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Sat 26 Jan 2008 04:00 AM

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Texan star

It is the fourth biggest city in America, home to the NASA Space Centre, a thriving cultural metropolis and an international business hub. Lisa Hodge discovers that Houston, definitely does not have a problem.

Houston is a city of firsts. The first word spoken from the surface of the moon was "Houston" and the city's legendary namesake, Sam Houston, was the first president of the Republic of Texas. Impressive, particularly for a city founded less than 200 years ago.

The fourth largest city in America, Houston, Texas is probably most famous for being home to the NASA Space Centre but this vibrant metropolis also boasts an impressive skyline, stunning parks, inspiring museums, culturally diverse restaurants and is one of the world's most thriving international business hubs.

With more than 5000 restaurants, Houston offers everything from fine dining to hole-in-the-wall Tex-Mex joints.

Historically, Houston has been a global force in energy, but in recent years the industry has streamlined and redefined itself. The city's history has been interlinked to that of the energy industry since the discovery of oil at Spindletop in East Texas in 1901. Within 10 years, that discovery led to the founding of The Texas Company (now Chevron) and Humble Oil and Refining Company (now ExxonMobil), both with operations based in Houston.

Today, Houston's economy is still based on energy, but to a much lesser extent than in the boom days. The city is an industrial, commercial, educational, cultural and financial centre. Its diverse economy comprises space and science research firms, universities, leading medical facilities, technology companies, telecommunications, shipyards, and a wide range of other businesses. The emphasis on international trade is expanding every year, and will continue to be a prominent feature in the city's ongoing economic progress.

To keep up with this development, Houston's booming downtown business facilities are constantly expanding. A US$165m expansion project was completed in December 2003 and has virtually doubled the size of the George R Brown Convention Centre to nearly 1.2 million sq ft of exhibition, meeting and registration space, in addition to a variety of wireless capabilities. Convention-goers in Houston will appreciate the convenience afforded by the George R Brown's downtown location.

The centre is flanked by the new Toyota Centre arena to the south and Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros, to the north. Within one mile, visitors will find 15 hotels and more than 5000 hotel rooms and also nearby is the city's flourishing Theatre District.

Houston's new 7.5 mile light rail system connects downtown to Houston's other major event facility, Reliant Park, which consists of Reliant Stadium, Reliant Centre, Reliant Arena and the Reliant Astrodome. The 1.4 million sq ft Reliant Centre and the 71,500-seat Reliant Stadium, home of the Houston Texans and the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, make Reliant Park one of the most versatile complexes in the world.
Downtown Houston has become one of the city's most thriving areas. Over the past few years more than 50 restaurants and bars have opened within the past several years, and the 7.5 mile METRORail facilitates travel to and from the Museum District, Texas Medical Centre and Reliant Park.

Since 2001 Downtown Houston has more than doubled its number of hotel rooms, with the opening of the Hilton Americas-Houston, the official convention centre hotel, and the resurgence in Houston's boutique hotels and the city's social scene. Attached to the George R Brown Convention Centre by a double-deck pedestrian skybridge, the Hilton Americas-Houston is a 1200-room hotel that was built in conjunction with the expansion of the convention centre in 2003.

Houston is home to many charming boutique hotels, all of which are housed in some of the city's most historic buildings. The Magnolia Hotel transformed a 1926 landmark into a stunningly chic hotel with 314 guestrooms. Alden Houston Hotel is another, although has become more famous for its reputable restaurant, 17, and trendy bar, a+, has quickly become a favourite among both visitors and Houstonians. But Houston's most unique hotel is easily the Inn at the Ballpark. This luxury baseball-themed hotel opened in January 2004 and is like no other hotel in the world.

The Galleria area, or Uptown as it's often referred to, is Houston's second largest business district, with more than 6200 hotel rooms. Hotel Indigo and Granduca are Uptown's most recent additions.

Hotel Indigo, a new concept from the InterContinental Hotels Group, has the feel of a boutique hotel paired with the advantages of a global hotel corporation - and has the benefit of being within walking distance to The Galleria. Granduca, targets wealthy long-term guests and is a high-end version of an extended-stay hotel with suites that have kitchens, dining rooms and living rooms to suit anyone who is in town for a prolonged period of time.

Hotel Derek, a modern hotel in Uptown Houston, features conveniences and upgraded luxuries demanded by today's savvy travellers. Hotel Derek's Business Lofts include a business alcove with a Dell personal computer with a 19-inch flat panel monitor as well as a Dell 1600 multi-function laser printer, stocked with legal and letter-sized paper.
The alcove is also stocked with a business tool box, filled with items such as scissors, calculator, , paper clips, ruler, tape, stapler and other essential work items. The room also features complimentary high-speed internet access, two-line cordless telephones and FedEx supplies in the closets.

