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I have lived in Texas for the better part of 35 years and it took a good part of that time for me to come to appreciate Galveston, a beach town about 50 miles from Houston on the Gulf of Mexico.
I grew up landlocked in the Midwest yet have always had an affinity for the sea. I don’t know why. There are several reasons why I think the stork dropped me off in the wrong place, but I actually think I might be a displaced mermaid and a pelican was supposed to deposit me somewhere along the ocean. 🙂
When we went on vacation to the beach or for spring break in college, we always went to places in Florida with white sand beaches and clear water. When I moved to Texas after college, I was really excited to be so near a beach. The first time I went to Galveston I was so disappointed.
The sand was brown, and the water was BROWNER. I think I cut my first trip down there short because there was just nothing that interested me. And the weekend I first visited there were also intermittent oil deposits on the sand. Black gold. Texas Tea. 🙂
The first few years I lived in Texas, I went to Galveston many times with Texan coworkers. We went sailing and had picnics on the beach. The more I explored the island, the more it grew on me.
I always wondered why Galveston wasn’t like the Hamptons for Houston and surrounding cities. Instead, it’s just a sleepy little town with the usual tourist trappings. As I read up on Galveston’s history, turns out it once WAS quite the happening place.
It was founded in 1836 and at one time served as the capital of the Republic of Texas, when Texas was its own sovereign state. During the 19th century it became a major commercial center and the wealthiest city in Texas. Then on September 8, 1900, Galveston was devastated by a hurricane its residents never saw coming.
Over 6,000 people died and it remains the deadliest natural disaster in America’s history. If you want to read an amazing story, I encourage you to read Isaac’s Storm, which tells the story of the storm, the heroic actions of residents, and the aftermath.
After the storm, the enterprising residents of Galveston built a ten mile long seawall to act as a barrier to protect the island in future storms. Construction began in 1902 and was completed in 1904. It is quite an engineering feat, and it has been estimated that its construction has saved the island from hundreds of millions of dollars of further damage in subsequent hurricanes.
One thing I didn’t know until meeting local Texans with Jewish ancestors was that Galveston was a major port for immigration during the early 1900’s. It was similar to Ellis Island for some Jewish immigrants.
In the 1920’s and 30’s it became a major destination for gambling and drinking establishments, but the island never recovered its former prosperity after the 1900 storm. So I guess that’s when it became the slow paced Galveston it is today.
Years ago I used to take the 3-day Easter weekend and head to Galveston to regroup and recharge. When you come over the causeway that connects Galveston to the mainland, you exit 61st street and drive until you come to the Seawall and see the vast Gulf in front of you.
I was used to turning left to go the public beaches. But one day I decided to turn right and head off to explore the west end of the island. I found some amazing beaches that were so much prettier and less crowded than the touristy beaches. It’s like a whole different place that direction. There are lots of colorful beach houses up on stilts and animals grazing in open pastures.
There are fishing piers.
And jettys that reach out into the sea.
I think that’s when things began to change for Galveston and me. I came to appreciate it more each time I went. I learned the reason the water is brown is because the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf and that is one muddy river. 🙂
But the water in Galveston isn’t always brown. Sometimes it’s bright blue if you manage to come at just the right time. And if you stay late enough in the day, the water takes on a lovely dark blue hue. I took this picture a couple of weeks ago late in the day.
We’ve rented various beach houses over the years and have come to the decision that the west end is the place for us. It’s away from all the crowds and craziness of town. We can drive to that when we want to. We went for a quick break a few weeks ago and it happily coincided with a rare July “cold front.”
Now when I say cold front, that is relative in Texas. 🙂 It was still hot, but we had a north wind, which meant there was no humidity and the mornings and evenings were positively fall-like. It was heavenly. We didn’t have a heat stroke on the beach, and actually ate several meals outside. This was one of the better ones:
My husband rode his bike early in the mornings and took this great picture:
I took this one before the sun popped up one morning:
We were so lucky to be there when the weather was perfect as opposed to our forecast for this upcoming week:
No bueno. 🙂
If you do head into “town,” there are wonderful places to visit and eat. The Strand is the historical district, with lots of beautiful Victorian homes, great shops and restaurants.
A favorite destination on The Strand is LaKing’s Confectionery and Ice Cream Parlor. My daughter land her friends love this place. It’s like stepping back in time to the 1920’s when this place first opened. You can get all kinds of fudge and cotton candy and roasted nuts and salt water taffy. You can even watch them pull the taffy. They have the pulling schedule posted so that you know just when to come watch.
