[Amtrak trip] 24h in Houston (2)

After the quite interesting first day in Houston, I was excited to discover more attractions of the city. I started the day by putting on my proud dark-pink NASA t-shirt that I purchased the day before. I had to take the Amtrak train to Tucson at 6:55 PM, so I couldn’t be too lazy. After having a simple breakfast, I decided to head for the museum district that every guidebooks seemed to be praising.

According to its website, Houston museum district has 19 museums over the four walkable zones. I never thought of Houston as an art city like NY or Chicago. But looking back, it was obvious that Houston has such good art museums because it is usually the riches who are good art collectors, and Houston is not short of the riches, it seemed.


The Menil Collection’s main building (under construction until September, 2018)


The Menil Collection’s main building (under construction until September, 2018)

The first museum I headed to was the Menil Collection. Like Whitney Museum, Guggenheim, or J. P. Morgan Museum in NY, the founders of Menil Museum were the rich people, the late Mr+Mrs Menil. The main building of the museum that is so famous to have precious artworks from all over the world was under construction (until September 2018.) But I did not hesitate to go anyway because I really wanted to visit the Rothko Chapel, a project also commissioned by Menils, that is right beside the main building.

I took a bus (#82, day pass $3) to go to the Chapel. Maybe it would be more appropriate to call it a ‘chapel’ with a small ‘c.’ It is not intended to accommodate any particular religion. It is just a place to find something ‘spiritual,’ whatever that word means to an each visitor. Not like many museums in NY, it was free. I was grateful about the generosity of Menils.


#82 bus, not many bus riders in Houston it seemed

Like many travelers visiting the US, I had this stereotype about the museums founded by the riches. A family gets or is rich that they have so much money to spend for something valuable. Buying something like a handbag wouldn’t work, because they would need to buy sooooo many of them to spend all the money. So they decide to buy art works, that are known to have so many digits on their price tags. After collecting considerable volume of collections, they build a museum as a goodwill to the society. Then I (the tourist) go, and enjoy them for a reasonable ticket price, right?

However, these Menils were a bit different. They didn’t stop at BUYING the artworks. They called the artists and asked them to do some project for THEIR museum. They would build a building for the projects, so fitted to the style of the artists. You know, like Medici family of Renaissance Italy used to do.

And there the Rothko Chapel was. The building so solemn and tranquile with the paintings of Mark Rothko covering every walls. Fourteen huge paintings were hung on the walls of the high ceiling chapel. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that the walls were built for the paintings. I always adored Mark Rothko’s paintings, but being inside the building overwhelmed with his paintings was nothing like seeing one or two painting of him (with other artists’ paintings nearby.) It felt like being captured inside the artist’s mind. It was a bit depressing to learn that Rothko committed suicide not long after finishing the project and he didn’t get to see this beautiful chapel.

Inside Rothko Chapel. credit: http://www.rothkochapel.org


Sculpture right in front of Rothko Chapel, dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.


Sculpture right in front of Rothko Chapel, dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.

Anybody was allowed to stay in the chapel (as long as one doesn’t take a picture), so I stayed for a while and headed outside for a very secular activity, a lunch. On the neighborhood, there wasn’t many restaurants but the restaurant run by the Menil, Bistro Menil, was close by. The interior was beautiful and the food was casually tasteful (cheeseburger $16.)


Bistro Menil

After the lunch, I visited a few more museums also on the so called Menil Campus. Cy Twombly Gallery, Dan Flavin Installation, and Byzantine Fresco Chapel were all jaw dropping projects, all commissioned by Menils. Every museum was free, again, as long as you don’t take photos (they were very strict about this rule.)

At this point I finally looked up who these Menils are (yes, I had no clue who they were) and found out they got rich from the oil and finance industry. It was interesting that NY Times actually called them Medici of the modern society.


