In Texas, we do have seasons, sorta. As fall begins to take hold, there’s still time to head to the beach for sun and fun but only one town offers even more, Galveston. This city by the bay is a survivor with old world charm, a gateway to a more romantic time in Texas history.
The city’s claim to fame was the devastation it endured at the turn of the last century. Many have borne the brunt of hurricanes but none so famously as Galveston—the 1900 hurricane remains the most damaging ever and most recently, Hurricane Ike (2008) brought an estimated $29.5 billion in damage, the third costliest hurricane in United States history.
But like all post-hurricane towns along the Gulf Coast, Galveston has rebuilt itself, with gusto. New attractions have replaced dilapidated ones, while stalwart structures received modern upgrades. Add to that Galveston’s old world charm combined with sophisticated appeal and the city offers an attractive destination for singles, couples, and families.
Galveston’s historical homes tours can begin with the oldest, the Menard House, named for the city’s founder, Michel B. Menard, and culminate with glorious Victorian mansions like the Bishop’s Castle or the Moody Mansion. The former has just upgraded to provide self-guided audio tours while the latter utilizes docent tours every hour. Having toured both, there are advantages to wandering through a house at your leisure as well as having someone on the tour who can provide additional information.
Located in the East End Historic District, the Bishop’s Castle is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is noted for its use of exotic materials—including a remarkable stained glass window along the staircase.
The Moody name can be found on buildings throughout Texas but especially in Galveston. The Moody family made its money from a financial empire that included cotton, banking, ranching, insurance and hotels—the Menger Hotel in San Antonio was a Moody hotel.
Much of the family’s belongings, from china to photographs taken by Mrs. Moody, remain, giving the house historical verity.
While it’s considered one of the most damaging storms to hit Texas, Hurricane Ike received very few headlines. A Category 2 storm when it hit Galveston on September 13 at 2:10 a.m., Ike had winds of 110 miles per hour and produced a 22-ft storm surge. Buildings throughout Galveston have posted reminders, inside and out, of how high the water reached that day.
While the city has managed to rebuild, quite robustly, certain structures could not be saved, namely, Texas live oak trees. Salt water damaged their root systems and many died, but rather than tear them all down, homeowners in the historic East End District and beyond chose to convert them into public art, which has now also become a tourist attraction.
Whimsical structures, like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, or a siren of the sea dot the lawns of houses in this area. Local artists Dale Lewis, Earl Jones, and Jim Phillips produced the pieces. One-hundred percent of the “Iked” wood was repurposed, converted into sculptures, used to restore at least two historic ships, or carved into wooden bowls and other art pieces.
The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau issued a map of the sculptures for those who would like to tour the neighborhood on foot, while the Galveston Historical Foundation offers tours on a solar powered shuttle for $10–$15.
Located in the heart of historic downtown Galveston, the Strand offers visitors blocks of shopping, eateries, art galleries, and unique attractions housed in nineteenth century buildings. These Victorian structures survived the Great Storm and Hurricane Ike (there is a water marker near the harbor that shows the level of flooding from every storm to hit the island since 1900), and were part of the city’s revitalization efforts that began in the 1980s.
At Christmas, the Strand visibly reverts to a Victorian past for the annual Dickens on the Strand event, one of the most popular annual festivals on the island.
The Strand is also conveniently located near Pier 21 at the harbor, where more attractions await. History buffs will appreciate a one-hour documentary, The Great Storm, at the Pier 21 Theater, recounting the infamous hurricane. There’s also a show dedicated to the Pirate Jean Lafitte. The Tall Ship Elissa is docked there and available for tours as is the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum.
Tourists can also book harbor boat tours that may include dolphin sightings.
