Colorado: Beyond Skiing

December 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

Resort towns mix old-time heritage with modern sport

While vacationers migrate to the scenic mountains of Colorado for winter ski trips, Ouray and Durango remain popular destinations for those looking for something different.

Located in a narrow valley of the San Juan Mountain Range, Ouray (pronounced you-ray) is rich in old-west history, and nicknamed the “Switzerland of America” for its world-famous ice climbing venues. Arriving in Ouray, you feel as though you are stepping back into an 1890s mining town; most of the original Victorian structures are still standing. Beautifully restored homes and commercial buildings such as the Beaumont Hotel helped Ouray earn the honor of being named a National Historic District, by both the Colorado State and National Historic Authorities in 1983.

After settling at the Ouray Chalet Inn, conveniently located within walking distance of most of the shops and restaurants, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through town. The friendliness and hospitality of Ouray people made us feel as if we truly belonged there.

Our appetite began to grow as we breathed the fresh, clean mountain air. The Bon Ton Restaurant, located in the beautifully restored Victorian St. Elmo Hotel, offers fine dining with an Italian flair. Their menu features specialties such as prawns sautéed with fresh basil, shallots and garlic in a creamy sherry sauce served on fettuccine with fresh garden vegetables.

After enjoying the short stroll back to the Ouray Chalet Inn, it was time to settle in for a peaceful night of sleep to prepare for what the morning had in store.

Always up for a new challenge, we were excited to experience ice climbing. Ice climbers come from all over the world to hone their craft for free at the Ouray Ice Park located in the Uncompahge Gorge. The park was developed by a group of dedicated volunteers and opened in 1995. We relied on the skilled instructors of San Juan Mountain Guides to safely assist us in this adventure. The guides helped us to relax and feel secure and confident in the climb. The empowering experience gave us an exhilirating sense of accomplishment.

We followed our excursion with a relaxing dip in the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, once called the “sacred mineral waters” by the Ute Indians. The snow-covered mountains provided a gorgeous backdrop as the therapeutic waters cleansed away the day’s trials.

We completed the day by dining on delicious Rocky Mountain trout sautéed with lemon, butter and white wine in a charming rustic atmosphere at The Outlaw, Ouray’s oldest operating restaurant. Be sure to check out John Wayne’s hat hanging behind the bar!

A trip to Ouray is not complete without a visit to the Ouray County Historical Museum, housed in what was originally the St. Joseph’s Miner’s Hospital. Built in 1886, the facility was intended for miners injured while working in the treacherous landscape. The Sisters of Mercy and doctors ran the hospital and provided care for the miners and townspeople. The hospital closed in 1964 and reopened as the museum. The museum is rich in history and showcases a replica of a late 1800s mine, along with an impressive mineral collection, Victorian-era displays, Ute Indian artifacts, railroading and ranching exhibits. One exhibit depicts an operating room as it existed in that era.

Next, it was off to Durango.

On the way to Durango, enjoy the breathtaking beauty of Red Mountain Pass. We stopped for a two-hour snowmobiling adventure with Red Mountain Silverton Molas Tours. The expert guides led us through winding trails, eventually climbing to a high elevation above the tree line. The view on top was magnificent and we felt as if we were on top of the world.

Durango, while larger than Ouray, is very charming. Several of the buildings, such as the Strater Hotel, were built in the late 1800s. The hotel was built in 1887 by Henry Strater who dreamed of building the grandest hotel in the West. The hotel houses the world’s largest collection of authentic American Victorian walnut antiques.

Dining at Seasons Rotisserie and Grill was an amazing ending to this day. Diners should not expect to find their favorite entrée on the menu every time they visit. The menu changes with the seasons. Seasons is located in the heart of downtown Durango within walking distance of The Strater Hotel. Don’t retire for the night until you stop in the Diamond Belle Saloon, located in the Strater Hotel. Taking a step in the Diamond Belle feels as if you have stepped back in time.

The next day, we visited The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which has been in operation for 125 years. The historic steam-powered locomotive cuts through mountains following the Animas River. At times, the train seems to hang on the sides of sheer cliffs overlooking the river below. The surrounding territory is pristine as only the train tracks cut through the San Juan National Forest; there are no roads or highways in the back country. Enjoy the stop at Cascade Falls where you can play in the snow, build snowmen or make snow angels.

Although most vacationers think of skiing in Colorado, the Durango Mountain Resort offers snowshoe hiking. Your guides will take you up the mountain on the ski lifts and once you have reached the top, you will follow the peaceful trails down the mountain.

Afterwards, rest your weary muscles at Trimble Spa &Natural Hot Springs. You can enjoy a massage or a soak in the healing waters. The springs are located below cliffs that were home to the Anasazi Indians and the ruins remain but are inaccessible.

Durango offers many diverse dining choices including Steamworks Brewing Co., where beer is brewed on site.

A stroll down Main Street is a must before leaving Durango, as there are many stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars to enjoy.

While ski resorts are most popular in the winter and early spring months, it’s not hard to find something different. When looking off the beaten path, you can find wonderful treasures like Ouray and Durango. The beautiful mountain terrain and historic landmarks provide an abundance of activities — even off the slopes.

Essentials:
www.colorado.com
www.ouraychaletinn.com
www.ourayicepark.com
www.ouraycolorado.com
www.ouraycountyhistoricalsociety.org
www.redmtmotelrvpk.com
www.strater.com
www.seasonsofdurango.com
www.durangotrain.com

Meet the billboard bride

December 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

Hundreds of brides-to-be responded to the Bridal Extravaganza Show’s call for a woman to appear on billboards throughout Houston

Being engaged and planning your special day is one of the most exciting times in a girl’s life. The details, the worry, the joy, the countless thoughts running through your mind can be exhausting. Bride-to-be Michelle Usher attended July’s Bridal Extravaganza Show looking for ideas and inspiration to plan her big day. While browsing through the aisles, she saw a contest for Houston’s next Billboard Bride. “I dropped my name in the box not thinking that they would actually call,” she gasps. “Next thing I know, they do.”

Usher received the congratulatory call telling her that she would be the face of the Bridal Extravaganza Show while getting ready for work. “I was in shock initially, but then it set in. I had two dreams in life — to meet my true love and to be successful at whatever I do. Both goals were met this year.”

Bridal Extravaganza Show officials decided to embark on this journey when owner and recent bride Laurette Veres graced the show’s billboards last year. She was overcome with emotion when she looked up and saw her picture on a billboard. “Getting married is such a special time in your life,” she says, “Each time you see your bridal portrait, you are reminded of your special day.”

After receiving tons of feedback from family and friends on how using a real bride on the billboards was a good idea, the wheels for the city-wide contest were set in motion. “Why not ask Houstonians to be a Billboard Bride?” Veres asks. “As soon as I saw the billboard, I knew I needed to share this feeling with other brides.”

The response was overwhelming. Hundreds of engaged ladies entered the contest and weeks were spent narrowing down the selection to eight finalists. A test photo shoot was conducted to determine who would be able to captivate Houston’s drivers as the next Billboard Bride. It was a daunting task for the panelists to choose as each woman had beauty and a great personality. Usher won over the judges with her poise and personality. As her test shoot ended, her radiance was still beaming. “We loved her confidence and beauty,” says Veres.

Usher has had a whirl-wind year. After a bad ending to a previous relationship, she decided to get out and mingle with friends. While watching television one night, her sister convinced her to try out for the reality show “The Bachelor.”

“I thought why not?” she says. “I was single and wanted a break from everything. I didn’t necessarily want to be in a relationship, I just wanted to go for the experience.” She qualified and almost made it to the final end. Out of thousands of would-be contestants, Usher was ranked No. 30; however the show allows only 25 ladies. “I am so glad I didn’t go,” she says. “If I did, I never would have met Sam.”

Usher, a law clerk, did not want to date a lawyer. However, after frequent run-ins with her groom-to-be at the courthouse she says the attraction was too much to bear. From the moment Usher’s fiancé laid eyes on her, it was love at first sight.

Sam Cammack III, an attorney in Galveston County, is the lucky guy. With a successful career, the only thing missing in his life was love. He can’t stop expressing his admiration for Usher and claims she is the most incredible woman he has ever met. “There were instant sparks,” he says. “Our attraction isn’t fake — you can’t fake what we have.” When he learned she was the contest winner, he was ecstatic. “I am glad that everyone will see [the beautiful girl] I get to see and be with everyday,” he says. “My greatest success in life is her.”

At the photo shoot, Usher donned five dresses by Houston-based designer Winnie Couture, and flashed her bright smile for six long hours. Throughout the day her enthusiasm didn’t diminish. “Because of Christ and finally accepting myself for who I am, my dreams are finally coming true.”

After prepping her hair and makeup, the fun began. The panelist agonized about which dress she should wear, then narrowed it down to two; one from the Winnie Couture selection and her own wedding dress. “Let’s just say I am getting much use out of this dress,” she laughed.

Fresh Blooms of Houston contributed two custom flower bouquets for the shoot. Hair and makeup was styled by Andrea Schutter, whose work has appeared in national magazines for 20 years. The photo shoot was a success. “I can’t believe this happened!” she exclaims. “I have had such an amazing year and this experience was icing on the cake. Can you believe my face will be all over Houston?”

Yes, we can.

Space Ace

December 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

Teacher continues legacy more than 20 years after tragedy

When Barbara Morgan’s students look up into the starry skies, they see the wonderment of a universe far beyond their dreams or comprehension. But when Morgan, a former elementary school teacher, looks up into those same heavens, she sees the road of an educator’s unfinished legacy.

Many people grow up wanting to be an astronaut. However, Morgan’s path to the heavens came through the classroom. Although Morgan successfully traveled into space aboard the space shuttle Endeavor in August, her 14-day journey began more than 20 years ago.

In 1984, she applied for the Teacher in Space Project and the next year, she was one of two teachers selected by NASA from a nationwide pool to participate in the program. She trained side-by-side with astronauts as well as fellow teacher and astronaut-in-training Christa McAuliffe.

Shattered Dreams
Like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, most Americans can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986. Morgan can tell you exactly where she could have been; instead, she had a front-row seat to one of the most horrific disasters in American history. Just months earlier, McAuliffe was selected for Mission STS-51-L and Morgan was her alternate.

That cold January morning, seven astronauts, including McAuliffe, were to lift off aboard the space shuttle Challenger. However, just 73 seconds into its flight, the shuttle exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all seven people on board.

“I trained with that crew; I trained with Christa,” Morgan says. “They were wonderful people and it was a great mission to be a part of. What happened to them was horrible.”

After watching the work and lives destroyed in front of her, Morgan accepted NASA’s invitation to continue her participation as an educator in the program. She moved back to Idaho and continued her teaching career.

Back for More
Morgan never gave up the dream of going to space. Finally, in 1998, she received a call from NASA, inviting her to rejoin the astronaut program. In August of that year, Morgan became a full-time astronaut and moved to Houston. Before long, the assignment of a lifetime arrived — she would participate in STS-118, accepting the role of a mission specialist.

Finally, on Aug. 8, a team of seven astronauts, including Morgan, launched into space aboard the Endeavor. More than 20 years of training, hard work and heartache finally came down to seconds ticking on the launch pad.

“It was a long time coming,” she says, recalling her experience on the launch pad during the countdown. “During the launch, you are paying more attention to what’s going on around you and making sure everything is working correctly. When we felt the thrust of the solid rocket boosters, that’s when I knew we were finally going somewhere. That’s when I said, ‘Wow, we are really going.'”

Among the objectives for the crew of STS-118 was to dock with the International Space Station and retrieve a module containing more than 800 specimens used to study long-term space habitation.

“My duties were to operate the robotic arms of the shuttle and the International Space Station,” she says. Morgan was also responsible for transferring 5,000 pounds of cargo to the ISS and moving more than 3,000 pounds of cargo to the shuttle.

“It’s not like there’s an empty garage where you can just leave everything,” Morgan laughs. “It was kind of like a shell game.”

Beyond the Earth
Morgan says she had little time to gaze out the window and take in the view of Earth that few have seen with their own eyes. However, the opportunities she had were astounding.

“It was so amazing to see the Earth lighting up below. There was a sunrise every 45 minutes,” she says, describing how quickly the shuttle orbited the Earth. Morgan said she heard other astronauts say they felt a sense of awe when looking at the planet from above. “I had those feelings too, but I was prepared for them. I knew what I would see and how I would feel. Those feelings were wonderful, but not a surprise.”

