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Hit the Road

Weekend in The Woodlands

Natural experiences weave in well with downtown development

The Woodlands Town Center, the heart of the master-planned community north of Houston, feels like a small town, with hotels, restaurants and shops. But it has a natural side, too. The combination makes for a perfect getaway.

The Woodlands Waterway Marriott gave me easy access to the Waterway, a walkable, 1.4-mile water feature that connects parts of Town Center. At Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, in a two-story brick building with a patio overlooking Waterway Square, I dug into a classic pizza Margherita cooked in a coal-fired brick oven, serenaded by a cascading water wall that puts on a light-and-music show every evening.

After lunch, I strolled along the water and into a lush landscape surrounding a 60,000-gallon koi pond populated by more than 30 fish in a bright palette—every

combination of orange, white, black and yellow. The scene brought to mind an ice cream truck that spilled a load of Dream-sicles, Eskimo Pies and lemon sherbet. The peaceful spot invites lingering, but I had an appointment with a kayak at the Riva Row Boat House, another short walk away.

The boathouse faces a pleasant lagoon, but the more adventurous can paddle about 20 minutes to 200-acre Lake Woodlands. Circle Mitchell Island to see bird and plant life, including great blue herons, and paddle another 30 minutes to a park at the south end of the lake, or 20 minutes north to Hughes Landing. Hop ashore and walk to one of a half-dozen restaurants (if you didn’t order a picnic from Riva Row).

Those who bring gear can try their hand at catch-and-release fishing for bream, bass and catfish on the lake. In addition to kayaks, the boathouse rents standup paddleboards, and staffers provide tips and techniques.

After a quick stop back at the hotel, I took advantage of a free trolley ride to the Market Street area. Evoking a small-town main square, Market Street contains more than 70 shops and restaurants around a central green area punctuated with playful bronze sculptures. These include Two Plus Two Equal One, a pair of bicyclists by Harry Marinsky; Primrose, a life-sized donkey by Dawn Weimer; and Spammy, an adorable pig in a wheelbarrow by Joffa Kerr. In fact, at least 54 sculptures grace The Woodlands proper, ranging from a lifelike herd of whitetail deer to a cluster of geometric boulders.

On Market Street, 1252 Tapas Bar serves Spanish tapas and entrées, an international wine list, craft beers, house-made sangria and craft cocktails beneath a swirling, life-sized representation of a flamenco dancer. My ceviche had just the right tang, and succulent shrimp topped shrimp aioli tapas.

The next morning, I enjoyed a hearty breakfast of Texas-cut challah French toast with eggs, sausage and potatoes at Black Walnut Café to fuel up for a morning of hiking at George Mitchell Nature Preserve.

The 1,700-acre preserve occupies the flood plain of Spring Creek, and the mix of wetlands, bottomland and forest took me back in time to this area’s wild days. From the Flintridge Drive trailhead, I walked a 2-mile loop through thick stands of pine, oak and sweetgum trees along with yaupon holly, American beautyberry and wax myrtle. A side trail leads to Bedias Lake, where bald eagles, osprey and herons appear in season. A longer bike trail twists inside the hiking loop for 3 miles. According to Fred LeBlanc, environmental manager for The Woodlands, plans call for a 12,000-acre linear park system stretching nearly 40 miles along Spring Creek from Tomball to the San Jacinto River.

Some 200 miles of wooded hike and bike paths weave between The Woodlands’ parks, lakes, ponds, and shopping and entertainment venues. I look forward to exploring on two wheels during my next trip and, if I time it right, enjoying a concert at the outdoor Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion amphitheater.

Read more of Melissa Gaskill’s writing at