Today’s Reader Review is from Simon & Mitz.
In this post:
One of the few states in the USA we have never been before is the huge ‘Lone Star’ of Texas. With very few First redemptions now for 241’s, Houston has surprising availability. There are two flights to Houston daily- only the morning one has First. We used our 241 and paid just over £1k in taxes return for the flights, and on this occasion, we used all our hotel points for our stay.
The natural way to visit Texas over 10 days is to do the big- circle – Houston- San Antonio-Austin-Fort Worth- back to Houston… but we diverged and spent two days in Galveston.
For this trip review, and to give you some inspiration, I will break the trip down to each city, with my own impressions. I will also write about the hotels we stayed in (briefly, as they are all US city standard choices) and how we got there!!
There have been many reviews recently about First, so I will keep my thoughts brief:
– The food has improved massively. It’s now very good, as you can see in the pictures.
Again, it’s been mentioned a lot recently the service you get can vary depending on the enthusiasm or experience of the crew. On our outward flight, the plane was at 20% capacity- economy pretty much empty, Premium 5 pax, Business 20 pax and 6 of us in First. Crew did flirt between the cabins, and we got served lunch by a fantastic member of staff from economy. The First team were actually quite dour and miserable- and, most importantly, not proactive in service.
Our first city was Houston. I had no preconceptions about this place and was expecting a standard US town with skyscrapers. The USP, though, was the rodeo. I hadn’t bought tickets until a crew member on the plane said it was a must-see! Rodeo week happens in March, and the town goes crazy for it, and as you’re in Texas, you must do rodeo!! It all happens south of town at the LSG Arena- next to the old Astrodome. There are trams which run right through the city centre which drop you off there. It is massive! Before you actually get into the arena, there is a huge park full of food stalls, bars – and wine bars offering all the Texan food you can dream of.
If you are in need of a Stetson- which most people were wearing on this night, there are retail outlets galore- jeans, hats and boots. The rodeo arena was full with 76000 people screaming their heads off at a man jumping on top of a bucking bull! “Mutton ‘Bustin” was fun to see with the local kids trying to jump on the back of a ram. Towards the end of the rodeo, a stage started moving out of the sides of the stadium into the centre. Then the whole place erupted to the sound of “Cody Jinks”- yep, we weren’t sure either- but the 75988 other people really liked them! It was a country sound, which they loved!
We only stayed in Houston one night, but there is much more to see, including the Space Center, Museum of Fine Arts, the Merill Collection, and if you’re in need of medical attention, the Texas Medical Centre is the largest medical campus in the world!
Centrally located a block north of Main Street, it is a standard US hotel. It’s in a converted historical warehouse, so the rooms were very big. It did what it said on the box- a decent hotel for a one-night stay!
After a morning stroll by the river in Houston, a journey back to IAH for a 30-minute flight on United Express to San Antonio. Compared to UK/ Euro flights, it always pleases me to see that during such a short flight- albeit in business- the crew interact and serve you 2 drinks and a decent snack- as United say: “Come fly the friendly skies”!
We were impressed by San Antonio- it was spring break, and it was very busy, but the city centre and its Riverwalk are stunning. The central core of the walk is a neat parkland nestled amongst LOTS of bars and restaurants. We found walking around here very busy, but once you walked north to Pearl Brewery and south towards the Missions, the walkways became very quiet and a pleasure to stroll. The Riverwalk stretches about 25km – from north to south.
Pearl Brewery- yep, a standard tourist spot, but add into the mix American cleanliness, service and standards. It’s a great place to visit. Obviously, it was a brewery in years gone by, but it has now been converted into a retail and restaurant destination venue, and you can walk there by the Riverwalk- a 5km stroll from the city centre. We would recommend “High Street” wine bar for its Texan Hills wine and Carriqui restaurant for authentic Texan food- the best brisket and margaritas in town.
Missions- The next day, we walked south on the river walk for approx 10km to the beginning of the Mission district. The missions were set up by the Spanish to convert the locals to Christianity. Most of them are in ruins now, but for Americans, this is ancient history!