Instead, Morgan describes a sense of purpose, not only for astronauts but for anyone who dreams of going beyond human boundaries.

“As we flew over the oceans, I felt like we were the explorers who sailed the seas,” she says. “It was calm and quiet in the cabin and all you can really hear are the fans in the shuttle humming. It really felt like this was the right thing for human beings to be doing.

An Unfinished Legacy
After 14 days in space, the shuttle and crew safely returned to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Following a two-week debriefing with NASA officials, Morgan has been on a whirlwind tour, continuing the education program she helped launch two decades ago. Despite fulfilling the goal of having an educator in space, the work of NASA, teachers and students is far from complete.

“We didn’t finish the work when I came back,” Morgan says. “Christa’s legacy is open-ended. Every teacher’s legacy is open-ended. There is still the legacy of those who worked with the Challenger’s crew. [Education] is a mission that will never end. It’s satisfying to play a small part in that mission.”

Tubular Talent

December 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

Agency takes models off the paper and onto the screen

From hospitals to television stations, most industries are vying to stay at the forefront of Internet technology for their services and products. Now, you can add models to that list.

The Neal Hamil Agency is using services offered by the popular online video source YouTube.com to better market its models and talent to agency clients. The service is free, easy to manage and a great tool for the agency.

“Many times I am already at a client event like a Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s or Nordstrom fashion show, so why not bring a video camera and record our models on the runway while I’m there?” asks Jeff Shell, director of Neal Hamil Agency.

After the show, Shell edits the footage and uploads the newly created video to YouTube. For every model in that video, the YouTube link can be included in the model’s profile on the agency’s website.

“Once a video is created, we paste the link in the admin section of the agency website and the video shows up on the model’s page.”

Shell says he does not like to make long videos. “They must be kept short since the videos are geared toward clients who don’t have a lot of time,” he says. “Plus, YouTube is a very user-friendly web application that clients have no problem using from their sometimes-slow office computers.”

On the screen, the Neal Hamil Agency’s models can be seen in new ways. Whereas before, clients could only see still shots of prospective models, now they literally come to life. The models become more than headshots on a page or screen, which is great for clients, Shell says.

In addition to fashion show videos, the agency shoots the models individually. “We use one of our hallways as the runway in which to record the models walking,” Shell says. “This makes a very clean backdrop in which to showcase the models walk and [it shows their] personality!

Models love it too. They include the links of their Neal Hamil YouTube videos in their Myspace and Facebook accounts, giving the agency free, extra marketing,” continues Shell.

The idea of putting models’ videos online isn’t new. However, with the implementation of YouTube and their websites, NealHamilAgency.com and NealHamil.tv, accessibility of their models is now at an all-time high.

“NealHamil.tv is the agency’s new site where we are collecting our favorite YouTube videos and eventually we are creating our own,” he says. “Videos are a great way to communicate to the younger generations since they grew up with television and the Internet.”

Party Time

December 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

The perfect holiday soiree takes a bit of planning and a dash of WOW

Between creating your fourth incarnation of turkey tacos and planning the winter ski trip, the calendar always saves the year’s best event for last — the holiday party.

Whether it’s a black tie corporate affair or a casual get-together at your home, the holiday party has become the year’s signature event for party-goers. The events can be extravagantly large or intimately small; either way, planning ahead will make things easier on you and can make your party the subject at water coolers the next morning.

Think Tank
When it comes to planning a party, the first item to address is the budget. Knowing how much money to spend and where to spend it will help decide how big your party will be, what you will do and who you will invite.

“Even if money is no object, there’s still a budget, so spend your money wisely,” says Lee Capetillo Jr., creative director and founder of Ta-Dah Events. “You need to think about how much you want to spend on different aspects. If you spend a lot on invitations, do you cut back on food? If you spend a lot on food, do you cut back on entertainment or how many people you invite?”

Capetillo suggests deciding on a theme early in the planning stages so that other aspects of the party fall into place.

Valerie Rooney, event planner for the Perfect Touch, says planning ahead can deter headaches along the way.

“So many times, people wait until the last minute to plan things,” she says. “If you wait until the last minute, things you have in mind may not be available and that can be a huge let down.”

Rooney says many corporate party planners book their venue a year in advance. “For example, this year, the most popular date is Dec. 15. It’s a weekend and it’s in the middle of the month. You can’t call just a few days or weeks in advance and expect to have a particular venue available,” she says.

A-List
Next, it’s time to decide who you want to invite. If it’s your company’s holiday party, then this part is easy. Just use the global e-mail list and Voila! Done! If it’s your own party, it doesn’t have to be tricky. Think about the people who you want in your house or at the venue where you are hosting. That’s your list. To stay on their good side, it might be wise to invite a couple of neighbors as well. While attending your party, it is hard for them to complain about the traffic and noise your party is causing. They may even allow you to use their driveway for parking spaces.

Whether it’s a corporate or personal event, make sure the invitation is crystal clear about who is invited, Capetillo says.

If the invitation specifically says “you and a guest,” make sure one guest is all they bring. It would be pretty embarrassing to have to check the children at the door with the jackets and purses.

“Each party is different,” Capetillo says. “A party that invites a spouse or a significant other will be different than a party that invites the entire family.”

Be warned: if you say “the more, the merrier,” you just may get your wish.

What to do, what to do
Now that you’ve decided who is coming, the real fun begins. Hopefully by now you’ve picked your theme. Using the theme and the guest list, it’s time to start planning entertainment, activities and food.

“Look at your list and get a good idea of the type of people you are inviting,” Capetillo says. “If your friends are all ‘foodies’ then cater to that type of crowd. If they are wine lovers, then use that to plan the rest of your party.”

Knowing your guest list is of utmost importance to decide what to serve and how to entertain. If you are off the mark, your party can be a bust and will probably end too early.

“If your guests aren’t the ‘foodies’ type, then you don’t want to serve them the fru-fru food. That’s why it is so important to pay attention,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is make your guests feel like the party is way over their head. If they feel that way, they probably won’t have a good time. You can throw the most fabulous party ever, but if it doesn’t appeal to any of your guests, all the work and planning you did would be a waste of time.”

Also, when it comes to food, decide how you will serve it. If it’s a dinner party, make sure everything is in order to serve all the courses planned for the evening. However, if it’s a causal get together, make sure there are plenty of light snacks. Your guests will appreciate a good variety and the freedom to mingle with each other as they please without a designated seat. Items like chips and dip, wings, pizza and cheese/meat/veggie/fruit trays are available at the store… little-to-no cooking involved!

For corporate events, Rooney recommends booking caterers no less than three months in advance. “There are a lot of corporate parties, and almost all of them are calling caterers,” she says. “Book them early too.”

WOW!
Capetillo says the best parties all have one thing in common: no less than three Wow Factors. “You want your Wow Factors to leave your guests saying, ‘Can you believe they did that?’ or be something they can take with them and use in their lives,” he explains. “It can be the invitations and thank-you cards, the décor, the food, the presentation, the entertainment, anything.”

However, Capetillo says to use the Wow Factors with caution.

“Don’t spread yourself too thin. You can have the awesome Wow Factors, but if you aren’t careful, you won’t have any money left over. Just because you are going for the ‘Wow’ doesn’t mean you have to go over the top or be obnoxious and sacrifice in other areas of your party,” he warns.

Have fun!
The name of the game is to have fun. You want your guests to have fun, but don’t forget about yourself. Don’t stress out because you want to make sure they are enjoying the evening. It’s supposed to be a party, right?

“The best thing to do is not to do everything by yourself,” Capetillo says.

Rooney agrees, but warns not to over do it.

“If you are trying to plan a corporate party, it’s great to have committees, but you need to have very few decision makers,” she explains. “Too much help is not always good help.”

With more individuals involved in the decision-making process, vendors can become confused and, in the end, she says, no one will be happy.

By mastering the art of delegation, you have the opportunity to relax and enjoy the fruits of your collective labor. Put someone else in charge of the food or decorations. Hire a party planner. Make the party pot-luck. No one has to know how hard you worked, but at the end of the night, your guests will be thanking you — and asking if you are in charge of next year’s shindig.

Ouray and Durango, Colorado

December 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Travel Blog

Colorado: Beyond Skiing Resort towns mix old-time heritage with modern sport

While vacationers migrate to the scenic mountains of Colorado for winter ski trips, Ouray and Durango remain popular destinations for those looking for something different.

Located in a narrow valley of the San Juan Mountain Range, Ouray (pronounced you-ray) is rich in old-west history, and nicknamed the “Switzerland of America” for its world-famous ice climbing venues. Arriving in Ouray, you feel as though you are stepping back into an 1890s mining town; most of the original Victorian structures are still standing. Beautifully restored homes and commercial buildings such as the Beaumont Hotel helped Ouray earn the honor of being named a National Historic District, by both the Colorado State and National Historic Authorities in 1983.

After settling at the Ouray Chalet Inn, conveniently located within walking distance of most of the shops and restaurants, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll through town. The friendliness and hospitality of Ouray people made us feel as if we truly belonged there.

Our appetite began to grow as we breathed the fresh, clean mountain air. The Bon Ton Restaurant, located in the beautifully restored Victorian St. Elmo Hotel, offers fine dining with an Italian flair. Their menu features specialties such as prawns sautéed with fresh basil, shallots and garlic in a creamy sherry sauce served on fettuccine with fresh garden vegetables.

After enjoying the short stroll back to the Ouray Chalet Inn, it was time to settle in for a peaceful night of sleep to prepare for what the morning had in store.

Always up for a new challenge, we were excited to experience ice climbing. Ice climbers come from all over the world to hone their craft for free at the Ouray Ice Park located in the Uncompahge Gorge. The park was developed by a group of dedicated volunteers and opened in 1995. We relied on the skilled instructors of San Juan Mountain Guides to safely assist us in this adventure. The guides helped us to relax and feel secure and confident in the climb. The empowering experience gave us an exhilirating sense of accomplishment.

We followed our excursion with a relaxing dip in the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, once called the “sacred mineral waters” by the Ute Indians. The snow-covered mountains provided a gorgeous backdrop as the therapeutic waters cleansed away the day’s trials.

We completed the day by dining on delicious Rocky Mountain trout sautéed with lemon, butter and white wine in a charming rustic atmosphere at The Outlaw, Ouray’s oldest operating restaurant. Be sure to check out John Wayne’s hat hanging behind the bar!

A trip to Ouray is not complete without a visit to the Ouray County Historical Museum, housed in what was originally the St. Joseph’s Miner’s Hospital. Built in 1886, the facility was intended for miners injured while working in the treacherous landscape. The Sisters of Mercy and doctors ran the hospital and provided care for the miners and townspeople. The hospital closed in 1964 and reopened as the museum. The museum is rich in history and showcases a replica of a late 1800s mine, along with an impressive mineral collection, Victorian-era displays, Ute Indian artifacts, railroading and ranching exhibits. One exhibit depicts an operating room as it existed in that era.

Next, it was off to Durango.

On the way to Durango, enjoy the breathtaking beauty of Red Mountain Pass. We stopped for a two-hour snowmobiling adventure with Red Mountain Silverton Molas Tours. The expert guides led us through winding trails, eventually climbing to a high elevation above the tree line. The view on top was magnificent and we felt as if we were on top of the world.

Durango, while larger than Ouray, is very charming. Several of the buildings, such as the Strater Hotel, were built in the late 1800s. The hotel was built in 1887 by Henry Strater who dreamed of building the grandest hotel in the West. The hotel houses the world’s largest collection of authentic American Victorian walnut antiques.

Dining at Seasons Rotisserie and Grill was an amazing ending to this day. Diners should not expect to find their favorite entrée on the menu every time they visit. The menu changes with the seasons. Seasons is located in the heart of downtown Durango within walking distance of The Strater Hotel. Don’t retire for the night until you stop in the Diamond Belle Saloon, located in the Strater Hotel. Taking a step in the Diamond Belle feels as if you have stepped back in time.

The next day, we visited The Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad which has been in operation for 125 years. The historic steam-powered locomotive cuts through mountains following the Animas River. At times, the train seems to hang on the sides of sheer cliffs overlooking the river below. The surrounding territory is pristine as only the train tracks cut through the San Juan National Forest; there are no roads or highways in the back country. Enjoy the stop at Cascade Falls where you can play in the snow, build snowmen or make snow angels.

