First, let’s get one thing straight. It’s PAL-uhs-steen. It rhymes with green. Any other pronunciation will mark you as a tourist and will, likely prompt a correction from one of the locals. Don’t worry, though, it will be a sweet, slow, East Texas correction, followed by a hearty welcome to town and some genuine advice about the best place to visit on Main Street. Just a two hour drive from Dallas makes this a perfect weekend getaway for families who want to slow down and a enjoy an easy weekend in this Piney Woods locale.
Our family found our way to Palestine with a golden ticket on the Polar Express. That’s what attracts most families to this area around Christmas time, although many come into town only for the day. Not only did we decide to take the invitation to climb aboard the Polar Express, also known as the Texas State Railroad, we decided to make a weekend of it to see what else Palestine had to offer.
Checking Into the Heart of Town
Although Palestine has a collection of chain hotels to choose from, we are always looking for something unique in our lodging, so we made our way to the Redlands Inn in downtown. Built in 1914, The Redlands is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was originally a hotel but best known for being headquarters for the International & Great Northern Railroad. All that history, plus plenty of hospitality is still alive and well at Redlands, where fully furnished apartments of every size and accommodation are perfect for families. While I could have stayed in the hotel lobby to check out the original elevator, stained glass and elegantly curved staircase, the kids (and dad) were eager to drop off our bags and head out for dinner. I noted that there was an excellent viewing area from the upstairs balcony for watching the trains come in, and sighed with relief that there was a full kitchen and separate bedroom for the kids. With that settled we headed out to find some dinner.
Table for Six
It’s rare to find a restaurant that is unique and noteworthy in every way, especially in a small town, but Switch Brick Oven and Pizzeria has done it. What’s more, they’ve taken everything you would expect in taste and ambience in a “big city” restaurant and infused it with southern charm. Just ask owners Regina and Carmen Santone, and by ask them, I really mean ask for them by name and let them tell you in person about their hometown and restaurant. Most nights, you’ll find them in the kitchen or at the bar chatting up the locals and welcoming visitors.
The Italian restaurant is located on an oak-lined terraced hill that offers spacious views from the patio and a quirky architecture that can only be found in a church that was reimagined as an eatery. Pretty much everything on the menu is a hit, but if I were to make a recommendation, I would point towards anything with the freshly made-in-house mozzarella. As we were finishing off our slices of pizza and heading off into a carb coma, families were trickling into the restaurant still wearing their Christmas pajamas and smiles after an evening ride on the Polar Express.
Curiouser and Curiouser
Although we could have chosen a local place for breakfast on Saturday morning, we took advantage of the extra space and full kitchen and enjoyed cinnamon rolls prepared in the room before we headed out for the day. The conveniently cozy location of attractions for the day allowed us to keep the “cation” in our staycation and start the day our slow. When we were ready for some entertainment, it was just a short stroll down Main Street towards the Curious Museum.* The Curious Museum started as a pop-up meant to bring the brilliance of the San Francisco Exploratorium to the small town in the form of hands-on exhibits, a tinkering lab, and creative exploration. Although small, the exhibits were engaging enough to occupy all of the kids (yes, even the reluctant teenagers) for a couple of hours. As a shout out to big things coming in small packages, I was actually pleasantly surprised to see exhibits in the museum that we had never experienced before and the docents were plentiful and excited to help the kids explore in meaningful ways. Hint for parents: this museum is small enough that you can easily take a seat on a bench and let your kids explore on their own for a while, although you will probably be tempted to jump in and join them in the fun.
*Editor’s Note: The Curious Museum has moved locations since our visit. It is located at 1301 S. Royall Lane and is open on Saturdays and Sundays during the holidays.
Mean, Green, Palestine
Making the list of the greatest things you never thought you would love is the Grinch’s Lair Tour located in the Historic Texas Jailhouse. If all of that sounds strangely intriguing on the surface let me assure you that it is only the beginning. The Historic Texas Jailhouse, rumored to be haunted, is now a private residence for Jeremy Janz and Sonia Martinez, theatre buffs with a penchant for a combination of quirkiness and thrills. During the fall, the Jailhouse is the perfect spine-tingling backdrop for a haunted house, but during the holidays, the scenery shifts to a more family friendly, but still strange presentation of the Grinch’s Lair.
The Grinch’s Lair encompasses three stories of the jail and tells the story of what it would be like if the Grumpy Grinch was locked up in the jail cells. The performance begins with a Who-themed lobby, where one of the Whos from Whoville greets you with Christmas cheer. Then it’s upstairs to explore the strangely twisted and oddly entertaining lair of the Grinch. The Grinch himself is on hand with antics to entertain guests, often roaming from room to room to give a tour of his home. Other performers in the Grinch’s lair include Max the dog, played by the couple’s son, who also calls the jail home. Children can end their visit with an opportunity to write Santa a letter or create a Christmas craft under the watchful eye of Max, the dog.
All Aboard the Polar Express
The morning of our third day in town dawned with anticipation, at least for the younger kids who had been promised a trip on the Polar Express. As a reminder, they had been watching the trains come and go from our hotel balcony and they were antsy to grab their golden ticket and hop aboard.
As soon as we arrived at the station, the kids were presented with their golden ticket as the soundtrack from the movie rang out across the light-lined park. The music was just the beginning of setting the stage to immerse us in the story. If this soundtrack had been available back when the Grinch was around it’s what would have been used to grow his shrunken heart.
With the sounds of Christmas music playing, we enjoyed the building of anticipation as the steam engine puffed into the place of honor at the front of the train. With faces pressed to glass we watched as the conductor paced back and forth, and then checked his watch.
Onboard, our assigned table was waiting for us with cookies and a napkin set at each place. As the train began to roll out of the station, the familiar tune signaling the serving of hot chocolate piped through the loudspeakers. On cue, the aisles were filled with dancing chefs who delivered us each a souvenir cup of hot chocolate with flair.
With cookies and cocoa, it was the perfect time for a story. A reading of the Polar Express played through the speakers as an ideal diversion during our ride to the North Pole. We had brought along our personal storybook to follow along with the reading, but the server also had a copy of the book and passed through the aisles to show the pictures. The story ended with just enough time to begin building the anticipation for our arrival to the North Pole.
As we reversed our steam engine to return the depot, the children onboard were gifted with a surprise visit from Santa, and each one of them received a silver bell that would only ring for those who believed. All four of my kids held their bells up and listened to them ring, and even gathered for a group picture with Santa. If you have teenagers, you know that this is a big deal. For more details on our ride aboard the Polar Express, please visit this page.
With that, we hopped back onto to non-storybook soil and headed our car away from the charming town of Palestine, perhaps with hearts a couple of sizes bigger from a leisurely weekend of making Christmas memories.
~The City of Palestine hosted our stay during our visit to Palestine. They did not require that I express a particular viewpoint and all opinions are my own~