In Episode 24 in my travel podcast series, I’m taking you on on a road trip through Texas, where I spent ten days with my family in the spring. We did so much on that holiday that I’m splitting the podcast into two episodes and this first episode covers everything we did in Houston and San Antonio. You’ll hear all about the Houston space centre where we took the tram tour to see the giant spaceship workshop and learned about the NASA Space Programme. From Houston we drove down to San Antonio where we visited the Alamo, cycled along the river to see the Spanish Missions and took a night time stroll along the buzzing River Walk. We also spent a very enjoyable day on Picosa Ranch which was was once the home of Texas Governor John Connally, and has now been turned into a luxury ranch where we enjoyed pretending we were cowboys for a day.
The Space Center Houston is one of the major attractions of Houston and an easy drive around the ring road from the Park Inn Hotel, near the aiport, where we had stayed the night before. On arrival we decided to start with the Tramway Tour, as we were told that there could be thunderstorms later that afternoon and the tour would then be closed. The tram is one of those little tourist trains that takes you around the NASA complex, and although most of the buildings are just places where people work, the thing that made the tour fascinating was the commentary full of interesting space facts.
At the Space Center HoustonSpace facts we learned on the Tram Tour
There is no way to replicate the weightlessness of space, so astronauts often practice in giant water tanks to create a similar effect. There is also a jet that astronauts train on that creates microgravity by flying on a trajectory like a 2 mile high roller coaster. On this Zero Gravity flight a lot of people feel sick, giving it the nickname of the ”Vomit Comet”.
On the tram tour you will pass a grove of oaks, the Astronaut Memorial Grove. Each tree commemorates an astronaut who died on a space mission, such as those in the Challenger and Colombia space disasters. President George W.Bush said “Each of these astronauts knew that great endeavors are inseparable from great risks and each of them accepted these risks willingly, even joyfully in the cause of discovery. America’s space program will go on.”The giant space workshop
We entered a huge building, went up some stairs and into the viewing area overlooking an enormous hangar, which looked like a big junk shop where people were busy making things for the space programme. An astronaut in training was trying out a space suit and the hangar was full of mock-ups that are created to allow the astronauts to try out living in the confined quarters of the space craft, before they go up in the real thing. A little further on the tram ride, we stopped at another hangar that had a number of space shuttles inside and some rockets parked outside, before it was back to the main space center.
Back inside we went into the Blast-off presentation to get a feel of the sights, sounds and even the smoke and vibration of a space mission blasting into orbit, followed by a presentation in the lecture theatre about the space programme. Afterwards we listened to another of the presenters show us a mock-up of some of the space shuttle equipment and living area to demonstrate how astronauts live in space. Apparently the number one question that everyone asks is; ”How do astronauts go to the toilet?” and we learned that it’s mostly done by suction and vacuums! While in space the astronauts also have to exercise for 2 hrs a day on an exercise bike to keep up their muscle tone and calcium levels and they eat meals that are vacuum packed and rehydrated with hot water injected through a tube. We also had look at the hall where all the space suits are kept, including the petite one one worn by Judith Resnik, the female astronaut killed in the Challenger Space disaster. If you decide to visit the Space Center Houston, my money-saving tip is to go onto their website and book your tickets in advance, as it cost us about half the price of buying them on the door.The drive from Houston to San Antonio
As we drove out of Houston, the countryside turned from flyovers and shopping malls to green fields and we felt we were getting into the real Texas. On the way we had promised the children that we would stop at a real American Diner so once we had cleared Houston, we pulled off the Interstate and into Tony’s family restaurant. Although it was surrounded by Macdonalds and you couldn’t see in from the outside due to the mirrored windows, once inside we felt we had found a genuine family run diner. We sat down in one of the booths and I ordered fried catfish with okra while the family stuck to the burgers and the Tex Mex. The waitress serving us was thrilled to meet an English family that “Spoke like Harry Potter” and we were also getting used to Texas speak with all the “Yessir, Yes Maam” and “How y’all doing”.
Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, San AntonioSightseeing in San Antonio
After four hours on the Interstate, we reached San Antonio and found our Hotel Valencia, a luxury boutique hotel by the River Walk in the heart of the downtown area. The hotel has a Mediterranean style with terracotta and ochre exterior inspired by an Italian Palazzo and modern interiors with dark wood, subdued lighting and fake fur throws. Our room overlooked the River Walk where we could see the tour boats going by and the hotel was perfectly located for seeing the major sights of San Antonio.
The Alamo is one of the “must see” attraction in San Antonio if not in the whole of Texas. It is one of several Spanish Missions in this area and has a major significance in the struggle for Texan independence from Mexico. This is where, in 1836, a couple of hundred volunteers held out against the Mexican Army led by General Santa Anna and where they were all killed as no reinforcements arrived to relieve them. The episode became a turning point in the war of Texan Independence and the rallying cry was “Remember the Alamo”. Soon afterwards, the Texan armies regrouped and defeated the Mexican army, enabling them to negotiate Texan independence from Mexico. The Alamo is within the downtown area of San Antonio and many visitors are surprised that it is not larger, considering its significance as a Texan monument. There is the chapel of the mission which is now known as the Alamo shrine, the long barracks which has information about the history of the complex and a third building which is partly a museum, partly a gift shop as well as several courtyards and pleasant gardens.