Although most vacationers think of skiing in Colorado, the Durango Mountain Resort offers snowshoe hiking. Your guides will take you up the mountain on the ski lifts and once you have reached the top, you will follow the peaceful trails down the mountain.

Afterwards, rest your weary muscles at Trimble Spa &Natural Hot Springs. You can enjoy a massage or a soak in the healing waters. The springs are located below cliffs that were home to the Anasazi Indians and the ruins remain but are inaccessible.

Durango offers many diverse dining choices including Steamworks Brewing Co., where beer is brewed on site.

A stroll down Main Street is a must before leaving Durango, as there are many stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars to enjoy.

While ski resorts are most popular in the winter and early spring months, it’s not hard to find something different. When looking off the beaten path, you can find wonderful treasures like Ouray and Durango. The beautiful mountain terrain and historic landmarks provide an abundance of activities — even off the slopes.

Essentials:
www.colorado.com
www.ouraychaletinn.com
www.ourayicepark.com
www.ouraycolorado.com
www.ouraycountyhistoricalsociety.org
www.redmtmotelrvpk.com
www.strater.com
www.seasonsofdurango.com
www.durangotrain.com

Joann Crassas: A Laughing Angel

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Blogs

A Laughing Angel
Life’s trials can’t wipe the smile off Joann Crassas’ face

Where Joann Crassas wanders, laughter is sure to follow. Joann sees the humorous side of everything and her humor is never bitter or unkind. Instead of making fun of others, she usually makes fun of herself and her life, which she says is, “the real life version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Born Joann Yianitsas in Beaumont, she is the daughter of Greek immigrants who fluently spoke three languages and could get by in several others.

Her mother sat with Joann for years as the child practiced piano and encouraged her only daughter to excel in music and education.

“[I was] an ugly, awkward child who had to develop a sense of humor and a personality because I wasn’t going to make it in the looks category.” It wasn’t long before a swan emerged from that ugly duckling. At Lamar University, she was elected a campus beauty.

Joann had two brothers both of whom died in their 40s, one of cancer, the other of heart disease. “I’ve seen the devastation that disease causes for families,” she says. “My mother suffered terribly over the loss of her sons, and, my father died relatively young and suddenly.”

The Determined Suitor
Bill Crassas, a New York businessman of Greek heritage, had heard for years about the beautiful Greek belle from Beaumont who could sing, play the piano, and had a master’s degree in education.

“He tells me, ‘I never dreamed it would all be true,'” she says.

On a trip to New York, a business associate of her father invited Joann and her mother to dinner and introduced them to Bill Crassas.

“He made me laugh,” she remembers. “But, I wasn’t interested. He wasn’t my type.”

However, there are two sides to every story. “I was just planning on having a drink and getting out of there,” he says. “I was surprised. Here sat the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and she was funny and intelligent as well. I knew instantly she was the woman I’d marry.”

However, convincing Joann would take some work, especially after the summer of 1961 when she went to Europe.

“That summer was like something out of the movies. I went to Europe with my mother. The Greek community is really tribal,” Joann says. “Everyone knows everyone else. We were guests of Aristotle Onasis in Athens, Maria Callas was on the yacht, and there was a Greek pop singer.”

Three months later, when Joann and her mother returned from Greece, Bill was waiting for them as they got off their plane in New York.

He kept up with her European adventure through a friend who was a CIA agent. Bill had been with the foreign service in Greece in 1954-55 and maintained contacts, who informed him when Joann returned to the States.

Later on, Bill’s father asked Joann in front of Bill and other members of his family, “When are you going to marry my son?” Joann says, “I nearly fell out of my chair. In an off-the-cuff reply I said, ‘Oh, someday,’ and laughed. Well it was no joke to the Crassas family. They all began hugging me and congratulating Bill and bam! We were engaged.”

Bill moved to Houston and opened a branch of the family ship supply business. He burned the freeways traveling back and forth to Beaumont courting Joann while she had doubts about actually getting married.

“For me, marriage was a lifetime commitment and I did not want to get it wrong. I went to church and prayed,” she says. “It was like a cloud lifted, and I knew it was the right thing to do. Until that moment I was headed back to Europe in my mind, back to the jet-set life.”

Still smiling, still helping
Forty-five years, two children and three grandchildren later, Joann remains sure it was the right thing to do. “Bill is still the most entertaining man I’ve ever met. He loves me and he tells me that every day. We laugh all the time and cherish every day we have together. Laughter and God have gotten me through everything,” she explains.

As they smile together, both Joann and Bill have also battled side-by-side together against cancer. Both are now cancer free and sing the praises of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Joann is an incredibly energetic person who has worn many hats over the years. She was a schoolteacher for three years. She was co-producer for the “Texas Today” TV show on Channel 51 for its tenure and spent eight years on Hunter’s Creek City Council. She now works with Personette &Associates as a realtor.

In the world of charity and volunteerism, Joann has worked tirelessly. “I do it for the camaraderie and the cause,” she says.

In January, she was honored as an ABC Channel 13 2007 Woman of Distinction for her volunteerism.

Much of Joann’s volunteer work revolves around medicine and science as she devotes time and energy to Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Houston, Moores School of Music, Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony and Ronald McDonald House.

On Nov. 8 at Reliant Center, Joann Crassas, Karan Robinson and Shawn Stephens will co-chair the Saks Fifth Avenue Fashion Show and Luncheon benefiting the Ballet Guild’s Nutcracker Market. For tickets call 713-535-3231.

Also for the Christmas season, Joann is again chairing The Angel Tree program for the Salvation Army. For more information, call the Salvation Army at 713-752-0677. This program provides gifts to needy children and seniors. Angel Trees are located in participating shopping malls as well as businesses and organizations. From the trees, donors select Angel tags, which list the individual’s first name, age, clothing and shoe size, as well as one need and one wish. The donor purchases the Angel’s presents and the Salvation Army ensures they arrive at the Angel’s door. Little will they realize a laughing angel has helped them.

Outer Banks of North Carolina

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Blogs, Edit, Travel Blog

The beautiful Outer Banks of North Carolina

By Laurette M. Veres and Kathleen Axtell

They say the sand is forgiving. They say the wind is consistent. They say the conditions are perfect for flying. That’s what Orville and Wilbur Wright knew more than 100 years ago. In 1903, they changed history on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Come to Jockey’s Ridge State Park and experience the thrill of flight just like the Wright Brothers did. Drive down the coast and see one of five light houses that mark the shoreline. Walk along the Atlantic coast and look for sea glass.

Sand Dune

A unique natural phenomenon, the living sand dune that makes up Jockey’s Ridge State Park measures 140 feet high and covers 414 acres. This amazing location is the perfect place for your first hang gliding adventure. Check out Kitty Hawk Kites for training, coaching and a hands-on experience you won’t forget. After the instructional video, it’s time to head out to the dune, strap in, and before you know it, you are up, up and away. At the largest hand gliding school in the US, you are in good hands as you yell “clear,” take three preparatory steps and then run as fast as you can until you are airborne. Seconds feel like hours when you realize your feet aren’t touching the ground and you truly experience the freedom of flying. If you like this beginner adventure, they also offer advance, tandem hand gliding flights at the airport.

Hats Off

If lighthouses float your boat, there are five open for visit in this region. We chose the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the second-oldest lighthouse in America. It also stands the tallest at a proud 208 feet. Get your calves in gear – there 268 steps between you and a panoramic view of Hatteras Island from the top of the lighthouse. At the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, outdoor activities abound such as camping, fishing, hiking, surfing and biking. In a turn of geological events, this lighthouse was moved 1,600 feet inland in 1999 to save it from the ravishing Atlantic Ocean.

Take Off

Pilots, historians and tourists alike are all enthralled by the Wright Brothers National Memorial. With both temporary and permanent exhibits explaining the experiments conducted by the brothers, it’s easy to understand how 12 seconds changed history. Standing on top of the memorial, you look out over the field where the brothers took flight. There are four markers designating the length of the first controlled, powered and sustained human flight. You don’t want to miss the replica of Flyer One at the base of the monument. (The actual Flyer is on display in Washington D.C at the Smithsonian).

Dining in Duck

One of the many beach towns in the Outer Banks, Duck, is home to many fine, albeit casual, dining establishments. Flip flops and shorts are always welcome at The Roadside Raw Bar &Grill; a Duck institution that comes highly recommended by locals. Don’t miss the Shrimp and Grits with red-eye gravy — a detectible Southern dish.

Entertaining the Masses

Up and down Highway 158, the Outer Banks deliver something for every taste. For a down-home breakfast experience, try Stack ‘Em High. Featuring an assortment of breakfast classics inducing biscuits, pancakes and grits; you’ll appreciate the attentive service from the friendly staff. Kelly’s features live music each night, has a dance floor and can accommodate large groups. The dining area is separate from the bar thought the full restaurant menu is available. If you are looking for the epicenter of fun on the Outer Banks, you’ve found it at Kelly’s.

Sunrise Sunset

In the Outer Banks, watching the sunset is a not-to-be-missed, must-be-celebrated event. Fishbone’s Sunset Grille packs ’em in each evening for a walk on their deck and a chance to glimpse yet another perfect sunset.

Essentials:

Kitty Hawk Kites: www.kittyhawk.com 1-877-FLY-THIS

Jockey’s Ridge State Park: www.jockeysridgestatepark.com www.outerbanks.com

Roadside Raw Bar &Grill: www.duckncguide.com

Stack ‘Em High: www.stackemhigh.com

Jimmy’s Seafood Buffet: www.jimmysbuffetobx.com

Kelly’s Outer Banks Restaurant and Tavern: www.kellysrestaurant.com

Fishbone’s Sunset Grille: www.fishbonessunsetgrille.com

“I Do” to Him, “I Don’t” to the Ring

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

Tips for Houston men ready to take the plunge

OK, he finally did it. He popped the question and just as much as you were overjoyed that he asked, you were disappointed in the ring he presented to you. This is supposed to be the symbol of your love; the representation of the effort that went into building your relationship to this point, symbolizing that you want to be together forever.

Even more than that, when you tell the girls that you are now officially engaged, you know they are going to ask,”Let’s see the ring.”

Of course, you can tell them you wanted to put the money into a house or a bigger, better wedding instead of a ring. They’re not buying it and neither are you.

Guys, you want to buy her the biggest ring in the store because the ring is synonymous with you, but big diamonds are out of most people’s budgets. So what do you do? There are tricks of the trade that can help you get a lot of bling for your buck.

Ring Around the Diamond
When you frame anything, it looks bigger, right? So why not do that to your center diamond? Let’s say you have a one-carat diamond. For just a few dollars more, your jeweler can frame the solitaire in smaller diamonds. Depending on the size of the smaller ones, the jeweler can make that one-carat look more like two or even three if you add another row.

Invisible Setting, Not Invisible Stone
The invisible setting is exactly what it implies. Smaller diamonds are set closer together so that you can not see the “seam” between them, so it looks like one big diamond. If you wanted a two-carat princess cut. Your jeweler can set four half-carats in an invisible setting and no one knows unless they are waaay too close to you. Although there are more diamonds involved, smaller diamonds are cheaper. You can get a big look for less money.

Watch Your Weight
We often talk in terms of one, two, three carats or more. But if you buy just under the carat weight, you can save a lot of money. For example, a .8, 1.8, 2.8, etc. can look just as big as a larger stone, but you don’t pay the full-carat price. Also, certain cuts look bigger, because the weight may be more prominent at the top of the stone.

Or, use two, one-carat trillions (triangle shape) to create a two-carat princess look.

Flaw-velous Diamonds
A perfect diamond is fabulous, but adds significantly to the price. If flaws can’t be seen with the naked eye, is it really a problem? If there is an imperfection that you can see with the naked eye, perhaps you can set it under a prong. Round and princess-cut diamonds reflect light nicely so it’s harder to see flaws. On the other hand, emerald-cuts are much more open and it would be easy to see flaws. To save money on emerald-cuts, you might consider suffering a little on color instead.

A perfect white diamond has a lot of fire and is beautiful, which really adds to the price. As you go down the color chart, a diamond starts to have a yellow cast to it. Your jeweler should work with you under good lighting so you can see the difference.