The most famous mission of all is the Alamo – situated in the centre of downtown. Admission is free, so you can join the queues of Texans visiting this important site of Texan independence.
Hyatt San Antonio
San Antonio is a big convention city- whilst we were there, it was BBQ convention time. The Hyatt Regency is a very big hotel right in the city centre next to the river walk so if you want to be at the centre of things it’s perfect. Again, a standard hotel room! As a note, when we are in the States, we never do breakfast at a city centre hotel as there’s always a plethora of cheaper coffee shops right outside the door!
The distance between San Antonio and Austin is 70 km, but the public transport options are limited to coaches and Ubers travelling along Highway-35, ONE of the busiest roads in the USA. We got a really friendly Uber driver to take us to town FOR- £50. There are Greyhounds etc., but this is the best way.
On arrival in Austin, there was- guess- a convention! But this was a BIG convention- “South by South West’one which draws in all the techy creatives from all over the world. The city did have an amazing buzz to it because of everything that was going on. In fact, I think we were the only people who didn’t have a clue what was happening!
Austin has recently got a reputation as being one of the bucket list places to visit. The city motto is “Keep Austin Weird’. And parts of it are certainly… well, weird! Stinky 6th Street certainly does smell of a certain inhalable drug, and also of all the things which come out of your body when you’ve had too many drinkies! We were not that keen- it was a bit too grotty for our liking. But once you got away from 6th Austin was far more nicer. There were lovely bars and restaurants in the Rainey Street district by the river. You can hire pedalos and row to Lady Bird Lake. The Capitol is worth a visit, and being the state capital, the State Museum is a perfect place to get a sense of Texan history- for example, did you know that Texas was an independent country for a while between 1836 and 1846?
Austin was the surprise letdown of the trip – we expected lots because of the hype- but it did not meet our expectations.
Tommie Hotel Austin by Hyatt
Now, here’s a phrase you don’t hear often, but google it…. The Tommie was a bit of ‘a curate’s egg’! Tommie is being rolled out by Hyatt as a sister/brother/ non gender specific relation of the Thompson brand. Thompson is a city chic, a bit moody, but at the moment, very ‘in’ as a Hyatt brand. Tommie is its younger sibling- the offer has no frills like a Nespresso machine or a kettle. The weird thing is, though, the Tommie in Austin is in exactly the same building as the Thompson- you even check in at the same desk. Everything you get at the Thompson in Austin, you get at the Tommie in Austin- the only differentiation being you turn left out of the lift to the red carpet areas rather than the black. Being a hotel geek, the rooms on the fire map are even the same size! And all for $200 cheaper. This is a marvellous case of doing your own research! The pool, the bar, the restaurant- all the same.
On checking in, you get two tokens for two free drinks at the very good Wax Myrtles bar. The pool- used by the Tommie and the Thompson, was surrounded by pretty cabanas with lots of waiters on hand to serve.
Breakfast in the morning is at a diner on the ground floor and was very good- it’s not part of the hotel- but it is, if you get my drift. A stupendous breakfast of free-flow coffee and grits!
We phoned down for a kettle….it was brought to the room!
As you can see from the above, our transportation between the cities so far has involved a quick flight and an Uber. But if the travel gods are aligned with your visit, you could do this big circle to Dallas by Amtrak. Alas, the gods did not align with our plans for a full trip, and instead, our only and first experience of Amtrak was between Austin and Fort Worth.
Austin station certainly did not remind us of Grand Central – instead, it’s a ‘halt’ on the line between Los Angeles and Chicago for the Texas Eagle- a 3800-mile trip. Delays are more frequent than my Chiltern service to Oxford- but with the distance involved, I was very forgiving. Our train departed 4.5 hours late- but a good app keeps you updated.
It was never going to be the most scenic of journeys, but I do love a good train ride! We booked a roomette which could be converted to a bedroom for the night. Our trip to Fort Worth was scheduled for 3 hours (300km) but took 4 = freight trains take priority in the USA. Our room did let us have lunch in the dining car- and it was far better than a BR soggy sandwich- beef short rib. The presentation wasn’t excellent, but the taste was amazing accompanied by local beer.
