From the deck of a beach house, I gaze out at the placid grey expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. Like many Houstonians who like to weekend on the coast, my wife and I are visiting Galveston – probably Texas’ most beautiful city, an hour along Interstate 45 from Houston. Galveston’s beaches describe a slow 51km arc south-west towards the San Luis Pass inlet.
Later that morning, as we walk along the shore, we’re not alone. Melissa Hall, a self-confessed beach bum who runs ghost tours at Hotel Galvez, is often out early.
“The farther west you go, the fewer people,” says Hall. “Since moving here, I’ve become an avid beachcomber for seashells, sea glass, shark’s teeth and arrowheads. The serenity from walking mile after mile and not realising how far you’ve gone can’t be beaten.” People in Galveston are happy to talk to strangers, and their island city certainly gives them lots to talk about.
Some of the most beautiful waterside homes I have ever seen exist in downtown Galveston. Following Hurricane Ike in 2008, Galvestonians began to build their beach houses on massive stilts in an elegant, colourful clapboard style that should be called Beachfront Renaissance. It’s a practical design on a low-lying island. On Seawall Boulevard, one wooden palace follows another, and each turns the necessity of living above storm level into an art form.
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In the city, graceful old stone houses stand below the seawall – a cheery place for joggers, dog-walkers, musicians and street artists – that was built after the Great Storm of 1900. Pier 21 Theater, a museum on 21st Street, tells the story of the night in September 1900, when a 6m wave swept through what was once the most prosperous city in Texas.
Broadway Avenue, which resembles a film set from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, is home to Bishop’s Palace and Ashton Villa. The mansions are pristine examples of 19th-century architecture.
At Mod Coffeehouse on Avenue E, my wife chats with Pat Miller, a dog-walker who, like so many others in Galveston, came for a short time and never left. Even though this low-lying island, linked by road and railway bridges to the mainland, is part of the Greater Houston area, its amiability makes it feel like another world, or even century.
Miller tells us about the Balinese Room, once one of the most famous nightclubs in Texas. Sitting on the end of a pier, the venue was a premier gambling den and all-round good-time place. In Texas, the 1920s never roared louder than it did here. Over the decades, Groucho Marx, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra (below) all played at the Balinese Room.
“The Texas Rangers were always trying to close the pier down,” says Miller. “But whenever they got to the bridge from the mainland, someone in the pay of the owners would ring the Balinese Room and tip them off. On one occasion, they came very close, but the band struck up with The Eyes of Texas. The Rangers were obliged to stand to attention whenever it was played and, by the time the band finished, the croupiers had cleared all the evidence away!”
Eventually, one night in 1957, the Rangers got wise and raided by sea. They caught everyone red-handed and the Balinese room was no more.
Today, there are 76 buildings that recall Galveston’s heyday, and they are listed on America’s National Register of Historic Places. Among them is The Grand Opera House (above), which was built in 1894 and still functions today. In 1993, it was made the official opera house of Texas.
In pursuit of leisure
But there are also new ventures in this city bent on pleasure. The recently opened Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier (below) is a retro 1950s-style amusement park with 16 fairground rides, which jut out over the Gulf.
Near the Moody Gardens amusement park, Lone Star Flight Museum not only displays old aircraft, but also takes you up in some of them. Over at Texas Seaport Museum, its pride and joy is a restored 1877 sailing ship, Elissa – typical of the kind that created Galveston’s wealth.
Galveston ArtWalk is an informal open house for the city’s galleries, which host artists from around the world. Released from the need to be a centre of high finance, Galveston is a small city that seems to be permanently at play – by day and night. The recently opened DTO, which stands for Daiquiri Time Out (below), is a bar run by Ian Ramirez in the island’s former red-light district.
“There’s a unique juxtaposition between the island’s rich history and the resurgence of fresh energy,” says Ramirez as he prepares a classic dry martini with panache.
“Take Maceo Spice & Import Company across the street from us, it serves the best Italian lunch. The aromas, before you even walk in the door, are absolute heaven,” he adds. “And Sound Bar, a karaoke club on Mechanic Street, is the perfect place to end a fun night. There’s never a dull moment here on Galveston Island.”
Back on the deck later that afternoon, I watch the sun disappear in the direction of Mexico. The Gulf is still serene. Perhaps if the Great Storm did not destroy Galveston’s economy in 1900, the island would now be a place of skyscrapers and oil terminals – and something unique would have been lost.
– TEXT BY ADRIAN MOURBY
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This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.