In Episode 24 in my travel podcast series, I’m taking you on on a road trip through Texas, where I spent ten days with my family in the spring. We did so much on that holiday that I’m splitting the podcast into two episodes and this first episode covers everything we did in Houston and San Antonio. You’ll hear all about the Houston space centre where we took the tram tour to see the giant spaceship workshop and learned about the NASA Space Programme. From Houston we drove down to San Antonio where we visited the Alamo, cycled along the river to see the Spanish Missions and took a night time stroll along the buzzing River Walk. We also spent a very enjoyable day on Picosa Ranch which was was once the home of Texas Governor John Connally, and has now been turned into a luxury ranch where we enjoyed pretending we were cowboys for a day.
First stop – Space Center Houston
The Space Center Houston is one of the major attractions of Houston and an easy drive around the ring road from the Park Inn Hotel, near the aiport, where we had stayed the night before. On arrival we decided to start with the Tramway Tour, as we were told that there could be thunderstorms later that afternoon and the tour would then be closed. The tram is one of those little tourist trains that takes you around the NASA complex, and although most of the buildings are just places where people work, the thing that made the tour fascinating was the commentary full of interesting space facts.
Space facts we learned on the Tram Tour
There is no way to replicate the weightlessness of space, so astronauts often practice in giant water tanks to create a similar effect. There is also a jet that astronauts train on that creates microgravity by flying on a trajectory like a 2 mile high roller coaster. On this Zero Gravity flight a lot of people feel sick, giving it the nickname of the “Vomit Comet”.
On the tram tour you will pass a grove of oaks, the Astronaut Memorial Grove. Each tree commemorates an astronaut who died on a space mission, such as those in the Challenger and Colombia space disasters. President George W.Bush said “Each of these astronauts knew that great endeavors are inseparable from great risks and each of them accepted these risks willingly, even joyfully in the cause of discovery. America’s space program will go on.”
The giant space workshop
We entered a huge building, went up some stairs and into the viewing area overlooking an enormous hangar, which looked like a big junk shop where people were busy making things for the space programme. An astronaut in training was trying out a space suit and the hangar was full of mock-ups that are created to allow the astronauts to try out living in the confined quarters of the space craft, before they go up in the real thing. A little further on the tram ride, we stopped at another hangar that had a number of space shuttles inside and some rockets parked outside, before it was back to the main space center.
Back inside we went into the Blast-off presentation to get a feel of the sights, sounds and even the smoke and vibration of a space mission blasting into orbit, followed by a presentation in the lecture theatre about the space programme. Afterwards we listened to another of the presenters show us a mock-up of some of the space shuttle equipment and living area to demonstrate how astronauts live in space. Apparently the number one question that everyone asks is; “How do astronauts go to the toilet?” and we learned that it’s mostly done by suction and vacuums! While in space the astronauts also have to exercise for 2 hrs a day on an exercise bike to keep up their muscle tone and calcium levels and they eat meals that are vacuum packed and rehydrated with hot water injected through a tube. We also had look at the hall where all the space suits are kept, including the petite one one worn by Judith Resnik, the female astronaut killed in the Challenger Space disaster. If you decide to visit the Space Center Houston, my money-saving tip is to go onto their website and book your tickets in advance, as it cost us about half the price of buying them on the door.
The drive from Houston to San Antonio
As we drove out of Houston, the countryside turned from flyovers and shopping malls to green fields and we felt we were getting into the real Texas. On the way we had promised the children that we would stop at a real American Diner so once we had cleared Houston, we pulled off the Interstate and into Tony’s family restaurant. Although it was surrounded by Macdonalds and you couldn’t see in from the outside due to the mirrored windows, once inside we felt we had found a genuine family run diner. We sat down in one of the booths and I ordered fried catfish with okra while the family stuck to the burgers and the Tex Mex. The waitress serving us was thrilled to meet an English family that “Spoke like Harry Potter” and we were also getting used to Texas speak with all the “Yessir, Yes Maam” and “How y’all doing”.