Inside Cy Twombly Gallery. credit: http://www.menil.org

Byzantine Fresco Chapel

Flavin Installation. credit: http://www.menil.org

I had a few hours left before heading to the train station. There were so many interesting and small museums on museum district, but I decided to finish my journey in Houston by visiting the representatively large museum in the district, The Museum of Fine Arts. It was huge museum with well curated artworks (and of course, super strong A/C.) It curated whole range of artworks, from old time European to cutting edge contemporary 3D printer produced sculptures. Personally, I especially enjoyed the artworks by Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse.

It was especially interesting to see another example of what the riches can do for artists. There were a huge artworks by Henri Matisse and Fernand Léger, that Nelson Rockefeller commissioned for the fireplace in his Manhattan penthouse! Wow!!! How nice it would be to look at the empty wall of your new penthouse thinking ‘hmm… I should call that Matisse guy to paint it for me’ (I can do this thinking too, of course except the penthouse part, haha) and then REALLY order the artwork tailored for the space!

Thanks to the city and the riches, the Museum of Fine Arts was also free. On my way out, I visited the museum gift shop to buy a magnet to give my mom (=the magnet collector!) and colored pencils to use for my drawing practices, thinking ‘well, maybe it might be super cool to be super rich!’ Money surely cannot buy everything but it certainly CAN buy something, I learned in Houston.

I took a bus back to the hotel to collect luggages, called Lyft, and headed to the very tiny Houston Amtrak Station. Next destination would be Tucson, the city of cacti. 🌵


Painting by Henri Matisse, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston


Painting by Pablo Picasso, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston


Oh, let’s have Matisse paint the fireplace!…thought Nelson Rockefeller


…or Fernand Léger!


Painting by Frederic Remington, the Fine Art Museum of Art Houston


Painting by Edward Hopper, the Fine Art Museum of Art Houston


The Fine Art Museum of Art Houston


3D printed artworks in The Fine Art Museum of Art Houston


3D printed artworks in The Fine Art Museum of Art Houston


3D printed artworks in The Fine Art Museum of Art Houston

[Amtrak trip] 24h in Houston (1)


Space Shuttle and its carrier 747 aircraft in front of Houston Space Center

Frankly, I did not expect much from Houston. People I know had been telling me negative things about the city. One friend told me I would be wanting to leave as soon as I arrived because it should be so hot and humid. Another person said the city did not have much thing to enjoy as a traveler. However, while staying in Houston for two nights, I found it quite contrary to my negative prejudice.

First, Houston was the coldest city I have encountered during this trip. Of course, the temperature was high and yes, it was humid. But the A/C was absolutely stronger than any other city I’ve visited. Moreover, I encountered a few rain showers in the afternoon that cooled down the city  dramatically. It was like pouring cold water to a sizzling pan.

And the second point, ‘not-much-to-enjoy’ (aka ‘boring?’,) was certainly not true. I truly enjoyed the world-famous Houston Space Center and well curated museums established by the Southern philanthropists. So here’s how my first day in Houston went by.

8:00 AM Breakfast at hotel

I started my day with a simple breakfast (more like snacks but sufficient for me: bananas, breakfast bars, coffee etc.) provided by the hotel, Club Quarters Houston. The hotel chain primarily serves its member organizations, then opens up its rooms at reasonable price when there are some rooms left. The hotel was very clean, and the location was also good. The best thing for a long-term traveler like me was the free Whirlpool laundry & drying machines (six of each) on the basement.

9:00 AM Houston Space Center

Right after the breakfast I headed  to the place I have been wanting to go for decades, NASA Space Center Houston! I usually prefer public transportation but this time decided to rent a car, because it was 30 mins by driving but 1.5~2 hours by bus. Yeah, the Lyft driver was right about Houston being the city of car, car, and car.

Before I go, I signed up online for the annual membership. There was close to zero possibility that I would be able to visit the center again within a year, but after doing some research I decided it would be better deal to purchase the membership because of: 1) reasonable pricing ($90 for two persons) of the membership  which includes general admission (general admission is $29.95 per one person) 2) fast track privilege for the (two) tram rides that is the essence of the Space Center visit 3) 10% discount at the gift shop and restaurants and 4) free parking ($6 without the membership.)

