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Island Time

Galveston offers a laid-back getaway tinged with history and adventure.

Literally and figuratively, Galveston is an island unto itself. Separated from Texas by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, this Southern city embraces its geography with a laid-back vibe, coastal ambiance, and beach-oriented culture that you can only find off the mainland.

ship

Above: Visitors can tour the tall ship Elissa, which dates to 1877.

In Title: The island features 32 miles of beaches. Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau photos

Below: The Lone Star Flight Museum features more than 40 historical aircraft, most of which can still fly. Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

museum

The richly historical city has been undergoing a renaissance of sorts in recent years with new restaurants, updated hotels, and new attractions, including the addition of the Historic Pleasure Pier, an amusement park set over the Gulf reminiscent of one dating to the 1940s. During its Golden Era in the late 1800s when the island was known as the “Playground of the South,” Southerners flocked there for Victorian beach getaways, and the city has once again become a prime destination for vacationers seeking a seaside retreat.

“With everything we have going on, it really is another Golden Era for Galveston,” said Ivette Wilhelm of the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, adding that the city is unlike those on the other side of the bridges linking it to the Lone Star State in attitude and atmosphere. “Galveston is so different from anywhere else in Texas.”

Seaside Delights

Because of its location, many of Galveston’s attractions are intertwined with the Gulf. Beachgoers can enjoy 32 miles of beaches, including Stewart Beach, a family-oriented beach that features umbrella and beach chair rentals, snack bar, volleyball courts, and beach wheelchairs. Public beach parks like Stewart are open March through October, while beaches along the island’s seawall are open year-round. Adventure-seekers also will find kayaking and stand-up paddleboard rentals at various locations around Galveston.

Being on the coast means that the city is vulnerable to hurricanes, several of which have caused extensive damage through the years, including Hurricane Ike in 2008. Yet after each one, the city has reinvented itself. Within five years after Ike, the city had invested $125 million in existing and new attractions, including the $60 million Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier amusement park. With its nostalgic feel, the 1,130-foot-long pier is home to shops, midway games, and 16 rides, including a 100-foot-tall Ferris wheel that offers unparalleled vistas of the coast.

For a more close-up view of the Gulf, climb aboard the BayWatch Dolphin Tours moored at Pier 21 near the east end of the island. The narrated tour of the Galveston Harbor offers details about the history and ecology of the island, but the real stars are the dolphins that frolic in the surf near the boat.

While at Pier 21, don’t miss the Texas Seaport Museum, which is home to the 1877 tall ship Elissa. The museum tells the rich story of seaborne commerce and immigration in Galveston with maritime artifacts and is a good preview for touring the grand Elissa. A self-guided audio tour of the ship’s two decks provides details about the three-masted vessel that carried cargo around the world.

Nearby, the Pier 21 Theater gives visitors a haunting look at the devastating hurricane of 1900 that claimed the lives of more than 6,000 men, women, and children in Galveston. Combining photos and excerpts from diaries and letters of survivors, the moving documentary recounts the deadliest storm in U.S. history.

Finally, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum and Education Center in the same area. Located on a refurbished offshore drilling rig, the museum conveys how oil and gas are produced using videos, interactive displays, equipment, and models.

Pyramids, planes, and a palace

Beyond the seashore, no visit to Galveston would be complete without admiring the island’s historical homes and museums, located primarily in the East End Historic District. In the area, you can glimpse an era of wealth and prosperity, as well as disaster and change.

Start with an overview via one of the Galveston Island Tours. The electric shuttle through the heart of Galveston showcases the island’s mansions, cottages, and the Historic Downtown Strand Seaport District, more commonly known as The Strand where visitors will find eclectic shops and eateries, including La King’s Confectionary, an old-fashioned soda fountain dating to the 1920s.

One of the mansions worth visiting is Bishop’s Palace, built of stone and steel in 1892 for railroad magnate Walter Gresham. The opulent 52-room Victorian home later served as the residence of the Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Galveston. The architectural masterpiece features abundant wood carvings, decorative plaster ceilings, 11 fireplaces, and a 40-foot-tall octagonal mahogany stairwell with stained glass on five sides.

As you tour the East End, take note of the many tree sculptures. Hurricane Ike’s powerful winds and tidal surges damaged 40,000 trees in the area, but artists breathed a second life into what remained with whimsical sculptures. A self-guided tour map is available, and Galveston Island Tours also offers a guided tour. Among the 30 creative offerings are dolphins, a mermaid, a railroad engineer, dogs, and birds.

