Saturday, August 27, 2011

Traveling with a Toddler: Houston to The Woodlands.

It took a whole lot to get Hunter up the next morning. I think she was getting a little weary on our trip, too. She hid in the bedcovers while we got about and got ready.

Breakfast again at the Embassy Suites. I have to admit, I am really impressed with their made-to-order breakfasts. Hunter ate four pancakes and was just overjoyed at having them available. I had another veggie omelet and oatmeal while Paul… well, Paul ate just about everything.

I like the set-up -- a station where you can choose sweet rolls, Danish, toast, bagels and oatmeal; a hot line with eggs, hash browns, bacon and sausage links; a made-to-order station for omelets, fried eggs and pancakes; a fruit station with cantaloupe and honeydew melon pieces and whole Red Delicious apples and oranges; a drink station with hot and iced tea, coffee, four different juices and white or chocolate milk. It’s gotta be one of the better included hotel breakfast I have enjoyed.

We got back to the room and completed our packing, intending to head out as soon as possible. But we had a problem. A problem named Punchy. Hunter had grown attached to this fake plant and had taken it with her everywhere in the suite. I called downstairs and spoke with the front desk and housekeeping, but the general idea was the plant could not be purchased.

So we had a little ceremony. Hunter got to play with Punchy for a few more minutes, take some photos with the plant, hug it and say goodbye. We made a big deal about how Punchy needed to stay there, that the hotel suite was his home and he needed to stick around so he could make other people happy.

After our little ceremony Hunter said she’d be just fine, but as we finished bringing all of our stuff to the living room section of the suite for pick-up on the cart we noticed she was still talking to Punchy, sitting on the table in the bedroom. When we said it was time to go she gave the plant a hug and came out to us.

After the scramble to get the cart to the car, the accidental dropping of both her potty and my computer (the latter causing me a big scare, the former having happened at EVERY SINGLE STOP along our journey), we headed to Main Street and then down into the Museum District. We were bound for the Museum of Natural History, which Paul and I had visited in 2000 and which we were looking forward to because there was a butterfly exhibit there.

We drove around more than 45 minutes looking for it. I mean, the signs would point in a direction and then they would disappear. I suspect the museum is undergoing a facelift or something; we never did locate it.

But we did pass the Children’s Museum of Houston a couple of times, and decided since we had a Houston CityPass that we’d go there instead. We parked on the bottom of the two-story deck and went on in.

Thing is, it’s very easy for a first time parent to lose sight of the real goal on a trip like this. Because when you have a child, it’s no longer all about you. It’s all about your child, and sometimes you do things that might not be high entertainment for yourself because it delights your child. This is one of the lessons that was borne home to me this week, and I am glad to have learned it -- because just watching Hunter at the Children’s Museum confirmed it for me.

In the Mexican Village area, there was this van, an old VW type fan that’s open for kids to climb into. Hunter crawled in, got in the front seat and hollered for us to come join her. We sat in the back while she “drove” around the village and pointed things out to us.

And then there was the villa. Hunter had a great time playing “guess that food” before one of the little mops caught her eye. She went right over to the bucket, picked it up and started to “mop” the floor. It was just bizarre -- not because she did it, but that I noticed every single child that entered the area while we were there did the exact same thing. Makes me wonder if it’s part of our hard-wiring.

There was a neater section of the museum, though -- which I thought was just genius. That was Kidopolis. Each child is given a card when they come into the museum. Turns out this is a version of a kid’s ATM card. You enter and check your ATM card and set your pin number. Each account has $20 in it to start.

Each station is different. There’s a government building, where you can spend your time doing forensics in the crime lab, or work as a police officer or city planner. There’s a stock market where you trade stocks. There’s a restaurant where you can “cook” and serve food. There’s even a TV station where you can be a producer or an anchor or a camera person.

After “working” at each station, you can clock out and receive pay for your work. The kids take that check to the bank, where other kids are working on exchanging the checks for cards that resemble cash. Those go to the ATM, where they go on the cards.

And then there are place to spend that Kidopolis money. Like the restaurant, where you can obtain a “hot meal.” You can spend it picking up groceries in the HEB grocery store -- or puchase photos (which are actually black and white prints you can take with you).

It’s a neat experience, where kids can play at real life. I thought it was phenomenal. The kids apparently loved it, too -- this was the most crowded part of the Children’s Museum, and everyone seemed engaged in the process.

Hunter also went over to the art studio in Kidopolis for a few minutes. While she didn’t create a masterpiece of her own, she added to one in the making left up on an easel. This wasn’t discouraged.

