Writer-at-large Suzy Banks talks about tourism in Galveston, moray eels in Kemah, and war stories in Port Isabel.
Suzy Banks abandoned Galveston Bay years ago when pollution invaded her turf. For our June cover story, she returned to the coast and stumbled upon a few pearls of Texas tourism.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you decide to give the coast another chance after holding a three-decade-long grudge?
Suzy Banks: For one thing, after thirty years, the fog of time has softened the edges of my more bitter memories of the coast. On top of that, when I was doing my initial research, I came across the Houston Architecture Info Web site, where a clueless Yankee transplant, pining away for an Atlantic Coast-beach town experience, attacked Galveston’s seawall, calling it “ugly” and “an eyesore.” Well, you can bet he was royally flamed by righteous locals who explained that the seawall wasn’t about looking good but about survival itself. This got me thinking—after I stopped fuming over the Yankee—that our coast was, at the very least, a survivor, and I owed it the courtesy of checking out its finer points. That’s when I realized that it had made a comeback of sorts, and for that alone, it deserved my admiration.
texasmonthly.com: You explored the upper coast, the central coast, and the lower coast of Texas. Which was your favorite and why?
SB: The central coast was probably my favorite section. It seems the most earnest and yet most complex swath of coast. History is overlaid with industry—it’s right near impossible to escape petrochemical plants on much of the coast—which is overlaid with fishing and shrimping, which then gets a coating of tourism. But, so far, this tourism isn’t too stridently merry. To me, horse-drawn carriage rides, fudge shops, fake rainforests, and year-round Christmas stores—which now plague both Galveston and Kemah—are the kiss of death for a town’s unique personality. Although I have to admit that I did like watching Binky and Bob, two cantankerous toxic-green moray eels that live at the Aquarium Restaurant, in Kemah. I sure couldn’t eat any seafood there, though. How in the world can people eat a stuffed flounder while its relatives look on?
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned?
SB: I learned a bunch of cool stuff: The first shot of the Mexican War and the last shot of the Civil War were fired in the Port Isabel area, sea beans that travel to our shores come from thousands of miles away, a river otter has more than 300,000 hairs per square inch, and if the giant Pacific octopus at the Texas State Aquarium, in Corpus Christi, is given a crab in a jar for dinner, he can open the jar to get the crab out.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect of working on this story?
SB: The most difficult aspect was not focusing on the many problems this coast still faces. I wanted to pitch this article as “It’s not the best coast, but it’ll do,” but my editors gently suggested that that probably wasn’t the greatest approach for a travel piece. Despite its progress, the coast continues to face incredible pollution, overdevelopment and rampant erosion, and threats to marine life such as over-fishing and habitat destruction.
texasmonthly.com: How long did it take you to research this story?
SB: I really hate to even think about how much time I spent researching this piece—surfing the Internet; poring over magazines, guidebooks, and history books; calling folks I know who live on the coast; and driving around. (I logged something like 2,500 miles on my trusty Subaru.) I think I picked up every single brochure and map ever printed about this very, very long coast. We’re talking file boxes full of the stuff. Let’s just say I got started on this last year!
texasmonthly.com: If you had to pick one don’t-miss attraction, what would it be?
SB: It’s tough to pick one attraction. If someone was interested in birding, I’d say a trip to High Island during spring migration would be tops. For the adrenaline junkie, I’d say a surfing lesson on South Padre. If someone just wanted to relax, I’d say stay at the Crane House, a wonderful little cabin set on hundreds of acres next to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you choose surfing in South Padre, as opposed to parasailing, jet-skiing, or other water sports?
SB: I chose surfing because, like the coast, it’s experiencing a comeback. Plus, I absolutely despise jet-skis. What’s the challenge of riding around on one of those noisy contraptions?
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SB: I went to a lot of great places that I had to leave out of the story for one reason or another. Sea Center Texas, a fish hatchery and aquarium in Lake Jackson, would be a wonderful place to take the kids. There’s also a more modest, but no less fascinating, hatchery in Corpus Christi. Also in Corpus is this crazy little place called the Cool Cats Toy Museum, which is packed with all kinds of plastic toy collections, from Barbie to Star Wars to Shrek. On the channel in Port O’Connor, there’s a boffo cafe named Clark’s, where you can eat fried oysters and watch the dolphins swim past.