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Holiday by the Sea

Destination: Galveston

Travel time from:
Lubbock – 9.25 hours
Dallas – 4.5 hours
El Paso – 11.5 hours
Austin – 3.75 hours
Houston – 1 hour
Brownsville – 6 hours

Christmas brings out the Dickens in Galveston, but it’s refreshing any time of the year.

By Eva Frederick

I watch calm blue-green water flash by outside the windows of my car as I drive Interstate 45 across Galveston Bay, windows down to inhale the coastal breeze. Seabirds glide overhead, and the shore is barely visible in the distance, its crown of vegetation contrasting with the light sky. It feels as if we’re adrift in a state of limbo.

Across the bridge, time begins to unspiral, to come loose so that the towering skyscrapers of Houston and neatly manicured suburbs of League City are a distant memory, and Victorian homes rub shoulders with gas stations and colorful new beach houses. This collage of old and new is Galveston Island.

pier

Sunrise illuminates the Pleasure Pier.

Galveston became a town in 1839, and since then has laid claim to some Texas “firsts” — first grocery store, first black high school, first post office, first medical school and more. For a while it was the largest city in Texas, and the most active port west of New Orleans. Then, in 1900, a hurricane now known as The Great Storm slammed the island, destroying more than 3,600 buildings and leaving 6,000 people dead.

After that storm, it’s a miracle that Galveston is here at all. In the aftermath — a deadly sea of beams and stones and tree branches — Galvestonians were faced with a choice: make drastic changes to the island or get out. In an incredible feat of engineering for the time, engineers dredged sand from the seafloor (mostly from the shipping channel) and added layer upon layer of sand to the island until the sea-facing south side was 17 feet higher than it had been. The fill was retained by a concrete wall spanning 10 miles of coastline.

I arrive in Galveston on a Friday afternoon in May, my boyfriend in tow, and check into the Moody Gardens Hotel, a lavish resort ringed with palm trees and frangipani flowers. Out the window of our room, we can see the iconic shapes of the Moody pyramids, one opaque blue, one bubblegum pink and one clear glass, shining dark with the rainforest plants within.

After lunch at the Sunflower Cafe, a bistro in Galveston’s historic East End, we walk through town to The Strand, Galveston’s historic downtown strip. Once referred to as the “Wall Street of the South,” the Strand is lined with towering banks, opulent hotels and other historic buildings.

town crier

A town crier delivers the news at Dickens on the Strand.

During the holiday season, the street transforms into another world, where any minute you might see Pip or Estella Havisham — or even Ebenezer Scrooge — just around the corner, at Galveston’s lavish Victorian Christmas festival, Dickens on the Strand. Parades, entertainment on six stages, strolling carolers, roving musicians, bagpipers, jugglers and others add to the festivities. Costumed vendors peddle their wares from street stalls and rolling carts laden with holiday food and drink, Victorian-inspired crafts, clothing, jewelry, holiday decorations and gift items. The annual Victorian “bed race” is always a crowd favorite and pits five- person teams against each other for a footrace down Galveston’s historic streets.

This year’s festival will be held Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.

If the weather turns gray and rainy, I consider that to be a perfect aquarium day. Galveston has just the place. Alexis Shelley, a spunky PR rep with a wide smile, meets us outside the opaque blue pyramid that houses Moody Gardens’ underwater exhibits.

Moody Gardens opened as an equine therapy clinic in 1986, a gift to the Galveston community from the Moody Family, real estate tycoons during the mid- 20th century, whose mansion is another attraction on the island. The pyramids are not intended to be merely decorative: the bottom-heavy shapes make Moody Gardens’ exhibit halls much less susceptible to damage from hurricane winds and flooding. While many buildings in Galveston lost roofs in Hurricane Harvey last year, Moody Gardens was nearly unharmed.

The aquarium’s oil rig exhibit greets us first, reaching up two stories to the top of the glass pyramid. Born of a partnership with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation, the oil rig exhibit showcases the diverse life-forms that thrive on underwater oil machinery.

places

The Bishop's Palace is Galveston's grandest building.

At first, Shelley admits, she was skeptical about the benefits of Gulf oil machinery for wildlife.