I printed out the temporary membership card at the hotel and drove 30 mins to the Space Center. As soon as I was entering the parking lot, I was greeted by the huge Space Shuttle (real size mock up) and its carrier Boeing 747 airplane (original.) Space Shuttle was on top of 747, just like the good old days when they flew together across the country. When the Space Shuttle (now retired) landed on Earth, it had to be carried by other vehicle to its home in Florida. It was fascinating to find out that moving the space shuttle by another airplane was the result of one enthusiastic outside-of-box thinker, John Kiker.

As I entered the main center, I headed straight to the tram station. There are mainly four parts to the space center visit (all included in general admission): 1) inside museums (where you can touch the moon rock!) 2) Space Shuttle and Boeing Carrier (inside and out) 3) tram ride to the historic  mission control center 4) tram ride to astronaut training center. I jumped to do the one of the tram rides first, because the weather report said it would be raining hard that afternoon, and when it rains hard the tram tour would stop.

Thanks to the membership, I could ride the tram to the historic mission control by waiting only about ten minutes. The non-members’ line was very long, looking like a good 40 mins wait. The open-air tram took us to the historic mission control room after about 10 mins ride. It was interesting to see longhorns looming around the center. It’s Texas, for sure there are longhorns, right?


Longhorns looming around Space Center Houston

I didn’t know what to expect at the ‘historic’ mission control room. I thought it would be some kind of mock-up with cheesy mannequins and stuffs. But I was so wrong (again.) It was very genuine and real. It was THE real control room that was used from 1965 to 1998. The room was where the historic words from the first moon lander Neil Armstrong’s were received in 1969 (“Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.”) The room had also received the desperate call from Apollo 13 saying “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

NASA preserved the room so well that it even had ashtrays on the observing room that we the visitors were allowed to stay for a while (The observing room was originally built for the families of astronauts on mission.) The guide told us that they were preparing for 50th anniversary of moon landing (1969) next year and hot debate was going on regarding whether to allow visiting people to smoke in the control room, just like the old days.


Historic Mission Control Room at Houston Space Center


Historic Ashtray at Historic Mission Control Room at Houston Space Center

As we were coming back from the control room, rain started pouring down, literally soaking us all like in a shower. We jumped into the icy cold air-conditioned museum building as soon as the tram driver dropped us off. We had brief lunch at very good cafeteria on the first floor while trying to dry ourselves.

It kept raining so another tram to astronaut training center was not running. I took that opportunity to look around the museum itself. There were various spacecrafts, satellites, and pictures that tell the challenging history of America’s ongoing journey to the space. One of the most popular artifacts was, of course, the moon rock that you can touch. It was small black rock, maybe size of two quarter coins. It was surprisingly soft like a velvet (maybe too many people have touched it?)


Space Center Museum



People touching the real moon rock at Space Center Museum

Around 3:30 PM, right before the closing time, the weather cleared, and tram started to run again. I dashed to the tram line and headed to astronaut training center. Not like historic control room, the training center was being used by real astronauts right now! Visitors were allowed to follow the long corridor upstairs with glass windows and watch astro-people (not just astronauts but also mechanics and administrators) working. It was interesting to learn that the US is (seriously) preparing for the Mars man landing! The guide explained to us that it is planned in early 2030s so the astronauts in the future are likely to be 7 to 16 years old now. That meant I was certainly excluded, but who knows? There are also biologists working hard to turn back aging………😳


Astronauts training facility at Space Center Houston


Astronauts training facility at Space Center Houston


Astronauts training facility at Space Center Houston


Astronauts training facility at Space Center Houston

I ended my Space Center tour with a one more visit to the space shuttle and the very well stuffed gift shop. I bought those cool ‘NASA’ t-shirts that every tourist was wearing and NASA stickers for my MacBook.

