When my plane touched down in Houston, I was prepared for Sunbelt sprawl, cowboy boots and bottle-blonde hair. While I certainly noticed these stereotypically Texan elements, they were positioned like background actors hazily in the distant horizon. Unexpectedly, the star of my visit was the sophisticated art scene. I thrive on innovative visual experiences and Houston is a tinderbox of artistic creativity.
It’s no secret that Houston was built by oil. Many of the city’s wealthiest residents owe their fortune to Texas tea and there’s no denying that it has lubricated the flow of money.
I gazed at countless over-the-top mansions in exclusive residential enclaves such as River Oaks. These personal fortunes are at the foundation of this city’s vast art holdings and have generously facilitated innumerable museum donations and acquisitions. For an art enthusiast such as myself, I had hit the jackpot.
Houston’s reputation as a car-crazed metropolis is well deserved. Its massive size is a defining feature and its multitude of neighbourhoods connect via a complex network of traffic-clogged roads that require patience to navigate. Luckily, the Museum District defies this brain-twisting mode of transportation. This cosy district’s 19 cultural gems are clustered in a compact 2.4-kilometre radius, so it’s a breeze to traverse on foot. If you enjoy cycling, it is a two-wheeled utopia. I used the convenient new bike share program, Houston B-Cycle. I paid just a few dollars for a one-day pass and pedalled a comfy apple-red cruiser down shady streets, meandering from museum to museum. The cool wind in my hair was a welcome respite from the city’s legendary humidity.
The Menil Collection is one of the world’s most formidable private art institutions, housed in an understated building designed by Renzo Piano. The labyrinth of art and native greenery is bathed in exquisite natural light. Surrealist, pop art and African tribal works are standouts. The de Menil family is strongly committed to making art accessible to everyone, thus no admission is charged. I was pleased that there were no didactics present in the galleries. The art spoke to me in a highly personal way, with no external cues to veer me off my independent track.
The Rothko Chapel is part of the Menil treasure chest. It’s the only ecumenical centre of its kind in the world, functioning as a non-denominational chapel, museum and forum. Its lofty mission is to inspire peace, freedom and social justice. I found it to be a meditative place with a mystical mingling of art, architecture and spirituality, a sublime respite from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
In Houston, ambitious cultural experiences are possible thanks to the city’s deep pockets, but also thanks to its hefty physical dimensions. No artist captures this oversized spirit more than James Turrell. The leafy Rice University campus is home to his Twilight Epiphany Skyspace. His massive creation is liberated from the practical constraints of galleries and museums. The pyramidal structure’s LED light sequence projects onto the ceiling and through an aperture in the roof. At twilight, Turrell’s composition of light accentuates the natural light for a reflective experience that borders on otherworldly. I witnessed this spectacle at dusk several days running, but couldn’t get enough of the ever-changing show.
Luckily, there’s a permanent and equally psychedelic Turrell exhibit in the lower level of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It is one of America’s largest museums, with over 65,000 works from antiquity to the present, representing six continents. Highlights include Impressionist and Renaissance masterpieces. The magnificent sculpture garden offers beauty and tranquillity in perfect proportions. Curators present a full calendar of temporary exhibits that rotate frequently, so visitors may anticipate consistent novelty.
Houston’s real estate prices are low and its zoning laws are notoriously lax. This has encouraged renegade artists to set up shop in spacious corners of the city. I explored the avant-garde art scene with gusto. I rented a car to facilitate travel to more remote pockets of this expansive city, but the cutting-edge visual payoff made it well worth navigating unfamiliar highways.
The funky Art Car Museum was my favourite. Dubbed the ‘Garage Mahal’, imaginative cars are decorated with out-of-the-box materials that are the singular visions of their creators. For the truly passionate, the annual Art Car Parade is held each April. It is a photo-worthy extravaganza that draws participants and spectators from around the world. Hundreds of vehicles, from cars to unicycles, are transformed into stirring works of mobile art, proudly parading through Houston’s streets.
The Beer Can House should win a prize for offbeat home décor. I noted thousands of empty beer cans, bottles, pull-tops and other beer-related paraphernalia enhancing every centimetre of this otherwise ordinary private home’s exterior. It’s estimated that some 50,000-beer cans are present, a teetotaller’s nightmare and a beer-drinker’s fantasy.