Sightseeing in San Antonio
After four hours on the Interstate, we reached San Antonio and found our Hotel Valencia, a luxury boutique hotel by the River Walk in the heart of the downtown area. The hotel has a Mediterranean style with terracotta and ochre exterior inspired by an Italian Palazzo and modern interiors with dark wood, subdued lighting and fake fur throws. Our room overlooked the River Walk where we could see the tour boats going by and the hotel was perfectly located for seeing the major sights of San Antonio.
The Alamo is one of the “must see” attraction in San Antonio if not in the whole of Texas. It is one of several Spanish Missions in this area and has a major significance in the struggle for Texan independence from Mexico. This is where, in 1836, a couple of hundred volunteers held out against the Mexican Army led by General Santa Anna and where they were all killed as no reinforcements arrived to relieve them. The episode became a turning point in the war of Texan Independence and the rallying cry was “Remember the Alamo”. Soon afterwards, the Texan armies regrouped and defeated the Mexican army, enabling them to negotiate Texan independence from Mexico. The Alamo is within the downtown area of San Antonio and many visitors are surprised that it is not larger, considering its significance as a Texan monument. There is the chapel of the mission which is now known as the Alamo shrine, the long barracks which has information about the history of the complex and a third building which is partly a museum, partly a gift shop as well as several courtyards and pleasant gardens.
Cycling to see the Spanish Missions
After our visit to the Alamo we decided to hire bikes to cycle along the river and visit some of the other Spanish missions. The route took us through town until we reached the Nueve bridge where we got onto the riverside path and cycled past the old mansions of the historic King William District. The river widened as we got to the outskirts of town and became Mission Reach, with a path alongside the river running all the way to the Missions. The path was still partly under construction, and somehow we missed the sign for Mission Conception and carried on to Mission San Jose. We parked our bikes in front of the Visitor Centre and walked through the stone archway into the large walled grassed compound with the old stone church at its centre, where the carved stone facade was being restored. Behind the church were store rooms and a working water mill where volunteers were giving a demonstration of how the grain would be ground into flour. I had a look around the beautiful church interior while the family lay on the grass in the shade of a tree outside – it would be a great place to bring a picnic. Unfortunately, as we had only hired the bikes for 4 hours, we ran out of time to see the other two missions in the area, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada but cycled back towards San Antonio along the Mission Trail.
Back to San Antonio
On the return journey, we stopped at the Blue Star Brewing company where we had spotted a cafe and a bike hire shop – a good alternative location to park the car and then hire bikes for the cycle along Mission Reach. We ordered a drink in the brewery where you can see the big metal brewing containers behind the bar, although I stuck to a glass of iced tea. As we had to return our bikes, we pressed on back to Segcity, where we had hired them, just behind the visitor centre across the street from the Alamo. It’s worth knowing that another way of hiring bikes is through the City Bike Scheme, where there are public bikes available in a number of locations around the city, including one just beside the visitor centre and also at the Blue Star brewery. You register your credit card in the machine and then the bike is free for the first 30 minutes. If decide to use the bike for longer, the charge is $2 an hour which is still good value and cheaper than hiring from a cycle shop.
Back in San Antonio we spent the evening walking along the Riverwalk . The river is not very wide but there are hotels, bars and restaurants all along it, so the atmosphere is lively and buzzing at night. You can also join one of the tour boats going up and down the river with guides giving a commentary about the different buildings and historic sights to see along the river.
Picosa Ranch at Floresville
On our final day in San Antonio, we drove half an hour south of the city to Floresville where we had arranged to spend the day at Picosa Ranch. It’s a luxury ranch that was originally owned by Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nellie,who are well known in Texas because they were in the car with President John J Kennedy when he was assassinated in Dallas and John Connally was also shot but he survived. We met up with Bubba Amman, the grandson of Governor John Connally, who showed us around the Main House, once the family home that is now available for guests use, as well as the beautiful Guest House just across the lawn.
