Big City Tales

Amazin’ Austin

December 8, 2012
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The Frost Bank Tower in downtown Austin, Texas is the city's third tallest building.

The Frost Bank Tower in downtown Austin is the city’s third tallest building.

Austin is alive with history, the arts, music, and SO MUCH MORE!

Before I sing the praises of this lovely Texas city, a quick comment regarding a major traffic jam encountered on the I-35 North between San Antonio and Austin. Even though my sister and I thought this would be the shortest jaunt between stops on our 10-day tour de force exploration of Texas, we were sadly mistaken. We also did not take into account the fact that it was the day before American Thanksgiving, so the interstate was bustling with holiday-related traffic. Further, we did not expect that our travels may be impeded by a stretch of construction. As to the end result of all of these miscalculations, a full hour’s delay prompted a mental note to be made: DO NOT travel the roads in Texas the day before Thanksgiving!

The Driskill Hotel in Austin's historic district is where the likes of Elton John, Cyndi Lauper and other celebrities choose to stay when in town.

The Driskill Hotel in Austin’s historic district is where the likes of Elton John, Cyndi Lauper and other celebrities choose to stay when in town.

Whole Foods – A Foodie’s Mecca

After getting off the bustling interstate, our first stop was the Whole Foods store on North Lamar Boulevard. No self-respecting foodie would miss the opportunity to pay homage to the chain’s flagship store — a massive structure of over 80,000 square feet — offering professional chefs and at-home cooks alike access to a bevy of high quality, specialty food products.

Having arrived just before noon, the store was packed with people stopping in for lunch, as well as those trying to get a jump on picking up the fixings for their Thanksgiving meal. Good thing the store’s outdoor parking is supplemented by a two-level underground parkade. Believe me, every spot was in use and there were even attendants on hand to help direct traffic and manage the mayhem.

For two fanatics of all things Whole Foods, my sister and I thought nothing of grabbing a snack-to-go, then making plans to return for dinner later in the day! Upon our return visit, we approached the store from the NW side of the city and noticed a very unique scene.  With the sun setting in the sky behind us, the local telephone/electricity poles and hundreds of birds perched on the wires were silhouetted in the fading light.  It was a spooky and surreal sight, especially when flocks of them suddenly took flight circling the building, perhaps in search of food scraps falling out of shoppers’ bags!  While this was likely a typical sight for local residents, we were completely enthralled with what we saw, but dinner was beckoning inside. No time for bird-watching with so many gourmet goodies waiting to be devoured!

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A view of the pathway leading to the Texas State Capitol Building.

State Capitol Building – An Architectural Wonder

Modeled after the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., the Austin version is actually slightly higher in elevation and is made of a soft pink granite. The Lone Star symbol of Texas is featured prominently on the mosaic floor and painted ceiling of the interior rotunda, as well as outside in the hand of the Goddess of Liberty statue that sits proudly atop the building. Portraits of past presidents of the Republic of Texas and past governors of the State of Texas are hung on the walls inside the rotunda. Elsewhere in the building, statues of Sam Houston and Stephen Austin can be found, along with a portrait of Davy Crockett.

The Republic of Texas seal inside the dome of the State Capitol Building.

The Republic of Texas seal inside the dome of the State Capitol Building.

Taking up 360,000 square feet, the Texas State Capitol is the largest capitol building in the United States and sits on over two acres of land, decorated with 17 monuments. It truly is the crowning jewel of Congress Avenue.

Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum – An Educational Experience

History buffs will appreciate the exhibits found within this three-level structure that tells the story of Texas from its early days as a fledgling republic to its recent past as a thriving state.  The travails and triumphs of prominent cowboys, oilmen, astronauts and sports figures are told celebrating the themes of land, identity, and opportunity. It is a striking building with many interesting architectural features, particularly the 35-foot-tall bronze star sculpture that sits in the exterior courtyard. Another distinctive aspect of the museum is that it is a non-collecting institution, meaning that artifacts are provided on an on-loan basis and exhibits are regularly changed. What this also means, however, is that photography is prohibited to protect the items that are showcased in the museum.

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Too bad you can’t take pictures inside the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, but it’s still a pretty cool building to photograph from the outside.