Family Gathering
Several factors figure into the price of your ring. If you already have some of the goods, why not use them? I had a friend who went to family members and asked if they had old, unwanted jewelry they did not want. From each side of the family, they came up with enough gold and stones to make their rings. The jeweler was able to incorporate some of the stones into their wedding rings. It had great meaning because it was truly the union of two families.

Remember that some jewelers will not work with “scrap” gold for a number of reasons – quality, matching carat weight, etc. Explain to them the significance of using as much of the original material as possible. At the very least, they could pay you what it is worth on the market and apply that to the cost of your rings.

Don’t ask, Don’t tell

If you want a big, fat “looking” ring and none of these tricks will help you get there, then you might consider using a synthetic stone with the promise that on your first, fifth or 10th anniversary it is replaced with a real stone. This is especially wise if you have even the slightest idea this might not work out. I hate to be a pessimist, but I know plenty of couples who got divorced and still had to pay on the rings for years at 20 percent interest!

A real white-gold, yellow-gold or platinum setting can be affordable even with small diamonds enhancing the sides. Using synthetics, your center stone can be as big as you want it and instead of thousands, you’ll pay hundreds or less depending on the size. Keep in mind some shapes sparkle better than others. Just like real diamonds, round and princess cuts reflect light very well. Because they have no flaws, tell the girls it’s a perfect diamond.

Before you try this, make sure she’s OK with it. I can’t tell you how many ladies waltz into the jewelry store to get an insurance appraisal only to learn the stone is fake.

A Girl’s Next Best Friend
They say, “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” But what about the other gems? They’re nice too, and they almost always cost less. Princess Diana had a sapphire as her main stone. If it was good enough for a princess … well? A friend of mine is Irish and very proud of her heritage. Her husband gave her an emerald with a diamond on each side.

Not everyone likes colored stones for a wedding ring, so feel her out on this one. If she hates it, your jeweler can always remove the stone and replace it with a diamond or something else, usually while you wait.

Ladies, if you are dating and think he might be getting close to asking, make sure he has a copy of this page tucked in his wallet. Tell him you want to make things easier for him because you love him.

And when the girls ask, “Can we see your ring?” you want to make sure they think well of him. It’s all about him.

Making it Memorable

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

A different take on bridal registry

The Registry
The bridal registry has helped set up plenty of households over the years. In the early days, many people came straight from their parents’ homes when they got married, so they needed towels, bed sheets, toasters, silverware and everything to set up a household. Because many of us are getting married at an older age, that’s not always the case. We’ve been in the workforce and already decorated our homes. For other couples, this is the second, third or fourth (consider therapy) time around or more. So, what do you register for, if anything? Here are some ideas to make sure people really get what they want and what they need.

The All-Expense Paid Honeymoon
They don’t have one already and you know it’s the right color. Best of all, you don’t have to leave the comfort of your home to help get it. Couples can register their honeymoon because they already have pots and pans and three toasters.

It’s done through a bank and the travel agency. Registry information denotes where a check should be sent. Many times, a pre-addressed and stamped envelope is included. The bride keeps a running tally of how much is given, who gave and the money is protected. If it comes up short, “something” applied to your trip is better than nothing, but most of the time there is money left over.

Thank you cards can be in the form of a picture of you two at your honeymoon destination.

I’ll Drink to That
Do you love wine? Always wanted a wine cellar? Here’s a way to build it quickly: have a “build the wine cellar” event or registry. I actually did this for one of our couple’s showers, but it is also a good idea for a registry. It was neat to see how many people researched the wine they bought. Since it was a gift, people made a point of bringing a really special bottle of wine. Of course, a few of my friends showed up with Ripple, Mad Dog 20/20 and Boone’s Farm. I made sure that’s what they were served at the reception.

Love is Kind
I have several friends who are successful and don’t need a thing. Despite their success, most wedding guests want to celebrate their union by giving gifts. Instead of a bridal registry, they had guests send donations to a center for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Another couple had people send donations in the name of cancer research, since the bride’s mother had passed away from the disease a few months before the wedding. Even when you say, “no gifts please,” many people want to do something. Why not make it benefit someone else in need? After all, love is kind and giving.

A House is not a Home
A house is not a home until you have bought it. Otherwise, it’s a real emotional let down to decorate a house just the way you want it, only to watch your landlord put a “For Sale” sign in the yard and you have to move. The problem is, not everyone can afford a house. One couple I know went to a store for the bridal registry and didn’t really need many of the items available. The bride asked the groom, “What else do we need?” He said, “Nothing. What we really need is a house.” They left the store and registered for their down payment. They received about $50,000. On their first anniversary, they held an open house and treated their guests to a party as a way to say, “Thank you. No gifts please.”

Clay Walker

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

A new album, a new bride, a new life

Multi-platinum country music star Clay Walker has albums that have sold in excess of 10 million copies and placed 31 titles on Billboard’s singles chart. He is one of country’s busiest touring artists. “Fall,” the new single from his eighth album, is quickly moving up the charts. Life may seem good for Walker, but the path has not always been easy. Through perseverance and faith, the country legend still stands tall.

“Growing up in Beaumont was wonderful,” he says. “My mom loved all the soul and R &B music, like Motown; and my dad, who sang and played the guitar, was stone cold country. He taught me to play the guitar. He also bought me a horse when I was two and taught me to ride.”

While the future country crooner excelled in academics, he thought his ticket to fame would be through athletics.

“I was pretty good in school, always in advanced classes; but I loved football and thought I would get a college football scholarship. I was about 16 when I entered a talent contest in the Golden Triangle area (Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange) at Parkdale Mall that lasted three days,” he says. “There must have been 200 acts – singing, dancing – like the Gong Show. I did a demo of a song I’d written for my mom, ‘Lady with a Golden Heart.’ I won, and it was overwhelming; the defining moment of my life!”

When Walker took his demo to a local radio station, he was told that the station’s policy prohibited playing an unsolicited tune. But as he drove away, he heard his song playing on the radio. After as he graduated from high school in 1987, he began to pursue his musical career, singing in local honky-tonks.

“I knew that Mark Chestnut and Tracy Byrd, two other Beaumont artists, started by working there, and I was hoping I could do the same thing,” he recalls.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS
In 1992, while singing at the Neon Armadillo Bar in Beaumont, a man named Nolan Simmons walked over to him and said, “That’s the best voice I’ve ever heard. I’m sending someone over to listen to you.”

Within a week, James Stroud, Giant Record’s president, came into the bar. “I hadn’t finished my first set when Mr. Stroud got up and walked out the door,” remembers Walker. “I jumped up and followed him to his car saying, ‘Let me buy you a beer.’ He turned to me and said, ‘I’ve seen all I need to see. Come to Nashville, and let’s get started,”‘ remembers Walker.

Walker can vividly recall recording his self-titled first album.

“I’ve never been so intimidated in my life. I’d performed at concerts where there were 10 – or 15,000 people, but nothing compared to being in that studio,” he says. “I’d written most of the songs. ‘Live Until I Die,’ I wrote for my grandmom and my mom. But, somewhere along the way, I said to James, ‘Something is missing. I don’t feel the best of my energy.’ James left the studio, ran barefooted across the road to the record office and came back with ‘What’s it to You?’ Well, I heard angels singing. That song went straight to No. 1. That was my first experience in the studio.”

SUDDEN IMPACT
Just when Walker seemed to be on top of the world, he began to notice subtle changes in his health — fatigue in his right leg, tingling in his right hand and a tiredness that he had never experienced before. In 1996 he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a chronic, autoimmune disease that turns the body’s own defense system into a powerful destructive weapon aimed at the central nervous system.

Walker was devastated. “[I was] a broken man for awhile,” he admits, “I prayed. I remembered that I was raised a Christian; and, if I hadn’t had that faith to fall back on, there’s no telling where I’d be today. Never before was it so clear to me that my faith was not just something I was taught but something to live by. I realized why it was there, and it was powerful. I suddenly knew in my heart and soul that I’d be OK. I’m thankful for my family and friends that prayed for me.”

In search of answers, Walker came to the Bayou City.

“I came home to Houston to find out about MS first hand from the greatest doctors in the world. As you gain more knowledge, you know MS is not a death sentence, like had been suggested to me,” he says. “Until recently there was nothing they could do, no known cause or cure, just a crapshoot. Now, doctors have discovered how to slow the disease. I began to research everything I could about it.”

“I started cooking for myself,” he continues. “Instead of the steaks and shakes, cheeseburgers and fries, I began to take care of myself. [I learned] how to cook healthy meals, eating fish all the time, redfish, red snapper and steamed vegetables. I’m not so obsessive now, a little more in the middle – with a little steak and chicken, but still healthy eating.”

Walker formed the Clay Walker Band against MS foundation to help others confronted with the disease. “My goal is to educate people, to get the information in front of them and to fund research into new MS therapy options,” he says. “Each year, the foundation awards additional grants to worthy medical institutions for further MS research. I am so grateful for my success. Here I am 10 years later, and I’m probably healthier than ever. My question to myself is always ‘What can I do to give back?’ And, the answer is, ‘find a cure.'”

NEW BEGINNINGS
With his MS under control and his new single from his first album for Curb Records climbing the charts, Walker has every reason to smile. However, nothing makes his face light up more than talking about his new bride, Jessica Craig, whom he married on Sept. 28 in New Orleans.

“I had been reading a book about how I could make myself a better person so that I’d be ready to find a wife after God’s own heart. I know when your marriage doesn’t work out; it’s the fault of both people. I had finished the book two days before going to New York for the 2005 CMA awards,” he says. “Walking through the lobby of the Marriott Marquis, I saw her; there she was, surrounded by her friends. I made my way closer to her, and it just struck me to ask her where she worked. She mentioned that she modeled for American Eagle, National Verizon and National Mini Cooper, but she did not seem excited at all. I asked why. Jessica said, ‘I want to be a mom.’ I was flabbergasted. I thought to myself (literally within minutes), this is the one. There was something magical about her; she had the traditional values that are so important, and she wasn’t afraid to say that she was traditional. There was no arrogance, no ego about her. As we continued to walk together, we passed a photo of her that was life size. I laughed and told her I’d never had one that big.”

For Walker and Craig, love continued to bloom. “After a year, on Nov. 14, I proposed to Jessica on the steps of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Galveston, where her grandfather proposed to her grandmother,” he recalls.

“We had a wonderful engagement party in Abita Springs near Covington, La. where Jessica grew up, with about 40 family members and friends.”

“We invited 500 guests to the wedding. All the groomsmen wore Resistol hats and Lucchese boots. The colors were sage and lavender; I wore a lavender shirt and my beautiful bride wore a dress by designer Melissa Sweet, which she found at Priscilla of Boston,” he says.

FAMILY MAN

With his new bride, Walker is looking to settle in the Bayou City.

“We’re in the process of looking for a house in Houston or close by on a ranch. [This city] is my home, and one of my biggest thrills is playing the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo,” he says. “There is something very special and spiritual between the audience and me. I’m not sure that feeling is shared by any other performer. One of my proudest moments came when I placed fourth in the HLSR cutting horse competition recently.”

His HLSR performances are generally sold-out.

While his music has catapulted Walker to the top of the country music world, faith and family still come first.

“The most important thing in the world to me is my family. Jessica is the greatest human being I’ve ever met and my daughters are everything to me,” he says. “I want to be sure my priorities stay where they belong. It’s God first, family, then music. Music will always be my first love. MaClay DeLayne, age 11, and Skylor Clay Anne, age 8, are the apples of my eye, and both are good horsewomen and good singers. MaClay can ride the hide off of anything.”

Walker also makes time for his beloved game of golf. He honed his talents playing with golf-pro Jackie Burke at Champions Golf Course. “I’m such a history buff, and this game has such a rich history. It’s a great game,” he says. He regularly competes in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. In 2005, his team won the tournament; he donated his share of the winnings to Band Against MS.

The handsome Texan points to two Southern legends as sources for inspiration.

“My favorite singer is Elvis Presley. I don’t think Elvis gets the credit he deserves for being an absolutely great singer,” he explains. “I’ve always been a big fan of Freddy Fender and feel lucky to have recorded his country classic mega hit, “Before the Last Teardrop Falls” with him on my new album. This was the first duet I’ve ever done, and when we went into the studio to record it together, it was pure magic. Freddy died of cancer just a few months after we sang. He was a great guy.”