To while away the time, the stewards tell jokes every now and again on the PA! Maybe it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but the Texan sense of humour made the journey speed by!
We did not stay in Fort Worth itself- which again has lots of attractions, but we went instead straight to the Stockyards, the legendary, historical cattle-driving centre of the States. It is a bit ‘Disney World-ish”, but it’s all very well done. We were there during St Patrick’s Day, so Cowtown was painted green! There’s a rodeo and some very good original restaurants. We dined at Cattlemans, a family-run restaurant which has been there since 1947. The steak was so good, served with Texan hospitality and all the sides you can imagine! A top recommendation.
Twice a day, there is a Texan Longhorn cattle drive- great to see and then pop into a saloon for a Beergarita- a bottle of beer shoved in a margarita! Only in Texas.
Hyatt Place Fort Worth Historic Stockyards
Again, another hotel for the night. The Hyatt Place does have a pool- but it was too cold when we were there. If you want to splash out, stay at the Drovers.
As a child of the 70s, I can remember Thursday nights with the theme tune- that’s all I was allowed to watch before JR got up to his double-dealing ways. On the way there (metro rail 60 mins from Fort Worth), I kept humming the tune!
Yep- it’s another standard US city- skyscrapers, Starbucks, but delve a little deeper, and there’s a lot to see!
Obviously, Dealey Plaza:
The modern city centre with all its bars:
Fantastic ice cream at Kylde Warren Park with all the food trucks:
Dallas Museum of Art
And the old town with its western shops and the very good Y.O Ranch Restaurant- with very good steak again!
Again, it’s another standard hotel… but it’s a waste of its physical space. It is in an old warehouse, and they could have done so much better. Five minutes from downtown walk, there were massive rooms with the original flooring, but the smallest of bathrooms.. weird!
Every now and again, only through websites such as this and Flightradar24, you find an odd airline you’ve never heard of! Our transfer from Dallas back to Houston was by JSX- a boutique airline that does not use main terminals at big airports. We flew from Love Field – from a small private terminal on the north of the airfield to Houston Hobby- again landing at a remote private area. JSX use E130 aircraft in a 1-1 formation, so there is loads of space. You check-in 20 minutes before- security is minimal, and the whole experience is incredibly efficient. Flights cost $95, which is exactly the same as flying from DFW with all its hassles! As I’ve said before, service is far superior to a European short-haul- beer/ wine ‘ softs are offered on a 35-minute hop. Imagine this from Northolt to Le Bourget!
As Glen Campbell sang “Galveston, Oh Galveston” in my youth, I was drawn to have a look at the city. All the Texans we spoke to, including some family members, were not keen- brown sea, big ships, nothing there- not worth going. We really enjoyed it and were pleasantly surprised. Our big hire car- Dodge Charger got us from Hobby to our hotel in 40 minutes. It’s a bit Blackpooley out-of-season, but the long walks on the prom- sorry, seawall- put a spring in our step before our flight home.
There are seafood restaurants- our recommendations- Katie’s and Gaido’d for its cooked oysters. We also visited Galveston Island State Park, again with some great walks and big ocean horizons.
Holiday Inn Resort Galveston On The Beach
We were out of season- it’s a fairly standard Holiday Inn but all rooms have a balcony. The Holiday Inn Resort Galveston On The Beach hotel is around a 45 minute walk into the old downtown. Breakfast was at iHop next door- a pile of pancakes and syrup!
Having never been to Texas, our preconceptions were in no particular order:
Whilst some of these were met ($2.5k for a real Stetson!!), the state, like all the states, really surprised us! San Antonio was a highlight with its lively bar scene and Riverwalk, whilst Austin did not meet our expectations. We only just, again, like any visit to a state (except maybe Rhode Island), scratched the surface, inspiring us to go back and visit the panhandle or the Texas Hills. A great trip!!