TRAVEL: Gulf states of mind

Posted on 21 Apr 2011 at 1:00pm
BISHOP’S PALACE | This historic home survived three major hurricanes to provide a glimpse of some of Galveston’s best Victorian-era architecture. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Boys can be BOIs on historic Galveston Island, maybe Texas’ gay-friendliest hamlet

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Listen carefully to the locals when you head south of Houston to go beachcombing: Most don’t refer to their town as “Galveston;” they will call it “Galveston Island.” Being an island is a big part of the lifestyle in this strip of land along the Texas Gulf Coast. Islanders have a different mindset than mainlanders, even when their spit of dirt is connected via a causeway. There’s a separateness to being here, which sometimes manifests as a survivalist mentality.

You need that easygoing independence if you’re gonna be front-and-center during hurricane season: You’re on your own, but you also stick together. (You’ll need to know the difference between a boy, a “boi” and a BOI — Born On Island — if you don’t wanna insult someone … or find the right guy on Grindr.)

Galveston Island has weathered (literally) its share of devastation. The Great Storm of 1900 — it doesn’t even have a name; it came before hurricanes needed them — turned most of the island’s homes into matchsticks, nearly wiping out the economy (it had been an economic powerhouse, but was usurped by Houston after that). That led to the building of the Sea Wall, the longest continuous sidewalk in the world and a barrier that has more than done its job.

That’s true even after the havoc inflicted by Hurricane Ike in 2008. About a quarter of the town’s population left for good after intense surges turned downtown into a swimming pool. But less than three years later, Galveston looks mostly normal, aside from the occasional signage indicating high-water lines above your chest.

DON’T BE JEALOUS OF MY BOOGIE | The ‘boogie bahn’ at the Schlitterbahn water park gives you the wave experience without leaving sand in your drawers.

Because Galveston has been so subject to loss of life and property, there’s a strong sense of the past here that makes for a dream weekend getaway for history buffs and lovers of Texana (it’s a five-hour drive from Dallas, or a quick 45-minute flight to Houston Hobby and an hour shuttle to the island). And this summer is an especially propitious time to go: Two institutions are celebrating their century marks. (Dallas has almost nothing as old, and we don’t have the excuse of tidal waves to explain why.)

First is the Hotel Galvez & Spa, a gorgeous grande dame that recalls the villas of Europe. The Galvez has undergone several major renovations in recent years, including a spa with a variety of treatments (the custom massage really sooths the muscles), relaxation and beauty options and a gym. The rooms — small but elegant — have also been updated with iPod docks, effortlessly adjustable lighting, flat-screen TVs, free wifi and Gilchrest & Soames amenities. It also offers one of the most exquisite Sunday brunches you’ll ever encounter at Bernardo’s Restaurant, with countless options from made-to-order omelets to an ice cream and dessert bar. (The weekend of June 11, it will host free community events including fireworks over the Gulf.)

The hotel’s history extends to its non-paying guests — specifically, its ghosts. Jackie, the concierge, does a convincing job guiding you along a ghost tour, with photos that suggest spirits continue to walk the halls and stories about actual encounters (they even had an inter-spectre wedding here last year).

Another business commemorating its centenary is Gaido’s, a seafood legend that opened its doors in 1911 and is still family-owned and -run. Once the height of high-end dining, it has become a go-to eatery for generations of Galveston lovers, with a menu that includes Gulf-caught combo platters and a to-die-for pecan pie.

GHOSTS AT THE GALVEZ | Hotel Galvez concierge Jackie does a convincing job explaining all the non-paying guests at the century-old hotel. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

There’s no shortage of good places to eat and stay as well as things to do along this 32 mile-long, 2.5 mile-wide beach community. Moody Gardens Hotel & Spa is a non-profit facility marked by its trio of eco-pyramids: Three on-site glass structures that house a discovery center, an aquarium and a recreation of a rainforest (in the process of an impressive renovation after Ike, it will reopen next month).

You might also get a room at the boutique-y Tremont House, located along The Strand, Galveston’s historic downtown district on the bay-side of the island. From there, it’s easy access to Pier 21, where you can see a film about the Great Storm of 1900, browse through the cute shops (don’t skip LaKing’s Confectionery for some decadent ice cream and candies), or mosey over to the Elissa, a 134-year-old three-masted sailing ship docked permanently in Galveston. If you wanna get out on the water, BayWatch Dolphin Tours, entertainingly undertaken by Capt. Michael Caldwell, give you a quick 50-minute tour of the bay.

Maybe the best way to get a sense for local history, though, is through the Galveston Historical Foundation, led by former Preservation Dallas bigwig Dwayne Jones. The GHF offers regular tours of the area via solar-powered trolley (as well as on foot), showing you film director King Vidor’s home and where Oscar Wilde stayed when he visited the city on his only North American trip. The GHF also manages several historic mansions.

Two Galveston homes are unmissable. The Bishop’s Palace, built between 1887–92, is a 20,000 square foot monument to varied architectural styles, from Gothic to Victorian. This fascinating portmanteau building boasts 11 fireplaces, myriad hand-carved woods and original stained glass. Very different but equally fascinating is Moody Mansion, a massive and painstakingly decorated museum to one of the Island’s most prominent families.

Always incredibly gay-friendly for a small town, Galveston has several gay bars that stay busy. Stars Beach Club occupies the building along the Seawall previously occupied by the 3rd Coast Bar. It has a friendly staff (and cheap drinks!), plus a drag show and sizeable runway stage among the fiber-optic lights. 3rd Coast moved away from the shore to near downtown, and still offers live entertainment in a Deep Ellum-clubby atmosphere. (Two other clubs — the Pink Dolphin and Robert’s Lafitte — are located, campily enough, on Avenue Q.)

Galveston is of course known for its beaches, but you don’t need to get sand in your pants to enjoy the sun and surf. The Texas-based water park Schlitterbahn has a facility here which includes a heated indoor facility during bad weather and a “boogie bahn” that allows you to surf on a boogie board without worrying about undertow.

Walk across the street to check out the Lone Star Flight Museum, which houses numerous antique planes, many of which are available for guided rental and which come out of the hangers for actual air shows on a regular basis.

Being on the Gulf, seafood is popular here, which you can enjoy along with an eclectic style at 901 Postoffice. This restaurant, housed in a converted house, is open only on weekends, and offers creative dishes in an intimate, even romantic setting (or go into the backyard for a casual, more communal experience). Olympia Grill at Harbor House provides bay views with Greek-inspired cuisine. And for apps and cocktails, you can’t beat the recently opened rooftop patio at the Tremont, offering vistas of most of the island.

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