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Trip Guide: Galveston

Neither shifting sands nor fluctuating fortunes can erode this island town’s indomitable spirit.

By July 2017Comments

The Tremont House, on Ship's Mechanic Row.
Photographs by John Davidson

Galveston is a strange city,” I scribbled in my notebook on a recent visit, a sentiment that over the next several days would only grow more pronounced, along with my affection for the island town. On the one hand, its enticements are obvious. Some six million visitors come every year to loaf on the sandy shores along the seawall and ride the Ferris wheel at the Pleasure Pier and buy T-shirts at the souvenir shops in the Strand District and gobble up crawfish by the pound at Benno’s on the Beach. Indeed, tourism has been Galveston’s chief economic play ever since the Great Storm of 1900, the deadliest natural disaster in United States history, forever changed the city’s trajectory. What was once Texas’s most profitable cotton port and the country’s second-richest boomtown instead settled into its fate as the state’s sunniest, most Atlantic City–esque playground.

But just under Galveston’s festive surface lie dichotomies that give the place a curious electricity: the fleeting and the permanent, the kitschy and the genteel, the fortunes made and the fortunes lost at the whims of a capricious sea. So while I made the obligatory trek to the beach (which, though recently fortified by a million cubic yards of new sand, would never be called Texas’s most picturesque stretch of coast), I found the city’s real vibrancy elsewhere: in the East End’s ornate Victorian-era homes, which have beautifully defied history’s battery of hurricanes, and also in the front-yard sculptures fashioned from some of the thousands of trees lost in the storm surge of Hurricane Ike. In the community of anglers chattering in a multitude of languages as they fish off the jetty at Seawolf Park on Pelican Island, formerly a welcoming point for boatloads of immigrants arriving at the turn of the century. And in the aesthetic juxtapositions downtown, where modern enterprises give new purpose to old buildings whose walls wear high-water marks like badges, testaments to Galveston’s unfaltering resiliency.

SEE + DO

History is a “high adventure” at the Bryan Museum 1 (thebryanmuseum.org), where some 70,000 artifacts, like Stephen F. Austin’s cattle-horn powder flask, tell tales of Texas’s past. To get schooled on Galveston’s bygone days, tour the 1892 Bishop’s Palace 2 (galveston-history.org), a Victorian stunner that’s survived multiple storms, and visit Seawolf Park 3 (galveston.com/seawolfpark), once an immigration entry site on Pelican Island and now a popular fishing (and ship-watching) spot.

EAT + DRINK

Detour from the well-trod tourist paths for crawfish-and-jalapeño mac and cheese at the Gypsy Joynt 4 (gypsyjoynt.com), a family-run hideout that relocated from the Berkshires last year. For seafood along the seawall, you can eat crabs alfresco at Benno’s on the Beach (bennosofgalveston.com) or tuck into campechana and gumbo at BLVD  Seafood 5 (blvdseafood.com). At Mosquito Cafe 6 (mosquitocafe.com), cap your breakfast with a lemon bar from sister bakery PattyCakes (pattycakes
galveston.com
).

SHOP

The owners of Nautical Antiques & Tropical Decor 7 (piecesofship.com) scour ship-breaking yards around the world to bring back brass passageway lights, rope bumpers, and other cool seaworthy salvage. Marine-minded decorators will find driftwood tables and framed surfing photographs at Luna Home & Gifts (lunahomeandgifts.com).

STAY

Located blocks from the Galveston Channel, the neo-Renaissance-style Tremont House 8 (thetremonthouse.com) is an oasis of elegance amid the Strand’s tourist-friendly diversions. Standard rooms are on the small side, but all quarters impress with high ceilings and windows with plantation shutters. If you want to stay on the Gulf side, book an ocean-view room at the sophisticated Hotel Galvez (hotelgalvez.com).

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  • Kerry Anderson Crooks

    Seawolf Park’s WWII-era submarine USS Cavalla and destroyer-escort USS Stewart provide a rare insight into life aboard these unique ships and their brave crews.

  • TXDoula

    Sunflower Cafe…best breakfast and lunch on the island! For historical tourism, I agree with Kerry…Seawolf Park is well worth a visit!

  • Sarah Moore Click

    You nailed it. Electric, strange, unfaltering resilience. Love this little island!

  • Ben Brown

    Been going to Galveston since I was 2 and that was 66 years ago. Two of my best friends live there and raised their 2 children there. All 4 were BOI which is an acronym for Born On the Island, Their 2 kids now live in Austin and Scotland. I love Galveston and remember so many things that made it unique and different from other beach towns. The folks who stick there are so resilient and keep coming back after hurricanes and others disasters. Gone are the bumper cars at Stewart Beach The Jack Tar Hotel, The Pirate Club downtown, an after hours drinking place that you had to go with a native to get in. There were several places that kept serving until the last person left. Great hamburgers, wonderful waiter by the name of Wade. I could go on and on. If TM would like to pay for an article: Me rite cheep.

    My dad kept an apartment there for 20 plus years. He sometimes would not get down there for several months but just knowing it was there off the Seawall was comforting to him. It and a new Cadillac every couple of years were his main luxuries to being in the oil business.

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