So it was exciting to receive an invitation to spend a weekend there. Mardi Gras weekend in fact, and I jumped at the chance. Galveston, “I watch your sea birds flying in the sun, At Galveston, At Galveston”. But having never been there, and only knowing it through a song, Galveston to me was more like a myth than a place, like Camelot. I had to look it up on a map to find out where it actually is. As it turns out, the city of Galveston is actually the island of Galveston, and is located about 40 miles south of Houston.
Galveston Island has been occupied for thousands of years, once serving as home to Akokisa and Karankawa Indians. It was named for Bernardo de Gálvez in 1786, a Spanish colonial governor and general. The pirate Jean Lafitte arrived on the Island in 1817, making it his base of operations and naming it Campeche. The little village contained huts for the pirates, a large slave market, boarding houses for visiting buyers, a shipyard, saloons, pool halls, gambling houses and Lafitte’s own house, the “Maison Rouge.” At one point, Campeche was home to about 1,000 people. In May 1821, after Lafitte’s attack on an American ship, he was forced to abandon his operations in Galveston. Before leaving, he hosted a huge party for his pirates with wine and whiskey and burned his settlement. It is believed that he had buried treasure on the Island, but it has never been found.
Since Congress had not approved chartered banks throughout the 19th century, financial transactions were handled by mercantile firms. The Strand, named after a street in London, was filled with wholesalers, cotton agents, paint, drug, grocery, hardware and dry goods stores and insurance companies. The Strand became known as the “Wall Street of the Southwest” for the largest and most important wholesale houses west of the Mississippi River. Progress continued and a bridge to the mainland was finished in 1860.
Galveston’s prosperity suddenly came to a halt on September 8, 1900, when the deadliest natural disaster in United States history hit Galveston Island. A storm with winds exceeding 120 miles per hour and tidal surge devastated the island and killed more than 6,000 people. At the time of the 1900 Storm, Galveston had a population of 37,000 and was the fourth largest, and most sophisticated city in Texas. One-third of the city was completely destroyed, more than 3,600 buildings. To prevent such a natural disaster from devastating the island again, the city built a 17’ high seawall which now extends 10.4 miles, and covers one-third of Galveston’s Gulf side, plus it began a tremendous project to raise the level of the island. Galveston overcame the devastation to become a top resort city. Galveston attracted people from all over the nation with great dining, big name entertainment, roulette, blackjack, craps tables and slot machines. This era ended in 1957 when the Texas Rangers raided the city and closed all the illegal gambling spots.
After a bumpy Southwest airlines flight through unsettled skies, I arrived in Houston’s small and comfortable William P. Hobby airport, and took the 40 mile ride to Galveston. Shortly we came to the bridge which took me over the water to Galveston Island itself. It was impressive, as we passed through the largest historic district of Victorian homes in the US.
My first stop was the beautiful Hotel Galvez (2024 Seawall Blvd.,) 409 765-7721, www.galveston.com/galvez) one of the Wyndham Hotel chain’s trio of fine Galveston properties, and my home for the next four days. Known as the “Queen of the Gulf”, the hotel opened its doors in 1911 as a symbol to the world that Galveston Island had withstood the devastation of the Great Storm of 1900. Since, it has undergone several renovations, the latest of which has restored the hotel to its original grandeur. And take it from me- between the beautiful tropical landscaping that greets you upon arrival, to the elegant, high-ceilinged lobby featuring ornately carved moldings, to the tropical pool with swim-up bar, to Bernardo’s fresh Gulf seafood- plus a marvelous location across the street from the seawall and the Gulf of Mexico- Hotel Galvez is a marvel to behold. Marvelous for ghosts as well, since Hotel Galvez plays host to several, including a distraught fiancé of a lost seaman who took her own life, and a ghostly gentleman who turned up in a photo of the lobby. (Ask the hotel’s wonderful concierge Jackie to show the image to you!)
In addition to all this, the hotel is adding The Spa at Hotel Galvez, which will be an oasis of tranquility for those of us who need it. The Spa features 7 treatment rooms and a Relaxation Room plus much more, and will allow you to “pamper yourself in sumptuous indulgences, and regain the harmony in your life.” Still under construction when I was there, this contemporary and stylish facility will open in March 2008.
