two previous local encounters.
With a ticket price of $US22, it may have been my best bargain of the entire trip and an indication of how the entire region is comparatively affordable with a population that exuded Texas hospitality in everyplace I visited.
Galveston. From its peak, to the great storm, and rising again.
In the 1800s, Galveston, one of the oldest cities in the state, was the designated Capital of Texas. It was home to the first port in Texas, welcoming immigrants from throughout Europe and beyond. It was the major economic centre of the region, but on September 8, 1900 all that changed when a hurricane created the biggest natural disaster in US history. It devastated almost everything in the community and put all growth to a halt. Caitlin Carnes, Public Relations Manager for Visit Galveston said, “The storm of 1900 stopped Galveston from being Houston.”
There may have been little left of the city, but the people did not leave. “Instead, they pumped in sand and raised everything so such an event could never happen again” added Carnes.
Another family which refused to leave was the William Lewis Moody Jr. family, one of the richest in the country. The Moody Family name is honored throughout the city, first for his initial investments in insurance, banks and other businesses, and then for their establishment of the Moody Foundation in 1942, one of the largest in the United States for the purpose of “benefiting present and future generations.” Their family home, the Moody Mansion, is now an excellent museum of its history.
The population of Galveston is a mere 50,000, but during the peak tourism months its beaches and attractions welcome eight million visitors, including over a million from its position as a major cruise port centre.
These numbers led to it becoming a culinary and entertainment capital. Its downtown, with architectural influences from the original immigrants who stayed, particularly the French, created buildings with balconies in the style you would find in New Orleans.
In fact, Galveston hosts the third largest Mardi Gras in the US, after New Orleans and Biloxi.
I had a chance to visit both the Moody Gardens Rainforest and Aquarium Pyramid. In the Gardens there are free-roaming rainforest animals and hundreds of endangered species. While the aquarium is as big and complete as any you will find anywhere.
Once an orphanage, the Bryan Museum, featuring saddles and relics from a cowboy era, along with artifacts from the Spanish Colonial period was a worthwhile discovery.
A writer and a podcaster, Ron's travel column appears in the Winnipeg Free Press every Saturday in the Destinations and Diversions section.