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Galveston - Texas

The city of Galveston sits on a barrier island of the same name at the mouth of Galveston Bay. One of the oldest settlements in the state, it is now dwarfed by the spreading metropolitan area of Houston which lies 50 miles to the north. The building of the Houston ship canal was only the latest in a series of setbacks to this relaxed small city which has suffered a string of economic collapses and natural disasters since it was "discovered" in 1528 by Cabeza de Vaca.

After he landed, Cabeza was held prisoner for six years by the Karankawa Indians, but escaped being consumed by the allegedly cannibalistic tribe. Galveston was named during the mid-1700s by a company of Spanish soldiers stationed on the island, for Count Bernardo de Galvez, Viceroy of Mexico. Over the centuries the island was the property of the Spanish, French, and Mexicans, and then home to French pirate Jean Lafitte and his company of buccaneers who stayed here from 1817 to 1821, when the American government intervened and drove Lafitte off the island.

The Civil War and After

During the Civil War, Galveston succumbed to Union troops, but was re-captured by Confederate forces in a surprise attack and remained Confederate until the end of the war. The port had always played an important role in Galveston's economy. Galveston Bay provided a large, sheltered harbor and the city became the third-largest port in the country. During this period, the city's main street, "The Strand," became an elegant avenue with splendid mansions and cultural institutions, including a grand opera house.

The "Great Storm" and the Recent One

Then, in 1900, the inevitable happened. A fierce storm blew in from the Gulf of Mexico, with hurricane force winds destroying the barrier island and many of its buildings. Six thousand people died in what is still considered to be the worst natural disaster in the history of the nation. The city began to reinvent itself, first by working to protect the island against future storms. A seawall was built and barges full of sand were dredged from the nearby waterways and more sand brought from Florida, to raise the level of the streets and buildings by as much as 17 feet. More than 2,000 buildings were raised. A later storm, in 1915, tested the newly-reshaped island. While there was some damage, the community survived. The original four miles of seawall was expanded to ten.

The port and the city flourished again, until Houston decided that it could grow by building a ship canal linking what was then a bayou backwater with Charleston Bay and the gulf. Galveston sunk under an economic collapse. Most of the port functions shifted to Houston, stopped only by the growth of gambling enterprises in the city. This led to lawlessness and notoriety, and a major crackdown on gambling returned Galveston to its former state -- a dispirited, impoverished community.

More recently, three developments have brought Galveston back into prominence as a lively, working city. First, port activities were revived. The Medical Branch of the University of Texas established a large medical center which became the area's largest employer, and the people of Galveston decided to focus on tourism as a way of sustaining the economy. Instead of tearing down old historical buildings, the city renovated them. The Strand became once more an elegant, stately street. Beaches were improved, with the state developing a strip through the middle of Galveston Island as a state recreation beach.

The Moody Foundation, long a generous benefactor to local cultural and historical groups, developed a plan to build a major environment-oriented center on Galveston Island, as much theme park as educational institution. Included in the plans for Moody Gardens were a large glass Rainforest Pyramid, a beach developed on Offatts Bayou with barges of sand imported from Orlando (accommodating 3,000 people), and other facilities including an IMAX theater and a convention center. More than two dozen historic buildings are open to the public and the 1894 Grand Opera House provides a home for the Galveston Symphony, as well as ballet, opera, rock and jazz concerts. The Strand Historic District mirrors the early history of the island, with iron-fronted buildings in a six-block section housing fine restaurants, boutiques, and art galleries.

With a population of under 65,000, Galveston is a fine place to visit, without the fast-paced lifestyle of the larger, more modern Texas cities. It is a town that reflects its past, but also offers modern resort hotels, miles of beaches to explore, good fishing, and many cultural opportunities including music festivals.

Hurricane Ike, the most recent major hurricane to damage Galveston, hit the city with winds of over 105 miles per hour on September 19, 2008. Although not doing quite as much damge as the "Big Storm," Ike damaged many of the buildings along the gulf coast, some of which are still in a state of ruin, and reshaped the seafloor of the gulf near the city. Tourism recovered and the city is again a great place to visit.

What to See & Do

Galveston Island State Park
& the Seawall

Opened in 1975, the park occupies a 1,950-acre strip across the island. It offers fine beach walking (on both sides), birdwatching, fishing, and swimming. Each summer, two musicals are produced at the Mary Moody Northen Amphitheater, on alternate evenings (except Sunday). This amphitheater is just one of the many cultural amenities the Moody Foundation has provided the community. Tours of the beach and bay areas of the park are offered by appointment. You may arrange these tours with the park staff.

