When the calendar strikes June in Houston, it's tempting to stay inside, game controller in hand, bottled water nearby and cool, conditioned air swirling all around. But even the staunchest of humidity-haters need to get outside once in a while; cabin fever isn't limited to wintry climates. Fortunately, Houston has a wealth of grassy expanses, so with a little sunscreen, a touch of bug spray and a sandwich or two, a picnic is an easy thing to make.
Hermann Park (Fannin at Hermann Park Drive, 713-524-5876, www.hermannpark.org) is a favorite destination for Houstonians craving an outdoor afternoon, and with good reason: The nearby museums and on-site Houston Zoo offer pre- and post-picnic entertainment. Larger groups may want to meet at the picnic tables along Fannin Street, but small families and couples can stroll over the hills and around John P. McGovern Lake to find the perfect spot. The Japanese Garden and reflection pool offer more ornate settings, and kids can ride the mini-train or hit the playground after they eat. Visit www.milleroutdoortheatre.com to see if there's a free outdoor concert, play or dance performance the evening you're there. Dinner theater will never be cheaper.
The loveliest grass in town may be the placid patch surrounding the Menil Collection (1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400). This is not the place to host a family reunion or play a game of touch football, however -- the unofficial code favors the quiet, the reflective and the neat. The well-groomed environs are spotted with sculpture and shaded by rows of trees, and nearby Montrose offers plenty of spots to pick up a sandwich. If you're hoping to spend a little quality time with yourself, this is a terrific place to escape all things urban, right in the middle of the city.
If you're looking for a nice view, head over to Buffalo Bayou Park (Allen Parkway at Sabine Street, www.buffalobayou.org), which offers clean, isolated spans of grass along rolling hills and water. Even if the bayou itself is a tad unspectacular, few public spots offer a better panorama of the downtown skyline -- try the bayou's north bank for some particularly good angles (and a slightly more secluded feel than the busy south side). One idea is to pack lightly, park at one of the lots along Allen Parkway, and then walk along the parkway or Memorial Drive until you find a good spot. Sports enthusiasts can bike or jog before settling down, and dogs are welcome to roam along (and in) the water.
For something a little more romantic (the picnicking equivalent of a candlelit dinner), try spreading your blanket alongside the Water Wall by the Galleria (2800 Post Oak Boulevard at Hidalgo, 713-966-7799). Around sunset, the cascade is particularly gorgeous, and the heat is less intense (or maybe it just seems that way thanks to the sound of rushing water). After shopping, rest your feet in the small park just adjacent to Williams Tower and admire the 64-foot-high circular falls, which drop thousands of gallons of water each minute. This is the type of place to eat ciabatta and olive tapenade, not burgers and dogs. You also may want to bring a blanket, so as not to besmirch your designer pants.
Burger and dog aficionados have their place nearby at Memorial Park (6501 Memorial Drive, 713-845-1000), which offers public grills for dishing out barbecue. Its central location makes it a good meeting spot for large parties, and the golf course, baseball diamonds, and jogging and bike paths offer plenty of recreation options. Try meeting by the picnic loop, or seek out a more secluded spot in the arboretum.
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When in the mood for an impromptu outdoor lunch, Heights dwellers can walk, jog or drive over to the wide strip of land running down the center of Heights Boulevard (Houston Heights Association, 713-861-4002). Yes, there's traffic on both sides and the risk of lawn-mower-induced noise, but the avenue has an endearing small-town feel lacking in other parts of the city. The grounds and the weaving Paul Carr Jogging Trail are well maintained and offer views of lovely Victorian homes. Marmion Park, at 18th Street, is another place to settle if you'd rather not be in the middle of the road.
If you've got a full day to spare and feel like fleeing the Loop, an excursion to Brazos Bend State Park (21901 FM 762, Damon, 979-553-5101) should refresh your inner wild child. The truly ambitious can fish in one of the several lakes, clean the catch on-site and dine with a sense of self-sufficiency. But we recommend bringing snacks, hiking along some of the trails and meeting friends at the group picnic shelter. The park has an assortment of lakes, trails, bathrooms and amenities, so it's a fine destination for both outdoorsmen and delicate urbanites. The lush setting is home to hundreds of bird species, as well as an observatory for an after-dinner look at the stars. Be wary, though, as alligators are known to roam the park.
Another long but worthwhile drive will take you to Lake Livingston State Park (300 Park Road 65, Livingston, 936-365-2201). Campers and day guests can fish, bike, hike and swim, but the most pleasant way to pass the time might be to unfurl a blanket by the shore and relax. Screened shelters are available for bug-haters, and pools and showers are nearby if you feel like taking a post-picnic dip (after waiting 30 minutes, of course).
In New York City, Central Park's Great Lawn is known to get so crowded that it's a struggle to lay down a beach towel. Houston's wide-open spaces are much more, well, wide open. A little takeout, a lot of water and few minutes in the car are really all any Houstonian needs for a picnic. Now if only they could make air conditioning portable...