Although Walker’s legion of fans has their own descriptions for their idol, he strives to stay down to earth. “I’m a pretty focused person. I want to do the right thing, no matter what the cost,” he says. “I read the Bible every day, and there’s always something there for me. People make religion and life too difficult; they want to complicate everything. Read John 3:16. [It] doesn’t matter if you’re Baptist, Catholic, or whatever – that one works for everybody.”

High Roller Condos in Grand Cayman, Oh My!

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman encompasses 144 lush acres of the Caribbean’s most serene and prosperous island. Known for one-of-a-kind guest experiences, the $500 million resort features a La Prairie Spa, five dining venues including a restaurant by Eric Ripert of top-ranking New York restaurant Le Bernardin, a tennis center by Nick Bollettieri and a nine-hole golf course, designed by Greg Norman.

As if all of this wasn’t enough, Ritz-Carlson announced an exclusive 20,000 sq. ft. penthouse occupying the entire 7th floor of the south tower. Overlooking Seven Mile Beach, it is thought to be the most expensive condominium in the Caribbean. As you would expect, this suite comes with all of the legendary Ritz-Carlton services and amenities. However, it also comes with a powerboat complete with a captain and crew, and a Rolls-Royce.

“We created and designed this penthouse based on the current interest of high-end properties with spectacular space and views,” says Michael Ryan, owner and developer of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman.

The owners will have panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea, Georgetown Harbor, the Greg Norman golf course and the North Sound from 4,200 sq. ft. of private terraces. A conceptual floor plan (the actual will be planned per the buyer’s specifications and The Residences’ standards) by interior designer Frank Nicholson, includes a state-of-the-art media room, executive office, art gallery, wine cellar and six bedrooms, each with its own private terrace.

And, just in time for the holidays, the Ritz is offering a long-term rental “sample” program for vacationers and business travelers. If you’re not sure this luxury life is for you, you can “test drive” a luxury home experience at The Residences for 30 days without further commitment. The Residences’ luxury oceanfront homes within the new Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman are setting a lavish new standard of living on the Caribbean’s safest island.

Amenities include, but are not limited to: around-the-clock attention from a Residential concierge team, butler service, private entrances with elevators, 24-hour valet parking and security and privileged access to all Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman resort’s facilities, services and amenities.

To participate you must stay a minimum of 30 days. Prices range from $25,000 – $40,000 in December. Homes vary from one-bedroom with 1,655 sq. ft. to three-bedrooms covering 3,850 sq. ft.

Essentials:
www.residences-cayman.com

www.ritzcarlton.com

Mukuru

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

Arts merge for common cause

In 2005, an idea struck Rodney Waters; and since then, it hasn’t left him. In fact, it’s still growing. He worked on projects for non-profit organizations before, but this time, he’d do it bigger and much better. Hence, Mukuru Arts for AIDS was born.

Named for the African god of kindness, Mukuru is a series of concerts, dance and theater programs, as well as an art exhibit and auction that are meant to bring communities together and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS issues. Mixing altruism and art, local and national artists showcase their talent to support AIDS Foundation Houston. “Maybe it’s because I have undiagnosed ADD or something,” says Waters, the artistic director of Mukuru. “I really like variety.” All of the proceeds are matched by the National AIDS Fund to help the local cause.

While a college student in New York City, Waters volunteered in an English conversation program, where he helped immigrants and others with their language skills. During this time, he taught everyone from Korean businessmen to Costa Rican construction workers.

After graduation, Waters, an avid music lover, moved to Houston and took a position as a staff pianist at Rice University. Although he felt like he had a good career, Waters says he felt something was missing in his life.

He soon came in contact with Interfaith Ministries where he met Julie Eberly, who introduced him to AIDS Foundation Houston. While helping students and families from around the world, Waters realized he could combine his love of volunteerism with his passion for music.

And finally, his idea took root in the form of Mukuru.

Now in its third season, Mukuru combines artists from all types of genres into a single cause. Unlike other one-time events to help support an organization, each month through May, a new artistic adventure awaits.

“It’s been great,” says Waters. “The program has grown quite a bit since we started. We have made good inroads with the Houston art community and we are raising money for awareness in our communities.”

Mukuru has been exciting for AIDS Foundation Houston in that it focuses attention on the needs of local HIV awareness and education, says Eberly, vice president of development for the organization.

The funds raised by Mukuru stay local and are matched by organizations including the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

“Any dollar given could be the dollar that helps prevent someone from getting HIV,” Eberly says.

While Waters could have chosen any cause for the Mukuru program, as an artist, he found many of his peers were affected in some way by the affliction.

“So many people in the artistic community have had their lives touched by HIV or AIDS,” he says. “We could have done the same thing with other causes in a wide variety of ways, but there are people in the artistic community who have seen their lives or the lives of people close to them change.”

In the coming months, Mukuru’s events include a sky-watching experience and concert, as well as a chance to nab an emerging artist’s original piece of work.

This year, the Mukuru auction and exhibition features local and national artists at Gremillion &Co. Fine Art Gallery, 2501 Sunset Blvd, on Nov. 8. Participants can nibble on hors d’oeuvres and sip cocktails while enjoying various art pieces, or bid on original works. All of the artists have donated auction items; bidding opens online before the event at www.mukuru.org.

“We’re giving artists the chance to do what they want, and when people have a chance to be creative and interesting, they are incredibly generous,” Waters says.

However, Eberly says the project is much more than giving artist their own avenue for expression. “When you hear the music or see the dancing, it touches the audience and causes them to become alive and engaged,” she says. “These artists come to the table with their passion and their own personal time and talents to connect their art with a social cause.”

Construction Paper

November 1, 2007 by  
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Artist finds new ways to express herself with simple material

While many sculptors chisel away at their soon-to-be masterpiece, Kirsten Hassenfeld works diligently cutting, folding and posting. Hassenfeld sculpts but she’s in a league of her own — her medium being paper. As odd as it may seem, she twirls, rolls, folds, coils and cuts paper into intricately designed masterpieces. Hassenfeld’s exhibition, Dans la Lune, features her biggest sculptures to date. Dans la Lune, roughly meaning a dreamlike state, consists of large, elaborate, ornament-like structures. Hassenfeld’s sculptures range from four to eight feet in diameter and embody numerous shapes and “different forms of escape,” says Hassenfeld. Her collection will remain on display until Dec. 9 at the Rice Gallery.

Born in Albany, N.Y., Hassenfeld attended the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994 and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts. She furthered her education and earned a Masters of Fine Arts from The University of Arizona, Tucson in 1998.

Hassenfeld’s artwork has been displayed in various exhibitions, such as: The Last Seduction — The Visceral Power of Beauty in Contemporary Art (2007), Secrist Gallery; Out of Line: Drawings from the Collection of Sherry and Joel Mallin (2006), Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University; The ArtReview 25: Emerging Artists in America (2005), Phillips, de Pury and Open House: Working in Brooklyn (2004), The Brooklyn Museum of Art. Hassenfeld works and resides in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I steal from all cultures,” she says. She’s not a thief; Hassenfeld merely experiments with other cultures and their paper techniques. Trained in printmaking, she credits paper as still being within her comfort range.

Dans la Lune features grandiose, ornament-like structures hanging from the ceiling of the gallery. The objects vary in shapes and sizes. Each structure is comprised of various elements embedded within one another; a fairy tale maiden leading her pony is encased in a structure, while another structure masks a painting of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Hassenfeld explains these secrets as stories “within a story getting buried.” These forgotten elements are true representations of stories or minute details often overlooked in dreams. Hassenfeld uses the color white in efforts of creating a utopian state. As the structures incorporate extensive details, each embellishment has been created with laborious effort. Look for details including pearl-like beads and tiny chains, both made from paper. In this particular exhibition, Hassenfeld says she mainly used forms of quilling/paper filigree, a European technique introduced during the Renaissance era. To further illuminate her artwork, different watt light bulbs are used in the exhibition. Hassenfeld says to have experimented with all sort of lights to highlight the various stories presented in her sculptures. The grand ornaments are linked through a series of paper chains and swags.

Inspired by the ideas of plenty and abundance, Hassenfeld credits everything from casinos and pawnshops to catalogues, ornaments and decorative pieces. “Everything has a story,” says Hassenfeld, especially the allurement of ornament. After the inspiration, she sets to work by forming and reconstructing templates on her computer. Hassenfeld spends hundreds of hours and days on her inventions creating sophisticated, abstract objects.

Hassenfield says her grandiose sculptures are not meant to focus on the indulgence of luxury goods, but instead, the memory and feelings they evoke. Hassenfeld’s hand-crafted masterpieces have outshone in the realm of sculpting, thus creating an elaborately unique but modest niche for herself. She equates her artwork as her “form of escapism,” she says. It’s a place where she can visit and revisit her fairytale-like fantasies.

“[I just] want to provide a place you could project your own daydreams into,” Hassenfeld says. And then she puts it on paper.

A laughing angel

November 1, 2007 by  
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Life’s trials can’t wipe the smile off Joann Crassas’ face

Where Joann Crassas wanders, laughter is sure to follow. Joann sees the humorous side of everything and her humor is never bitter or unkind. Instead of making fun of others, she usually makes fun of herself and her life, which she says is, “the real life version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

Born Joann Yianitsas in Beaumont, she is the daughter of Greek immigrants who fluently spoke three languages and could get by in several others.

Her mother sat with Joann for years as the child practiced piano and encouraged her only daughter to excel in music and education.

“[I was] an ugly, awkward child who had to develop a sense of humor and a personality because I wasn’t going to make it in the looks category.” It wasn’t long before a swan emerged from that ugly duckling. At Lamar University, she was elected a campus beauty.

Joann had two brothers both of whom died in their 40s, one of cancer, the other of heart disease. “I’ve seen the devastation that disease causes for families,” she says. “My mother suffered terribly over the loss of her sons, and, my father died relatively young and suddenly.”

The Determined Suitor
Bill Crassas, a New York businessman of Greek heritage, had heard for years about the beautiful Greek belle from Beaumont who could sing, play the piano, and had a master’s degree in education.

“He tells me, ‘I never dreamed it would all be true,'” she says.

On a trip to New York, a business associate of her father invited Joann and her mother to dinner and introduced them to Bill Crassas.

“He made me laugh,” she remembers. “But, I wasn’t interested. He wasn’t my type.”

However, there are two sides to every story. “I was just planning on having a drink and getting out of there,” he says. “I was surprised. Here sat the most beautiful woman I had ever seen and she was funny and intelligent as well. I knew instantly she was the woman I’d marry.”

However, convincing Joann would take some work, especially after the summer of 1961 when she went to Europe.

“That summer was like something out of the movies. I went to Europe with my mother. The Greek community is really tribal,” Joann says. “Everyone knows everyone else. We were guests of Aristotle Onasis in Athens, Maria Callas was on the yacht, and there was a Greek pop singer.”

Three months later, when Joann and her mother returned from Greece, Bill was waiting for them as they got off their plane in New York.

He kept up with her European adventure through a friend who was a CIA agent. Bill had been with the foreign service in Greece in 1954-55 and maintained contacts, who informed him when Joann returned to the States.

Later on, Bill’s father asked Joann in front of Bill and other members of his family, “When are you going to marry my son?” Joann says, “I nearly fell out of my chair. In an off-the-cuff reply I said, ‘Oh, someday,’ and laughed. Well it was no joke to the Crassas family. They all began hugging me and congratulating Bill and bam! We were engaged.”

Bill moved to Houston and opened a branch of the family ship supply business. He burned the freeways traveling back and forth to Beaumont courting Joann while she had doubts about actually getting married.

“For me, marriage was a lifetime commitment and I did not want to get it wrong. I went to church and prayed,” she says. “It was like a cloud lifted, and I knew it was the right thing to do. Until that moment I was headed back to Europe in my mind, back to the jet-set life.”

Still smiling, still helping
Forty-five years, two children and three grandchildren later, Joann remains sure it was the right thing to do. “Bill is still the most entertaining man I’ve ever met. He loves me and he tells me that every day. We laugh all the time and cherish every day we have together. Laughter and God have gotten me through everything,” she explains.

As they smile together, both Joann and Bill have also battled side-by-side together against cancer. Both are now cancer free and sing the praises of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Joann is an incredibly energetic person who has worn many hats over the years. She was a schoolteacher for three years. She was co-producer for the “Texas Today” TV show on Channel 51 for its tenure and spent eight years on Hunter’s Creek City Council. She now works with Personette &Associates as a realtor.