UT Tower – A Panoramic View

Located at the heart of the sprawling and scenic University of Texas campus, the UT Tower stands tall and majestic, offering a full 360 degree view of the city of Austin. The tower is the beautiful centre piece of this lush and expansive campus that extends south to the State Capitol building, and includes the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum.

The UT Tower is located in heart of the University of Texas campus, offering some of the best views of the city of Austin.

The UT Tower is located in heart of the University of Texas campus, offering some of the best views of the city.

The LBJ Library and Museum is undergoing a major renovation and is set to fully re-open all exhibits in mid-December 2012.

The LBJ Library and Museum is undergoing a major renovation and is set to fully re-open all exhibits in mid-December 2012. What won’t change is the interior of the Oval Office during LBJ’s term as president.

Laguna Gloria – A Peaceful Refuge

A short drive to the west end takes you to the shores of Lake Austin and the site of Laguna Gloria, an area that is listed in the U.S. National Register of Historic Sites. Notable for its picturesque views and peaceful grounds, visitors can take a leisurely stroll along meandering pathways or wander through Driscoll Villa that contains some holdings from the Austin Museum of Art. There is also an exterior sculpture garden to admire.

The Italian-style villa at Laguna Gloria that overlooks Lake Austin.

Overlooking Lake Austin, the Italian-style Driscoll Villa at Laguna Gloria is the former  home of socialite Clara Driscoll, and was the original site of the Austin Museum of Art.

On the Road Again

Crossing our fingers that holiday traffic would certainly be abated by the evening, we ventured with trepidation out onto the I-35 North on our way to Dallas.

Just when we were thinking we were making good progress, yet another (thankfully to be our last!) traffic backlog occurred. By comparison, this one was a doozy and was particularly aggravating as it wasn’t just one delay, it was a series of delays over a long stretch of the interstate.

Then, to add insult to injury, when we were finally in the homestretch and minutes from reaching our downtown hotel, the interstate suddenly forked and we were steered off course now heading southeast.

It took what seemed like an eternity for an opportunity to turn around and get back on track, but our navigation smarts came through and we rolled in ragged and weary to the Hyatt Regency.

Sleeping in was prime on the agenda for Thanksgiving morning in Dallas!

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Happenin’ Houston

December 3, 2012
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A walkway in the Discovery Green area in downtown Houston, which also features an outdoor skating rink, a large playing field, and a great playground for kids.

Houston has it ALL, and then some!

After flying into Dallas, renting a car, and experiencing a wrong turn on the interstate (yup, we had a few of those moments!), my sister and I successfully made our way to the south side of Dallas en route to Houston via the I-45 South.

It was pretty much clear sailing on this stretch of highway and, despite what seemed like an inordinate amount of road kill, we enjoyed a leisurely and scenic drive.

Caught up in some clever billboard advertising, we made a couple of unplanned stops to check out the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, famous for its fruit cakes that are shipped across the country; and Buc-ees in Madisonville, a Texas souvenir haven!  These side trips were well worth the time lost, but with the sun beginning to set in the late afternoon sky, we had to get moseyin’ again.

Back on track, we admired the larger-than-life statue of Sam Houston (state founder and former Governor of Texas) located outside of Huntsville before getting bogged down in rush hour traffic as we entered the Houston suburbs, which is pretty much akin to being on the 401 in Toronto. The slow down allowed us to get a sense of our surroundings and we both agreed that there was a lot to explore on this side of the city, but it would have to wait as check-in and dinner downtown was a-callin’!

Getting into downtown off of the interstate proved to be fairly straightforward and, after we got a handle on which way the one-way streets were going, we rolled into the Hyatt Regency, unloaded our luggage, and headed out to explore the streets on foot.

While we had heard that San Antonio was known for its holiday light displays at this time of year (i.e. around American Thanksgiving in November), we quickly discovered that Houston (and, for that matter, all of the other cities we planned to visit) got into the spirit of things as well.

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In America, Thanksgiving is also the kick-off for the Christmas holiday season, and there were plenty of light displays to admire around downtown Houston.

We came across more than a few areas decked out for the season and appreciated the efforts to help cultivate a festive atmosphere, particularly along Main Street where the city’s transit line runs, and at the Houston Pavilions, a large indoor/outdoor shopping mall.

