With Six Flags theme parks going the way of the World's Fair, it might not be long before SplashTown becomes a parking lot. So pay homage while you can to the Texas Freefall, one of the oldest spots in Houston where you can get a colossal water-slide wedgie. Remember all those relaxing days in the Lazy River dodging kids who were coming down off a sugar high? (And the random warm spots caused by too many sodas?) In its better days, SplashTown was a great place to take the kids for an innocent day in the sun. In its lesser days, it was a gathering place for unaccompanied teenagers wanting to ogle the opposite sex. And in its darker days, it was closed on account of rain.
In the '60s a handful of forward-thinking people strove to save the bayous from being paved over for the sake of "progress." Luckily for us, Terry Hershey and her husband were able to make some political strides back then, because today we have more than ten miles of bike trails at the 500-acre park named for Hershey's efforts. The trails are lined with green, giving you a feeling of being far out with nature, but the park features modern conveniences such as -- thank you! -- bathrooms. More trails are being developed every year along Buffalo Bayou, where the park is located, but be prepared to deal with throngs of pedestrians.
To get the full effect of Donovan Park, go in the company of a four-year-old. Watch his eyeballs bulge out of his head and stand back as his little motor revs up for the expansive fantasyland of castles and trains, bridges and climbing structures. The park and playground, built in the late '90s as a community effort, is an old-fashioned kingdom where kids' imaginations can run wild. Be sure to pack a snack, because the tots will want to stay a while!
When you have kids, your recreational choices change. For one thing, you forgo a pool packed with hard bodies for one that's safe for your non-swimming toddlers to splash around in. But despite Houston's heat, it's hard to find a kiddie pool inside the Loop. The Garden Cove Swim Club pool, however, is designed with families in mind: The depth slopes gradually from three to 12 feet, so there's plenty of space for the youngsters to cool off without drowning, and moms and dads can relax in the shaded, grassy areas or take a plunge off the diving board. Unfortunately, this luxury doesn't come free; it's a private pool, and prices start at $225 for the summer session.
If there's one thing that annoys a fan of the U.S. national soccer team, it's when someone criticizes the players after watching just one World Cup match. Thankfully, Houston readers have a columnist who's on the ball: John P. Lopez covered this year's World Cup in a way newcomers could understand and die-hard fans will never forget. The highlight of his coverage came with a column addressing the devastating state of U.S. soccer. In his article, which was critical of the risk-averse coaches, Lopez blamed the team's poor performance on their meager presence at international matches. Argentina took over Olympic basketball after years of embarrassing defeats, and Latin America has conquered baseball, he wrote. Thus it's not years of exposure to a game that makes a great athlete, but rather exposure to true competition that makes a difference. Goal!
Palacios is the shrimp capital of Texas. So what, you say? Well, we'll tell you. Hundreds of crusty old sea dogs deliver big, fat, still-jumping fresh shrimp to Palacios's restaurants every day, and you can sit on the deck of one of the town's many seafood restaurants, eat a delicious $7 fried shrimp dinner with all the fixin's and chitchat with the boat captain who just brought in your dinner. Or you can sit around and argue with the locals about how to pronounce the name of the town. (No matter what anyone says, "Palacios" should not rhyme with "splashes.") This tiny town has plenty of Texas twang, some of the best seafood on the Gulf Coast (certainly the freshest), low, low prices (a three-bedroom condo a block from the beach goes for $180 a night), great fishing and birding (if you're into that sort of thing) and is close enough for a day trip.
In Houston, sports championships -- in sports that people actually care about -- are rarer than Matthew McConaughey's Oscars. So getting a nod as Best Coach is not about the win-lose record, it's about how you explain the (not good enough) win-lose record. And no one does it better than the perpetually hangdog Van Gundy, who has mastered the art of mumbling criticisms that sound reasonable when you hear them but appear Bobby Knight-like when they hit cold print. "It turns my stomach, frankly, to watch that tonight," he'll say, or "It rips my guts out that we're not a really, really, really committed, competitive team." Luckily, he's also a pretty good coach. If he could just keep the team's stars from getting hurt, the Rockets might actually become a legitimate NBA team.
For years we've been the slightest bit put off by Craig Biggio, who seemed to be working far too hard on his all-American-boy image and has never, as far as we can tell, given an interview that wasn't a dull string of "one game at a time" clichs. But with the exit of Jeff Bagwell, Biggio is the only real remaining link back to the team's bittersweet Astrodome era. And as he chases the magical number of 3,000 career hits, his story takes on more and more depth: Can his 40-year-old body take the daily punishment? Can a player who's been with the 'Stros since the Reagan administration outlast two Bush presidencies? We're sure Craig will take it one game at a time, but we'll be rooting for him. As long as his lack of range at second doesn't cost us too many games.
It's been a long, long time since baseball was a cheap date, as Astros fans can tell you. Even before you start spending crazy money on food and beer at a game, buying a pair of seats hugging the foul pole will set you back almost $75. But there are ways around the madness -- very cheap ways, in fact. One of the cheapest is Coca-Cola Double Play Tuesday. It involves drinking a 32-ounce Powerade, but greatness requires sacrifice. Take the neck ring from the bottle to the box office, and you'll get two outfield deck seats for a buck each. Sure, the seats are in the upper reaches of the stadium, but here's the thing: Minute Maid Park is exceptionally open to improving your vantage point. If you prefer to be legal, get there early and take a standing-room spot by the Crawford Boxes. If you're more daring, wait three innings and move on down to field level. Then look natural, find an empty seat, and no one will stop you. As for eating and drinking cheaply during the game, you're on your own.
If you want flash in hockey, you look for a speeding, preening wingman. If you want solid dependability, you look for a defenseman. And on the Houston Aeros, you look for Curtis Murphy. Murphy, who returned to Houston this season after a year of competing in Russia, seemingly never misses a game. And the 30-year-old has proved his worth by playing on three different minor-league championship teams and for NCAA winner North Dakota. He had his best scoring year this season and was named to the American Hockey League All-Star team for the third time. He's a Saskatchewan native who loves Houston and has created Murphy's Mission, a program that benefits the "I Have a Dream" Foundation. So what if he isn't flashy?

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