In the world of charity and volunteerism, Joann has worked tirelessly. “I do it for the camaraderie and the cause,” she says.

In January, she was honored as an ABC Channel 13 2007 Woman of Distinction for her volunteerism.

Much of Joann’s volunteer work revolves around medicine and science as she devotes time and energy to Baylor College of Medicine, The University of Houston, Moores School of Music, Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony and Ronald McDonald House.

On Nov. 8 at Reliant Center, Joann Crassas, Karan Robinson and Shawn Stephens will co-chair the Saks Fifth Avenue Fashion Show and Luncheon benefiting the Ballet Guild’s Nutcracker Market. For tickets call 713-535-3231.

Also for the Christmas season, Joann is again chairing The Angel Tree program for the Salvation Army. For more information, call the Salvation Army at 713-752-0677. This program provides gifts to needy children and seniors. Angel Trees are located in participating shopping malls as well as businesses and organizations. From the trees, donors select Angel tags, which list the individual’s first name, age, clothing and shoe size, as well as one need and one wish. The donor purchases the Angel’s presents and the Salvation Army ensures they arrive at the Angel’s door. Little will they realize a laughing angel has helped them.

Best of H Texas 2007

November 1, 2007 by  
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It’s time once again for the Best of H Texas. Unlike other Houston “Best of” lists, we searched high and low for what makes the Bayou City unique, instead of going with the usual categories like Best Barbecue or Best Band.

The overwhelming majority of our “Best of” list are people, places and events that can only be found in Houston and are just a few things that make our city such a wonderful place to live. Houston is home, and just like our own homes, there are little, sometimes silly nuances that establish personality and character. That’s what our staff strived to find for our annual list.

With that being said, we proudly present our 2007 Best of H Texas.

Best television personality
Dominique Sachse
While Houstonians have claimed this KPRC-TV anchor as their own since she exploded on the scene in 1993, Dominique Sachse was actually born in Florida. Her ability to uniquely tell a story while accurately relay facts coupled with her fashion sense and sheer beauty make her an easy choice for H Texas’ best TV personality.

Earning viewers’ trust is never easy, but Sacshe’s style and composure have entrenched her in Houston living rooms on weekdays at 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. The anchor’s reputation has earned her honors from the Associated Press, the Houston Press Club as well as a prestigious Emmy Award.

The responsibility of a major market prime-time anchor is not lost on Sachse.

“People are turning to you for information about what’s going on in their world, and you have to be credible, reliable and relatable in how you present it,” she says. “That’s my responsibility to the viewer. It’s a defining moment to connect with them and establish a relationship. To me, that’s the key to being an effective news anchor, and it’s what will determine if they come to you time and time again.”

Among the most popular graduates of the University of Houston, Sacshe continues to support her alma mater and journalism students who choose to follow in her footsteps, and was named Outstanding Young Communications Alumnus by UH. Her Cougar pride still runs deeply, as she has been a fixture on different UH alumni boards and raises money through the annual Dominique Sachse Hoops and Hardball golf tournament for UH men’s and women’s sports. Her heart is as big as Texas, as she also is very active in causes for children and pets.

Sacshe said she is proud to serve the city and it is the Houstonians who keep her bound here.

“So far, Houston has been the right place for me, both personally and professionally. I’ve lived here since 1975, so I have a great deal of history in this city, which provides a strong platform for me as a news anchor,” she explains. “However, I’m ultimately here because of the viewers. They decide your longevity in a market, and for that, I owe them a great deal of gratitude!”
www.click2houston.com

Best place we miss
AstroWorld
From the thrilling Greezed Lightnin’ to the relaxing AstroWay sky rides, ASTROWORLD was the setting for summer fun and memories for countless Houstonians and visitors. The brainchild of Harris County Judge Roy Hofienz, AstroWorld opened in 1968 as an addition to the AstroDome complex. The original park included eight themed areas, but by 1976, the facility expanded and the world-famous Texas Cyclone was opened. Several attractions and rides were known as some of the biggest and tallest in the United States and the world. However, the park closed on Oct. 30, 2005 — just 15 days after Greezed Lightnin’ went for its 1 millionth ride. Today, the park has been cleared and the signature entrance bridge, crossing from the AstroDome complex to the park grounds over Loop 610, is all that remains of what was once the best place in Texas for fun.
www.sixflags.com/national/alert/astroworld

Best Place to Get Stuck in Traffic
Montrose
Hey, we know Houston traffic can rush by at the speed of stampeding turtles; but if there is a place to get stuck, it’s definitely Montrose. Perhaps Houston’s friendliest neighborhood for pedestrians, Montrose Blvd. and the surrounding streets, are lined with plenty of options to lose yourself while waiting for rush hour traffic to dissipate. For a peaceful after-work get away, check out the Menil Collection (www.menil.org; 1515 Sul Ross), a free museum housing some of the world’s premiere art pieces. Afterwards, get a bite to eat at the Black Labrador (www.blacklabradorpub.com; 4100 Montrose), a great, authentic English pub. With a menu featuring hamburgers and traditional fare from across the pond, who says English food has to be boring? If you have a passion for fashion, stop by the Leopard Lounge (1637 Westheimer) for a truly unique clothing experience. This resale shop has everything from concert T-shirts to one-of-a-kind skirts and tops. Do you have a great story from Def Leppard’s 1987 tour stop at the Summit? Chances are the Leopard Lounge has the shirt.

Best tour in Houston
The Downtown Tunnel System
Far beneath (20 feet below street level to be exact) Houston’s majestic skyline lies a series of corridors lined with shops and eateries, all connecting some of downtown’s most important business centers. The downtown Houston tunnel system is a seven-mile long network of passageways that have become a culture all its own. Houston’s weather can change from 100 degrees to a 100 percent chance of rain in a heartbeat; luckily for downtown workers and visitors, dentists, florists, salons and a shopping mall call the cavernous network home. The Tunnel System supports downtown with most every service imaginable without ever leaving the heart of the city. Discover Houston (www.discoverhoustontours.com) offers public tours of the Tunnel and other downtown locales four days a week.
www.houstontunnels.com

Best place to be seen
Crome
It’s where Houston’s beautiful people go to see and be seen and is a frequent playground for celebrities visiting the Bayou City. Mix in top-notch bottle service and some of the best beats around and the result is Crome. Located at 2815 South Shepherd, Crome offers H-Town’s best scenery, be it the men, the women or the cars parked outside. Weekly events such as Sundae Fundae patio parties have proven to be a huge hit with the city’s elite and party-goers. All-out theme parties such as their Oct. 27 Halloween bash have become the talk of the town. Dress to impress and if you show up on the right night, you can party with the likes of Hilary Duff, Jamie Foxx, Nickleback, Vida Guerra, Lindsey Lohan or Robert Horry. With corporate party packages available, everybody can be a somebody at Crome.
www.cromelounge.com

Best place to go on a first date
The Burke Baker Planetarium
When there’s only one chance to make a first impression, make sure it’s a good one. The Burke Baker Planetarium at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a great way to show your date that it’s cool to be cultured. During normal business hours, the domed theater presents shows such as Passport to the Universe, a star-studded tour of the Milky Way and beyond narrated by Tom Hanks. On Saturdays at 6 p.m. the Planetarium rocks to the sounds of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon during a revolutionary spectacular light show.
www.hmns.org

Best place to walk the dog
Millie Bush Bark Park
While dog parks are popping up across the Houston area, the Millie Bush Bark Park remains the city’s best place for man’s best friend. The first dog park in the Harris County parks system is named after former First Dog Millie. Spanning 13 acres of land within George Bush Park, the Bark Park provides all the outdoor amenities for our four-legged friends. A walking trail winds through the park and benches dot the landscape. Featuring small and large dog areas (complete with corresponding fire hydrants); trees; doggie showers, ponds and fountains, Millie Bush Bark Park is definitely a place where every dog has its day.
www.pct3.hctx.net/PGeorge/BarkPark.htm

Best dessert to splurge on
Molten Chocolate Cake
Do your knees get weak at the thought of ooey, gooey chocolate running down a mountain of decadent chocolate cake? Does your dentist take their family on a Mediterranean cruise after every one of your visits? Chances are you indulge in the Molten Chocolate Cake from the Grand Lux Café. This sinful treat has delighted Houstonians since the Grand Lux Café opened at 5000 Westheimer. The idea is simple — a chocolate cake with a warm chocolate center served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream; the result completes any chocoholic’s dream. Make sure you order this dessert when you order your entrée because they make it fresh to order and it takes about 30 minuets to prepare.
www.grandluxcafe.com

Houston’s Best Place to Accidentally Learn Something
St. Arnold’s Brewing Company
Nestled in a small warehouse district in the northwest part of Houston lies a learning experience unlike any other. The St. Arnold’s Brewing Company is Texas’ oldest craft brewery. Co-founded by Rice graduate Brock Wagner in 1993, the brewery has become a location for sudsy camaraderie and has gained a cult-like following among beer lovers and non-drinkers alike.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Wagner says. “The fact that people come out here and enjoy themselves is great. They bring their friends, family and out of town guests and now it’s a place that Houstonians are proud of. We really just wanted to make Houston a better place to live and we think we have accomplished that.”

Every Saturday at 1 p.m., hundreds of visitors armed with steins, glasses, lawn chairs and tied-dyed T-shirts gather in the parking lot of the brewery (2522 Fairway Park Dr.) for the $5 tour and beer tasting. Wagner actually conducts the majority of the tours himself.

“Every single one of our beers is made here at this brewery,” Wagner says. “I think what surprises most people is that our beers are made from only four ingredients.”

Unlike beers that are mass produced at gigantic breweries across the country, Wagner is proud to say his ingredients are actually pronounceable and easily recognized.

Each tasting event features four of St. Arnold’s seasonal and year-round beers. For the non-drinkers and designated drivers in the crowd, St. Arnold’s brews their own root beer, which can only be described as the nectar of the gods.
www.saintarnold.com

Best reason to go outside
Mercer Arboretum and Botanic Gardens
Houston has two seasons — hot and not as hot. Sure there are those two weeks out of the year that it freezes, followed by our monsoon season. But throughout the year, the Mercer Arboretum is one of the most beautiful places in Houston. Every month of the year, there is some kind of color explosion. Covering 254 acres along Cypress Creek, the land started as a 14-acre track owned by the late Charles and Thelma Mercer in 1949. They planted exotic and native trees, shrubbery and flowers creating a botanic paradise. Harris County purchased the land in 1974 on the promise that it would be retained as an educational garden for the public to enjoy. Over the years, the county purchased additional land surrounding the Mercer area, adding to the living museum. Tours can be reserved throughout the year and self-guided tours can be taken during business hours.
www.hcp4.net/mercer

Best place to watch the game with buds
The Wet Spot
There’s something about game day that brings friends and strangers together. With so many professional and college teams calling Houston home, GP’s Original Wet Spot (160 W. Gray) is the one place where all those fans can come together. With not one, but two steak nights (Monday and Thursday) and beer specials throughout the week, the Wet Spot is famous around town for some great eats (it was H Texas’ best bar food in 2005). Be sure to check out the weekend specials for college and pro football. It’s a tailgate party complete with more than 30 TVs and a full kitchen just for you and your best friends and fellow fans. If you aren’t having a good time, you aren’t at the Wet Spot.
www.wetspot-houston.com

Best drive to feel like a million bucks
Kirby Drive
Houston is filled with millionaires and many of them live along Kirby Drive. Take a drive through Houston’s elite neighborhood — River Oaks and gasp at its grandeur. Kirby Drive spotlights the eccentricities and excesses of the Bayou City’s upper crust and allows one to envision their lifestyle. Mansions, lush greenery, classic cars and history are on full display in this privileged area. The drive allows us to stare in awe while praying that we don’t rear-end the person in front of us. One may never live in River Oaks, but at least we can feel like a million bucks as we drive through the neighborhood.

