Want the bright lights of a big city? Hungry for glitz, glam and decadence? Go to Vegas. Looking for something a little closer to the quiet tranquility of the rugged Texas Gulf Coast? Try Palacios, just two hours south of Houston. Called "The City by the Sea," Palacios is both tiny (with less than 6,000 residents) and big (home to more than 400shrimping boats, it's the shrimp capital of Texas). There's a bit of a boardwalk, and a few hundred yards of white sandy beach, but the lack of an extended waterfront is made up for by several piers and jetties that extend well out into the water, both of which are popular with fishermen in the early mornings and couples at sunset. Two family restaurants, the Outrigger (which serves seafood) and Palacios Mexican Restaurant, satisfy most tastes, but fishing enthusiasts can also catch their own supper and grill it at one of the many beachside picnic/barbecue shelters.

Brazos Bend State Park

If some developer ever paid (bribed) the right person enough money to build a couple hotels and a cluster of restaurants in Brazos Bend, we guarantee it'd be the top tourist attraction in the region. It's that cool. That will never happen — at least we pray it doesn't — and that's a good thing. Brazos Bend is about an hour's drive from downtown, and it's the perfect place to spend an afternoon or two, walking the trails, avoiding the alligators and maybe doing a little fishing. The top of the observation tower is one of the best places in the area, especially considering you can experience it and not be on vacation.

When Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack wanted to spend more than $2 million to build a soapbox derby hill in northwest Harris County, some people thought he was crazy. But he got it built, and now the area has one of the finest soapbox derby hills around. The Greater Houston Soapbox Derby hosts its events at the park — quite the upgrade from an old railroad overpass — and the county, from time to time, sponsors free-ride days for all ages. It's like Field of Dreams but better, because this derby hill should provide thrills for Houstonians for generations to come.

Looking for a place to jog that's close to downtown and the office? Then the Sabine-to-Bagby Waterfront Park and Promenade is the place for you. Just west of City Hall and the Hobby Center, two miles of hiking and jogging trails flank Buffalo Bayou, twisting along the water through lush perennials and shaded gardens. Joggers can access the trails from one of 16 entrances peppered from Bagby to Sabine Street, to enjoy a crisp run under the shadow of the city's towering skyline. And if you're feeling adventuresome and up for a nighttime run, enjoy the designer lighting along the trails, bridges and water, which change color in conjunction with the phases of the moon.

Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center

Patches of true natural beauty are all too rare in this area, but this is undoubtedly one. Though no further from town than Humble, the five miles of wooded trails in this 225-acre forest park will take you far from Houston in spirit. Even though you are close to town and most of the trails are either paved or decked, the fauna can be wild here: On two of three trips here, we have spotted a copperhead and a coral snake. Still, it's worth braving those deadly venomous perils to get to the payoff: Most of the trails lead down to Spring Creek, which is wide as many a river where it passes through this park. Better still, the creek is shallow (many guests ignore the no-wading rule and cool their heels) and lined with sandy, beach-like shores. You'll sigh and feel like you are in the Hill Country as you watch kingfishers rattle their metallic call and hunt minnows along the creek's high banks.

Palace Bowling Lanes

In a world where bowling alleys are going chic — Houston got its own "boutique bowling alley" last year downtown — it's refreshing to have a place like Palace Lanes that keeps it real. Here, it's not about the music or the food or the beautiful people that show up. It's about the bowling. Wonderful bowling. There's also a full bar at Palace Lanes, and it delivers on every glorious thing you'd expect from a bowling alley bar.

Houston Aeros right wing Jean-Michel Daoust is a scrappy little guy, not much more than five-feet-seven, and he's pretty easy to miss in the jumble of the action on the ice. But it's in that jumble that you want to look for Daoust, because it's from that jumble that he's going to emerge and make something happen. Whether he's finding a way to get his stick on the puck for a game-winning goal — he was the team's leading scorer last season with 55 points — or so getting under the skin of a much bigger opponent that the opponent ends up in the penalty box, Daoust's going to be there. His excellent season earned him a new contract with the Aeros, so when on-ice trouble pops up at Toyota Center this year, look for him to be in the middle of the action.

With the year the Astros are having, this is a tough one, kinda like picking the best excuse from a BP executive. Still, the answer is pretty easy: We're gonna go with Bourn. First off, he's a local, which has been something of a rarity for position players on the Astros since, like, Craig Reynolds or Joe "Shoes" Pittman or something. (Berkman may have gone to Rice, but he's not a Houston native.) Bourn is also a terrific defensive center fielder, and as the all-too-brief Carlos Beltrán moment showed us, it's really awesome to have a guy with serious wheels picking it in the vast rolling acreage that is center in Minute Maid Park. (Otherwise, even more of those line drives our pitching staff is so adept at creating would be dropping in for hits.) What's more, Bourn is that Astros rarity: an athlete who plays baseball, and yeah, we'll go ahead and say it, an American black guy. Did you know he was the Astros' first African-American starting position player to last a full season since the team moved to the new ballpark?

It pains us, as it no doubt pains many people, to name Brett Myers as a "Best" anything. He's gotten into ugly incidents involving allegedly hitting his wife in a drunken argument (she asked for charges to be dropped) and with a reporter who dared question him (teammates broke up the confrontation). But since he's come to the Astros, Myers has kept out of the headlines, except for winning — well, winning at the rate the current Astros do, which is "not all that often." But Myers has regained much of the form from his years when he was mowing batters down with the Phillies, and since the other "new" Astros have mostly been busts, he wins. Hey, they can't all be good guys who win Best of Houston® awards.

For the last three years, Brian Ching has been pretty much the face of Dynamo soccer for most fans. He came oh-so-close to making the U.S. World Cup team, but a hamstring injury held him back. It would have been nice, but Houston will take him any day. Even though he's toned down his tweeting after getting fined for criticizing a ref. He's been active in Habitat for Humanity and in programs to popularize soccer here, and here's hoping he can stay a Dynamo until he hangs up the spikes.

Best Of Houston®

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