Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
More and more people are getting wise to the fact that one of the best places to do some canoeing runs right through the center of Houston. Whenever we feel the need to get our hands on a canoe and do a little paddling on the water, we head straight for Buffalo Bayou, where we can commune with nature right in the middle of the city. There are stretches — particularly the areas running through River Oaks (go figure) — that are still wild and verdant, and on our trips down the waterway, we've been able to see great blue herons and take in the natural beauty of Houston that is so easy to overlook while navigating through the daily hustle and bustle of urban life. Put in at Sabine Street near downtown, paddle up to Shepherd at sunset and, from a view possible only on the water, watch the bats fly out.
Going golfing is not for everyone, but almost anyone can find the joy in using a stick to hit a ball as hard as he or she can. Topgolf, through a combination of technology and alcohol, has found a way to make that joy even better, which is why come Friday and Saturday nights, Topgolf is packed with groups of people who'd never set foot on a golf course. You don't have to walk for miles, you don't have to carry your clubs and the beers come to you. Driving ranges make hitting golf balls a mostly solitary exercise with strangers; Topgolf makes hitting golf balls an acceptable night out with your friends.
READERS' CHOICE: Topgolf
When the kids beg and plead to "take me out to the ballgame," it's nice to know that you can still go see a Major League product at a price where you don't have to donate a kidney. (It's also nice to have a team now that we can call "Major League" and not have to make annoying air quotes with our hands.) If dollars are tight, you can still get seats to see the Houston Astros for as low as $15 on the weekends against quality opponents (dynamic pricing, baby!) and as low as $10 during the week. One silver lining with these seats is that you know you'll be sitting with the most diehard fellow Astros fans; no corporate suits in the cheap seats. That will matter now for years to come, with the Astros on the verge of what looks like several years of good baseball in this town.
Remember Junction Jack? The buck-toothed bunny replaced Orbit, the Astros' beloved alien mascot, after the team moved from the Astrodome to Minute Maid Park. But much like the miserable failure that was the Rockets' pinstripes and cartoon rocket logo in the mid-1990s, the bloom came off the rose. By 2013, Jack was put out to pasture and Orbit was back, much to the delight of fans. In a city that boasts some of the best pro mascots in the business (Clutch is one of the greats of all time in this or any other city), being at the top is no easy feat. Orbit is consistently entertaining and a huge crowd-pleaser, particularly for kids. The only mystery is why he was sent packing in the first place.
READERS' CHOICE: Clutch
Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski would like this venerable bowling alley as much as he likes White Russians and Creedence. It's an old-school joint, with a friendly, laid-back vibe and plenty of specials, like the Rent-A-Lane Fun Packs for up to five people, the Friday night special and the Monday & Thursday deal. Plus, Del-Mar hosts senior, ladies, youth and mixed handicap leagues if you feel like getting your bowl on with some new folks. Plus, it's a great place for company and birthday parties. Del-Mar Lanes abides.
READERS' CHOICE: Lucky Strike
Cypress Trails is located near George Bush Intercontinental Airport, but it's hard to remember this place is anywhere near civilization when you're out on a horse moving through the dense forest along the banks of Cypress Creek. The instructors are patient and helpful with beginners, and they also approve experienced horsewomen and horsemen to take part in trail and endurance rides. It doesn't matter what level you're at, because all the riders get to enjoy the natural beauty of the winding forested trails from the back of a horse while watching egrets, herons and other birds winging along banks that in the spring are lined with wildflowers. Rabbits will sometimes pop up alongside the trail, along with some cool bugs and the occasional snake. Luckily, the horses are so well-trained and so familiar with the path that even snakes don't spook them.