Best hotel pool
Hilton Americas Hotel
Hidden on the 24th floor of the Hilton Americas Hotel is a modern-themed paradise. A 75-foot indoor pool invites guests into its hidden abyss, offering an escape from the humidity and concrete surrounding downtown. The design-centric pool is unlike any other because of its floor to ceiling windows that surrounds the entire pool area. While looking at Houston’s skyscrapers, one can not help but feel somewhat of a voyeur. That is why this pool is the best; it is decadent, exclusive and guests are able to swim in the city’s majestic skyline.
www.hilton.com

Best place to sweat
Renting a bike on the Seawall
Sweating is a way of life for Houstonians, so it was hard to narrow it down to the best. Just walk outside any time between March and October and the sweating begins. With the endless possibilities, H Texas decided that fun should be incorporated while keeping the topic G-rated, so we went with renting a bike in Galveston. With more than 32 miles of beaches, there are many different places to sweat on this island. But, when looking at the tourists and guests of the Seawall, some things were a constant: the laughter and joyous looks of people who were peddling. There are various forms of transportation for rent on the island, just make sure to wear appropriate attire so a wardrobe malfunction won’t occur. If you really want to be adventurous, rent a chopper bike or a “Rent Me” car that looks like a bubble-shaped golf cart. You may live to regret the decision, but the fun will be worth the embarrassment.
www.islandbicyclecompany.com
Beach Bike Rental, 409-765-8579; EZ Rentals, 409-763-0705; Goody Bike Rentals, 409-621-1062

Best place to eat with 10 people
Murder by Chocolate
Step out of your boundaries and try something new with your friends. Participate in a real-life whodunit and pretend you are a sleuth! Solve a zany mystery caper while enjoying a delicious meal with 10 of your best friends at Murder by Chocolate. A murder will take place and everyone in the audience instantly becomes a suspect in this real-life Clue game. After dessert is served, (chocolate of course) the mystery will be solved and a guest will be apprehended. The audience participates in an action-packed, gritty realism while savoring a three-course meal. It is an experience unlike any other and one that is sure to have you weary of the person sitting next to you, especially of the one in the dining room, with the rope.
www.murderbychocolate.net

Best place where everybody knows your name
Novelli’s Deli &Sports Bar
Love, loyalty, passion: no other words can describe Novelli’s. Nothing beats walking into your favorite hole-in-the-wall and having the bartender greet you by your first name while pouring your beloved past-time beverage. Maybe it is because Bruce, the bartender, will drink one with you and occasionally say “it’s on the house,” or maybe it’s because the beer is cheap. For whatever reason, Novelli’s isn’t just a bar, it is a ritual. Week after week, regulars hang out, drink beer and trade one-liners. It is comforting to know that everybody knows your name as you walk through its doors. 281-534-6352

Best Building
The O’Quinn Medical Tower at St. Luke’s
It is tall, powerful, and prominent. It stands out from the rest and makes one stare in astonishment. No, not Yao Ming. It is the gleaming tower that stands proud among the other skyscrapers in this city: The O’Quinn Medical Tower at St. Luke’s. Complete with a nine-story, 1,350 space parking garage, this 316 ft. high-rise building has 25 floors and stands in the largest Medical Center in the world. The two spires on top of the building that protrude into the sky are made of aluminum and are for decorative purposes only.

Best place for a bargain
Charming Charlie
A trove of accessories awaits bargain lovers at Charming Charlie. From sterling silver jewelry, purses, watches to name-brand sunglasses, this chain of accessory stores caters to any women’s taste. The discount store also offers beading classes for individuals looking to make one-of-a-kind pieces that will cause any trendsetter to become jealous. The bargains don’t just end there; visit their website daily to see if online bargains are available. Their Harwin location is a 9,000 square-foot facility that offers everything imaginable to complete an outfit. If that isn’t enough, new locations continue to pop up in different areas of the city so everyone can find a bargain.
www.charmingcharlie.com

Best fries at an over-priced bar
Max’s Wine Dive
Not many places in Houston can create a buzz and keep people talking long after the red ribbon is cut. However, Max’s Wine Dive continues to do so. No, this isn’t praise about how wonderful the place is. This establishment is voted as one of the best because of their fries. Bonus: it is one of the cheapest items listed on the menu. We Southerners love our fries and are hesitant when a chef tries to do something culinary different with this burger staple. However, the salty taste of Max &Jack’s frites combined with their crunchy exterior immediately makes the mouth water as the sweet taste of ketchup touches the tongue. Mmmmm…fries. Who would have thought that merlot would pair well with fries? Don’t knock it ’til you try it. The frites are fresh-cut, homemade and tossed with fry dust that scream “gimme more with another glass of merlot, please.”
www.maxswinedive.com

Best movie featuring Houston
Reality Bites
Not many directors come to Houston to film movies. Also, not many become movie stars after their directorial debut. But, Ben Stiller headlines those two short lists. The 1994 movie Reality Bites showed many positive notes about our beloved city. From the opening shot on top of a downtown skyscraper to the Tranquility Park to driving down Allen Parkway, this movie, aside from the melodramatic and feel-good moments, captures the greatness of Houston. It reminds viewers of their youth when college graduation was looming and future responsibilities weren’t quite understood. Reality Bites encapsulates Houston’s most notable landmarks and shows the world what makes it a great city.

Best eye brow shaper place
Beyond Beaute
The shape of one’s eyebrows can either enhance or diminish the beauty of a face. Eyebrow shaping is the most technical of the beautifying process, so the help of a professional is necessary to tame those wayward brows. There are many aestheticians in Houston, but not many make the process relaxing and stress-free. Finding an excellent eyebrow waxer is like finding the perfect man: it rarely exists. The tranquil atmosphere makes eyebrow waxing an enjoyable experience. Any time hot wax is placed on the face, the experience better be enjoyable! From the moment you step into their beautiful décor to the time you leave, customer service is at its best. Plus, every client who leaves the day spa comes out better looking than when they entered. Who could ask for more?
www.beyondbeaute.com

Best pedicure for a man
Cuts n’ Curls
This quaint shop nestled on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico provides a place to unwind and get pampered at a reduced price for men. Cuts n’ Curls offers an intimate experience for men seeking a pedicure but not wanting to broadcast to the world that they like to be groomed. Once entering the day spa, customers are led to a room hidden from prying eyes and ears. With a relaxing massage chair and soothing music, men continually praise how this place allows them to escape the demanding world to give their feet the much-needed attention they deserve. Repeat business from oil tycoons to truck drivers proves that this boutique offers them something no other place can in the Greater Houston area. 281-559-2428

Best cooking class
Central Market
Are you tired of eating fast food or hearing your significant other saying “tacos again?” Then undertake a new challenge and learn how to cook. There is only one place that allows people to have fun while learning how to hone their culinary skills, and that place is Central Market’s cooking school. Expert chefs offer easy to challenging fares every month featuring cuisines from around the world. The classes give individuals an opportunity to embark on a culinary journey with hands-on training, demonstrations, step-by-step instructions and explanations of the different ingredients used to create certain flavors. Central Market is the best when it comes to fresh ingredients, wine selections and food experts offering advice and tips on how to make your next meal even better.
www.centralmarket.com

Best customer service when shoe shopping
Nordstrom
The selection, atmosphere, and the piano music softly whispering in your ear sure know how to get women’s feet moving and the credit cards swiping. Nordstrom is a prime example of the best customer service and customer satisfaction in the retail industry. Each shopping experience in this premiere department store is unlike any other. From the friendliness of the employees to the store’s vast selection of shoes, Nordstrom is the sole…er, soul of shoe heaven. A woman who loves shoes is a continuous shopper and will make it her mission to find the one spot that caters to her vice. Nordstrom does not disappoint in this area. Miles upon miles of shoes in every shape and budget are on full display in this luxurious store. If you can walk past their shoe department without glancing, or stopping in mid-stride, then you do not have a weakness for shoes. A true shoe connoisseur will not miss the opportunity to view Nordstrom’s shoes nor the best customer service in the city.
www.nordstrom.com

Best story of 2007
Craig Biggio
Didn’t it seem like yesterday that some bright-eyed kid from New York came to Houston and stole the hearts of Astros fans? Twenty years and more than 3,050 hits later, the remarkable career of Craig Biggio has come to a close.

“I’ve been so blessed to have played for one team my entire career. That means a lot, especially in this day and age where there’s no loyalty from players or management anymore … There’s been loyalty from three sides. It’s from our side, from management’s side and the fans’ side,” he says in a letter to fans posted on www.astros.com. “If the fans didn’t come out and support us, and watch us play, would it have lasted as long as it did? Probably not. That makes you feel appreciated because they are part of it. They’re part of the decision making.”

Time certainly flies. Early in his career, we couldn’t even figure out how to say his name — Craig Beesh-eeyoh; Big-ee-oh; Bidge-ee-o — but we knew there was something special about that catcher.

Throughout his illustrious career, Biggio was the embodiment of the best Houston has to offer: energy, compassion and heart.

From day one, Biggio’s hustle and youthful exuberance made him an instant fan favorite on a team laden with aging stars. Whether it was beating out a close grounder at first base or trying to stretch a single into a double, fans could always be assured that the future hall-of-famer would give 100 percent of his energy.

Just as quickly as Houston fell in love with Biggio, he fell in love with the city. He also saw the need for support of children battling cancer. For more than 15 years, he and his family have unselfishly devoted their time, compassion and resources to the Sunshine Kids. During spring training exhibition games and regular season batting practice, the Sunshine Kids’ sun logo pin was a trademark on his baseball cap. More than $2.5 million has been raised for the organization through his annual celebrity golf tournaments.

Although the phrase ‘Heart of a Champion’ was popularized by another Houston sports franchise, no one in the city personifies the statement more than Biggio.

The seven-time all star (at two positions) took the field as the face of Houston’s baseball franchise. He was there when the Astros finished with a franchise-worst 97 losses. He was there 14 years later when the team reached the top of baseball’s pinnacle and played in their first-ever World Series.

When Biggio decided to announce his retirement on July 24, it was clear that Houston was on the verge of losing an icon. Twenty years sure did fly by, but thanks to Craig Biggio, it was sure worth the ride.

Houston Ballet gives its yearly production of The Nutcracker

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

The Kingdom of Sweets Comes Alive

by Elise Wahn

Arguably one of the most popular ballets ever performed, and one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous works, The Nutcracker, ironically was not one of the composer’s favorites.  Now a holiday tradition, Houston Ballet is performing The Nutcracker through December.  Choreographed by Ben Stevenson with costumes and sets designed by Desmond Heely, the production is a spectacular vision of a winter wonderland.

A dream within a ballet,The Nutcracker captures the vivid images of a child’s imagination. The stage swirls with living snowflakes, sparkling sugarplum fairies and a giant glittering Christmas tree. Dolls dance, giant rats attack and toy soldiers battle in the space of a single night. The title character emerges as the Nutcracker Prince who guides Clara, a little girl, through the Kingdom of Sweets.  Together, they witness the world of Spanish, Arabian, Russian and Chinese dances.  A waltz performed by flowers emerges as one of the ballet’s definitive sequences.

The enchanting score is among the first to feature the celesta. Built like a piano but with a sound similar to a glockenspiel, the instrument, invented in 1896, accompanies the famed “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.” The pas de deux, a duet dance performed by the nutcracker Prince and Sugarplum Fairy, reigns among the ballet’s most memorable scenes.

Costuming and sets for this year’s Houston Ballet performance are sumptuous, employing stunning colors and flowing fabrics. Heely, who created costumes for New York’s American Ballet Theatre, presents designs mirroring the imagination of the score. The Sugarplum Fairy floats across the stage in a palette of pinks, dancing the pas de deux opposite a shining white Nutcracker Prince.

Choreographer Ben Stevenson, after whom Houston Ballet’s affiliated academy is named, served as the ballet’s artistic director for 27 years and choreographed productions for the English National Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, Ballet de Santiago and the National Ballet in Washington, D.C. The recipient of several choreography awards, he was instrumental in transforming Houston Ballet into an internationally acclaimed ensemble.

The performance runs two hours with a brief 20 minute intermission. With its dazzling visual appeal and a score that will leave you humming, The Nutcracker has something for everyone. Don’t miss this holiday treat.

Houston Back to the Future

November 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

There has been much discussion about Houston’s future. Indeed, is there one? Engineers, historians, urban planners (how do you plan an ‘urb?’) and those who bombard newspapers with letters so they can see their names in print, all of them have their own plans for this town’s next 100 years.

Our own expertise is as valuable as anyone’s, so let us explain how to make Houston a better place for our children and their children. First, we must bring order to chaos by instituting strict zoning. Aha! You say that zoning stifles growth. Tell that to the city of Austin which has zoning, building regulations and ordinances tough enough to make Santa Fe blush. Indeed, one of Austin’s biggest problems is that everyone else wants to live there. (The city now has a greater population than Fort Worth or El Paso). So much for the “stifle growth” argument.

