Friday, April 25, 2008

Ahoy, Matey! Ships and fish in Houston. . .

Busy, busy: Houston is the busiest port in the United States in terms of foreign tonnage, and tenth-busiest in the world!

Being Texas' largest seaport, it seemed fitting we spend some of our time in Houston engaged in nautical pursuits. I'd attempted to get us reservations on the free boat tour of the Houston Ship Channel, but it was booked up well in advance. Due to "security concerns," cameras were not allowed on the trip, anyway. Go figure.

With severe storms in the forecast for Tuesday, we took a chance and headed north from League City toward LaPorte and San Jacinto State Park. San Jacinto, all good Texans should recall, is the location where on April 21, 1836 the Texicans finally routed Santa Anna's Mexican army and secured Texas' independence with the stirring cries "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" The centerpiece of the 1200-acre park is the 604-foot tall monument to the battle, a Corvoda shell-clad Moderne classic constructed for the 100-th anniversay of the battle by the Roosevelt-era Works Project Administration. The weather was blustery, with strong winds out of the south and a low cloud ceiling, so we decided not to fork over the bucks to take an elevator to the top. Instead, we turned our attention to the main purpose of our trip, the retired Navy Battleship USS Texas.

E. ponders Texas History while holding his Space Shuttle model at the San Jacinto monument.

The Texas is anchored nearby on Buffalo Bayou, and recently restored--though when you roam through the bowels of the 573-foot long dreadnaught, you realize how restoration is a never-ending proposition. The Texas is the last surviving battleship that served in both World Wars, commissioned in 1914 and at the time the most powerful military weapon in the world. By the time it was retired in 1948, its offensive value had been eclipsed by aircraft carriers, even larger battleships, and the atomic bomb. The Texas' fate was nearly sealed as a target ship for above-ground atom bomb tests in the Pacific, but congressional sentiment intervened, and the ship was preserved.

Like a scene from a Michael Bay film, E. and I. work the anti-aircraft guns on the Texas' deck, with the help of M. . .

A rare photo of all of us on the Texas.

We roamed its decks, climbed all over its anti-aircraft guns, scaled the steep, narrow stairways to the bridge, and explored under its decks. Compared to the large ocean-going cargo ships constantly shuttling up and down the ship channel, the Texas didn't seem so big--until you got "down below" and quickly realized how turned around you can get!

Afterwards, took the short drive north to the nearby Monument Inn restaurant, and had a great lunch with a front-row seat of shipping traffic traversing the narrow entrance to Buffalo Bayou. Then we took the small, dozen-vehicle Lynchburg Ferry across the bay and continued into Houston.

Oooh! I. checks out the White Tiger. . .

We ended up at the Houston Aquarium. Big mistake. I guess, among urban aquariums, it isn't that bad--we certainly enjoyed it last time we visited four years ago, but since then, having visited one of the nation's premier aquariums (the Shedd aquarium in Chicago), this place just seemed like a letdown. The aquarium seems like just a small part of this tourist attraction right under Interstate 45 in downtown Houston--when a Google Search on Houston Aquarium gives you a primary address for "aquariumrestaurantsdowntown", you know that the aquarium isn't the MAIN attraction--the restaurant is. That and the merry go round, shark "train" and ferris wheel. Anyway, for $9 bucks a head, the aquarium is less than impressive, and when you exit the exhibit right into the middle of the gift shop, you can feel the cash vacuum reaching into your wallet. The big attraction this day was a white tiger, which kept hurling himself at the glass separating him from the paying customers.

We ended our Houston vacation later in the week with a fine dinner at the aquarium on the Kemah boardwalk. Both Kemah Boardwalk and Houston Aquarium are owned by the Landry's restaurant chain, which has developed several "concept restaurants" across the country. The boardwalk is similar to the Downtown Aquarium in that it exists soley to suck every last dollar from your pockets, but it does feature a great location on the water, as well as a great selection of amusement rides. If we'd had a "do-over," we'd have gone here rather then the aquarium. As it was, we saw more than enough fish in the 50,000 gallon tank in the dining room.

I. and E. check out a ray at the Aquarium. . .

1 comment:

Shane said...

The Kemah area, while nice and touristy now, has a quite a troubled past. After the Vietman war ended, a bunch of Vietmanese came to Kemah to become shrimpers as shrimping was fairly big bidness along the gulf coast. The locals didn't take kindly to them and the KKK came and attempted to run them off in ways that aren't quite legal. Then the lawyers came in to protect the Vietmanese and the area was a real mess for a while (this was late 70's early 80's). Finally the big land-based shrimp farms and imported cheap shrimp pretty much did in what was left of the gulf coast shrimping industry. What is left in Kemah is rich guys with their sport fishing boats and cute gift shops for the women left behind.