“I was one of those people who thought, ‘This is a manmade structure, it shouldn’t be there,’ but actually learning how that structure helps wildlife in the Gulf is amazing,” she tells us.

We leave the oil rig and wander toward the penguin exhibit, where we watch the flightless birds eat fish, waddle around and hop with surprising dexterity from rock to rock.

After touring the aquarium, we walk through a passageway into the rainforest pyramid, a paradise of colorful tropical birds and plants. I stand on a walkway near the entrance and watch in wonder as a scarlet ibis snacks on seeds just inches away from me.

In winter, another type of environment joins the mix of tropical forest and ocean water displays: ice. Each year, Moody Gardens imports 2 million pounds of glittering ice from College Station, of all places, and flies in a team of professional ice sculptors from China to create frozen polar bears, penguins, humpback whales, reindeer and more. The ice carving event follows a different theme each year; this year, it’s “Ice Land: Pole to Pole.” The sculptures can be viewed until Jan. 6.

We follow those sea breezes we first enjoyed crossing to the island all the way to the harbor to tour the Texas Seaport Museum. Our tour guide on the rickety two-story barge has terrible jokes for everything; for example, we stop momentarily to view a boat used by Del Monte produce to import bananas and he quips, “Let’s split!” He shares harbor trivia, like a story about the casino ship that planned to take would-be gamblers out into federal waters, where gambling is legal, but unfortunately crashed into an enormous harbor marker on its inaugural voyage.

ship

The tall ship Elissa at the Texas Seaport Museum.

The harbor has an air of mystery as well. The turnaround for our tour is an old shipwreck — the former SS Selma — that sits partially submerged in the shallow water. The ship, a 7,500-ton reinforced concrete tanker, was launched on June 28, 1919. If concrete doesn’t seem to be the ideal ship-building material, that’s because, well ... it’s not. The U.S. experimented with concrete ships after steel shortages in World War I.

Not only did the Selma acquire a crack in its hull only a year after its launch, but analysis by ship engineers showed that the Selma’s concrete shell didn’t even fully set until 1975 — 54 years after it sank. For years in the harbor, the Selma served as a secluded hermitage for eccentric loner Frenchy LeBlanc and his goats, and was the possible home base of a foreign spy. Now it stands deserted, a slightly spooky landmark adding intrigue to the flat water of the harbor.

Back in town, we indulge in our pirate daydreams inspired by Galveston’s first European settler: the pirate Jean Lafitte. Lafitte lived on the island — then only a sea of marsh and coastal grasses — in the early 1800s, and started a small colony called Campeche. Lafitte, a dashing figure in his black hat and tailored clothes, preferred to call himself a “privateer,” rather than a pirate. His European manners distinguished him from the stereotypical pirate. When he and the other thousand settlers of the island were forced to leave, Lafitte burned the village behind them.

Our pirate daydreams end when we reach our next destination, Galveston Island State Park.

The park is past the edge of town, a strip of reeds and grasses and small coastal plants sandwiched between the outskirts of Galveston on one side and the colorful wooden homes of Jamaica Beach on the other.

We check in at headquarters and pay for our pass, and then walk out toward the waves.

fishing

An angler tries his luck near the bridge over Galveston Bay.

Little groups of piping plovers run in and out of the water in front of us. Their tiny legs blur as they run, as if their plump bodies are floating over the sand. We push into the surf, bobbing on green waves until the sun sinks too low to warm our shoulders in the water. After drying off, we head over to the bay side of the park for some hiking.

We watch American oystercatchers with bright orange bills fly overhead before landing in the marsh nearby. Sitting on several fall and spring migration pathways (and providing the winter home for flocks of tall, lanky sandhill cranes), the island is either home or a temporary resting place for more than 300 species of birds.

We return from our hike at dusk, our bodies heavy and slow with salt and sun and exhaustion.

As we head back to town and think about all we’ve seen — the Victorian buildings, the mysterious traces left by Jean Lafitte and the utopia of Moody Gardens — we come to one conclusion: At any time of year, we would happily return to immerse ourselves in teal-colored water, the calls of seabirds and the lovely relics of another time.

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