At the counter you can order ice cream and coffees and milk shakes. It smells heavenly inside and you could spend a whole afternoon looking at everything they have to offer.
During the holidays, there is a great event called Dickens on the Strand where everyone dresses up in Victorian clothing and there are strolling carolers, street vendors, and all kinds of fun events and shopping.
There are beautiful historic buildings along Broadway Avenue, like the Bishop’s Palace. It is a private home built in 1887-1893 and it withstood the 1900 hurricane. It is now owned by the Galveston Historical Foundation and you can tour it!
Across the street from the Bishop’s Palace is the Sacred Heart Church, easily one of the prettiest churches you will ever see. The parish was established in the late 1800’s and the architecture is breathtaking. Years ago one of my best friends who was born on the island got married at Sacred Heart and it was lovely.
Even prettier at night:
There’s also the 1894 Grand Opera House, which has survived all the storms that have pummeled Galveston. It has suffered damage throughout the years but it still stands.
There are historic hotels on the island like The Hotel Galvez, which was built in 1911. It has hosted many famous guests like presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, and celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Stewart. It is also rumored to have a famous ghost. (Book room 501) 🙂
There is also The Tremont House Hotel, built in the 1830’s. It has an old world European feel to it and is lovely. I remember when I had only been in Texas for a few years, I was invited to a luncheon at the hotel and still remember how sophisticated everything was. I felt very grown up. 🙂
If you want to do fun stuff, just take your pick from the endless choices along The Seawall. There are restaurants galore and the Pleasure Pier, which is an amusement park that stretches out more than 1,000 feet over the Gulf. There are rides, games, and restaurants.
I didn’t know that there was an original Pleasure Pier in the same location from 1943 to 1961, until it was destroyed by Hurricane Carla. When I moved to Texas, the location was the site of The Flagship Hotel, and I always thought it was so cool because it jutted out over the water. But that proved to be its undoing when we took a beating with Hurricane Ike in 2008. The hotel was heavily damaged and had to be demolished. The new Pleasure Pier was built in its place in 2012.
One of my very favorite places on The Seawall is Murdochs Bathhouse. It was originally built in the late 1800’s and served as a place where one could rent a bathing suit (um, NO.) 🙂 and shower after a day on the beach. Since it was built on the sand right on the water, it was destroyed in the 1900 hurricane. It was also destroyed in 1909, 1915, 1961, and 2008.
I remember when it was destroyed during Hurricane Ike in 2008. It was so sad. But in 2009 it was back! Those Murdochs are definitely resilient. 🙂 It’s one of those places where you can buy t-shirts, shells, trinkets, refreshments and all that gloriously tacky souvenir stuff. There are also those binocular machines you can put money in and look out at all the ships in the shipping lanes further out to sea.
Speaking of ships, a fairly recent addition to Galveston is a cruise terminal. We used to have to go to Florida to take a cruise but now we can just go to Galveston! We have cruised out of the terminal and it was wonderful. There are Royal Caribbean ships, Disney cruises, and Carnival ships.
There is also Schlitterbahn, which is a water park and a Texas institution. There are water slides, water coasters, and wave rivers. And they have free parking! 🙂
And there’s Moody Gardens, which is another amusement type park, with attractions like an aquarium, a rain forest, a 3D theater, a paddle wheel boat, a museum, a zip line, and more.
You can also take the ferry from Galveston to the Bolivar Peninsula. You just drive your car right onto the ferry and go up above deck and watch as the seagulls follow you.
There isn’t much to do on Bolivar, but they do have a cool light house.
And Bolivar is one of our favorite places to collect shells from along the beach. They have particularly good ones there. I have jars of shells that we’ve collected all over my house.
I love looking at them as a reminder of a place we like to be.
If you’d like to take a deep cleansing breath and read a really contemplative book about the sea and its shells and the meaning of life, pick up a copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea. She was the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s wife and writes beautifully about lessons we can learn from the sea.
So I hope I’ve given you an idea of all there is to do and appreciate about Galveston. We’ve decided we hope it never changes and stays the low-key place we have truly come to love. If you want to try a fun place to get away, give Galveston a try. Just don’t tell too many people. We want to keep it just between us! 🙂
Have you been to Galveston? If you have, share your favorite things to do there in the comment section.
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