By Jacob Aldridge

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like you spent the entire time travelling? And I’m not talking about a flight to Australia (where you actually spend so much time in a plane seat you start to think of the bathroom as ‘spacious’). These are the days when the car to the train to the airport to the other airport to then… well, you get the picture.

Our solution? Find ways to break up your journey and take in more of the experience! Today, for example, we’re rewarding our New Orleans Mardi Gras hangover with a two-flight trip south (Read on to discover how far south!). Why punish ourselves with all that, when we can cut it in half and also take in the space capital of the USA.

A day in Houston? We have no problem!

Charles Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon, as the lead astronaut in Apollo 12. That's guaranteed to win you some trivia night points.

Charles Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon, as the lead astronaut in Apollo 12. That’s guaranteed to win you some trivia night points. Photo by Paul Hudson, Licensed under CC License.

Today’s Experience

Our flight out is not so early. In fact, in New Orleans 9.20am in the morning is considered late the night before! And it means we arrive in Houston, Texas’s largest city, mid-morning – with plenty of time to take in the key things to do in Houston.

Anytime you drive down a road named “NASA Parkway”, you know there’s going to be something cool at the end of the street. And the Johnson Space Centre does not disappoint.

This is the training rover used for the Apollo astronauts to practice in. Now on display in the Johnson Space Centre, Houston Texas, where you can see astronauts train today.

This is the training rover used for the Apollo astronauts to practice in. Photo by Stuart Seegar, Licensed under CC License.

Could you see yourself visiting the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas? Where the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon trained.

Could you see yourself visiting the Space Centre in Houston? Photo by Amanderson2, Licensed under CC License.

While Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida take a lot of the glory, Houston was actually the hub for managing the Apollo missions in the first days of space flight. This was where astronauts with ‘The Right Stuff’ were (and still are) trained; when Apollo 13 discovered something was wrong, their immediate response was “Houston, we have a problem”.

The NASA Tram Tour shows us the highlights of how today’s astronauts train for time on the International Space Station. There’s time to learn about the cutting edge robotics that mark current deep space research, and an opportunity to walk through the Apollo Mission Control Centre that guided one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind. Neil Armstrong may have famously flubbed that line – we find this tour to be flawless and utterly fascinating.

Caption: Although the video promo is a little 1980s!

But before there were astronauts in Texas, there were Cowboys – pioneers in a different way, in a lifestyle just as dangerous. The American Cowboy Museum is a ranch in sight of the city skyline, a seventh-generation home to this western tradition. But ditch those misconceptions about white dude ranches – here’s a real taste of just how multicultural the authentic wild west always was. The founder, Mollie Stevenson, and her mother were first living African Americans inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

EVERYTHING is bigger in Texas. And after taking in the American Cowboy Museum, we're all tempted to acquire ourselves some classic Houston, Texas cowboy boots.

EVERYTHING is bigger in Texas. Photo by Chris Doelle, Licensed under CC License.

If the Cowboy fashion style has grabbed your attention more than the lifestyle, check out Tejas Custom Boots over on Westheimer Road – if you’re going to get cowboy boots, may as well have them made by the people who make them for Governors and Presidents, right?

(Don’t sweat it – if you really want to run away from the Cowboy style, head to Hamilton Shirts on Richmond Ave for hand-cut, tailor-made shirts from a family that’s been doing this for 130 years.)

Our next stop is the Houston Zoo (conveniently located just out of the Houston CBD). Now after seeing Jaguars in the wild of Belize, and Kiwi birds up close in New Zealand, we’re not actually here for the animals. Oh no – we’re here for the artists.

Wait, what?! The animals ARE the artists?

OK – fake theatrics aside, because we organised this event several weeks ago. To raise funds for the Zoo’s conservation program, and to add variety to the animals’ lives, Houston Zoo works with a surprising number of different inhabitants to create unique masterpieces … and then sell them to the public. $250 may sound like a lot of money for an artist who has never been to art school, but how many of your friends have a work of art created by a White Faced Saki? (Actually, we chose animals your friends have actually heard of. A Jaguar for me, an elephant for Chris … how about you choose between the Orang-utan portrait and the Lioness landscape.)

We never promised elephant paintings would represent the Realism school. It's possible to purchase Animal artwork from the Houston Zoo in Texas, USA.

We never promised elephant paintings would represent the school of Realism. Photo by rwcox123, Licensed under CC License.

Feeling cultural, we head to Houston’s Montrose district. There are plenty of reasons on the ground to explore this neighbourhood, perhaps the most architecturally diverse in the city (it’s easier to tell between a bungalow and a condo when they’re side by side), and also for the variety of cuisine the groovy neighbourhood as to offer.

But mostly, we’re here for the sky not the ground. As dusk begins to settle on this famous aviation town, it becomes clear that Houston flight was not a man made invention. With a flutter then a whoosh and then the unbelievable darkness as day turns to night beneath their wings, a quarter of a million Mexican free-tail bats take to the sky. An epic spectacle, and a reminder of why man felt compelled to take the sky him (and her) self.

Turning day into night: The Mexican free-tail bats emerge from the Allen Street Parkway and Waugh Drive Bridge in Houston's Montrose District.

Turning day into night on the Allen Street Parkway. Photo by Sirtrentalot, Licensed under CC License.

Come out, come out, wherever you are. The Mexican free-tail bats emerge from the Allen Street Parkway and Waugh Drive Bridge in Houston's Montrose District.

Come out, come out, wherever you are. Photo by Adam Baker, Licensed under CC License.

And take to the sky we now must. By breaking up our flight, we’ve created a day of natural wonder. And we now have an excuse to sleep on the plane.

See you tomorrow morning when we land in Rio de Janeiro…that’s right baby, New Orleans Mardi Gras was just a warm up for a weekend of Rio Carnival!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Spending some time in Houston? Then definitely make time for the Space Centre’s “Level 9” tour. This is limited to just 12 people per day, and is a 4-5 hours behind the scenes experience of the Centre including lunch inside the Astronauts cafeteria.
  • The Johnson Space Centre Houston is a working site – photo ID is required, and there are safety requirement (like closed-in shoes) that need to be followed.
  • If it’s Pigs in Space, not astronauts, that take your fancy – you need to head to Atlanta’s Centre for Puppetry Arts.
  • Due to demand, Houston Zoo’s animal art advises that paintings will take 4-6 weeks to create. And that’s fair enough – these are not commercial artists, they are artists of the purist sense.
  • The nightly bat display emerges from Montrose’s Waugh Drive Bridge (between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive). Your best position for capturing the experience is securing a position on the platform just south of the bridge as the sunset takes hold.
  • Adam Baker, who took the second of those amazing bat photos, gives this warning: “I got a nice “present” on a brand new shirt while taking these photos. You might want to wear an old sweatshirt if you plan to check ’em out.” All we can say is, thank goodness cows don’t fly!

How do you make the most of layovers between flights? Have you ever had a great experience making the stopover longer? Share them with the world in the comments below or on our Facebook page.