After clearing US Customs in Toronto, our direct Air Canada flight soon deposited us at the Intercontinental Airport in Houston. A quick shuttle ride and we were headed south towards Galveston on I-45 in our Alamo (what else would we drive in Texas?) rental car. The busy highway and skyline of Houston soon disappeared as we passed the NASA Houston Control Center (open to the public), revealing a flatter landscape surrounded by pale blue water as we crossed the bridge over onto Galveston Island.
Driving along the harbour area we passed an array of oil rigs and ships securely tied to wharves before entering the historic Strand area of this small city. The Tremont House Hotel is nestled on a quiet side street with an almost unassuming air. Once inside we were impressed by the five-story high skylight pouring sunlight into the enclosed courtyard of the quaint, friendly lobby. Our spacious and nicely decorated room had a view of the harbour. Quickly unpacking our bags, we set off for our favourite activity when we arrive someplace new, walking.
The Strand area highlights the downtown section of the city and we explored virtually every street. We strolled along the waterfront, popped into a variety of interesting shops and boutiques, and relaxed in Old Galveston Square to watch children play a game of giant chess. Returning to the warmth of the Tremont House lobby bar, we were introduced to Shiner's Brock, a tasty beer famous in southern Texas, before heading out for dinner.
We were told that the Saltwater Grill has the best crab cakes in Galveston. It turned out that this statement was true. In fact, it proved to be a casual, pleasant spot with hanging fish lights and an open kitchen. In addition to a changing daily menu (based on what is available), it is the friendly and knowledgeable wait staff that makes such an experience enjoyable. We put ourselves totally into the hands of our waiter, Carlton. His suggestion of the Saltwater Salad was very good and the Pan-seared Sea bass was perfect as was the Asian Grilled Shrimp, lightly spiced with a sweet Thai chili sauce. We even reserved some internal space to share a chocolate dessert (guess which one of us ordered that?) with absolutely no calories whatsoever (yeah, right!). A walk was in order after this most delightful evening so we wandered along through The Strand before heading back to the Tremont House where a jazz group was doing their Thursday night venue in the lobby.
We didn't have to resist very hard to forgo sleep for awhile and enjoy the music with a couple from Texas who invited us to sit with them. The couple (he was originally from Rhode Island and she was from Louisiana) have been dancing together for 53 years and always spend Thursday nights at the Tremont with the "Winter Texans".
Before breakfast, we drove down to the famous Seawall, which stretches for many kilometres along the Gulf Coast. Glen Campbell foretold us " watch your sea birds flying in the sun" and with their gentle swoops above us we ran along the Seawall.
Ready for breakfast, we sat on the outdoor patio of The Phoenix, across the street from our hotel, surrounded by birds and clay pots overflowing with bright flowers and devoured the best tasting French Toast ever made.
The multimedia presentation of "The GreatStorm" put things into perspective for us, recounting the days of glory before the destructive hurricane of 1900 literally cleared the island of everything standing (thus the construction of the five metre high Seawall in 1904). Later, we boarded the Tall Ship Elissa before experiencing life from another era while visiting a number of historic homes - Ashton Villa, Moody Mansion, Menard House, and the Bishop's Palace.
Wishing to experience as much as possible of this unique city, we departed the Tremont House Hotel the next morning and drove the kilometre or so across the island to the Hotel Galvez. The magnificent Spanish Revival architecture of this stately hotel hugs The Seawall and our corner room looked over the sand beach and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.
We visited a few beaches to enjoy the warming sun, drove along the west end of the island where new homes are being built on stilts (just in case another hurricane like that of 1900 blows in off the Gulf) and took time to stroll about the fishing park on Pelican Island which is connected to Galveston by a short bridge.
One of us got up at six the next morning, started the coffee maker, and walked along The Seawall, located in front of the Hotel Galvez, to await the bright red ball of fire as it finally awoke. A click of the camera and the event was captured on film. A short drive brought us back to The Phoenix cafe to enjoy breakfast under the trees in the open courtyard. Then it was a relaxing splash in the hotel's new outdoor swimming pool before we set off again to discover a new adventure.
Having read about Moody Gardens, we decided that it was worth having a look. This interesting complex on the edge of the city has several large glass pyramids. One houses a fantastic aquarium where visitors may walk above, below and through the array of tropical fish and underwater vegetation. The 3-D Imax theatre has several programs and there are a number of active rides (we became a porpoise sliding through the water in search of fun and excitement). But our favourite was the tropical rain forest pyramid which combines several different regional rain forests with an abundant collection of birds, butterflies and tropical fish freely moving about the structure. We ended the afternoon with an early dinner at the Terrace Restaurant situated on the lower level of the Moody Hotel which is also on the property. With new additions being added every year, Moody Gardens is becoming a very popular attraction in the Galveston area.
Returning to the Hotel Galvez, we donned the cozy robes in our room, sat back and relaxed as darkness overcame the city. We checked out early next morning and began the drive back to the Intercontential Airport in Houston. The trip was over but not the memories. We had fallen in love with Galveston. This is not the Texas we envisioned but a subtropical island of palm trees, endless sand beaches, friendly people and great food. It is also becoming an alternative as a cold-weather destination for those from up north, known locally as "Winter Texans". The city had made us feel welcome.
It was obvious to us that people love this charming island filled with history where residents greet you with direct eye contact and a grand smile. Their desire to share this special place has given us an open invitation to revisit Galveston one day.
by Dave Stephens & Susan Randles
* Galveston Tourism: 1-888-GAL-ISLE
* Tremont House Hotel and Hotel Galvez: 1-800-WYNDHAM
* Air Canada: 1-888-247-2262
* Alamo: 1-800-462-5266
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