Two dramatic examples of Edmontosaurus stare down at us one adult and one juvenile.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science holds the fossilized skeletons of two of these duck-billed herbivores that roamed western North America between 65 million and 73 million years ago. Next to the adult Edmontosaurus, the curators placed a giant Tyrannosaurus rex, known to be a significant predator of the peaceable plant eaters.
The science museum is one of more than a dozen outstanding exhibition halls in what is known as the Museum District in Houston, Texas.
But amazing museums aren't confined to just one area of this south Texas metropolis of 2.2 million, now the fourth largest in the U.S.
A lack of zoning bylaws adds to a quirkiness that leads to an "anything goes" development philosophy.
In an area of neat family homes sits The Beer Can House, a unique single-family dwelling, now a museum, that's totally covered in hammeredout beer cans.
In 1968 the owner, John Milkovisch, decided he had to insulate. But he couldn't afford a traditional job, so he flattened his ample supply of empty beer cans and nailed them to his siding.
Budweiser got wind of the project and sent him cases and cases of beer (a dream come true for any alcoholic).
Milkovisch had so many beer cans he finished covering the whole house, then added them on and around his porch, garage and mailbox. He made hundreds of beer cans into wind chimes that surround the building (somewhat noisy on a breezy day). The owner died in 1988 and his home became The Beer Can House, the best driveby museum in Houston.
In nearby neighbourhoods, glorious mansions stand side by side with dilapidated, unusual dwellings. One architect added a massive aluminum shell around his home, erected a series of tall, thin silos on his property and embellished the house with car parts, giant frogs, gargoyles and a massive armadillo.
Along another residential street, junked cars line the road and an "artist" called Scrap Daddy makes sculptures from old cars, junked appliances
and machine parts. They're all spread out in his very cluttered front yard.
Our guide asked if we liked the Beatles and wanted to see President Barack Obama.
Naturally, we agreed, so he took us to another residential neighbourhood where a company called SculptureWorx was set up. All around the property, sprouting like giant mushrooms, stood two-storey high, white concrete busts of most of the U.S. presidents, plus four-storey high likenesses of all four Beatles.
The 30 presidential statues were produced by sculptor David Adickes. He made most of them for a buyer who went bankrupt, so they're now on the market for about $22,000 each. They provide a startling display in the middle of Houston.
Of the 35 museums in Houston, including the Children's Museum, the Art Car Museum and the Health Museum (giant body parts to roam around and through), the most unusual of all is the National Museum of Funeral History. Also located in a residential area (remember that lack of bylaws), this modern one-storey building contains a school for morticians and an aircraft hangar-sized display area for antique hearses, unusual coffins and the biggest display of funeral-service memorabilia in the United States and probably the world. Its motto is, "Any day above ground is a good one."
Stuart Moen, the dean of academics at the school, told us about the most interesting exhibit. "Most people have never seen a casket of this size," he said, pointing to a giant wooden, silk-lined casket large enough for three people. "Back in the 1920s, a child died and his parents, in despair, ordered this built. They planned to kill themselves and be buried with the child. However, they came to their senses and it was never used."
Moen also showed us a glass casket ("built as an experiment that didn't work") and The Money Casket. Produced for a coin collector, possibly as a tax writeoff, it's covered with $643 worth of coins and bills. Very strange. Among the dozen or so vintage hearses (one of which carried the body of former president Gerald Ford), Moen is very proud of a 4,600-pound 1921 model built of seven different types of wood, lots of elaborate detail and a stained-glass window between compartments.
The museum, which gets high praise from visitors in spite of its somewhat morbid nature, also includes an exhibit of early embalming equipment, a coffin-making workshop and special displays about the deaths and burials of popes and U.S. presidents.
Even after exhibits about death and funerals, hunger beckoned and greater Houston offers no fewer than 8,000 restaurant choices. With no bylaws, they can crop up anywhere, and often do.
Mexican cuisine has a huge influence in Texas (the Houston population is 38 per cent Hispanic), so we headed for the best Tex-Mex restaurant in the city. Ninfa's on Navigation makes its own corn and flour tortillas and has won awards for its margaritas (they even have a jalapeno version that is deliciously hot).
Their Mexican cuisine is authentic, filling and full of flavour. Food lovers still flock to the Lone Star State for traditional Texas barbecue. It appears no one does it better than the Goode Company in Houston.
The basic picnic tables at this Kirby Drive institution are always filled with patrons seeking authentic, green mesquite-smoked beef brisket or pork ribs accompanied by fresh jalapeno cheese bread, coleslaw, slow-cooked beans and an ice-cold Shiner Bock beer.
Dessert is also wonderful with the state's best pecan pie. A regular patron, 80-year-old Frank Blaschke, told us he comes to Goode's every week or so. "No one else does it this well," he said. " When I leave here, I'm not sure they'll have barbecue in heaven."
IF YOU GO:
For a full range of Houston and Texas attractions, visit traveltex.com
Excellent individual or group tours of Houston can be arranged at houstonhistoricaltours.com or houstongreeters.org Recommended dining:
Ninfa's on Navigation (Tex-Mex): ninfas.com
Goode Company Barbeque: good-ecompany.com
Mo's, A Place for Steaks: mosaplaceforsteaks.com
Hugo's (Mexican cuisine from Oaxaca): hugosrestaurant.net The Reef (outstanding seafood): reefhouston.com
Shopping: Forbes magazine calls Houston the No. 1 shopping destination in the U.S. The biggest mall is Houston Galleria, with more than 375 upscale stores.
Hotels: Several good hotels are nearby including the Indigo: hotelindigo.com