Being a history enthusiast it was cool to feel the part that the ranch had played in Texas history, hosting events for Presidents and celebrities. In the Main House we saw John Connally’s office which was like a mini-museum with memorabilia from his time in government. There was even the stetson that the Governor had bought to present to the President, with the initials JFK inside the brim, as well as tickets to the ball that was planned for the evening of the day he died.
We took a drive around the ranch in a golf buggy to see all the exotic African animals such as zebra and eland that they keep on the ranch. The main focus is on hunting but there are many other activities available to guests, and these are tailored to whatever their guests want to enjoy. We had lunch in a shaded, sunken terrace known as “The Pit” with an outdoor kitchen and BBQ by the pool where we had a great lunch of salad and toasted club sandwiches. After lunch we tried our hand at Wobble shooting which in England, we would know as clay shooting, where the target is shot out from different directions and heights. We all had a turn at the wobble shooting and I was amazed to find that I shot something, although my husband and children were a lot better than me.
In the podcast, you’ll hear my interview with Bubba Amman, the grandson of Governor John Connally, who is now Vice President of Operations at Picosa Ranch. He told me how he practically grew up on the ranch from the age of 2 years old until the family sold the ranch when he was 21 years old. He had many happy memories of the first time he learned how to drive , the first time he learned to shoot a gun, the first time he learned to swim and many other firsts. Bubba had grown up with the family stories of the day that his grandfather got shot, and he told me how John Connally told him that he heard 3 shots from one person and one direction. There is still a lot of speculation about what really happened that day and there are many different theories over how and why the President was shot.
The ranch was sold to the Kowalski family, who have a major catering business in Texas and had catered for many events at Picosa ranch over the years. Because of the strong relationship between the Kowalski and Connally families, it was decided to open the ranch to guests around 5 years ago, so that others can experience something of the good times that the two families shared over the years. Guests can experience being outdoors and try out the many activities available on the ranch. The Picosa team will talk to guests in advance to ask them what they would like to do, which can be anything from fly fishing, horseback riding or kids’ rodeos to swimming, archery and shooting.
I hope you enjoyed my podcast about our Texas road trip from Houston to San Antonio, and do look out for the second part of the podcast about our visit to Austin and the Texas Hill Country.
Visitor information for your trip to Texas
In Houston we stayed at the Park Inn Houston North, which is comfortable and convenient for the airport and on our return trip at Hotel Sorella, a lovely boutique hotel in the City Centre neighbourhood of Houston with great shopping and nightlife.
Information to plan your visit to the Space Center Houston is available on their website. To save money, we recommend you check the ticket offers on their website which is cheaper than buying tickets when you arrive. Read my article about our day at Space center Houston here.
In San Antonio, we stayed at Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, a luxury boutique hotel by the River Walk in the heart of the downtown area. In San Antonio, you will enjoy strolling the River Walk, visiting the Alamo and the Spanish Missions. We hired bikes at Segcity, beside the Visitor Centre near the Alamo, but you could also try the Bike Share Scheme and there are many cycling routes around San Antonio. At the Blue Star Brewing Company there is also a cycle hire shop and a station for the Bike Share scheme.
Picosa Ranch is a luxury ranch just south of San Antonio and if you’d like to book a stay on the Ranch for a gathering of family and friends, you can contact them to discuss your requirements and get a quotation for a luxury, tailored experience. Read my article here about our day at Picosa Ranch and watch the video on Youtube
Our thanks to Picosa Ranch and the hotels mentioned who hosted our stays in Houston and San Antonio
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
Hotel Valencia rises from the San Antonio Riverwalk with a shades-of-ochre facade that is distinctly Mediterranean rather than North American. This luxury San Antonio hotel takes its design inspiration from an old world Italian palazzo although the teracotta roof tiles also reminded me of the South American haciendas that I’ve visited on my travels. Inside the outlook is modern with a European feel and the refreshing sounds of water greet you as you enter the lobby. Many of the rooms overlook the Riverwalk or the internal courtyard with balconies entwined with pink bougainvillea, although there’s no washing hanging out to dry that you might find in some traditional Italian neighbourhoods!
