Texas’s mysterious beach town mixes lore of hurricanes and destruction with poolside cabanas, Victorian architecture and fine dining.
In his 2010 novel Galveston, “True Detective” writer Nic Pizzolatto touches on the island’s varied history, including tales of pirates, hurricanes and bootlegging. Pirate Jean Lafitte established the colony of Campeche on Galveston Island in 1817, numbering about 1,000 people. The legendary pirate was eventually forced to leave, burning his town behind him, but this wouldn’t be the first time Galveston had to be rebuilt.
On September 8, 1900, the island was hit by what stands as the most deadly natural disaster to strike this country: The Great Storm. With a population of 37,000 at the time and status as the fourth-largest city in Texas, Galveston lost one-third of its area and more than 6,000 of its residents, who were buried at sea or burned on funeral pyres.
Pizzolatto writes that “Walking the foggy beaches in the morning, air thick with salt and decay, you get the impression this place is still nursing a hangover from all that history.” It’s true, not to mention the more recent story of Robert Durst, who attempted to hide out on the island only to end up killing his neighbor and throwing him in Galveston Bay.
With tales like these floating around, Galveston can’t help but have an air of melancholy about it, but the island is also thriving as what feels like a sleepy, undiscovered beach town on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico.
Galveston might not be able to boast the white sand beaches of Alabama and Florida, but the island — accessible only by ferry on the eastern side — has plenty of other attractions to add to its charm. From both modern and historic beachside hotels to an outstanding boardwalk, four-star restaurants and plenty of ways to experience the island’s history, Galveston doesn’t disappoint.
WHERE TO STAY
Fully renovated and joining the DoubleTree brand at the beginning of 2015, DoubleTree by Hilton Galveston Beach is located right across from the seawall and offers everything you need for a stay on the island. Starting with its signature warm chocolate chip cookies upon arrival, DoubleTree and General Manager Rick Galyean have thought of everything to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Bright orange mini refrigerators in the rooms add a touch of whimsy, but there’s no need to keep your drinks cold on your own. Just swim up to the Longboard Pool Bar overlooking the beach and order a Texas brew, tropical cocktail or lunch or dinner. You can also rent a pool daybed and have cocktail service come to you.
The hotel kitchen is always open for breakfast, lunch, dinner or room service. And unlike many hotels, you can sleep in and still make it to breakfast before 10 a.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. on weekends. For help exploring the island, enjoy complimentary use of custom DoubleTree beach cruisers or let the hotel shuttle drive you around. Business travelers looking to work and play can rest assured that wireless internet is complimentary, remote guest room printing available, along with flexible meeting space and a boardroom.
With August rates running around $175 during the week and $250 on weekends, you’re getting a great deal for a luxury hotel stay. Rates do come down in September as well in case you want to wait until fall and experience the haunted side of Galveston’s history. Click here to book and get the Deep South Magazine rate.
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
One of America’s Top 100 Restaurants and a Diners’ Choice on OpenTable, Rudy and Paco is the place to be seen in Galveston. You can get your prime seafood and steak here, but also expect a South American flair. For lunch, when shorts are allowed, items like ceviche, empanadas, a Havana Pork Sandwich and red snapper tacos make up the menu. Evening diners are required to change out of their beach attire for a more upscale menu that includes the restaurant’s Signature Lobster Tempura, crab bisque, Gulf shrimp in a variety of sauces, ribeye steak or specials like softshell crab. Rudy and Paco’s extensive wine list will help complement your meal.
For a place you can head to straight from the beach, The Spot combines oceanview dining with just about any cocktail you can imagine. Proprietor Dennis Byrd (who also owns The DoubleTree) is a native who believes in the resiliency of the island. “The island went under water (after Hurricane Ike in 2008), but people came back in immediately,” he says.
Byrd’s attention to detail at his hotel extends to this establishment, which includes The Spot for the freshest burgers, sandwiches, salads and tacos, along with four bars: Tiki, Sideyard, Rum Shack and Squeeze. The second-story, open-air Rum Shack is the place to watch the sunset during Happy Hour, but you could easily spend an afternoon traveling from bar to bar. Despite his business model, Byrd says “Galveston has always been more of a family-driven market. Galveston has never been South Padre. People start coming when they’re young and keep coming.”
Another fun spot for sunset drinks is the rooftop of The Tremont House hotel — the city’s only open-air rooftop venue with views of downtown and the harbor.
WHAT TO DO
You could start with Galveston’s many claims to fame. Ride the world’s tallest water coaster at Schlitterbahn Island Waterpark, visit the Bryan Museum to see the world’s largest collection of Southwestern Artifacts or take a ghost tour in one of the most haunted cities in America. Other highlights not to be missed include a stroll down The Strand, viewing of “The Great Storm,” a documentary about the 1900 hurricane at Pier 21 Theater, and a trip to Moody Gardens to see the aquarium and rainforest pyramids as well as a seasonal Palm Beach water attraction through September 10.
There’s also the Rosenberg Library, the oldest public library in Texas, with a museum on the fourth floor, along with kayaking, fishing, an African American Historic Places tour, and notable architecture. Downtown Galveston is one of the largest and most well-preserved concentrations of Victorian iron-front commercial architecture in the country.
To find those aforementioned ghosts, Dash Beardsley is resident ghost tour guide, but visitors can also explore Haunted Mayfield Manor downtown, search for the ghost bride at Hotel Galvez or take a tour of historic sites and mansions with the Galveston Historical Foundation.
How can a city with so much history, tragedy, loss and triumphs not have plenty of stories to tell?
Photo credits, from top: Featured photo of Galveston Harbor, beach at sunset, Pleasure Pier, shrimp cocktail at Rudy and Paco and row of Victorians from Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau; DoubleTree room and pool from DoubleTree Galveston; burger from The Spot Facebook page; and Rosenberg Library by Deep South.
Thanks to The DoubleTree Hotel for hosting us for two nights in July and to Dennis Byrd for having lunch with us at The Spot. We also enjoyed a complementary dinner at Rudy and Paco during our stay in Galveston.