Return to Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest ("Earthpark") Web Site

Return to Nicholas Johnson's Blog, FromDC2Iowa

Southern charm Galveston is a mix of classic sights, contemporary attractions

Cindy Cullen Chapman

The Gazette

October 15, 2006

[Note: This material is copyright by The Gazette, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of The Gazette.]

  GALVESTON ISLAND, Texas — My love affair with Galveston began when I first visited the island on which it sits 20-some years ago, and the feeling hasn’t abated.

  The island’s east end epitomizes the charm and ambience of the coastal South in the early 1900s. To the west, the offerings are as contemporary as one could want.

  For an island only 32 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, Galveston packs a lot of both. It’s not surprising that the island, with a population of 57,200, draws millions of visitors every year.

  Galveston’s star attraction is its beautiful beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. The city gets kudos not just for offering a lot of public beaches, but also for the fact that those areas are well-maintained and conveniently located.

  The main public beach, for example, is at the east end of the island near the commercial and retail area. Free street parking along the sea wall means only a short walk from vehicle to sunny sand. Nab a spot when you can, however; although plentiful, parking spaces go fast.

  At intervals along the beach line, family restaurants and bars are supported by docks extending into the Gulf waters.

  Public beaches include Stewart Beach Park, Galveston’s premier family park; Galveston Island State Park for picnics and camping; and East Beach, which features Big Reef Nature Park for nature lovers. The Gulfside Seawolf Park, built on the site of an immigration station, offers a three-story pavilion with a wonderful view of Galveston harbor, a playground area and a fishing pier. The USS Cavalla, a World War II submarine; the USS Stewart, a destroyer escort; and other military hardware are open for tours.

  Step back in history on the east end of the island, where there’s an abundance of turn-of-the-century architecture, tours, a vital historical shopping and arts district, horse-drawn carriages, trolley cars, museums and restaurants.

  This downtown historical district, called the Historic Strand Seaport, is a sight to behold with its beautifully restored Victorian buildings, brick streets and raised sidewalks. On a busy Sunday, cars fill the metered street parking, but it’s not hard to imagine horses and buggies and vintage autos lined up instead. Downtown also is a vacation shopper’s paradise. No fewer than 19 antiques shops welcome browsers as well as buyers. Maritime art and collectibles reflect Galveston’s seaport heritage.

  The Postoffice Street Arts & Entertainment District’s nearly 20 galleries offer exhibitions and artwork for sale. Every six weeks, art galleries take part in ArtWalk, a wine-and-cheese event that includes a guided walk through the historical streets, boutiques and galleries.

  Beach and souvenir shops are abundant and, surprising for a ‘‘tourist’’ area, many are moderately priced.

  The Strand also features the Galveston Railroad Museum, the largest railroad museum in the Southwest; the 1877 Tall Ship ELISSA, which offers tours; the Texas Seaport Museum; the Moody Mansion; the 1859 Ashton Villa & Heritage Visitors Center; the G a l v e s t o n County Historical Museum; and Pier 21 Theatre.

  Pier 21 alternates two films, ‘‘ The Great Storm’’ and ‘‘The Pirate Island of Jean Lafitte,’’ each relating a historical era of Galveston.

  We viewed the first. It’s not sophisticated filmmaking, consisting of black-and-white drawings, music and narration, but it effectively conveys the horror and devastation of the hurricane that nearly destroyed Galveston at the turn of the century. While the film isn’t long — only about 30 minutes or so — it’s not likely to hold the interest of children.

  Downtown restaurants range from elegant dining to casual, waterfront lunch spots. While the waters around Galveston are an endless source of fresh seafood, you can dine on everything from Cajun to Tuscan. Don’t skip the Southern classic Key Lime Pie, which is on virtually every menu.

  Many of the restaurants offer indoor or outdoor seating. If you choose the latter, be prepared for the company of friendly seagulls who know an easy mark when they see one.

  Not to be missed is a tour of the coastline and harbor provided by commercial tour boats. Boats leave regularly from downtown docks on approximately 45-minute trips. Expect to see frolicking dolphins as curious about sightseers as the sightseers are about them.

  Our boat captain aimed to please. When the dolphins didn’t show up right away, he took extra time to cruise around until we saw them.

  Moving westward from the historical district, you’ll find more contemporary attractions. Galveston is home to a 242-acre, state-of-the-art theme park/educational facility and a waterpark, each of which can be a vacation in itself.

  Beachfront property is peppered with multimillion-dollar homes, which, like a timeline, become newer and more elaborate the farther west you go. Some are year-round residences, and others are rentals for vacationers and snowbirds.

  The island is a weekend home to many residents of the nearby Houston area (across Galveston Bay on the mainland); the weekend status of the million-dollar-plus ‘‘cottages’’ is betrayed by tightly shuttered windows on early Sunday evenings.

  Serious golfers will welcome the challenges of the 18-hole Galveston Island Municipal Golf Course, a par-72, 6,900-yard course with bumps, rolls and stiff crosswinds. If you’re a beginner, be prepared to put your skills to work. The course, ranked among the top five municipal courses in Texas, is surrounded by the beautiful Sydnor Bayou. Pausing between holes to gaze at the tranquil vista is worth the time.

  For a more light-hearted experience, take the family to Magic Carpet Golf’s two 18 hole courses with animated twists, turns and tricks. The complex also offers batting cages and is next door to a movie-theater complex and bungee jumping.

  Plan to spend at least a full day at Moody Gardens. The tropical 10-story Rainforest Pyramid is home to the largest bat exhibit in the Southwest. There’s also an IMAX theater, the 4D Special FX Theater, a paddlewheel boat cruise, a 1.5- million- gallon aquarium pyramid (the largest in the world), 25 acres of lush indoor and outdoor gardens, and Palm Beach, which features freshwater lagoons, white sand beaches, palm trees, volleyball courts and a yellow submarine for kids.

  The new Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark’s Wasserfest is a convertible waterpark — meaning parts of it can be enclosed for year-round use. Another waterpark attraction, Surfenburg, is made up of 16 water attractions, including uphill water coasters, a lagoon, three beaches, body slides, and surf and raft rides.