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Don't try this at home! Sevie Ashley holds 'Little Al' who was found with an injured jaw and has to be specially fed at Gator Country in Beaumont, Texas. A normal gator this size could do some serious damage.

Family Fun: The Texas Gulf Coast Has It All

I had so much fun on my trip to the Texas Gulf Coast, it's hard to know where to begin. As associate editor of GoNOMAD, I've become something of an expert on fun, and the Gulf Coast has it all, especially for families: wildlife, outdoor recreation, the best fishing in the world, environmental education, history, architecture, drama, music...

And art of all kinds: fine art, pop art, found art, performance art, you name it. Lots of cool museums that get people -- especially kids -- excited about art and inspire them to make some of their own.

I met a penguin named Hendrix at Moody Gardens in Galveston and visited Mission Control in Houston during a space shuttle mission -- how cool is that?

I saw the very ground where Sam Houston vanquished Santa Anna at San Jacinto and took a cruise around Clear Lake, the Venice of the West, aboard a beautifully restored wooden yacht.

I saw one of the finest collections of Western Art in world at the Stark Museum in Orange and met a Buddhist monk in Port Arthur who changed everything I think about everything.

And how we dined! Copious plates of crawfish, alligator, wild game gumbos, mussels, scallops, softshell crabs, red snapper, flounder, Tex-Mex, barbeque... The finest seafood in the world, but lots of other stuff besides -- like fried chicken and waffles at the Breakfast Klub in Houston. At Goode's Barbeque you can get a roast beef sandwich with just the end pieces. Mmmm.

I experienced a number of culinary firsts, for me: first mango margarita, first pomegranate martini, first taste of gator.

I had a front-row seat at the Houston Art Car Parade, visited a house covered with beer cans and spent a magnificent evening at the Hotel Galvez in Galveston, where my heart found a home.

A platter of crawfish at Larry's French Market and Cajun Cafeteria in Groves, Texas. Mouse over photo to see the result.
A good time was had by all. Urp!

I saw the site of the Spindletop gusher in Gladysville that transformed the entire world and visited Shangri La in Orange, a wildlife refuge slash botanical garden slash environmental education center that is a focus for the kinds of change our country is going to need to make a better life in the 21st century.

I learned a lot about oil and petrochemicals and refineries and how these industries can provide jobs without adverse impacts on wildlife or the environment.

All in all, it was quite a trip.

Two Destructive Hurricanes

I guess you heard the Gulf Coast got clobbered by two destructive hurricanes in succession, Rita and Ike, and I heard a lot of great stories about emergency procedures that worked well, about communities pulling together, and about neighbors helping neighbors.

The Big Bopper (JP Richardson) was from Port Arthur. He died in the same plane crash that claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly. You can learn more about him at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur.
The Big Bopper (JP Richardson)  was from Port Arthur. He died in the same plane crash that claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly. You can learn more about him at the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur.

Nothing like a couple of natural disasters to bring people together with a sense of civic purpose.

I talked with Gary Saurage at Gator Country, who was in charge of rescuing alligators who had ended up in inappropriate places, like peoples' garages, after Hurrican Ike. I also talked with city officials whose job it was to see that everyone got away safely, and I saw the improvements they are making to withstand future storms.

But the big story is that this is a great place to visit, especially for families, and they're back up and ready for business after less than a year.

The Trick to Gator Wrestling

My trip began in Beaumont with a visit to Gator Country. Gary Saurage, the director, was the guy who rescued the 71 alligators disaccomodated by Hurricane Ike.

Gator Country is a great place to learn about alligators and crocodiles and caymans, but they have a 14-foot yellow python and cute little baby hedgehogs and lots of other wildlife, too.

Gary Saurage and Big Al, a 13-foot alligator that weighs more than half a ton. Mouse over the image to see the drama.
Gary Saurage and Big Al, a 13-foot alligator that weighs more than half a ton.

Gary does a bit of performance art with Big Al, a 13-foot 1100-pound alligator, who seems to enjoy it as much as the audience. As I understand it, the trick with gator wrestling is not to let them get their jaws open. Their jaw-opening muscles are not very strong.

Once they get their jaws open, look out. Their jaw-closing muscles are very, very strong. So Gary just bops Big Al on the nose every time he opens his mouth. It's a great show by a guy who really cares about preserving the species.

Lots of Cool Museums

Then it was off to the restored Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum, site of the Lucas gusher. It's hard to overstate the impact of this gusher, because it changed the world in a big way. Its 100,000 barrels per day tripled US oil production, and increased oil exploration and drilling around the world.

The gusher also caused the population of Beaumont to triple in three months from 10,000 to 30,000 and within a year it had increased to 60,000.

The Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont. Mouse over the image to see what ladies were wearing back then.
Ladies boots on display at the general store in Gladys City

You can see what life was like for the turn-of-the-century wildcatters that came to Beaumont at the Museum, which has 15 restored buildings furnished with all kinds of artifacts, as well as a replica of the Lucas gusher that shoots water 120 feet into the air.

To put it all in context, visit the Texas Energy Museum, which has exhibits all about the oil industry and the petrochemical industry. You can see how a modern refinery takes crude oil and makes it into gasoline and plastics and medicines and all kinds of other products.

Beaumont alone has nineteen other museums as well, including a firefighting museum, the Fire Museum of Texas, and the Thomas Edison Museum. The McFaddin Ward House is a beautifully restored 1905 mansion with a magnificent collection of ceramics, art glass, silver, textiles and furniture.

Another must-see attraction is the newly renovated St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica.

Felix 'Fox' Harris in his yard - photo courtesy of AMSET.
Felix 'Fox' Harris in his yard - photo courtesy of AMSET

One of the reasons I especially liked the Art Museum of Southeast Texas is because they work hard to make art accessible to ordinary people, especially children, with all kinds of education programs and exhibits.

Assistant Curator of Education Andy Gardner, who showed us around, says he's delighted when kids learn about art through one of the museum's school programs and then bring their parents to the museum.

Another reason I liked it is because I'm a big fan of found art slash folk art slash junk, and AMSET, as it is known, has a marvelous collection of the works of the late Felix "Fox" Harris, whose yard was full of found-art metal totems that he crafted with a butterknife and a ball-peen hammer.

You can see the very butterknife he used. Naturally it's all bashed up.

For the high spots he used to work on stilts, which must have made quite a sight. His work was left pretty much as it was until it began to deteriorate from the weather, and then they brought a representative exhibit into the museum.

A Happening Town

As part of the flood control improvements after Hurricane Ike, Beaumont is sprucing up the downtown with brick sidewalks and old-style lampposts and other improvements.

Our waiter Fox with my very first pomegranate martini at Easy's in Beaumont
Our waiter Fox with my very first pomegranate martini at Easy's in Beaumont

It's a great town for dining and nightlife, and a good place to start is Crockett Street, where five historic buildings have been restored and house a wide variety of restaurants, bars, nightclubs and banquet facilities.

We had martinis and tapas at Easy's and dined at Suga's Deep South Cuisine & Jazz Bar, where the food and the service and the beautfiul old building made for a really enjoyable meal. I had the wild game gumbo and the seafood platter, and believe me, I did not regret it.

A River Cruise

In the morning we went to Rao's Cafe. Everybody has to go to Rao's Cafe in the morning -- it's some kind of city ordinance or something. It's a great place to get a bite to eat and meet the mayor and other notables.

Then we took a cruise on the Neches River with Captain Debbie Loftus aboard the good ship Cardinal and admired the scenery and the wildlife.




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Tags: storySection: Destinations
Location: Texas
author: Stephen Hartshorne
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