Toward the center of the island are three more attractions that are central to any visit to Galveston. First is the Lone Star Flight Museum, home to one of the premier flying collections of historical aircraft and memorabilia in the world. More than 40 restored aircraft are displayed, and most are in working condition, including World War II fighters, bombers, and more.

Also nearby is Moody Gardens, where you could spend an entire day. The 242-acre complex features three glass pyramids, including the Rainforest Pyramid. Rising 10 stories, the tropical setting contains 1,000 species of plants and animals, including free-roaming saki monkeys. On a journey through the pyramid, guests encounter a butterfly enclosure, giant anaconda, Amazon river otters, and more.

The Aquarium Pyramid contains the largest aquarium in Texas with 1.5 million gallons of water. Visitors can gaze at aquatic life from around the world, including seals, sea lions, sharks, and more than 90 penguins. Finally, the Discovery Pyramid hosts traveling exhibits. And if the pyramids weren’t enough, Moody Gardens has a new ropes course and zip line, 3D and 4D theaters, waterpark, paddlewheel boat excursions, and a golf course.

For even more watery fun, head to the nearby Schlitterbahn Galveston Island, which has more than 35 aquatic adventures, including wave pools, a lazy river, high-speed slides, whitewater rapids, a surf ride, and water coasters. There’s even a heated indoor waterpark if you visit from October through mid-April.

Eating and sleeping

There are dozens of lodging choices in Galveston for every budget and preference. Nearly every major hotel chain is represented, including many that offer discounts to AAA members. The grand dame of accommodations, however, is the Hotel Galvez and Spa. The AAA Four Diamond property overlooking the Gulf has been welcoming guests for more than 100 years. Old-world style is complemented by modern amenities like a tranquil saline pool, swim-up bar, onsite day spa, and the superb Galvez Bar & Grill.

For a lodging option away from the beach, consider The Tremont House, a Wyndham Grand Hotel. Located in a renovated wholesale dry goods complex, this AAA Three Diamond boutique-style hotel re-creates the atmosphere of two 19th-century versions of the Tremont that came before. Nestled in the downtown Strand District, the hotel has a four-story atrium with birdcage elevators, a café, and The Rooftop Bar, Galveston’s only open-air rooftop venue and a great place for an afternoon cocktail.

Another distinctive option is the Harbor House Hotel and Marina at Pier 21. This modern hotel has an industrial yet warm ambiance. Overlooking Galveston Harbor, the casual hotel is conveniently located near several bars and restaurants, including Olympia Grill at Pier 21 that serves up Greek fare along with steamed clams, Texas oysters, and whole flounder.

Influenced deeply by the availability of fresh seafood, the island enjoys a vibrant culinary scene. Indeed, many Houstonians make the approximate hour-long trip to the island just to enjoy the noteworthy new restaurants and traditional favorites.

Among the great breakfast choices is Farley Girls (801 Post Office St.), which serves up scrambled egg tacos; Texas eggs benedict with queso instead of Hollandaise sauce; and the OMG, a chicken-fried steak on a pancake topped with sausage gravy and a fried egg. Another breakfast standout is Sunflower Bakery & Cafe (512 14th St.), where you can savor oysters benedict and lobster and crab omelets, along with an array of bakery items.

For lunch, try the Porch Café (1625 E. Beach Drive) on the island’s east end in an area known as Beachtown. The light and airy eatery features an inviting wraparound deck with lovely views of the Gulf. Sample the coconut shrimp or the tangy bloody Mary ceviche filled with tender shrimp, crab, and lobster.

Dinner options are plentiful, but one staple is Gaidos (3828 Seawall Blvd.). The restaurant uses “The Coastal Classic” as its slogan, and for good reason. Open since 1911, the Galveston landmark serves up fresh seafood like amberjack, deep sea scallops, and red snapper along with steaks and chops. But whatever you order, save room for the pecan crunch served with cowboy bourbon sauce and Blue Bell vanilla ice cream. Loaded with nuts, the pie is inverted after baking so the pecans become the crust.

A more recent addition to the culinary landscape is Number 13 Prime Steak and Seafood at the Pelican Rest Marina (7809 Broadway). Combining upscale dining and casual elegance, the restaurant serves 28-day dry-aged steaks along with a host of seafood choices.

From the seafood to the beaches to the memorable attractions, Galveston remains the “Playground of the South.” It’s a short trip over the bridge from the mainland, but the island is a long way from your everyday worries. Enjoy some “island time” and relax.

Dennis R. Heinze is regional editor of the AAA Midwest Traveler.

May/June 2015 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact the Galveston Island Convention and Visitors Bureau,
(888) GAL-ISLE (425-4753) or www.galveston.com.


To visit Galveston, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.


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