After this, we went upstairs to the Tot Spot, an area specifically meant for kids 35 months and under. At 32 months, Hunter is almost aged out of this sort of playground, and she was by far the tallest child in the area. She and Paul took off their shoes and went to play in their socks in the area specifically designed for toddler play. They must have spent 45 minutes in there, and when the time was up she did not want to go. She’d had fun climbing over the varied terrain, playing with everything there was to play with on the level and having a good time.

While she and Paul were in the Tot Spot area, I went back down to the Fiddle Sticks Toy Shop, the gift shop of the Children’s Museum of Houston. I was surprised how affordable a lot of the items were. I looked through all sorts of stuff, like stuffed puppets, tubes of medieval knights, classic games like Tiddlywinks, dozens of plastic bugs and such. And I found something very specific we’d been missing.

After we put her shoes on, I pulled the gift out of the bag and handed it to her. At first she seemed confused. Then she concentrated, smiled and looked up at me with this overjoyed expression. “Momma, you found it!”

I wish I’d had my camera out. In the Children’s Museum’s gift shop, I had found the river otter we’d searched for so hard. It was $7. It was so worth it. She named it River Song (after one of her favorite Doctor Who characters) and wouldn’t part with it for the rest of the day.

We left out shortly afterwards, ready to head to The Woodlands for the final part of our vacation. After paying to get out of the Children’s Museum parking deck, we found our way to the interstate and headed up I-45 to our destination.

Of course, I took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side of the planned community, just at a time when I really needed a restroom. I spotted a Culver’s and ran inside. I came out with a family sized box of fried cheese curds -- something I absolutely can’t resist. I had no idea there were Culver’s in Texas -- I thought the furthest location south was in Branson. A lucky turn, for sure.

We arrived a short time later at The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center on the southwest side of town. It was out in the woods (fitting). As we came up the drive we noticed the golf course, horseshoe pits and buildings dotted out on the edge of the golf course here and there. We pulled in, I ran in and got our informational packet and we drove over to our accommodations at Fairway Pines.

It’s an unusual set-up. I’m used to being able to park relatively close to the place where I’m staying. There’s a valet set up at the front entrance of the Fairway Pines between the buildings. We unloaded what we were taking into the resort (leaving behind dirty laundry packed into bags for taking home) onto a cart and I rolled it into the building with Hunter tagging alongside. We had a long way to go, too… about five sections down to our room on the inside of the wing, with the elevator to the second level about halfway down that length. Paul went and parked the van.

Our room was smaller than what we’d had at our other two stops, but was perfectly acceptable. In fact, this was more what we’d expected the entire trip, a room with two double beds, a bathroom and what you normally get in a hotel. By the time Paul got back I’d taken my pictures and started packing away our stuff so the cart could be returned.

He took the cart back and Hunter and I explored the room a little. There was a balcony out the sliding glass door, and over a stone half-wall we could see water through the trees. It seemed nice and secluded… though we could hear a band playing and children in the pool in the distance.

Paul had just come back and we had started to debate who was going to rest and who’d be taking Hunter to the pool first when there was a knock at the door. I wasn’t expecting anyone, so I didn’t really know how to respond. There were two nicely dressed men at the door. They swept into the room and set up a presentation on the desk -- a wine cooler packed with ice and a magnum of fresh, cold whole milk -- and a plate of nine hot chocolate chunk cookies.

Hunter, who had been clamoring to go out to the pool, stopped. We poured her a glass of milk and handed her a cookie, and she was sated and happy. The graciously provided snack bought us about an hour of downtime before our next round of activity. The cookies were full of chocolate chips and chunks with dark, semisweet and white chocolate, pecans and black walnut chunks. And they were divine. I want the recipe.

After we’d had our shoes off for a while and had freshened up, we went out to the pool area, where dozens of people were enjoying the Forest Oasis Waterscape, a series of pools and water features that extended the length of the interior between the two wings of the Forest Pines complex.

Towards the back we saw a line of people waiting patiently as four of the resort’s staff members worked in tandem. We joined the line.

They handed Paul and I both these long two-pronged forks with big marshmallows on the end. We followed other guests over to a big firepit, where we helped Hunter toast the mallows over the fire. Then we walked back over, and the staffers took the marshmallows and sandwiched them between graham crackers and pieces of chocolate bars to make S’mores. There was no limit to how many you could make and consumed.

We found a big swing that was the size of a twin sized bed and sat on it together and watched folks go for more S’mores. Hunter wasn’t so interested in the confection; she’s a marshmallow purist, and I think she was a little confused why we’d singe a marshmallow and then add things to it!