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The Houston Pavilions is a popular indoor/outdoor mall in the downtown core – quiet at night, busy by day.

Agreeing that Houston sure is perty at night, we looked forward to what the day time would reveal…it did not disappoint!

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A view of downtown Houston taken from Tranquility Park, a peaceful area commemorating all of the Apollo human flight space missions undertaken by NASA from 1961-1972.

The morning brought a bright blue, sun-filled sky. Yes, it was breezy at times, but the humidity was manageable and it made for perfect conditions for a power walk through the downtown core.

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These decorative towers feature various scenes depicting aspects of Houston’s local economy, entertainment scene, and numerous area attractions.

We discovered an eclectic mix of modern skyscrapers, historical sites and monuments, arts and cultural offerings, sporting facilities and green spaces, shopping venues, and — oddly enough — a large number of bail bonds companies, which literally seemed to be on every other corner! Notwithstanding our new-found curiosity about the city’s criminal element, we felt perfectly safe walking around and our complete loop of downtown was without incident.

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City Hall in downtown Houston.

The afternoon took us to Houston’s south side and a tour of the highly lauded Museum of Fine Arts with a collection that spreads over two buildings and features an exterior sculpture garden.

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This church is located in the Museum District, just south of downtown Houston.

Back downtown for the evening, we enjoyed a superior movie-watching experience at Sundance Cinemas in the historic arts district and turned in early to be ready to “tackle” the NCAA football experience Texas style the next day.

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The George Bush Library in College Station, Texas is located on the campus of Texas A & M.

Crazy College Station

Deep in the heart of Texas lies College Station, home of the Texas A & M Aggies, the George Bush Library and Museum, and the Corps of Cadets Marching Band, among other highlights. College Station is also the place where legions of football fans come from near and far to support their beloved Aggies at Kyle Field.

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The sea of maroon and white at Kyle Field. Most fans on this side of the stadium stand and scream from the opening kick-off to the final play of the game. Yes, it was really, REALLY loud!

Adding to the frenzy on this particular game day was the fact the Aggies were coming off an upset win of #1 Alabama the previous weekend, and it was also Military Appreciation Day. Veterans and active members from all branches of the military were in attendance, and the world-famous Corps of Cadets Marching Band wowed the crowd with their intricate and perfectly timed formations at half-time.

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It is a long-standing tradition for the Corps of Cadets, including the Marching Band, to form the Texas A & M symbolic “T” as part of Military Appreciation Day.

But I’ve jumped ahead…lest I forget the growing din of the crowd leading up to kick-off that basically never waned in intensity as the loyal Aggies fans belted out their traditional cheers and jeers. Here’s what we picked up:

  • When the Aggies are kicking off, the crowd roars AAAA and when the kicker makes contact, the chant continues with GG AGGIES GIG ‘EM!;
  • After a first down, the crowd yells WHOOP!;
  • After a touchdown, all couples exchange a kiss;
  • When the opposing team has a third down, the volume goes up a level (if that is even humanly possible) and the noise doesn’t die down until the play is done; and
  • At the end of the 3rd Quarter, the full stadium breaks out in song that involves linking arms and swaying back and forth in unison.

It was truly quite a scene and you just gotta love college football in Texas!

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Dusk begins to settle over Kyle Field at College Station marking another win for the home team.

Terrible Texas Traffic

OK, we all know the adage: Everything is BIGGER in Texas, but we did not expect this to apply to traffic!

Case in point, when driving from Houston to San Antonio on a Sunday night we experienced a traffic backlog of MEGA proportions. At times we were basically at a standstill, barely progressing a car’s length at a time, with no indication of what the delay was ahead as it was pitch black outside. Finally, an ambulance with sirens wailing whizzed by, so it was apparently an accident.

That said, given the sheer volume of vehicles travelling on both sides of the highway, it made us think that maybe this is status quo on the I-30 West and perhaps a lot of people commute back and forth between these two centres. If so, we could certainly empathize with those Texans who are frustrated about poor traffic flow in some areas of the state.

Little did we know that this was just the beginning of things to come on our intrepid road trip…for now, it was on to the Alamo, River Walk, and other San Antonio treasures.