The InterContinental Houston, located just a few blocks from the Galleria, also provides a variety of services to business travellers, including a 24-hour business centre, currency conversion and a jetlag recovery kit. The InterContinental also offers 21 flexible meeting rooms with more than 50,000 sq ft of versatile meeting spaces, each wired to the latest high-tech standards.

Aside from its business attractions Houston has much to offer anyone who is looking to soak up as much of the city's culture and social scene as possible.

Houston has long had one of the most exciting food scenes anywhere on the globe. With more than 5000 restaurants, Houston offers everything from fine dining to hole-in-the-wall Tex-Mex joints. Visitors will find every variety of ethnic possible; from a plethora of wonderful Chinese restaurants to fine Japanese sushi bars.

Houston's growing Vietnamese population has not only led to a boom in good seafood but also in a variety of Vietnamese restaurants. You can get your fill of Gulf Coast Creole food, South and Central American, Cuban, Korean fare and Spanish tapas at a variety of fine restaurants - not to mention Houston's Italian restaurants of every style.

The Museum District is within walking distance of Hermann Park - home of the Houston Zoo, Japanese Gardens and Miller Outdoor Theatre - and sits adjacent the beautiful Rice University.
The Museum District is home to 18 museums including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Children's Museum of Houston, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Visitors to the Museum District can view one of only two Rembrandt paintings in Texas, one of the most highly renowned Surrealist collections in the country, the top collection of gems and minerals in the world and a 7400-sq ft model of the human body.

The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum is one of the most interesting places in Houston. Steeped in history, it is the only museum in America dedicated primarily to preserving the legacy and honour of the African-American soldier and houses the largest repository of African-American military history in the world.

The 10th Cavalry, an all African-American Army unit, was labelled the ‘Buffalo Soldiers' by Cheyenne warriors in 1867 out of respect for their fierce fighting ability, eventually the term became attached to all African-American soldiers. The mission of the museum is to interpret, articulate, collect, display and preserve historical artifacts, documents, videos, prints and other historical memorabilia which detail the history of the brave men and women who overcame extreme adversity while gallantly fighting American wars.

If you're looking to avoid the usual tourist hotspots and want to get off the beaten track a little, a visit to the Aurora Picture Show is a must. Touted as one of the most interesting and unusual attractions in Houston, this non-profit micro-cinema is housed in a converted 1924 wooden church building. Fans of short artist-produced films should seek out this charming gem in Houston's Sunset Heights, which has to date, hosted more than 120 visiting artists and presented more than 3000 films and videos.

For the past 45 years, the city has played an important role in space navigation and is home to NASA/Johnson Space Centre (JSC), the training facility for all of America's astronauts. Famously, "Houston" was the first word spoken from the moon in 1969. The Apollo 11 mission established a place in history for the city when astronaut Neil Armstrong spoke the now-immortal line, "Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.

While NASA maintains 11 major US installations, including its Washington, DC, headquarters, JSC in Houston is the largest, employing approximately 17,000 engineers, scientists, technicians and administrative personnel.

Houston factsAt 634 sq miles, the City of Houston could contain the cities of New York, Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Miami.

Houston, with 2.14 million residents in mid-2006, is the fourth most populous city in the United States, trailing only New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The 10-county Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) has a population of 5.54 million, ranking sixth nationally.

The Greater Houston Partnership forecasts that job growth in the 10-county MSA is on track to increase 2.6% in 2007, which shows employment in Houston growing at twice the national rate. Between 2000 and 2030, according to Woods & Poole Economics, the 10-county Houston MSA will rank sixth among the nation's metropolitan areas in job growth, adding 2.66 million jobs.

Where to stay

Innat the Ballpark

This luxury baseball-themed hotel opened in January 2004 and is like no other hotel in the world and is easily the stand-out unique hotel in Houston. The hotel is across the street from Minute Maid Park and just steps from the business district, George R Brown Convention Centre and the new Toyota Centre, as well as being an easy ride from both Bush Intercontinental and Hobby Airports.

The InterContinental Houston

Located near to the Galleria, The Intercontinental Houston provides a variety of services to business travellers, including a 24-hour business centre, currency conversion and a jetlag recovery kit.

Hilton Americas-Houston

The ideal place to stay if you are in town for a convention. Attached to the George R Brown Convention Centre, this 1200-room hotel was built specifically in conjunction with the expansion of the convention centre in 2003.

How to get there

Emirates Airline

Flights daily direct from Dubai to Houston with approximate flying time of 17 hours.

Business Class fare US$6188.59

First Class fare US$8768.82.

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