Although the Hotel Valencia exterior hints at old world Italian influences, the bedrooms are stylishly modern – with stone coloured walls, dark polished woods, over-sized framed mirrors and geometric lamps. We stayed in a Junior suite with a view over the Riverwalk and a semi-circular mouse-brown velvet seating area set in the curve of the windows that was perfect to enjoy an evening drink or to flick through the glossy magazines showcasing the best of Texas and San Antonio. Luxurious fake fur throws covered the beds and there were squashy leather armchairs and desk spaces in each room with a Tivoli radio by the bed as well as a flat screen TV (not one but two in our suite – oh joy!). With the wooden plantation shutters and subdued lighting the atmosphere was sophisticated and romantic, a place to come back to and relax after a day’s sightseeing although I could have done with a decent reading light to curl up with a good book.
I hope you enjoy the video below about our stay at Hotel Valencia Riverwalk
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In the adjoining room, through the connecting door, our children had another beautiful room all to themselves but this time with two Queen beds, the ideal combination for staying together as a family. Beautiful as the room was, it didn’t take long for them to cover every surface with clothes and assorted debris, so thanks goodness I didn’t have to look at it. We had a lockable fridge stocked with all the mini-bar drinks you could wish for and a tray of snacks that you could purchase, as well as a coffee making machine to make a hot brew – oh and free wifi of course. The bathrooms felt particularly luxurious, especially the one in our suite with elegant textured wall-covering, wood and white marble vanity area with stainless steel sink and accessories. The bath had a shower above, with white cotton pique curtain and deliciously citrus-scented toiletries. I was all set for some pampering me-time which was thwarted by the children who also found our bathroom rather congenial and kept coming in to use it instead of their own.
Unusually the reception of Hotel Valencia Riverwalk is up a flight of stairs from the street entrance and I noticed had a useful business area, with a choice of PC or Mac, nearby. The staff were all lovely and helped me with plenty of sightseeing information about things to visit in San Antonio, advice on jogging routes and where to hire bikes. On the same floor is the award winning Citrus restaurant where the team led by Executive Chef Jeff Balfour serve upscale reinventions of Texan cuisine using locally sourced ingredients. The restaurant overlooks the Riverwalk and you can choose to eat al fresco on the terrace, or inside the restaurant with the same polished dark woods and modern interiors with red highlights. Although we didn’t eat in the Citrus restaurant, thinking it would be wasted on our teenagers, it was the sort of place I’d love dine a deux with my dearly beloved if we were able to appreciate the fine food with no distractions from younger family members who just want steak and chips.
Next to the Citrus Restaurant is the sophisticated V Bar with a chain metal curtain separating the cocktail bar from the more intimate cushioned seating area, where amber glass lights glow above a bubbling water feature. In the curved window overlooking the Riverwalk, are easy chairs and and black cubes for tables where the dark, iridescent table tops reflect flickering candles. As I explored these rather grown-up parts of the hotel, my eye was caught by a cabinet full of colourful glass fruit, each signed by a celebrity who had visited Hotel Valencia Riverwalk. It’s always reassuring to find that you’re keeping company with media moguls such as Simon Cowell, musical giants like Sting, or style queens Jennifer Lopez and Eva Longoria even though none of them were in residence at the time.
There are no shortage of things to see within a short walk of Hotel Valencia and I reckon that you could spend a week just exploring the things that are on or near the Riverwalk. We decided to leave our car parked for most of our stay and paid $29 + tax per day to make use of the hotel’s valet parking service. Not cheap and we could have self-parked in one of the downtown car parks nearby but we were feeling in the “just put it on the credit card” holiday mood and wanted to make the most of the couple of days we had to enjoy San Antonio on foot where possible.