6:30 PM Dinner: Gorgeous Texan Barbecue at Killen’s

On a way to the hotel, I had a dinner at Killen’s Texas Barbecue, the famous Texan Barbecue restaurant. Woods that would be used to smoke the meat were stacked right beside the restaurant building. I hurried inside and ordered one-pound bone-in beef short rib. It was a single huge rib ($22,) smoked so black outside yet moist and juicy and chewy and almost melting inside. It was nothing like any Texas barbecue I had been tasting outside Texas. The mind soothing side dishes, collard greens and cole slaw ($8 each) were perfect match to the tough-guy style barbecue rib. A glass of local Karbach draft beer upgraded ‘perfect’ to ‘more-than-perfect.’


Killen’s one pound barbecue rib


Killen’s one pound barbecue rib: juicy inside


Woods used to smoke meats at Killen’s


Killen’s menu

I drove back to downtown Houston with a happy scent of barbecue smoke still lingering in my hoodie, thinking ‘who said Houston was boring?!’

On a way to Space Center, Space McDonalds (?). Who said Houston was boring?

***Amtrak trip: full list***

[Amtrak trip] New Orleans to Houston


Sign on the wall of Amtrak Houston Station

9:00 AM Departing from New Orleans

After three jazzy days (and nights) in New Orleans, it was time to leave. The driver/guide who took us to plantations the day before had said “no matter what you ask, New Orleans will say ‘the answer is love.'” I was sure that I would miss the colorful, vibrant, and smiling city of New Orleans. I downloaded some songs by Louis Armstrong as memories and headed to the Amtrak station.

My next destination was a totally different city, the city of (wow!) World Series Champions, Houston! (New Orleans doesn’t have a Major League baseball team.) Appropriately, the train number of Amtrak train (Sunset Limited) from New Orleans to Houston was ‘1’, yes, ONE. I have no idea how Amtrak numbers its trains, but the route of ‘one’ train definitely is the longest one I have ever seen, 48 hours! The train (only leaves on Mon, Wed, and Saturdays) runs from New Orleans all the way to Los Angeles passing Houston and Tucson etc.  I was heading west and planning to go to LA as well, but surely wasn’t brave enough to take the 48 hours train ride. So I decided to get off at Houston: only 9.5 hours ride.

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Routes of Sunset Limited

New Orleans was the starting point of this looooooong train. Like the trains before, Amtrak staff gave out the seat numbers as people were getting on the train. We got the second to last seat from the back of a coach car. The last seats were for crew members. For the next nine hours, I could not help but listen to the conversations between two Amtrak employees, mostly about the heavy workloads that they have to endure. They argued about how hard oneself worked, and how another didn’t.

The train started the long journey as the the rivers, wetlands, and swamps of Louisiana were folding. The water was green, abundant with water plants. I could hear people shouting “look, alligator!” here and there, but I could not spot one. One woman said “wherever there is a water, there is an alligator.” (!)


On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Lake Charles (Louisiana)


On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Lake Charles (Louisiana)


On a way from New Orleans to Houston: El Dorado (Texas)


On a way from New Orleans to Houston: Trinity River (Texas)


This train too had an observation car where you can look out the windows. The views of Southern states were fascinating so I spent about two hours in the car. Not like the train from Chicago to New Orleans, where the observation car was very loud like a party car, the train from New Orleans was very quite with people observing the sceneries of Mississippi River and Lake Charles. The train kept running westward as the weather changed from sunny to rainy to sunny to cloudy to sunny again.


Observation Car in Amtrak Sunset Limited


Observation Car in Amtrak Sunset Limited


There were a couple of more things I learned on this trip, about the long distance Amtrak train.