In 2012, it looked like the Rockets were heading toward their nadir under the stewardship of general manager Daryl Morey. Three nondescript seasons in the back end of the NBA lottery had the city in a hoops malaise. Then, on October 27, 2012, it all changed. Morey was able to steal James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder, and once again, the Rockets mattered. Harden's presence was a huge factor in luring Dwight Howard to Houston a year later. Now, three seasons into his Rockets career, Harden has gone from sixth man in OKC to one of the three best basketball players on the planet, finishing second in the 2014-15 MVP balloting behind Steph Curry. At 26 years old, Harden is just now entering his prime, and the Kevin Martin era feels like it was 20 years ago. Fear the beard, people. Fear the beard.
READERS' CHOICE: James Harden
At four hours away, Fort Worth is a bit of a drive for a weekend getaway, but the city's many offerings make it worth the trip for both families and couples. Fort Worth likes to brag that it offers "cowboys and culture." On the cowboy side, there's the Stockyards National Historic District, which features a longhorns cattle drive twice a day (it's always a big hit with kids). On the culture side, there's the nationally regarded Kimbell Art Museum; the art deco Ridglea Theater, built in 1948; dozens of galleries; and the Camp Bowie historic district with plenty of restaurants and shops. The Fort Worth Zoo ranks among the top ten in the country; the city's botanical gardens are the oldest in Texas. Don't leave town without stopping by the Bluebonnet Bakery.
Former Astros player and now longtime broadcaster Alan Ashby grew up in Long Beach, California, and retains some of that laid-back California attitude in the booth, which works well with a wit as dry as his home state has been this year. Named to the Astros' all-time 25-man roster in 2012, Ashby brings a wealth of experience from his 17-year career in the big leagues (1973-1989) to the microphone, with that of a coach and member of the media. He grew up a Dodgers fan idolizing Vin Scully, the iconic play-by-play man legendary for his straightforward style and lyrical Irish-American lilt; Ash has likewise won many admirers for his analytical acumen and candor in the booth. But never one to take himself too seriously, Ash can also be at his best when he and his other partner in the booth, Geoff Blum (another former Astro), spend a slow inning or two trying to see who can be the first to crack the other up.
There are fancier dog parks around, with manicured lawns fit for bougie poodles. And then there's this sucker, a sprawling expanse that's actually built to give your dog room to be a dog. Split into small- and large-dog areas, the park features man-made ponds with clean water, as well as what look like war-torn trenches that fill with muddy water every time it rains — pure heaven for your furry friend. There's agility equipment and plenty of trees for shade (and other things), but mostly, there's just a ton of space. Whether you've got a hyper pup or a leisurely strolling senior, your four-legged friend will thank you for making the trip.
READERS' CHOICE: Millie Bush Bark Park
In the sports world, there are certain high-profile symbiotic relationships, partnerships that feed off one another — coach and player, general manager and owner. But perhaps the most underrated is the relationship between a team, its fans and its public address announcer. John Paul Stevenson, the Houston Rockets' PA guy, has always been good since the day he got here in 2006. Now, belting out the introductions and the in-game happenings for a team that made the Western Conference Finals last season, he's elevated his game. The Toyota Center rocks, and Stevenson's baritone pipes are a huge reason why. Not bad for a guy who stopped twice to think about returning home before his tryout in Memphis for the Grizzlies PA gig (which he got) in 2001. Now he's living his dream, and taking the crowd to the same higher place the team is trying to take them.
From a sheer analytical standpoint, it's impossible to name anyone else on the Texans aside from J.J. Watt as the Best Houston Texan. After all, this past summer, his peers in the NFL named him the best football player on earth, with Watt taking home top honors in the NFL's Top 100 for 2015, the first defensive player in the history of that poll to do so. Another 20-sack season in the books will do that. Amazingly, Watt found ways to improve upon what was seemingly an already perfect skill set by taking snaps on offense and scoring three touchdowns in 2014. Beyond that, he has become the most high-profile Houston athlete nationally in the history of this city, making appearances on sitcoms, awards shows and commercials on what feels like a weekly basis. It's J.J. Watt's world; we're all just watching it on Instagram.
READERS' CHOICE: J.J. Watt