The Riverwalk is a loop of the San Antonio River that’s been developed into a vibrant area that’s buzzing in the evening with bars and restaurants along its banks. You can take one of the many riverboat tours to hear from the guides about the history of the buildings along the banks of the river and there are also river taxis to get around. We managed to find plenty to see just by exploring on foot, such as the San Fernando cathedral fronted by an open plaza and the kind of low fountains that children run through in summer to cool off. The Cathedral played its part in the Battle of the Alamo as the place where the Mexican army raised the flag of “No Quarter” from the top of the tower, marking the start of the siege of the Alamo. We also passed by the outdoor Arneson River Theatre just below the La Villita Historic district where the old houses have now been converted into restaurants, art galleries and craft shops and the picturesque Little Church is a popular wedding venue.
A little further along the Riverwalk and you’ll find the Alamo, the most famous attraction in San Antonio by miles, due to its leading role in the struggle for Texan independence. The Alamo was part of the first Spanish mission in the area but in 1836 it became the base for a band of 200 Texans holding out against the overwhelming force of the Mexican army. For 13 days the Alamo came under seige and by the end almost all inside were killed, but the bravery of those who died in this last stand created a rallying cry of “Remember the Alamo” and the Texan army soon after defeated the Mexicans and won Texan independence – Hurrah! After our morning visit to the Alamo we hired bikes and cycled out along the Mission Reach, part of the San Antonio river that has been recently redeveloped, to visit Mission San Jose, one of the other historic Spanish missions in the area.
Hotel Valencia Riverwalk proved to be perfectly located to get the most from our two days in San Antonio and we loved venturing out into the warm evening air and the buzzing atmosphere of the Riverwalk and then retreating from the hustle bustle to our peaceful haven of style and luxury. Hotel Valencia Riverwalk is the kind of place where you’d want to take a loved one for a treat (or a seduction) or I suppose to educate your teenagers in the finer things in life so they work harder at school. I’d highly recommend Hotel Valencia Riverwalk if you’re looking for a boutique style, luxury hotel with excellent service in the heart of downtown San Antonio on the Riverwalk.
Hotel Valencia Riverwalk, 150 East Houston Street, San Antonio, Texas, 78205
Hotel Valencia Riverwalk kindly hosted us at a reduced rate but king rooms or double queen rooms typically cost from $200-$300 per night depending on whether you choose a city, courtyard or Riverwalk view room. Room rates do not include breakfast which can be taken in the Citrus restaurant. The Hotel Valencia website offers a best rate guarantee or you can check for the best hotel rates in San Antonio and book here.
Things we recommend while staying at Hotel Valencia Riverwalk
Take a walking tour of the Riverwalk; it’s easy to pick up maps and information guides either at the hotel reception or at the main Visitor Information Bureau opposite the Alamo. The stop for Riverwalk boat tours is just 10 minutes away from the hotel. The Riverwalk changes character depending on the time of day – in the morning it’s fresh, green and peaceful but in the evening it’s more lively with people strolling and eating out in the warm evening air.
Visit the Alamo – it’s a free and unmissable attraction. Although the Alamo is smaller than many people expect it has an interesting museum area, free tours and beautiful gardens around what remains of the old mission buildings.
Cycle along the Mission Reach to Mission San Jose – we hired bikes from Segcity behind the visitor centre on Alamo square but there is also a San Antonio city bike scheme where you can pick up bikes from different locations around the city and leave them at another point. The first 30 minutes of the city bike scheme is free and this can be more economical than other bike rentals. We enjoyed our visit to Mission San Jose, set in a grassy walled compound with an interesting working water mill and a beautifully decorated church.