Named for the Moody family, the Moody Gardens were built with funding from the Moody Foundation. Today, three glass pyramids harbor natural environments to attract children of all ages—a 1.5-million gallon aquarium, a rainforest with free roaming birds and mammals, and a discovery museum—plus a golf course, hotel, 3-D and 4-D theaters, and more. Two or one-day passes are available for $61.95 or $46.95, respectively, but travelers on a budget can purchase individual tickets to each attraction. For an additional $50, animal lovers can secure quality time with a king, rock hopper, or chin strap penguin at the aquarium. A non-profit organization, the Moody Gardens even sells paintings by these birds, which have been trained to walk on each canvas to produce a work of art. Proceeds benefit research and conservation activities at the Gardens.
Anyone can book a room with a coastal view, but for the traveler who appreciates luxury on a small scale, the recently restored Tremont House boutique hotel fits the bill.
George and Cynthia Mitchell acquired the architecturally lavish Leon & H. Blum Building and began its transformation into the third Tremont House. Built in 1879, the company was once the South’s premiere wholesale dry goods supplier. When the hotel opened in 1985 it was the first major hotel to open in downtown Galveston in 60 years. A catalyst for the revitalization of Galveston’s historic downtown, the 119-room Tremont House is also walking distance from the Strand.
The Mitchells also acquired another of the city’s historic properties, the Hotel Galvez. While renovations continue, the hotel celebrated its centennial in 2011. As the sister hotel to the Tremont House, guests at the latter get free access to the spa and pool located at the Galvez. While the Tremont House may be more appealing to couples, the Galvez certainly suits families. Both hotels are managed by the Wyndham Hotels.
Sitting inside Rudy & Paco you could imagine being in any major urban center in the country. This elegant eatery adds a South American touch to grilled seafood and steak. Chef Paco Vargas infuses flavors from his native country, Nicaragua, with traditional American faire, captured in dishes like the Filete De Pargo Simpatico (pictured, right), fresh gulf red snapper plantain encrusted, pan sautéed served with raspberry chipotle sauce and topped with lump crabmeat.
In the tradition of Latino restaurateurs, Vargas adopts a mi casa su casa approach at Rudy & Paco. He greats guests with a “Welcome home baby!” and adds drama to the dinner service with choreographed food delivery; during each course, a team of waiters
delivers each plate to the table in perfect synchronicity. The upscale service, especially at night when shorts are not permitted, also translates into upscale prices.
Re-opened in 2012, the Pleasure Pier’s history actually dates back to the late 1940s when it was built as a tourist destination, similar to Coney Island. Damaged by Hurricane Carla in 1961, the Flagship Hotel was built near it. Hurricanes struck again, this time in 2008 with Hurricane Ike, damaging the hotel extensively and it was abandoned. Landry restaurant chain owner and Galveston native son, Tilman Fertitta, took over the property and began plans to rebuild the Pleasure Pier to its former glory.
This mini amusement park has just enough rides (16) to entertain children and their parents including a roller coaster that climbs vertically for 100 feet, a log ride that dips into the Gulf, a carousel, and a 200-ft.-tall Ferris wheel that hangs over the water. But like an amusement park, it can be pricey when food and drinks are included. Still, it is a nice place to drink a beer and look out over the water.
All-day passes run $19.99–$26.99. Individual ride tickets cost $4 but a $10 pass to enter the Pier is also required.
At the west end of the island is Galveston State Park, a 2,013.1-acre site that was acquired in 1969 from private owners and re-opened in 1975. A nature lover’s delight, the park welcomes wading and shore birds, mottled and mallard ducks, raccoons, armadillos, and marsh rabbits, as well as migratory birds during the spring and fall.
Four miles of nature trails, with an observation platform, boardwalks, and photo blinds, guide sightseers through a variety of coastal habitats. Visitors can also schedule an appointment with a park ranger for a personal tour of the flora and fauna.
Campers are welcome as well as fishermen. Those who don’t come with tackle can borrow from the park for up to seven days as part of the Tackle Loaner Program. A fishing license isn’t needed while within the boundaries of the park. The daily entry fee is $5 for adults.
Forty-five minutes from Houston, visitors are encouraged to fly into Houston Hobby Airport rather than George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Refreshed and renewed, Galveston celebrates its history while facing the future.