1. Dining car and lunch box option

Passengers on a reserved coach could have meals at dining car too. Food at dining car for sleeping car passengers are all free, and coach passengers need to pay for the meal if you want to dine in the dining room.
To use the dining car, you need to make a reservation first. The crew will announce that coach passengers should come to the dining car to make a reservation after they take reservations from the sleeping car passengers. (So it might not be possible to get the best time slot for your choice, if you are coach passenger.)
In case of Sunset Limited I took, the dining staff announced if anybody would go for an ‘early bird’ takeout option around 1~2 hours before the regular meal time (10:00 AM for lunch for example.) You can get a lunch box with something similar to angus beef burger, chocolate chip cookies, water etc. at around $15.00 which seemed like a good deal (I packed a simple lunch before I got into the train so didn’t have chance to try one though.)
In the dining car, you have to share a table (the Amtrak crew described it in such a friendly way as “you will make new friends.”) If you are not comfortable with eating with strangers, lunch box seemed like a good idea. (Below is Amtrak dining car menu, in case you are interested. Click to enlarge.)

2. ‘No Wifi’ is common
There was a free wifi on a train from Boston to Chicago. Most of the train I took on the east coast area offered free wifi. I figured that the train tickets are so expensive, it is obvious that Amtrak offers a free wifi. I was so wrong! Apparently, free wifi is only a thing of an east coast train.
The train from Chicago to New Orleans didn’t seem to have wifi but I didn’t bother to ask because it was a night train and I slept for the most of the time. On the train to Houston I asked the crew if they have a wifi and he answered back “only on business and sleeping cars.”
However, three days from this train, I took a sleeping car and there was no wifi either. I needed to use a wifi and my mobile phone data plan was running out, so I had to upgrade my plan for more data to use hotspots.
(another) However, trains often run through remote lands so ‘no service’ or ‘4G’ on cell phones are very common. Then you are doomed to read a book. 😛

8:00 PM Arriving at Houston

We arrived at Houston around 8:00 PM. It was about 1.5 hours late because the train had to go around the city as we got closer to Houston due to some construction or something. I was excited see the skyscrapers of Houston as the train slowly approached this big city. Being delayed wasn’t something unexpected, the thing that surprised me was the size Houston Amtrak station. It was so small! It was smaller than any ordinary subway station in NY. I thought “oh, it must be a temporary one.” I was wrong!


View of Houston from the Amtrak Station



Unexpectedly small Houston Amtrak station


Unexpectedly small Houston Amtrak station

I called Lyft to go to the hotel (Club Quarters Houston) and the first thing the driver said was “Gosh, I didn’t know there was a train station here.” I asked him where the ‘real’ train station (not the temporary one) was, and he said “no, no, this must be the real one.” He added, “nobody rides a train in Houston. Nobody uses public transportation in Houston. There are very fancy metro, and you will find there are so little people there. And nobody walks in Houston. It is car, car, and car.” Really?

It was only about 5~10 minutes drive from the train station to the hotel. After dropping the luggages, I went out for a late dinner to one of the casual restaurant nearby and grabbed a beef brisket taco with a glass of local beer. The hotel was near the ‘central’ metro station, and interestingly enough the street was quite empty. ‘It is only around 9:00 PM, where is everybody,’ I thought, or is 9:00 PM too late for Houstonians? As I walked back to the hotel, I witnessed a gentleman with a very formal suits running into a building with a brown bag meal.  Is everybody just working? I shall find out!


Very quite night streets of Houston


***Amtrak trip: full list***

[Amtrak trip] 24h in New Orleans (2)

 9:00 AM Plantations Tour

After eating surprisingly good free breakfast (with warm sausages, egg scrambles, grits etc.) at the Drury Inn, I went for a tour to a couple of plantations in Louisiana. There are several plantation tours offered by tour companies. I made a reservation the day before to go for Gray Line (one of the biggest tour companies it seemed) Double Plantation tour ($88.) You could choose two plantations among three on the list (Laura, Whitney, and Oak Alley.) I googled some pictures and basic info, and picked Laura and Oak Alley plantations. The tour was from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM and the pick-up area was near the French Quarter, right beside the Mississippi pier.