If you want to try a few local places to eat near Hotel Valencia we can recommend the trendy Tex-mex bar and restaurant, Acenar that has an outdoor terrace right below Hotel Valencia on the Riverwalk and also the Blanco Cafe – a family run Mexican diner that’s five minutes walk from the hotel for inexpensive Mexican food served throughout the day.
For more information on things to do in San Antonio, check out the Visit San Antonio website
More things to see in Texas
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This is a quick virtual postcard to tell you what we got up to in San Antonio, Texas where I’m on holiday with my family at the moment. Of course the must see attraction in San Antonio is the Alamo – it’s actually what is left of one of the several Spanish Missions in this area. Although the Alamo is not as big as many people expect, it has a huge significance in Texan history as the place where 200 Texans made a stand against the Mexican army and were all killed in the process. The defeat rallied the Texans with the cry “Remember the Alamo” and they counter-attacked at the battle of San Jacinto, their victory leading to Texan Independence from Mexico and its birth as a sovereign nation.
After we spent the morning looking around the Alamo we decided to hire bikes from Seg City just across the road behind the San Antonio Visitor’s information centre to cycle out to see the other missions which are a litte way out of town. We got onto the river path and cycled south along a part of the river known as Mission Reach that has been developed fairly recently as an extension of the River Walk that loops around the centre of town.
The cycle ride was very enjoyable as we stayed by the river for most of the way with only a little bit on busy roads towards the end of the ride. The only drawback was that none of us had put on any suncream and had underestimated the heat of the Texas sunshine which meant that we all got burned and were bright red by the next day. We reached San Jose Mission and had a look around this beautiful old mission, set in a grassy compound with a beautiful stone fronted church that was under restoration. As we needed to get the bikes back within 4 hours and also the childrens’ enthusiasm for old churches is somewhat lower than mine, we passed on the other missions and cycled home, stopping for refreshment at the Blue Star Brewing Compny on the way.
The next day, we drove south of San Antonio to Picosa Ranch Resort where we’d been invited to spend the day. Picosa Ranch is the former family home of Governor John Connally, Governor of Texas in the 60s that has now been converted into a luxury ranch that offers a bespoke experience ranging from hunting, fly fishing and shooting to horseback riding and hay bale rides – basically everything is tailored to give you the experience to suit your group or party.
The guest accommodation we saw was ultra-luxurious Texan style but what I found most interesting was to find out more about the family history from Governor John Connally’s grandson Bubba Ammann who is now Vice President of Operations at Picosa ranch. Bubba was able to tell us the story as he’d heard it first hand from his grandfather and grandmother who were in the front of the car with President John F Kennedy when he was assassinated in Dallas. We even saw the stetson hat that was due to be presented to JFK with his initials inside the brim and the invitation to the ball that was due to take place that evening.
We returned to San Antonio to our lovely Hotel Valencia – set right by the Riverwalk that flows through San Antonio. From the outside it has a Hacienda feel and inside is very stylish with a modern boutique feel – lots of leather and dark wood. The best thing was the central location which meant that we could easily walk along the river to most of the things to see in San Antonio.
I shot many more photos, videos and audio so I’ll be giving you a much more detailed acount of all of this once I get home. Next we drive North to Austin, Texas from where I’ll be sending you another postcard.
Links to the things mentioned in San Antonio
- We booked our hire car that we picked up in Houston through Argus car Hire
- We stayed in San Antonio at the luxurious boutique hotel, Hotel Valencia Riverwalk San Antonio
- The Alamo Website
- San Antonio Missions Website
- San Antonio River development for Mission Reach
- Blue Star Brewing Company along Mission Reach with cycle hire, cafe and brewery and art projects
- San Antonio City Bike scheme for cycling in the city
- Picosa Ranch Resort for a luxury bespoke experience of hunting, shooting, fishing, horseback riding and other outdoor activities
- For more things to see in San Antonio check out the Visit San Antonio Website
More Texas stories
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey