Is an island along the Gulf Coast Texas’ most gay-welcoming small town?
"The hardest part about selling tourism to Galveston is getting someone to visit in the first place." That’s what someone enthusiastically told me about their city.
It’s sad but true: This island just south of Houston was, until the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the site of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history when a 1900 hurricane decimated the island. (In terms of death count, it still reigns with 6,000 dead nearly twice the number killed on 9/11.)
Add to that how every summer, when weather news looks toward the Gulf Coast, meteorologists line up outside its famed seawall for live reports, contributing to the mythology that Galveston is Hurricane Central.
But who says you have to visit during September?
Year round, this city of about 60,000 has appealing things to do. We even arrived for the Mardi Gras festival the weekend prior to the Lenten season (see sidebar), and found mild weather and a boisterous party-town atmosphere. And it’s a heck of a lot closer to Dallas than New Orleans.
Galveston has long been reputed for a live-and-let-live attitude that extends to an acceptance for gay tourists uncommon in much of small-town Texas. Fully 10 percent of the population is reported to be gay, although many opt for more discretion than you’d find in larger cities.
Still, on last New Year’s Eve one of the largest mainstream properties, the Tremont House, sold out nearly the entire hotel for a gay commitment ceremony. But over the years, the community has fostered several gay and gay-friendly guesthouses like the Lost Bayou, a selection of gay clubs and bars, the Harbor Metropolitan Community Church, even a gay information and tourism bureau.
Houston serves as the main feeder city for gay weekenders. But it’s a tolerable four-hour drive from the Metroplex, and a brief puddle-jumper flight to Houston Hobby if you want to rent a car for the 40-minute drive to the island.
Here’s what you can expect.
Galveston Island is about 30 miles long, with much of its Gulf Coast side protected by a 17-foot seawall, erected after 1900 as a levee (it has proven its effectiveness repeatedly over the years). If you come for a weekend in the surf, you’ll want to stay on this coastal side.
Chief among the lodging options is the Hotel Galvez, a grande dame hotel with distinctly Southern charms. Nearly a century old (and now operated by Wyndham), it boasts wide hallways and a lobby that welcomes tons of light streaming in with the breeze-blown waves, a painted ceiling and 200-plus rooms. It’s an impressive site just to drive up to it.
(Much of the island is covered with large older homes, especially attractive for those looking for a Texas version of Fire Island for summer getaways couched in Old South style or those who just appreciate wandering through old-growth neighborhoods. Many buildings even tout their status as survivors of the 1900 storm.)
Despite its age, the Galvez is modernizing, with a spa set to open mid-March. Its 10,000 square feet will house hair salons, relaxation chambers, massage rooms and a 24-hour gym with state-of-the-art equipment.
If you prefer nature to pampering, be aware: The temperamental beach is more mudflat than a shimmering white sand shoreline of the Florida Gulf Coast. Dotted with piers jettying into the white caps, there are several different beaches, some family-oriented (i.e., no alcohol allowed), while some are more exuberant. But staying poolside may be nicer.
For a meal, Gaido’s is the local seafood institution, a place everyone thinks fondly of. You can also try Bernardo’s, the restaurant inside the Galvez, which offers meaty crab cakes and a delish bacon cheeseburger. New to the menu is inventive "spa cuisine," prepared by their Orlando-trained chef who has created dishes like sea bass in a crab broth and luscious mango infused panna cotta.
Several gay clubs line the shore. Robert’s Lafitte is a small neighborhood bar with loud music and a tiny drag stage for weekend performances (and located, charmingly enough, on Avenue Q). Farther west down the boulevard, the 3rd Coast Bar calls to mind a Bourbon Street pub with a coastal view a large, two-story cabaret bar with female impersonators and a mixed crowd (mostly gay men, but also lesbian and straight patrons). Head easterly for drinks and fellowship at the Pink Dolphin, yet another gay bar.
Port Side & The Strand
If the seawall side is ideal for sand and fun, the northern harbor of the island, facing the bay, is ideal for more courtly and touristy distractions.
The Strand, the main drag in the historic district, is home to stores selling clothes, antiques, knickknacks and eateries, although some of the area seems economically depressed and a little dodgy after the sun goes down. (Garza’s Kon Tiki, a long-time gay bar in the neighborhood, has closed, although two other gay dance clubs, Undercurrent and Groove, have opened in recent years.)
Step into the Galveston Historical Museum to see century-old video of the aftermath of the 1900 hurricane, or wander over to the Buchanan Gallery, where the owner is proud to represent Texas-born artists, including gay icon Tommy Tune.