We need to do something about our traffic. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Houston-area commuters spent 56 hours sitting in traffic during 2005, making it the seventh-most congested city in the nation. That time could be better spent firing Astros, collecting garden hoses or, of course, planning ‘urbs.’ In the future, Houston should invent something I call “mass transit” whereby a person called a “driver” or “engineer” does the driving while the rest of us sip coffee in the mornings and martinis in the afternoon while crocheting shawls as we zip through the city to our destinations.

It’s a crying shame that Houston doesn’t have tracked transit left over from its earlier days when trains moved cotton and cattle. Today we could use the rails to move people. For instance, if only there had been a railroad track right alongside the Katy Freeway. Such a transit system would also solve another of our problems: air pollution. Using our plan, by the year 2107 this city will have air as clean as a Marine boot-camper’s boots. I suggest that we:

A) Pass laws against polluting the air; and

B) Enforce them.

Yes, it’s a revolutionary concept, but worth a try. And who knows? Such changes might even be good for our economy as we make this an even more attractive place to live and work. We keep hearing that Houston must have a “good business climate.” Let’s create one — literally.

According to news reports, in a report commissioned by the Greater Houston Partnership, “Opportunity Urbanism: An Emerging Paradigm for the 21st Century,” urban historian Joel Kotkin argued that quality-of-life issues such as parks and cultural amenities do not need to be a top priority of local leaders. I agree. We need more blight to attract more unemployed soccer hooligans and Blackwater hit men.

Even without additional billboards and fewer libraries, we seem to be doing all right. Between 2000 and 2006, the population of Harris County increased by 485,653. It is as though every man, woman and child in pre-Katrina New Orleans moved here; sometimes I think they have. However, many of the newcomers moved here from the north. Do you ever get the idea that the border patrol is watching the wrong river? What’s more, experts predict over the next few years this area’s population will double.

A few more changes will help Houston in the 22nd century: two daily newspapers with at least one of them articulate; and radio talk shows that are not pitched to the John Birch Society.

We need an Alamo like San Antonio and a Riverwalk. Steal from the best.

Houston should build a Six Flags amusement park and a big sports facility we’d call the Astrodome.

We can install video cameras at major intersections to determine who is setting up all those video cameras. While these initial cameras are spotting red-light runners and are cutting down on deadly collisions, they create real problems for our local TV news shows.

A catchy motto would help, such as “the Bayou City,” “Gateway to Channelview” or “Houston — where you are never more than a half inning away from Major League Baseball.”

This brings us to sports. We could sign up some local sports talent like Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Vince Young; otherwise they might leave town to play for another team. And, in this football-crazy town, a pro team should do well here. Let’s call them the Oilers.

This is the energy capital of the world. So we should go with our strengths to make Houston the “world-class city” we keep hearing about. We form a huge energy-trading company called Enron. The world, class and otherwise, will soon hear of us.

Anything in Houston that has a second coat of paint gets a historical plaque. We need an Old Town district to attract drunken tourists who throw up on our sidewalks, get in bar fights and leave lots of money which they can’t account for. Again, stealing from the best, we need a French Quarter. I understand an unused one is currently available.

Incidentally, if you are worrying about just who will implement and oversee all these projects, we shall do as our city government has always done and create a Blue Ribbon Committee which, with the help from lots of highly paid consultants, will meet, hold public hearings and issue a report that will be read and followed by all as a blueprint for the future.

The Allen brothers and other founding fathers should have thought of these civic improvements when they first staked out this city more than a century and a half ago, but they didn’t have that vision thing. So now it’s up to us to lock the grid and throw away the key.

For Houston to be the city of the future, we must have low taxes and high services, honest officeholders like Tom DeLay, and a slick, efficient hurricane evacuation plan which we shall call Operation Rita. True, we already have a fine city with much going on, great people, arts, restaurants and trees. We simply need to tweak the system for the future.

Finally, you are asking, “How do we pay for all of this?” Once again we steal from the best — in this case the federal government. We pass the costs on to our children and their children. They’ll appreciate our foresightedness.

Rock the Vote Texas secondary when it comes to primaries

October 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby

Houston, do I have a deal for you. We shall wag the dog and call the shots. Yes, you too, Mr., Mrs. or Miss Occupant, can determine who next shall lead our nation into humiliation. It has to do with elections. Don’t change channels! We are talking how to turn big bucks on picking the president.

Each state is vying to hold its presidential primary earlier than any other so it can be the king- (or queen-) maker for the rest of America. This makes sense. We all like power. But Texas is always late in these contests, so no one cares for who we vote or who wins our primaries.

We are a nonentity, with less influence in picking presidents than voters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or…I can’t think of a town in New Hampshire but there must be one. Houston held hostage, Year 2007.

If the candidates don’t care about our votes, they certainly care about our money. Texas in general, and Houston in particular, are cash cows for the polls. During the campaigns hardly a week goes by that some Oval Office-seeker doesn’t come through town telling a private party of fat cats, “I hope I can count on your support,” which is secret code for, “Show me the money.” But the wannabe leaders rarely spend a dime of it here.

Well, I am tired of being used and ignored, and, as usual, I have the prefect solution. We hold the Houston Primary.

Hey, don’t laugh. We would poll Houstonians on who we want to be the next president. It may not be legally binding but will be just as significant as the Iowa Caucus (not to mention its straw vote) and more important than the New Hampshire Primary.

Here’s why. Demographically speaking, Harris County is a much better reflection of the rest of America. This, in turn, means any sampling taken here would be more accurate than polling in the forests of northern New England and the wheat fields of the Midwest.

New Hampshire has a population of 1,299,500 which breaks down to 96 percent white, 1.7 percent Hispanic, and 0.7 percent black. Iowa, with a population of 2,954,451, is 93 percent white, 2.8 percent Hispanic and 2.1 percent black. Any primary taken in those two states — 96 and 93 percent white — is akin to polling Tanglewood — or the Republican Party. In contrast, Harris County’s population now stands at 3.9 million, which is 37 percent white, 38 percent Hispanic and 18 percent black. The county also has an Asian population of 5.3 percent. Both New Hampshire and Iowa have Asian populations of 1.3 percent, which translates, so to speak, into several good restaurants and most of their PhDs.

One final comparison to show how we come out ahead: mottos. New Hampshire’s is, “Live free or die.” This means the state has no jails but is enthusiastic about capital punishment. There is no in-between. Iowa’s motto is, “Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain,” which must be hard to get on the bottom of a license plate. On the other hand, Houston’s motto is either “Where 22 railroads meet the sea,” “Houston Proud,” “Houston’s Hot,” “Expect the Unexpected” or the unforgettable, “SpaceCity. A Space of Infinite Possibilities.” Need I say more?

I now unveil our battle plan on how to go to the head of the crass. We announce that the Houston Primary will be the first presidential poll in the election, period. We may hold it in late November, after Thanksgiving Day when the Longhorns out-poll the Aggies; or maybe early December; but not on Dec. 7. Otherwise political junkies will begin their stories with, “A disaster hit the (fill in the blank) campaign fittingly on Pearl Harbor Day when….” It also gives the visiting corps of journalists a chance to write, again and again, “Houston we have a problem.”

“There is not time enough for planning,” you say. Oh, ye of little faith, all the campaigns are running around the countryside as it is. Do they go to South Carolina on Monday or Florida for lunch? This is Thursday, it must be Iowa. Without question, the moveable feast can adjust, as they do hourly. Houston can be added to the top of the list. We’re on first.

Soon the candidates, the press, the spin doctors and volunteer child labor will pour into our town, filling the hotel rooms, renting cars, eating at our restaurants and spending millions on ads. Every moment on local TV stations will be saturated with the smiling faces of the candidates to the point where we can find the mute button in our sleep. (During the last statewide elections, Belo Corp. reported a spike in fourth quarter earnings strictly because of campaign ads on its Texas TV stations.) So after all these years, donated dollars from Des Moines and from some unknown village in New Hampshire will come our way, a total reversal of previous campaigns.

Ah, you ask, but would the Houston Primary carry enough weight and be influential enough that even Dennis Kucinich would campaign here? Yes, if there is a Greyhound bus heading to Houston. The Iowa straw poll attracted exactly 14,302 voters, or about the same number of people who attend Dynamo games, and was about as exciting. But that meaningless Iowa tabulation generated a ton of attention for the winner, Mitt Romney, followed by oodles of contributions for his campaign. Romney dropped $4 million in Iowa. Just think what he would spend here in an earlier and far more influential race.

There is another advantage, unspoken but true. During that time of year, Houston has much better weather. As it is now, a candidate can get frost-bitten waiting at New Hampshire factory gates at 4 a.m. for the workers to show up. Same for stalking the corn stalks in Iowa to shake hands with the dairy farmers who get up at midnight. And the press trailing behind, always a whiney bunch anyway, actually has grounds for complaints.

But in Houston, there would be none of that nomadic and freezing life. All of those involved stay in a hotel, wake up in the same bed for a couple of weeks (politics does, indeed, make for strange bedfellows), order room service and sign the tab at the hotel bar while figuring out how to hide it on their expense accounts. None of this exhausting plane-and-pizza life.

Also, as with our people being more of a true reflection of America, those who would be president will get a real taste of we-the-people and our problems. Forget the photo ops at the Minneapolis bridge, try negotiating the Katy Freeway-Sam Houston Tollway intersection on those weekends when TxDOT closes both. We’d see a nice increase in appropriations for highway construction.

Global warming and pollution? Go down Clinton Drive. (OK, bad choice for a name) and take a deep breath. How are we treating our veterans? There are 220,000 vets in Harris County, more than in any other county in Texas. They’ll be glad to inform you about their situations. What would you do about immigration control, candidate? We have 1.48 million Hispanics in Harris County. Some of them can’t vote, so who cares? I’ll tell you who cares. The Hispanics who can vote, that’s who. And what are you going to do about crime? We’ve got 10,000 inmates in our county jail plus another 300 in the city jail. That’s reaching the number who voted in the Iowa straw poll.

The front-running primary states are fine, no doubt. Iowa and New Hampshire may leap-frog over all the others to maintain their status quo or otherwise. But we could do the nation, the candidates, the media and the camp followers a real service by holding the nation’s first presidential primary right here in Houston.

Let’s wag the dog.

Fab Finds in Fall Boutiques

September 1, 2007 by  
Filed under Edit

Set the trends this season by investing in diverse pieces that are showcased in Houston’s newest boutiques.

Beaucoup Amor
Accessories play a vital role in a wardrobe’s life. A pair of earrings can jazz up a basic ensemble or the right pair of shoes can make the outfit. Whatever the accessory, one can never own too many. Beaucoup Amor, an accessory boutique that opened nine months ago, is catering to those who love to set trends. This high-end store features an array of shoes, handbags, belts, candles, and jewelry. The jewelry consists of distinctive, quality pieces that not only compliment the outfit but are fashion-forward. International designers, such as Lara Bohinc of London, Francesca Giobbi, Abaco of Paris and Oade Vavra, grace the shelves in this beautiful boutique. Each accessory is a staple that goes hand-in-hand with the fashion-forward shopper. 3055 Sage Road, Ste. 140, 713-622-9599

Catwalk
Catwalk has a trove of sweet style finds. Divided into two sections, retro and boutique, the back of the store houses one-of-a-kind vintage items from flats to wedges to 80s style retro shoes as well as T-shirts, dresses and skirts galore. The front has many independent labels catering to boutique lovers, and features a number of designer jeans such as Seven’s, True Religion, Rock and Republic and Paige Premium Denim. Men have a unique section to browse as well, featuring Gucci, Prada and Dolce and Gabbana, among other hip labels. This new boutique is perfect for those who love to scour the racks for unique items. 1431 Westheimer, 713-523-9255

Laura U
Since opening the doors to her boutique five months ago, Laura Umansky has created a buzz. Her distinct Laura U collection encompasses modern and eclectic pieces that provide unique accents for a person’s home. From handmade, customized furniture to pieces that are ready to go, the Laura U collection is a decorator’s paradise. International pieces entangled with local artists are featured throughout the boutique, as well as lotions, candles, and cool lighting that accentuate the modern home’s décor. Owner and creative director Laura Umansky provides resources, tools and ideas that can not be found elsewhere and her clients are claiming her collection is a “breath of fresh air” for Houston. 1840 Westheimer, 713-522-0855

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