On my first day in Galveston, I met up with a group of journalists also invited to visit Galveston, and we set off on a tour. First, we visited the famous Strand Historic District, named after a street in London, and once a bustling mercantile center. Now the area bustles in another way, featuring more than 100 unique shops, including restaurants, antique stores, art galleries, clothing boutiques and dear to any tourist’s heart- souvenir shops.
While wandering the Strand, I came upon a pleasant surprise- LaKing’s Confectionary Shop (2323 The Strand, www.lakingscandy.com), a connection to a by-gone era. Founded in the 1920’s by James H. King, the store features a 1920’s soda fountain, Purity brand ice cream (Did you know Purity was founded in 1889 on Galveston Island?), and Edward Torres, LaKing’s dynamic master candy maker. Torres uses 19th century formulas to make peanut brittle, divinity, fudge, and world famous salt water taffy, among other sweet confections, and makes them the old fashioned way, using traditional equipment including a large copper pot for boiling sugar syrup, an antique pulling machine for taffy, and a 100 year old Rube Goldberg type of device for cutting and wrapping the individual pieces of candy. It takes Torres about one hardworking hour to make one batch of candy, and I should know, because I stood there mesmerized as he worked. My reward? The scruptious freshly made candies he gave me to try.
Next, we visited The Grand 1894 Opera House (2020 Postoffice St., www.thegrand.com), which truly deserves its name. It is beautiful, made of St. Louis pressed brick with buff stone trim, cupolas and terra cotta ornaments. Inside, it features a magnificent painted Staley curtain, 1040 seats, including 12 romantic boxes, and fabrics, carpets and decoration reproduced from the originls. It opened its doors on January 3, 1895 with much partying and fanfare, and served the growing city with many forms of entertainment- from John Phillip Sousa to Anna Pavlova. Happily, the building has been restored to its former glory, and purpose- to present performing arts of all kinds to the community. For the 2008 season, The Grand will present “Simply Ballroom” with guest host Debby Reynolds in attendance (March 15), and Neil Berg’s “100 years of Broadway” (May 3), among others.
A soul must eat-so our next stop was lunch at Rudy & Paco’s (2028 Postoffice St., http://www.galveston.com/rudypaco/), a popular watering hole featuring seafood and steak with Central and South American sabor. I chose a three course menu that featured Ensalada Mixta, Snapper Simpatico (Fresh Gulf Red Snapper Plantain Encrusted, pan sautéed, served with raspberry chipotle sauce) and the most incredible Bread Pudding served with Bourbon Sauce. Amazing!
The following morning, we walked to Galveston’s famous harbour, once the center of a vibrant maritime mercantile exchange. Now, oil rigs and cruise ships glide where once- upon-a-time tall ships headed out to sea, traveling from Galveston to near and far, visiting all the world’s ports. While you are there, do not miss the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig & Museum (Museum Pier 20, www.oceanstaroec.com) with exhibits, interactive displays and videos explaining how oil and gas are claimed from under the sea.
Also, be sure to visit the nearby Pier 21 Theatre (21st Street at Harborside Drive, www.galvestonhistory.org) to watch an amazing film “The Great Storm” which features archival footage, shot in 1900, of the devastating hurricane and its dreadful aftermath. You definitely get an up-close and personal experience of Mother Nature’s fury, without the risk to life and limb. Also shown is “The Pirate Island of Jean Laffite”, a close-up look at the infamous pirate who made Galveston Island his base of operations for several years.
Also on the harbor is the Texas Seaport Museum (Pier 21-No. 8, www.tsm-elissa.org) and the Tall Ship Elissa (firstname.lastname@example.org). Elissa is a three-masted, iron-hulled merchant barque built in 1877 in Aberdeen, Scotland. Over her 90 year commercial history, she carried cargo to ports around the world, including 2 stops in Galveston during the 1880’s. She has 19 sails covering over one-quarter of an acre in area.
Nearby is Wyndham’s Harbor House (28 Pier # 21, www.harborhousepier21.com). This modern day translation of a working waterfront warehouse has been recreated as a casual, tasteful 42-room inn-style hotel, and features nautical style rooms. This dockside haven is on the site of an early Galveston Steamship terminal - the perfect vantage point for portside ship watching today. If you’re lucky enough to have a sailboat, why not pull up to Harbor House and moor your boat in one of their 9 slips adjacent to the hotel?
Now it was time to get ready for the highlight of the trip-Mardi Gras, Galveston style! Ninety years old and going strong, Galveston’s Mardi Gras continues the revelry born on the island in 1867. Though it took a hiatus for several years, it was brought back in 1984, bigger and better than ever by Galveston native and oil baron George Mitchell and his wife Cynthia. Mitchell conceived of the event as not just a pre-lenten blow-out, but as an opportunity to celebrate the arts in Galveston. As a result, eight world-famous architects were asked to design a decorative arch that would be built along the parade route, each a testament to a different artistic style. Though most of them have been destroyed, you can still see one of these fantasy creations down from the Wyndham Tremont House (2300 Mechanic St, www.galveston.com/thetremonthouse/) an affordably elegant European-style hotel at Mechanic & 24th Street. (Miniatures of these plus resplendent costumes, rare photographs and many more artifacts of Mardi Gras past can be seen at the Mardi Gras Museum, (2309/2311 Mechanic Row, 409 765 5930).
Mardi Gras in Galveston runs for a long time, from Jan. 25-Feb. 5 and the people there party hardy for the entire time. There are 11 extravagant parades, each put on by a different Krewe, or social group, all created for the purpose of fun and usually, charity. There is the Krewe of Who, the Mystic Krewe of Aquarius, Z Krewe, the Krewe of Vroom, all of whose members parade on their motorcycles, and the colorful and beloved Philadelphia Mummers Marching Band, whose whimsical costumes are a sight to behold. There are also more than 50 galas and festive events, bead throwing, exhibits, and live entertainment in local clubs.
As the very lucky guests of Mr. Mitchell, our plans for the evening were special. We were not just going to attend the Mardi Gras Parade, we were going to be in it, on a Wyndom Hotel float sponsored by the Mitchell family! Each year, Mardi Gras parades have a different theme. This year, the streets of Historic Downtown Galveston were transformed into a sea of green, purple, and gold to celebrate Galveston Island’s proximity to the sea. Floats were painted with fish, seaweed and mermaids, and our float featured a giant merman on the front. The parade we were to be in celebrated The Krewe of the Knights of Momus (named after Momus, the god of merriment), Galveston's oldest all-male Krewe, which was founded in 1871. We clambered aboard our float at 4 in the afternoon, dressed to the nines in our finery, and ready to throw as many beads as we could to the enthusiastic crowd.
And what a thrill it was! I felt like a rock star, with the bands playing, and an audience of 250,000 men, women and children screaming their heads off. Though the parade went on for hours, it seemed like minutes because the experience was so exciting. And exciting for the audience too, with everyone quickly festooning themselves with so many beads, it was sometimes hard to even see their faces!
Afterward, we walked, a little wobbly as you might imagine, to the Tremont House, where Mr. Mitchell hosted his friends and family, and his new friends, us, to an after-parade cocktail party in the lobby. The music was provided by the Dr. Michael White Quartet, a terrific group whose music went from Delta Blues, to Hot Jazz, to Dixieland in the blink of an eye. Still not done, we crossed the street to the Tremont Hotel Ballroom for still another party, where we drank and danced to the exotic beat of the throbbing music. I left at 1am, but I can tell you that that party was just getting started!
And why did I leave so early. Because the next day, Sunday, I had to go home. Did I want to go home? No. I wanted to remain in this gracious city with its beautiful and friendly people for much, much longer. My only consolation? I will be back!
Galveston is a great travel destination any time of the year. With 32 miles of beach, Galveston Island is the perfect get-away; especially with its mild climate and easy travel maneuverability. The city has more than 4,000 hotel rooms, spas, and world class attractions available daily, rain or shine. Some events to look forward to when planning a trip might include: Fotofest, March 1-April 5, The Galveston ArtWalk, which happens March 1, April 12, May 24, July 5, and August 23. The Moody Gardens and Mansion are open year-round. The Annual Galveston Historical Foundation’s Historic Homes Tour occurs during the first two weekends in May, and Juneteenth, or June 19th, is the oldest known celebration of the ending of slavery. Plus there’s so much more……….
For more information, go to www.Galveston.com