The big coach bus was about 2/3 filled with tourists. 1.5 hour bus ride itself to the plantation was quite fun. The New Orleans native bus driver (interestingly without the accent though) was also a very good tour guide, telling us various interesting stories about New Orleans with his headset microphone (something like that New Orleans people call an avocado ‘alligator pear.’) The view of Mississippi river, the second longest river in the world after Nile (according to the driver, fourth longest river according to Wikipedia,) through the bus window was stunning.


Mississippi River from the tour bus to the plantations

The first stop was Laura plantation. About 10 minutes after the bus dropping us off, the tour guide walked us through the plantation. Laura plantation is a typical creole sugar plantation that was happened to be run by women most of the time. I had been confused about the word ‘creole’ that was being used everywhere in New Orleans, from food to housing, and the guide finally made it clear for me. The term means people who are ‘French speaking (doesn’t need to be a French), Louisiana born (regardless of ethnicity), and Catholic.’


Laura plantation


Laura plantation


A pot that was used to purify sugar in Laura Plantation

After about 1.5 hours at Laura plantation, the bus drivers picked us up again and headed to the next plantation, Oak Alley (15 mins drive.) Oak Alley plantation is one of those very photogenic spots that make you shout out ‘OMG, I must go there!’ The real thing was no less than the pictures in the internet. Big oak tree branches were making a beautiful entranceway to the front door of the main building.

There was a restaurant in one of the buildings inside the plantation complex, so I had a quick lunch there. They served mostly traditional Louisiana meals in a cozy atmosphere.  We had chicken+smoked sausage gumbo ($9.95) and fried oyster poboy royale ($14.95.)

After the lunch, the tour guide of the plantation walked us through the main house. Contrast to the beautiful scenery, we of course learned about the painful history of slavery embedded in the plantation. It was also a little bit sad to learn that the family who owned this beautiful plantation couldn’t hold it for more than two generations due to mis-judgement on some investments.


Oak Alley plantation


Oak Alley plantation


Lunch at Oak Alley. (top) Poboy and (bottom) Gumbo

5:00 PM Dinner at Pier 424 Seafood Market


(top) Boiled jumbo shrimp and (bottom) alligator fries at Pier 424 Fish Market

After coming back to New Orleans by the same bus, it was a time for an early dinner. The day before, I reserved the famous Natchez steamboat cruise ($48, without dinner) that goes up and down the Mississippi River and the boat was to leave at 7:00 PM. There was an option to eat dinner on the boat ($83, including the cruise) but eating something on the boat wasn’t my thing, so I went for a dinner before the cruise. There were still several things left on my list of ‘ten things I must eat in New Orleans’ and I was to leave the day after, so I felt like I should hurry.

I went to Pier 424 Seafood Market for the dinner because they had boiled crawfish on the menu. However, I was disappointedly told it was not the season. I tried boiled jumbo shrimp with potatoes and corns (MP, around $30 I think I paid) and fried alligator ($12, tasted like chicken)  instead. Big dishes of fresh seafoods were satisfying enough.

7:00 PM Natchez Steamboat

After the dinner, I finally headed for the cruise, the famous steamboat that had been hosting various people since 1823. The current boat is the ninth generation of Natchez, cruising since 1975. The jazz band was already playing on the boat. The vibe was lively while the boat cruised into the sunset. My last night of New Orleans was passing with the tune of jazz and the sound of the steamboat foghorn.


Natchez steamboat (panorama)


Natchez steamboat (panorama)


Jazz at Natchez steamboat

9:30 PM Jazz at Musical Legends Park

The boat brought us back to the land at around 9:00 PM. For the last sprinkle of New Orleans, I headed to the casual outdoor jazz bar in the middle of French Quarter. Cafe Beignet at Bourbon St. was located in the Musical Legends Park. The tiny park is famous for the three statues of jazz legends standing near the gate (Al “Jumbo” Hirt, Antoine “Fats” Domino, and Pete Fountain.) And of course, there was a live jazz being played in the middle of the courtyard. The wind was still warm as the sound of live jazz danced through the night air.


Musical Legends Park


Jazz at Musical Legends Park

***Amtrak trip: Full List***