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HISTORIC GALVESTON ISLAND: HOUSTON’S NEIGHBOR BY THE SEA

By D Magazine |

Just 50 miles to the southeast of Houston (a quick 45-minute drive down Interstate Highway 45), historic Galveston Island floats languidly two miles off the Texas mainland, in the Gulf of Mexico. Some 30 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide, this semi-tropical barrier island has long been known for its miles of sandy beaches and savory Gulf seafood. Today, the romantic, turn-of-the-century island is also winning rave reviews for its treasure-trove of restored Victorian architecture; its quaint shops and galleries; its fun and informative tourist attractions; and its delightful, well-priced accommodations – and it is quickly emerging as Texas’ favorite year-round resort destination.

Galveston was founded in 1836 when pioneer entrepreneurs saw the potential of its natural deep water port. By the mid-1800s, Galveston was the largest city in Texas, and its port teemed with ships carrying cotton out and immigrants and manufactured goods in. Its bustling street of commerce, The Strand, just a block away from the wharves, is dubbed the “The Wall Street of the Southwest.” Gatves-ton’s wealth boomed through the remainder of the 1800s and was reflected in the construction of ornate Victorian mansions, large wooden houses and elaborate commercial buildings of the highest quality.

But the boom ended abruptly with a hurricane in 1900 that still ranks as the worst natural disaster in America’s history.

As the island’s economy dwindled, following the storm and the subsequent opening of the Houston Ship Channel, there was no economic incentive to tear down the old building or to build new ones. The result is one of the finest intact collections of Victorian architecture remaining in America.

During the 1970s, the Galveston Historical Foundation and several individuals and civic groups embarked on one of the most vigorous historic restoration programs in the country. Today, The Strand National Historic Landmark District is one of the largest collections of redeveloped 19th century buildings in the United States. Dozens of antique shops, resort-wear boutiques, craft shops, import shops and restaurants occupy these carefully maintained edifices. The crowds strolling along the sidewalks can savor both The Strand’s historical importance and its current bazaarlike excitement.

Reliving its glorious history is a favorite pastime of this romantic island and the brand new Galveston Island Trolley System is the perfect turn-of-the-century transport to that era. With two cars in service and two more on the way, residents and visitors have already made the solid green and solid red cars one of the most eagerly anticipated attractions on the Island. For visitors on their way from the historic districts to the oceanfront, the nearly 5-mile route offers a leisurely view of the romantic island as they pass by gleaming palm-fronted modern hotels near the gulf and through turn-of-the-century neighborhoods. The cars’ vintage exteriors and handsome interiors bring to mind days gone by, but modern technology makes the trolley a fun, leisurely and convenient ride for the most modern of travelers.

No matter what method of transportation, visitors will discover a fascinating array of beach parks, great fishing and an abundance of attractions that make the most of the city’s island setting.

Among the island’s most notable sights and attractions are:



● the Railroad Museum, which houses the largest collection of historic railcars in Texas;

● The Colonel Paddlewheeler;

● the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa;

● the Grand 1894 Opera House;

? Lone Star Drama Amphitheater;

? Sea-Arama Marineworld;

? the 1839 Samuel May Williams Home;

? the 1859 Ashton Villa;

Bishop’s Palace;

Moody Gardens Botani cal Center;

the Galveston County Historical Museum;

and public beach parks: R.A. Apffel Park; Stewart Beach Park; Dellanera R.V. Park; Seawolf Park.



Galveston, like its mainland neighbor, Houston, is a city that loves nothing better than grand celebration. The festival calendar gets underway in February, when the pageantry and excitement of Galveston’s Mardi Gras arrives, with balls, jazz, parties, parades, and big-name entertainment. Hundreds of thousands of revelers visit the Island, many in outrageous costumes or sequinned and feathered masks. The 10-day event changes themes each year. In 1989 the celebration-“Fete de France”-will honor the bicentennial of the French Revolution.

The year ends as joyously as it begins, with the Galveston Historical Foundation’s Dickens on the Strand, an authentically recreated pre-Christmas celebration from 1800s London.

Characters straight from the pages of Dickens mingle with the crowds along the gas-lit 17-block area in the historic district. Visitors are encouraged to wear Victorian costumes and are rewarded with free admission. Strolling along the Strand works up strong appetites and thirsts which don’t last for long, given the choices of food and beverages. Dickens is also one of the best times for Christmas shopping. The Strand shops are always full of fanciful gifts.

In between Mardi Gras and Dickens, Galveston hosts a number of ad-ditional festivities, including a distinguished Historic Homes Tour in May, a dashing Regatta Festival in June and an Island Jazz Festival in November.

Each year the island’s festivals attract wider attention and each year the hotels book up in advance of the events.

One of the most popular hotels, The Flagship Hotel, has the distinction of being “over the Gulf.” Resting on piers off of the Seawall, looking out from each of the 226 rooms, many with balconies, gives one the feeling of being on a large ocean liner. The elevated swimming pool and whirlpool, the delicacies from the sea served in the Atlantis seafood restaurant, the island beat from the Beach Club and even a Cruise Director to coordinate your every whim complete the luxury cruise experience without leaving the pier.

For 20th century comfort and 19th century charm, The Tremont House offers the luxurious feeling of a small European hotel in the heart of Galveston’s Strand District. As you enter up the ebony stairs into the cool airiness of the lobby atrium, The Tremont takes you back in time to a Victorian setting. Guest rooms at The Tremont House bid visitors a warm welcome. The luxurious and spacious rooms are appointed with custom-crafted period furniture and polished hardwood floors. Most have 14-foot ceilings and 11-foot windows.

Guests may also enjoy intimate dining downstairs at The Merchant Prince where light repasts are served daily.

Galveston has truly developed into an island for all seasons, with a wide selection of meeting facilities, delightful accommodations, recreational diversions, historic sights, and scenic settings to satisfy the most discriminating travelers.