From there we went back to our room, grabbed a few things and headed out to the downtown area of the community. The Woodlands, in case you didn’t know, is a planned community created in the seventies. It’s very neat. If you want to live in the suburbs, there are houses in different neighborhoods where you can do that. Then there are apartments and town homes built to very specific designs closer in to the center of town. There are retirement villages, small complexes and such, all tucked back in the trees away from the road.

There’s also a massive Woodlands Mall and a big shopping area that strings along side the Woodlands Waterway, which offers a water taxi. There’s a shuttle that goes all around Town Center, with its collection of shops and restaurants and movie theaters.

We were on a mission. I’d been told I needed to try out Coal Burger, a coal-fired burgeria (burgeria?) right off the Waterway that had been noted for its green mission. I dropped off Hunter and Paul by the restaurant and went to park in a nearby deck.

When I came back Hunter was standing at the edge of one of the fabulous fountains along the way, gasping every time the lights under the water changed or the fountain spewed high. It took some effort to extract her from the area, with a promise to go look later.

Inside we ordered at the counter and had a seat. I went to get us a beverage -- and discovered that instead of the regular Coke or Pepsi products, Coal Burger serves Boylan sodas -- sodas that are sugar based and have no high fructose corn syrup. Winner! They also have China Myst iced tea.

We had a seat at a table next to one of the big windows. Hunter immediately got into playing with the grass plant on the table… that is, until the Black & White gelato milkshake ($5) we’d ordered came out. We each tried it -- first Paul, then I, and then Hunter -- who pretty much claimed it as her own. To me and Paul it was a bit weird -- a little icy-grainy with a very unusual flavor. I figured a lot of it had to do with the use of gelato, which is made from milk instead of cream. Part of it, too, was the chocolate, definitely a special blend of cocoa powder and what have you. Wasn’t my thing or Paul’s thing, but Hunter was all about it, even more than the nine ounce milk she already had on the table.

Her kid’s meal looked great, too -- great skin-on potato fries and a small patty burger on a small bun. It was served up in a recycled paperboard container tray, which really is a good idea for kids, to be honest. She had a good time dipping her fries in ketchup, which was dispensed into paper cups rather than through packets.

And then there was the ½ pound Classic Coal Burger ($5.99) Paul and I had decided to split between us. We’d gone for Cheddar cheese (an additional buck) and sweet potato fries on the side (another $3, but there were a bunch of them). It was one big burger, two nicely charred patties one on top of each other with these great specialty pickles and chopped iceberg lettuce. There was no tomato or onion slice on the thing, which is how it comes. We got the CB sauce on the side, a mayo-chipotle based sauce that I dabbed onto the bun’s edge for a taste. Neither of us cared for the sauce.

But the burger? What a fantastic burger. I mean, it needed to be good -- with the big brag that the burger was made from All-Natural Niman Ranch Beef with big bold letters. And it was. Not much on the spicing, but it didn’t need it. The coal-firing had given it such a nice caramelized crust with searing that kept in the juices. We hadn’t asked for it to be prepared in any particular fashion, but it had come with the top patty cooked a medium to medium well and the bottom patty a solid medium rare. That was a little odd, but we liked it.

The burger’s almost wood-smoky notes were fantastic, and on the house bun it was just divine. The pickles really stood out to me too, dill-ish pickles but thick with a fresh crunch.

I tried one of Hunter’s regular French fries and was pleased with the firm crunch and soft center. It had been dusted with just a little salt but had a little different flavor to it, sort of nutty but in a distant way. Might be because they’re fried in rice bran oil. Our sweet potato fries were on the savory side, dusted liberally with salt and ketchup-friendly. That was also welcome; I don’t know how often I’ve had sweet potato fries that are overly sweet or served up with honey or the like -- not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. These were sturdy and strong crisp sweet potato fries, half the thickness of a #2 pencil with just enough give to not be tough.

We had considered sticking around for a while in the Town Center area, but a small bathroom emergency sent us back to the resort, where Hunter got a bath and we all kicked back for the evening. The constant travel was really starting to take its toll on us, and Hunter asked to go to bed before 10 p.m. We had one more day before we needed to head home and get back to our ordinary world.


  1. The entire post was so wonderful! Maybe you have a future gardener, horticulturalist or botanist on your hands.

  2. Nice photos! If you want to share your travel advice or photos with other travelers, CityPASS has a new travel community called City Traveler.

  3. Hello,
    I just wanted to take a minute to tell you that you have a great site!
    Keep up the good work.
    Boylan sodas

  4. Recent times when internet has so much gossiping and stuff, your content really refreshes me.northhoustonplumging


Be kind.