The Elissa, an amazing 19th-century tall ship restored in the 1970s, is docked most of the year and you can tour it and poke around the museum there and next door for local history.
To really soak up history, though, look no further than the 1894 Grand Opera House, a glorious performing arts center notable as the favorite launching point of Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, who traditionally open their "Tuna" shows there. (Their most recent, "Tuna Does Vegas," opened here last August and comes to Bass Hall later this month.) It’s gorgeous and you can get a fascinating tour.
For food, duck into Rudy & Paco, a lovely fine-dining restaurant with a South American flair, serving great fresh greens and fruit salad, a wonderful red snapper oscar with a smoky raspberry chipotle relish and bread pudding with bourbon caramel. You’ll be wowed by how good the cuisine is.
For less fuss, LaKing’s Confectionery sells candy aplenty, and master candymaker Ernest Torres is chock full of stories he’ll regale you with while operating the saltwater taffy pull, which is oddly hypnotic to watch. The MOD CafÃ© would fit right perfectly in Austin’s funkier neighborhood with its cool-cat vibe, nifty art and potent chai lattes.
For accommodations on this side of the island, there are two other diverse Wyndham properties. Harbor House looks like an old warehouse, but was built as a hotel in 1993. With 42 spacious rooms, each with a port view, this limited services hotel is near the Strand and its shops and museums.
A few blocks inland, Tremont House oozes drama, from its steep atrium to its antique bar to the stark black-and-white design scheme, all in a building that survived the 1900 hurricane (although the hotel itself has only been in this locale since 1985). Last New Year’s Eve, nearly the entire Tremont was sold out for a gay commitment ceremony. The Merchant Prince, the smallish hotel restaurant, serves Cajun-influenced dinners like shrimp-rich gumbo.
Galveston may lack the fiery 24-7 buzz of Miami, New Orleans or Palm Springs, but for a seaside getaway, it’s not only closer than any of those, but an accepting place to have fun or stroll leisurely through the past.
MARDI GRAS FLOATING ABOVE IT ALL
What’s Mardi Gras like on Galveston? The city has a Mardi Gras Museum little more than a room inside a bookstore across from the Tremont House which displays a small but interesting collection for learning the history of krewes. But mere stories cannot prepare you for participating in the event itself, which I did on Feb. 2.
Although a tamer and less sexually ambivalent bacchanal than New Orleans to the east, Galveston’s parade is larger than probably anything similar that Dallas has ever seen. And to my surprise, more men flashed their chests than women did their breasts.
I noticed this because I rode on one of the ginormous parade floats, a moving two-story structure that held two dozen well-dressed partiers. But it made little difference that the men were in tuxes and the women in floor-length eveningwear. The float captains put us to work like 8-year-olds in a Chinese shoe factory.
The floats themselves were as gaudy as Cher’s concert wardrobe. Even Liberace would find it all a trifle tacky after we spent more than an hour stringing countless plastic bead necklaces from hundreds of pegs, all of which we would dispose of by flinging them into madding throng.
The beads are cheap, hideous and as easy to come by as steroids in Major League Baseball, and yet there wasn’t a single soul lining the parade route 250,000 strong who wouldn’t trample his grandmother for the chance to snatch one from the hand of an orphan.
All of which invested me, atop the highest point on our float, with an intoxicating sense of power. For hours I stood with no music or chair and limited opportunity for conversation, focused on blessing parade-watchers with a shower of deadly flying trinkets.
The trick to getting beads thrown to you is to make eye contact with the float riders. The control addiction imbued me with an attitude of noblesse oblige, graciously deigning to bestow polyethylene rewards on those who paid homage.
There were many different faces all ages (including many frat boys who looked like they could be persuaded to do a lot for some beads and a case of beer), all races, and all socioeconomic strata … although it seemed the faces got paler and their suits more expensive when we left the cheap seats and paraded past the gentry. Still, socialite or toothless bag lady, they were all greedy for beads.
Initially, my idea was to throw beads only to cute guys, but I’d have tons of beads left over if I kept my standards too high. Instead, I enjoyed the chance to form a thousand six-second relationships and a least a dozen tiny romances that seemed more powerful than mere flirtations. When people mouthed "thank you" to me, they made the sacrifice of sweating through my Armani dress shirt seem justified.
It was a wonderful experience. I’m glad I did it. And I have no aspirations to ever do it again.
Arnold Wayne Jones
These articles appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 7, 2008