We've got nothing against camping. Don't get us wrong. It's just that sometimes it feels artificial to pack up and pretend like you don't have a house. But going to the arboretum, now that's an authentic trip that'll get you back in time to hit the bars. This 155-acre expanse is home to herons, cardinals, owls, wrens and crows; squirrels, opossums, moles, rabbits and armadillos; and toads, frogs, snakes, turtles and skinks. As you walk beneath the canopy listening to chirps, croaks and whistles, you'll forget all about the downtown construction and West Loop traffic -- for a little while, at least.
He drains jumpers effortlessly. He explodes to the basket with the agility of an Olympic gymnast. When he's on, he's one of the few truly unstoppable players in the NBA. And during his first year in Houston, Tracy McGrady has been a model citizen. We admit we were concerned when the five-time NBA All-Star showed up via a trade with the Orlando Magic for Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Kelvin Cato. After all, the Rockets were trading three-fifths of their starting lineup for a purported whiner who had grouched about sharing playing time with his cousin (fellow All-Star Vince Carter) in Toronto. But McGrady quickly embraced the city and his teammates -- especially Yao Ming. Soon the two were the epicenter of a playoff team that, thanks to some key off-season signings, is much stronger. If McGrady follows up on his 25.7 points per game average of last year, the only thing he'll have to complain about sharing with his teammates is an NBA Championship trophy.
Readers' choice: Yao Ming
While so many beaches along our Gulf Coast tend to be less than desirable, this little oasis just down the road a piece from Freeport could make you forget you're in Petrochemical Land. In Galveston, the constant whir of traffic along the seawall just steps from your beach towel almost drowns out the calming sounds of the sea at your feet. Go to any of the beaches at Surfside and you've literally got to dodge the traffic, as cars are allowed right on the sand. Not the case at Quintana, where the $4-per-car entry fee keeps out the riffraff, and all vehicles stay in the parking lot. A massive boardwalk jettisons over the dunes that serve as your wall between civilization and solitude, and leads you to the cleanest, most peaceful beach in our region. The park features full-on camping facilities for RVs and tents and even has a few quaint, air-conditioned cabins that overlook the water. Which come in handy, 'cause you'll never want to leave.
Readers' choice: Crystal Beach
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.

Best Of Houston®

Best Of