Wildlife to be found in the park includes wading and shore birds, mallards and mottled ducks, raccoons, armadillos, and marsh rabbits. Anglers come here for spotted sea trout, sandtrout, redfish, black drum, flounder, and croaker.

To get there, take Interstate 45 and exit right onto 61st Street, travel south on 61st Street to Seawall Boulevard, and then turn west (right) and take Seawall (FM 3005) ten miles to the park. Facilities include a visitor center and Texas Park Store, campsites with water and electricity, including large sites in a group area for RVs and trailers, a tenting area with electricity and water, and four miles of trails for walking and hiking. A large, concrete boat ramp is located at Pirate's Cove, next to the park. For camping reservations, call (512) 389-8900. For general park information, call 800-792-1112.

Starting near the east end of the island, the Seawall extends for ten miles along the gulf side, protecting the island from storm surges and providing a wonderful place to stroll. Built following the devastating 1900 hurricane, the whole island was raised with the Seawall holding back the sand, and holding the gulf at bay. Galveston claims that the seawall is the world's longest continuous sidewalk. It's a great place to get some sun, and to jog, cycle, roller skate, and just walk, with the beautiful gulf always in sight.

Moody Gardens

Theme parks usually turn me off, but this one has several redeeming features. First, it was thought-up and built by the Moody Foundation, the largest and most significant benefactor to the cultural community of Galveston over the years. Second, while it has some of the same elements of a Disney World or Busch Gardens, it also has a non-commercial atmosphere. The attractions are squeaky clean and professionally managed, but they are there to enable visitors to enjoy the wonders of the natural world, even if the actual environment is unnatural.

The complex includes a convention center, volleyball courts, an amphitheater, and The Colonel, a paddlewheel boat that offers daily cruises on Offatts Bayou. It's a reproduction of an 1800s paddle steamer, holding 800 passengers. The boat is docked at Palm Beach, a totally artificial but huge beach with sparkling white sand that you would see in Florida. It actually came from Florida -- by the barge-full. Bayous usually don't have beaches, but there's one here.

The centerpiece of Moody Gardens is the Rainforest Pyramid, an immense greenhouse filled with rainforest plants from Africa and the Americas, along with butterflies, tropical fish, and exotic birds. Waterfalls drop off concrete cliffs, you can enter caverns&emdash;including a bat cave&emdash;and walk past a changing collection of tropical plants. The newest in 3-D IMAX theaters presents daily showings of several films on the six-story screen. All film programs are nature-related. The Garden is a fine waterfront restaurant offering a nightly Dancing Waters show.

The place to start your visit to the Gardens is the Visitor Center Preview Theater, where you'll see a free introductory show about the rainforest exhibits and attractions, featuring a nutty professor and a fast-talking toucan. The prices for a day at Moody Gardens are surprisingly reasonable (but maybe not considering this is a non-profit organization). On my most recent visit, the adult fare for one attraction was $6 with all four (IMAX, pyramid, beach, boat) costing $20. The four attractions provide for a full day of activity. On Fridays at 1 p.m., the staff provide tram tours of the gardens and greenhouses. The point for starting a self-guided tour of the gardens is located behind the greenhouse.

To get there from Interstate 45, drive to the 61st Street exit, drive along 61st, and turn right on Seawall Boulevard. Then turn right onto 81st Street, and turn left onto Hope Boulevard. For information on the attractions, call 800-582-4673.

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Guide to Galveston, Texas

Galveston Camping

Dellanera RV Park
10901 San Luis Pass Road, Galveston TX 77551
(409) 740-0390
A municipal campground with a beachfront setting, this facility offers flush toilets, a playground, grocery store, playground, and laundry. Fishing opportunities are just outside your RV. To get there, drive 5.5 miles from the foot of Interstate 45 on FM 3005, the road that runs along Galveston Island.

Bayou Haven RV Resort
6310 Heards Lane, Galveston TX 77551, (409) 744-2837
This RV and trailer park offers open, grassy sites with full hookups, and also has tenting sites. Other facilities include flush toilets, and laundry. Take Interstate 45 to the 61st Street Exit, then drive nearly a mile on Spur 342 (61st Street), and turn onto Heards Lane. Drive a short distance to the campground entrance.

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