The Orange Show Monument, a quirky ode to citrus, is a whimsical love song to satsumas and clementines. The building’s surface is covered in fruity bric-a-brac, tiles and mosaics. I’ll never sip my morning juice in quite the same way again.
While soaking in the provocative art scene, I also sampled the edible arts. Houston is winning praise as one of America’s most mouth-watering destinations. The epicurean panorama catches the highbrow/lowbrow sweet spot, with decadent dining options available at every price. I was joyfully bombarded with a wide range of global cuisines as well as regional specialties.
My favourite meal was savoured at State of Grace. Chef Ford Fry is hometown to the core. I started my evening with a potent Planter’s Punch that limbered my palate for the Texas treats that followed. I am still dreaming of the twice-fried chicken and I literally licked my fingers so I wouldn’t miss a morsel of the sticky beef ribs. A meal here put me in the delicious predicament of being satiated yet still hungry for more. Despite a full stomach, I did not regret dabbling in dessert. The ethereal strawberry-rhubarb tart was a divine finish.
Dinner at Holley’s blends Creole influences with a smattering of South Asian panache and timeless Texas agricultural traditions. Charismatic Chef Mark Holley, as handsome as his lookalike Forest Whitaker, cuts a dashing figure. The menu doesn’t hit a false note but extra accolades are reserved for the spicy gumbo, briny oyster shooters and Thai-style red snapper that’s sculptural in its beauty. I was glad I threw my diet to the wind and didn’t skip the house-made rolls, warm and buttery diminutive delights dusted with benne seeds.
Noted for its exceptional diversity, Houstonians speak over 100 languages. Luckily, this city’s immigrant populations have brought their native food ways with them. Ethnic eateries abound, offering a cornucopia of international flavours.
For pan-Middle Eastern cuisine, inexpensive Aladdin is worth a stop. I sampled falafel, garlicky hummus and minty tabbouleh. Everything is prepared with farm-picked produce and served with homemade pita bread piping hot from the oven. Maharaja Bhog is a vegetarian Indian eatery that serves a fortifying all-you-can-eat feast. My taste buds were spoiled with a selection of spicy curries, sweet chutneys and traditional Indian breads. The service is stellar and the prices low, so I ate like a queen and paid like a pauper. The menu changes daily according to what is freshest at the morning market. •
Photography by Allison Tibaldi.
Air New Zealand flies direct to Houston from Auckland with connecting flights from Australian cities.
Fly Qantas or United to Los Angeles and transfer to a direct flight to George Bush Intercontinental Airport Houston with United or American. United launches flights from Houston to Havana in November.
• Air New Zealand: airnewzealand.com.au
• Qantas: qantas.com.au
• United: united.com
Houston B-Cycle is the city’s innovative bike share program. To view the city’s alternative art scene, hire a car or catch cabs. houston.bcycle.com
WHEN TO GO
October–November and March–April are the best times to visit, thanks to mild temperatures and lower humidity.
WHERE TO STAY
The ZaZa is a boutique hotel with a Texas twist. The opulent guest rooms make an excellent Museum District lair. After you dive into the art scene, refresh by the ZaZa’s delightfully decadent pool: +1-713/526-1991; hotelzaza.com
The newly renovated Four Seasons is an obvious choice. Pamper yourself at the onsite spa, where indulgent treatments infuse locavore scents like Cowboy Crush, Houston Dream and Texas Green Tea into top-of-the-line products: +1-713/650-1300; fourseasons.com/houston
WHAT TO DO
• The Menil Collection: +1-713/525-9400; menil.org
• James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace: skyspace.rice.edu
• Museum of Fine Arts, Houston: +1-713/639-7300; mfah.org
• Art Car Museum: +1-713/861-5526; artcarmuseum.com
• The Beer Can House: +1-713/926-6368; beercanhouse.org
• The Orange Show Monument: +1-713/926-6368; orangeshow.org
WHERE TO DINE
• State of Grace: +1-832/942-5080; stateofgracetx.com
• Holley’s: +1-713/491-2222; holleyshouston.com
• Aladdin: +1-713/942-2321; aladdinshouston.com
• Maharaja Bhog: +1-713/771-2464; maharajabhog.com
This article was published in the Oct/Nov/Dec 2016 edition of Vacations & Travel magazine. If you would like to subscribe to receive Vacations & Travel magazine by mail and save A$29.45 off the cover price, please visit vacationstravel.com/subscribe