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December 3, 2008

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                 Houston, TX

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I was in Houston for an SATW (Society of American Travel Writers) conference and although I was just there for a couple of nights, I got a feel for the place and gathered some basic knowledge. For starters, Houston has two major airports: Bush (IAH) and Hobby (HOU). Hobby airport is much smaller, older and more convenient than the modern Bush Intercontinental Airport. Hobby is about 12 miles from downtown, about a $22 taxi ride, while IAH is 23 miles away and roughly $50 for a cab. I also didn't realize that Houston is the fourth largest city in the United States with a population of 2.2 million. My trip took place about a month after Hurricane Ike, which came whirling through with a vengeance. Staying on the beaten path, it looked as if the city has bounced back pretty quickly. The only destruction I could see with the naked eye were some downed trees and the plywood windows on I.M. Pei's Chase Tower.

The host hotel of the conference was the Hilton Americas-Houston. It's the largest convention hotel in the city of Houston and it's centrally located downtown. It opened in 2003 but the 24-story, 1,203-room building looks brand new. It has tons of meeting space (91,500 square feet) and if that's not enough, there are two sky bridges that connect to the George R. Brown Convention Center, which has enough room to host a small country. The Hilton is smack in between the Toyota Center (home of the NBA Houston Rockets and the AHL Houston Aeros) and Minute Maid Park (home of the Houston Astros). Besides the location, I loved the hotel for the grand lobby featuring Dale Chihuly glass chandeliers, the fast elevators and the quiet, comfortable rooms. And the showerheads are unusually high -- I'm betting the visiting basketball teams stay here. There's Wi-Fi for $10.95 a day (I used my contraption to get around it) and if you're hungry, they have three restaurants and lounges. The only things that weren't exactly up-to-date were the old style TVs but they had a ton of channels to choose from. Hilton Americas-Houston, 1600 Lamar, Houston, Texas; Tel: 713-739-8000.

The first night, the city of Houston hosted a dinner/function for all the writers at the Galleria Mall. I thought it was odd that they would choose that venue until I learned what a huge role the Galleria plays in the lives of Houstonians. The Galleria has more than 375 stores and restaurants and it even ahs an ice rink and two hotels. The Galleria gets over 24 million visitors annually and all the top designers have stores here -- including my girl Tory Burch. The Galleria is a good 15 minutes away from downtown located in Uptown Houston. It's the fourth largest mall in the U.S. and if you like to shop, then you will love this place. We were treated to their annual fashion show and I had a seat in the very first row which enabled me to check out all the models, I mean clothes, up close. The Galleria is located at the intersection of Westheimer Rd. and Post Oak Boulevard just off Loop 610. Hours: Mon to Sat, 10am to 9pm and Sun 11am to 7pm.

We were all given a Houston CityPass, which is an economical way to see the six major Houston attractions that include the Space Center Houston, Houston Zoo, Downtown Aquarium and the Museum of Fine Arts. Together, everything would cost $65 but the CityPass goes for $34. Sadly, I didn't have time to use it but I did make it to the annual Bayou City Art Festival at Memorial Park. Artists come from all over the country for this yearly weekend outdoor fair. Admission is $10 for adults and free for children (12 and under). My favorite booth was Big World Photo. The artist takes pictures of miniature figures with real life settings and sells them for a reasonable amount -- $15, I think. She definitely had the most popular booth with a line out the door.

Houston's most popular sporting event and competition is the annual Livestock Show and Rodeo Performance, which has taken place each March for the last 76 years. The organizers hosted a dinner one night to show us how popular it is and to give us a flavor by bringing a few of the bulls for photo ops. I didn't realize how huge these monsters are and I was just waiting for him to bust out of the cage and throw me around like a rag doll. I looked like one of those miniature figures on top of that beast. Afterwards, we went to the Last Concert Café, which really represented how much Houston is dripping with culture.

I didn't get to try many restaurants but I was jones-ing for some Tex Mex. I got my fill of tacos (I had seven) from Armando's. They supposedly also serve the city's best margaritas. A place that might have the best lychee martinis is Gigi's Asian Bistro & Dumpling Bar. It's a fantastic, happening Asian restaurant that is connected to the Galleria (surprise, surprise). All the women in there were dolled up and the food was tasty, especially the heavenly beef. I had no idea that Houstonians dine out more often than residents of any other major American city, according to the editors of the Zagat Restaurant Surveys. The national dine out average is 3.2 times per week while Houstonians average 4.2 times. The city offers every type of cuisine from BBQ to Indian and everything in between. For visitor information, go to

The only sour experience I had was when I was taken advantage of by an Ethiopian/Jewish/Israeli taxi driver who would not stop preaching to me that it was time to get married and have kids. Not only did he give unsolicited advice, but he ripped me off. He said the taxi rate from the hotel to Hobby was a flat fee -- $29 but on Sundays it's an extra $1.50. I was suspicious; I had no idea what the correct amount was but it sounded reasonable. When I got to the airport I ran into one of my colleagues from the conference and I asked her how much her ride cost. She said $23 and that the driver used the meter. It wasn't the fact that it cost me an extra $6: it's just that the guy lied to me, which ticked me off. I know it's my fault as I should have known better. Next time, I will ask the hotel concierge or call them from the taxi to find out the correct price. To make matters worse, when I got back to L.A., I got sick and it lasted a couple of days. I thought it was just bug I had picked up from all my travels but it turned out that the majority of the conventioneers had gotten sick, too. The city of Houston Department of Public Health was diligent in following up and sending forms for everyone to fill out (which I guess they are still evaluating since I haven't heard a final verdict) to find out what the cause was – food poison, Norovirus. If you ask me, I think it was from the water since it was so close to Ike but I'm no health official. Either way, I'm still glad I got to experience a bit of Houston and I look forward to returning to take care of some unfinished business (city tours).

* Of the 400 attendees, about 80 reported becoming ill.

* The HDHHS staff visited the convention site, interviewed food handlers and inspected two restaurants patronized by the majority of attendees.

* There were NO city code violations.

* Lab results provided from tests conducted on a handful of delegates were negative for any food-borne illnesses such as Samonella, Shigella, parasites, etc.

* The symptoms reported for this outbreak and the pattern of epidemiology are consistent with norovirus gastroenteritis. In other words we were hit by a virus spread by human contact/touch. Likely the virus was brought to the main convention on the first day by an ill member and then spread through our shared use of elevators, computers, rides on the buses, etc.

* In no way were any of our hosts, the Hilton Americas Hotel, or any of the food served to us at any of our wonderful events to blame.
Many groups would have simply ignored the incident or wished it swept under cover, but SATW members acted in a professional manner.

Sorry! No video this week but we do have all the Johnny Jet videos ever made on YouTube.

Next week, the first leg of my Around The World trip!

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Pictures From

The Trip


Welcome To Houston


Hilton Hotel Room


View From Room


Toyota Center


Galleria Fashion Show


Bayou City Art Festival


City Hall


Houston Rodeo


Giddy Up!


Armando's Tacos


Armando's Margaritas


Southwest Airlines


Landing In L.A.


The Gnome




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