Along the borders of Lake Charles.

A relaxing morning along the borders of Lake Charles. Photo © faungg, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

To escape the hustle and bustle of the country’s fourth-largest city, Houstonians and visitors often take a quick jaunt to Brenham (population 15,716), a quaint nearby Main Street community. Located about 75 miles northwest of Houston, this historical town is famous for producing the “best ice cream in the country” at Blue Bell Creameries (1101 S. Blue Bell Rd., 979/830-2197, tours held at 10am, 11am, 1pm, 1:30pm, 2pm, 2:30pm Mon.-Fri., $5 adults, $3 children and seniors). A highlight is seeing the enormous processing machines with tubes and conveyer belts methodically churning out a carton’s worth of ice cream. You’ll feel like you’re viewing a real-life episode of the Food Network’s Unwrapped. Even more appealing are the free samples waiting at the end of the tour.

To get a feel for Brenham’s small-town past, drop by the Brenham Heritage Museum (105 S. Market St., 979/830-8445, 1pm-4pm Wed., 10am-4pm Thurs.-Sat.). Experience the community’s memorable tales through historical artifacts and photos in a 1915 Classical Revival post office. Next door, visitors are drawn to a rare 1879 Silsby steam-powered horse-drawn fire engine. Just down the street, melodic sounds beckon from Fireman’s Park, featuring an early 20th-century antique merry-go-round that still works.

Another popular destination in Brenham is Ellison’s Greenhouses (2107 E. Stone St., 979/836-0084, 8am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 10am-5pm Sat.-Sun.). Advertised as the only commercial wholesale greenhouse in Texas allowing public tours, Ellison’s offers five acres of greenhouses producing annual crops of flowers and vegetables for the picking. Smaller greenhouses are filled seasonally with poinsettias, tulips, and lilies.

Even if they aren’t rewarded with winnings, visitors to Lake Charles have the good fortune of experiencing fine casinos and decent food.Heading in the opposite direction, Lake Charles, Louisiana, (population 71,933) offers locals and travelers an opportunity to visit another state and, perhaps more importantly, gamble. Although advertisements and websites will attempt to paint Lake Charles as a family-friendly destination (similar to Las Vegas’s approach in the 1990s), the main reason most visitors make the trek is to play “games of chance” and see live performances. Because Texas lawmakers are apparently concerned gambling will sully its residents, fans of this “illicit” activity are forced to spend their money across the state line.

Even if they aren’t rewarded with winnings, visitors to Lake Charles have the good fortune of experiencing fine casinos and decent food. The most popular casino (deservedly so) is L’Auberge du Lac Hotel & Casino (337/395-7777, rooms start at $119). Boasting nearly 1,000 rooms on 26 floors (reportedly the tallest building between Houston and Baton Rouge), the L’Auberge is surprisingly elegant for rural southwestern Louisiana. Featuring stylish design and comfortable rooms, the casino and hotel is the closest thing to Las Vegas available in these parts, offering a luxury spa, golf club, and entertainment (past performers include Jay Leno, Willie Nelson, and Lionel Richie). The casino itself is located on a riverboat, with blackjack, craps, and 1,600 slot machines drawing the biggest crowds.

For those who may not actually want to spend their entire visit on a riverboat, several cultural attractions are available in the Lake Charles area. The centerpiece is the Arts & Humanities Council of Southwest Louisiana’s Central School Arts and Humanities Center (809 Kirby St., 337/439-2787, 9am-5pm Mon.-Fri.). Located in the pleasant Charpentier District, the stately historic building offers studios, galleries, and performance spaces.

The city’s largest museum is Imperial Calcasieu Museum (204 West Sallier St., 337/439-3797, 10am-5pm Tues.-Sat.). The facility features a permanent historical exhibit and an impressive art gallery. Another highlight is the Sallier oak tree, which is more than 400 years old.

Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Houston & the Texas Gulf Coast.