At the Alamo in San AntonioCycling to see the Spanish Missions
After our visit to the Alamo we decided to hire bikes to cycle along the river and visit some of the other Spanish missions. The route took us through town until we reached the Nueve bridge where we got onto the riverside path and cycled past the old mansions of the historic King William District. The river widened as we got to the outskirts of town and became Mission Reach, with a path alongside the river running all the way to the Missions. The path was still partly under construction, and somehow we missed the sign for Mission Conception and carried on to Mission San Jose. We parked our bikes in front of the Visitor Centre and walked through the stone archway into the large walled grassed compound with the old stone church at its centre, where the carved stone facade was being restored. Behind the church were store rooms and a working water mill where volunteers were giving a demonstration of how the grain would be ground into flour. I had a look around the beautiful church interior while the family lay on the grass in the shade of a tree outside – it would be a great place to bring a picnic. Unfortunately, as we had only hired the bikes for 4 hours, we ran out of time to see the other two missions in the area, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada but cycled back towards San Antonio along the Mission Trail.
Cycling on the Mission Reach, San AntonioBack to San Antonio
On the return journey, we stopped at the Blue Star Brewing company where we had spotted a cafe and a bike hire shop – a good alternative location to park the car and then hire bikes for the cycle along Mission Reach. We ordered a drink in the brewery where you can see the big metal brewing containers behind the bar, although I stuck to a glass of iced tea. As we had to return our bikes, we pressed on back to Segcity, where we had hired them, just behind the visitor centre across the street from the Alamo. It’s worth knowing that another way of hiring bikes is through the City Bike Scheme, where there are public bikes available in a number of locations around the city, including one just beside the visitor centre and also at the Blue Star brewery. You register your credit card in the machine and then the bike is free for the first 30 minutes. If decide to use the bike for longer, the charge is $2 an hour which is still good value and cheaper than hiring from a cycle shop.
Back in San Antonio we spent the evening walking along the Riverwalk . The river is not very wide but there are hotels, bars and restaurants all along it, so the atmosphere is lively and buzzing at night. You can also join one of the tour boats going up and down the river with guides giving a commentary about the different buildings and historic sights to see along the river.
Blue star brewing company, San AntonioPicosa Ranch at Floresville
On our final day in San Antonio, we drove half an hour south of the city to Floresville where we had arranged to spend the day at Picosa Ranch. It’s a luxury ranch that was originally owned by Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie,who are well known in Texas because they were in the car with President John J Kennedy when he was assassinated in Dallas and John Connally was also shot but he survived. We met up with Bubba Amman, the grandson of Governor John Connally, who showed us around the Main House, once the family home that is now available for guests use, as well as the beautiful Guest House just across the lawn.
Being a history enthusiast it was cool to feel the part that the ranch had played in Texas history, hosting events for Presidents and celebrities. In the Main House we saw John Connally’s office which was like a mini-museum with memorabilia from his time in government. There was even the stetson that the Governor had bought to present to the President, with the initials JFK inside the brim, as well as tickets to the ball that was planned for the evening of the day he died.
We took a drive around the ranch in a golf buggy to see all the exotic African animals such as zebra and eland that they keep on the ranch. The main focus is on hunting but there are many other activities available to guests, and these are tailored to whatever their guests want to enjoy. We had lunch in a shaded, sunken terrace known as “The Pit” with an outdoor kitchen and BBQ by the pool where we had a great lunch of salad and toasted club sandwiches. After lunch we tried our hand at Wobble shooting which in England, we would know as clay shooting, where the target is shot out from different directions and heights. We all had a turn at the wobble shooting and I was amazed to find that I shot something, although my husband and children were a lot better than me.
Picosa Ranch, Floresville, Texas
In the podcast, you’ll hear my interview with Bubba Amman, the grandson of Governor John Connally, who is now Vice President of Operations at Picosa Ranch. He told me how he practically grew up on the ranch from the age of 2 years old until the family sold the ranch when he was 21 years old. He had many happy memories of the first time he learned how to drive , the first time he learned to shoot a gun, the first time he learned to swim and many other firsts. Bubba had grown up with the family stories of the day that his grandfather got shot, and he told me how John Connally told him that he heard 3 shots from one person and one direction. There is still a lot of speculation about what really happened that day and there are many different theories over how and why the President was shot.
The ranch was sold to the Kowalski family, who have a major catering business in Texas and had catered for many events at Picosa ranch over the years. Because of the strong relationship between the Kowalski and Connally families, it was decided to open the ranch to guests around 5 years ago, so that others can experience something of the good times that the two families shared over the years. Guests can experience being outdoors and try out the many activities available on the ranch. The Picosa team will talk to guests in advance to ask them what they would like to do, which can be anything from fly fishing, horseback riding or kids’ rodeos to swimming, archery and shooting.
I hope you enjoyed my podcast about our Texas road trip from Houston to San Antonio, and do look out for the second part of the podcast about our visit to Austin and the Texas Hill Country.
In Houston we stayed at the Park Inn Houston North, which is comfortable and convenient for the airport and on our return trip at Hotel Sorella, a lovely boutique hotel in the City Centre neighbourhood of Houston with great shopping and nightlife.
Information to plan your visit to the Space Center Houston is available on their website. To save money, we recommend you check the ticket offers on their website which is cheaper than buying tickets when you arrive. Read my article about our day at Space center Houston here.
In San Antonio, we stayed at Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, a luxury boutique hotel by the River Walk in the heart of the downtown area. In San Antonio, you will enjoy strolling the River Walk, visiting the Alamo and the Spanish Missions. We hired bikes at Segcity, beside the Visitor Centre near the Alamo, but you could also try the Bike Share Scheme and there are many cycling routes around San Antonio. At the Blue Star Brewing Company there is also a cycle hire shop and a station for the Bike Share scheme.
Picosa Ranch is a luxury ranch just south of San Antonio and if you’d like to book a stay on the Ranch for a gathering of family and friends, you can contact them to discuss your requirements and get a quotation for a luxury, tailored experience. Read my article here about our day at Picosa Ranch and watch the video on Youtube
Our thanks to Picosa Ranch and the hotels mentioned who hosted our stays in Houston and San Antonio
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