Most major cities in the United States feature some sort of sprawling green space near the epicenter where urban dwellers can find a bit of a respite from the daily grind -- and in Houston's case, the heat emanating from the concrete. Our most central slice of nature runs along both sides of Buffalo Bayou between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive on the north and south, and between the western edge of downtown and Shepherd. The simple course allows for either a relaxing, recreational jaunt or a full-on workout. The winding path zigzags in and out between a lush array of trees, sloping down to the water's edge and back up to street level throughout the course. It's the closest thing you'll find to a hilly terrain for miles. Stop off at any number of exercise stations for a complete workout, or take a break in Buffalo Bayou ArtPark and view works from some of our city's most innovative artists.
Readers' choice: Memorial Park
You don't have to travel to Northern California or the French Riviera to enjoy great wine straight from the source. Texas, whether you know it or not, is home to many fine wineries, one of which is giving the big boys a run for their money. Messina Hof is located on a lush estate just an hour and a half northwest of Houston. It offers five public tours on Saturday and two on Sunday, all of which feature a tasting at the end. After the tour, you can enjoy lunch or dinner at The Vintage House, a gourmet eatery with a focus on vineyard cuisine. And if all this makes you just not want to leave, you can rest your head at the Villa at Messina Hof, a posh and romantic bed-and-breakfast just steps from the vineyard. Relax on the banks of the winery's spring-fed lake as you sip your favorite vintage and let yourself go in this tranquil little oasis of fermented happiness.
Baseball used to be the cheapest of all major-league sports, but those days have gone the way of the VHS player. The best seats now are not exactly impulse buys (paying $35 to sit next to the foul pole?). Luckily, the Astros are offering some cheap alternatives. The best of them happen on Powerade Tuesdays, when you can get two seats in the outfield for a buck each. You can't get much cheaper than that, and the best part is that you're not stuck in those faraway seats; as long as you don't mind standing, head to Home Run Alley and watch from up close as the dingers come your way. Get there early enough for a spot on the rail, and you've got it made. You'll still be paying ransom prices for food and drink, but you can't have everything.
Houston skateboarders have two serious factors to consider before thrashing the concrete jungle. The weather is almost always an issue, since it's generally either too damn hot or too damn rainy. Legality is the other issue, as public space is at a premium in this here town. Maybe that's why Southside Skatepark has been so popular since it opened in 1994. Every inch of the 12,000-square-foot facility in South Houston is covered and air-conditioned, plus it's 100 percent legal to ride. Filled with stairs, rails, hips, grind boxes, pyramids and quarter-pipes of all sizes, the popular street course hosts occasional contests and demos. There's also a vert ramp and mini-ramp connected to a kidney-shaped bowl for the "old-schoolers." Serious thrashers can partake in yearly and lifetime memberships for discounted rates, and everyone else pays a reasonable onetime fee, which is a heck of a lot cheaper than a skateboarding ticket.
Ray Giroux has spent only one season with the Aeros, but the lithe defenseman has already made his mark. The former Ivy Leaguer is a consistent scorer on the ice, and away from the rink he's proved to be just as valuable. Each game, he and fellow alternate captain Todd Reirden team up to purchase a block of tickets for children's charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association or Child Advocates; the kids also get a locker-room visit and autographed stuff. Plus, Giroux spreads the good hockey word at school appearances, hospitals and homeless shelters. Houston may not yet be a hockey hotbed, but it is a town with a whole heck of a lot of Ray Giroux fans.
Readers' choice: Curtis Murphy
Okay, so it looks like semi-hometown boy Berkman (hey, he went to Rice) may not quite develop into the fearsome power hitter that his first few years with the club seemed to promise. Being an Astros fan means learning to deal with disappointment. Even without 35 homers a year, Berkman is poised to become the face of the Astros as veterans Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio retire. And the good news is he just might break the stoic "one game at a time" mold of those two. Maybe it's the long-term contract he signed this year, but Berkman has loosened up and showed a heretofore hidden hilarious side, ripping, for instance, on the University of Texas and "loser middle-aged men" who breathlessly follow college-football recruiting news. If he keeps that up, we can live without all the dingers. Maybe.
Readers' choice: Roger Clemens
At first glance, a hockey cheerleading squad makes about as much sense as a Zamboni in the outfield, but there's no doubt about it: The beautiful, talented women of Sonic Boom will make a hollerin' hockey fanatic out of the biggest sushi-munching sports snob. Not that the Aeros need any help whipping the crowd into a frenzy -- hockey in Houston is just downright fun -- but when these cheerleaders make their way through the stands, it's the icing (the good kind) on the cake. Plus, you can even visit the Aeros Web site and read about your favorite Boomer. They all prefer love over money, and they all want to end suffering, war and animal cruelty. So not only are they awesome dancers, they're awesome people as well.
Tree climbers inevitably branch into two distinct species. The kiddies, the romantics and the novices want a docile tree, one that practically lies down for you. The tree nuts -- who wear special clothes and would live in trees if they could -- want a challenge. Both factions will be satisfied at the public park surrounding the Menil Collection, home to a strange tree of uncertain lineage and obvious charm. You will know it by the trunk. The gnarled base juts out of the ground at a 45-degree angle, allowing climbers to literally walk up into the canopy. Once there, the romantics can continue along a horizontal branch, where they can sit near the towering tip of a Mark di Suvero sculpture and snuggle. The intrepid can scramble on upward. At the very top, they might even glimpse downtown.
The roller-coaster ride that the Astros have been on for the last two seasons has given some good insight into the tortured mind of the Astros fan. The best of times: the thrilling sprint to the playoffs in 2003, when the packed Minute Maid Park rocked as never before, intimidating visiting teams and leaving Houstonians hoarse. The worst of times: the other two-thirds of the past two seasons, as the team trudged to a mediocre record in the most frustrating way possible. Still, the fans kept the faith, booing when it was needed and cheering whenever the opportunity presented itself. 'Stros fans have gone a long way toward disproving the cliche that Houston is a front-running town that will support a team only while it's winning.
Readers' choice: Houston Astros
Excellence in baseball play-by-play doesn't take the form of shouting, wisecracking shills eager to run out their latest lame nickname or home-run call. No, excellence is better embodied by the likes of Bill Brown, Houston's answer to Dodger legend Vin Scully. Understated and knowledgeable, Brown doesn't feel the need to throw in endless statistics on how each batter fares with runners in scoring position against lefties on Wednesdays in July. He also knows how to play straight man to both of his broadcast partners, Jim Deshaies and Larry Dierker. Astros fans don't know how lucky they are with their TV announcers. Spend a week or so in some other cities and you'll be crying for home.

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