Paradise found

Many people are only familiar with Galveston as a cruise port or because Glen Campbell sang a song about this city. Mistake!

In my view, they're selling this fascinating destination short.

Just 45 minutes from the hustle of Houston, Galveston has a quiet grace that entices. It’s a city that’s filled with lovingly restored Victorian homes, and deeply shaped by its past in many other ways. Its abundant charms are so unique that bumper stickers proudly proclaim they’re in “Galveston, near Texas,” nodding to the city’s island location as well as the distinct personality that’s evolved because of it.

My husband and I vacationed here recently, thrilled to be swapping the endless grey of another Canadian winter for endless summer in this seaside paradise.

After just a day, we knew it would be ridiculously easy to be seduced by Galveston’s breezy pace. “Y’all on Island time now,” we were told several times.

Galveston CVB

The Star Drug Store, an 1880s-built pharmacy-turned-restaurant in the Strand Historic District, gave us our first hint this was a city where we’d see many instances of past and present melding seamlessly. In this two-storey room where medicine was once dispensed, ceiling fans turned lazily, sending welcome breezes through the sultry air as we perched on red vinyl stools at the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter. In the well of the U, a young cook deftly prepared our eggs and grits.

It was but a short walk afterwards to the kaleidoscopic Willy Wonka wonderland that is La King’s Confectionary, an old-fashioned ice cream parlour and candy emporium complete with a 1920s fountain. After watching a saltwater taffy pull, we salivated over trays of chocolate and sweets of every description, much of it gloriously gift-wrapped in crinkly cellophane and multicoloured twirly ribbon.

Adjacent to the Strand, the Grand 1894 Opera House is the grande dame of the Cultural Arts District, one of Texas’ most venerable buildings and still going strong after 123 years. For $2, you can take a self-guided tour of this luxe performance hall with 1,040 plush velour seats on three levels, dizzyingly high balconies included. Take note of the Hurricane Ike high-water marker in the lobby — flooding here reached nearly six feet in height.

If you take the Tree Sculptures Tour by car or on foot, you’ll see more reminders of Ike. Over a 60-block area, you'll see sculptures of a granny reading to children, the Tin Man, pelicans and fishes, and more in residents’ front yards, a school playground, even a parking lot. All have been carved out of tree stumps left in Ike’s wake.

Juanita Ng

Heeding the island’s call to just be in the moment, we decided to drop a fishing line off the historic 61st Street Fishing Pier, easily recognizable by its pink and yellow railings. We also toured the ornate Bishop’s Palace, a splendid anchor of the city’s East End Historical District. At the Moody Gardens’ Rainforest Pyramid, verdant worlds awaited under a soaring 10-storey glass pyramid. My husband, whose father was a train conductor, loved walking through the authentic railway cars at the Galveston Railroad Museum. If you’re a thrill-seeker, head for the roller coaster and 15 other rides plus midway and restaurants, all built on the historic Pleasure Pier that juts out 340 metres over the Gulf.

Galveston CVB

This compact 43-km-long island packs a lot of history, and much of it is chronicled at the Pier 21 site. The excellent Great Storm documentary at Pier 21 Theater tells the story of Galveston’s 1900 hurricane, which killed more than 6,000 people. Afterward, construction began on a five-metre-high seawall that still protects the city today. Unbelievably, and brilliantly, the city’s leaders also raised the grade of the island, which at that time was only a few feet above sea level. Also at Pier 21, the Texas Seaport Museum and 1877 Tall Ship Elissa - which visitors can explore - pay homage to Galveston’s seafaring past.

We’d heard the seafood here is so fresh it practically jumps out of the Gulf and onto your plate. That’s not much of an exaggeration: Shrimp and crawfish and snapper are caught and brought to the wharf, bought by restaurants and then served hours later. I highly recommend the succulent wild Texas shrimp at BLVD. Seafood, as well as the divine crab-stuffed shrimp at Olympia Grill. RIP, diet!

BLVD. Wild Texas Shrimp, from BVLD. Seafood in Galveson. (Juanita Ng)

A sunset cruise is a lovely way to see the city at dusk, especially when the skies cooperate and sunset is a myriad of brilliant hues. As Galveston Water Adventures’ open-air boat took us through the harbour and Gulf, a few dolphins even made a brief appearance!

The historic Hotel Galvez & Spa, with its decadent comforts, was a welcome sight when we returned at the end of every day, spirits high but energy levels flagging. One night, we wound down with a seawall ride on the hotel’s bicycles; another evening, we were content to settle back on Adirondack chairs on the expansive front lawn, watching Gulf waves lap up on the beach.

Galveston CVB

With so much to offer and, importantly, absent the anxiety you’ll find in larger cities, Galveston is the embodiment of easy living. This city is more than ready to emerge from the shadow of its flashier sister to the north. Shine that spotlight over this way, if you would … Galveston is ready for its closeup.

If you go:

⇝ Toronto (3 hrs, 15 mins), Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver (4.5 hours) and other cities fly non-stop to Houston; drive 45 minutes to Galveston.
⇝ The Hotel Galvez & Spa, with rooms that include built-in window seats for Gulf viewing, plush robes and Keurig coffee makers, is a luxurious home away from home. Also check out the rooftop bar at its sister property, the historic Tremont House.
⇝ Galveston Island tourism:
⇝ Galveston Island Pass: Choose four or more attractions and save up to 40%.
⇝ Pier 21 Theater and Texas Seaport Museum:
⇝ Galveston Water Adventures:
⇝ BLVD. Seafood:
⇝ Olympia Grill:


Check out my Instagram, @JuanitaNg.