Family Fun: The Texas Gulf Coast Has It All
The Best of Galveston, Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas
By Stephen Hartshorne
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 the 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 the world at the Stark Museum in Orange and met a Buddhist monk in Port Arthur who changed everything I think about everything.
Dining on the Gulf
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, the 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Hurricane 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 displaced 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
St Anthony Cathedral Basilica
Another must-see attraction is the newly renovated St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica. 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.
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 educational programs and exhibits.
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.
Beaumont is 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 beautiful 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.
Captain Debbie explained that the water is carefully monitored by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and it’s swimmable and even drinkable. Beaumont is one of the busiest ports in the United States and the main depot for supplying US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it doesn’t impact the water quality.
The Big Thicket
Just north of Beaumont is Village Creek State Park, part of a network of waterways and trails known as The Big Thicket National Preserve, an ideal place for all kinds of outdoor recreation: canoeing, kayaking, birding, camping, horseback riding and wildlife study.
The Big Thicket is known as the “biological crossroads of North America” with more than five thousand species of flowering plants, including 20 orchids and four types of carnivorous plants, more than 100 species of trees and shrubs and 300 species of migratory and nesting birds, as well as numerous reptile species.
All the Little Creeks and Bayous
Then it was off to Orange, where we lunched at another cool cafe, the Old Orange Cafe and Catering Company, a converted dairy.
Like the rest of the Gulf Coast, Orange has lots of boating, hunting, fishing, birding, camping, nature tours and all kinds of outdoor recreation on the Sabine River, the Neches River, Sabine Lake (where the two converge) and all the little creeks and bayous in between.
The Sabine River Authority (which operates the canal system in the area) makes it a priority to improve boat ramps and add new ones to give the public access to the rivers and streams.
That’s why the Beaumont-Orange-Port Arthur area is called the “Golden Triangle.”And all this is downstream from “Chemical Row,” one of the largest collection of petrochemical companies in the world. They provide jobs, really good ones, $30 or $40 bucks an hour.
A Room Full of Bluebonnets
After lunch we visited the Stark Museum of Art which houses one of the finest collections of Western art in the world — and it’s free.
H.J. Lutcher Stark (1887-1965) began collecting Western art when he was still in college and he and his wife Nelda traveled to their ranch in Colorado every year, stopping in Taos and Santa Fe to meet artists.
For me, the biggest attraction was the bronze sculptures and drawings by Frederic Remington, which are famous for capturing the spirit of the West, but there are many other artists like Albert Bierstadt, Charles Marion Russell, and Georgia O’Keefe.
The museum also has a great collection of Indian art and artifacts, plus Steuben glass, rare books by John J. Audubon, and John W. Audubon… There’s a lot to see.
When we went they had a whole room of paintings by Julian Onderdonk, all landscapes with bluebonnets.
The Stark Foundation
The Museum was established after the death of Lutcher Stark by the Nelda C. and H.J. Lutcher Stark Foundation in 1978 under the direction of Nelda Stark.
The Foundation, whose mission is “to improve and enrich the quality of life in Southeast Texas and encourage and assist education” has also set up two other must-see attractions in Orange: the W.H. Stark House and Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center.
Right across from the Museum is the majestic Stark Mansion with its majestic turrets and porches and bay windows, shaded by an ancient live oak.
The Foundation also operates the 1,450-seat Lutcher Theater for the Performing Arts, which draws about 30,000 people a year with national performers and dramatic productions.
The botanical gardens were originally developed by Lutcher Stark in 1937 on 252 acres of cypress/tupelo swampland he owned along the Adams Bayou.
Another example of the indomitable spirit of the Texas Gulf Coast (and the mission of the Stark Foundation) is the Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Center, which could be considered both a memorial to one man’s vision of serenity as well as a bridge to the future.
The Gardens were based on the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton depicting a land of beauty, peace, and enlightenment.
Stark spent nine years developing his own version of Shangri La with more than 300 types of plants and all kinds of wildlife including swans, ducks, egrets, otters, and swamp rabbits (I didn’t even know there was such a thing) and it was opened to the public in 1946.
The Gardens attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world, but in 1958 a freak snowstorm killed most of the plants, and Stark closed the gardens.
They remained closed until 2005 when the Stark Foundation began its restoration. Then along came Rita and Ike. The latter destroyed 55,000 trees and caused all kinds of other damage.
21st Century Ideas
But less than a year later, Shangri La was open again, and besides showcasing many of the beautiful flowers and shrubs of the Botanical Garden, it includes a Nature Center with an exhibit hall, a theater, a classroom greenhouse, an interactive children’s garden, a water demonstration garden that shows how plants filter pollution from the water, a café, and a store.
But the Center also extends out into the swamp with several outposts that visitors can get to by boat and wildlife blinds where they can get a better view of the birds and animals.
The Nature Center is one of only fifty buildings to receive platinum certification from the US Green Building Council. Visiting the classrooms and interactive nature exhibits and the innovative green buildings, I could actually see children learning about the new ideas our country is going to need to live in harmony with nature in the 21st century.
Off to Port Arthur
Next, it was off the third corner of the Golden Triangle, Port Arthur. Like the rest of the Gulf Coast, Port Arthur has great fishing and birding and outdoor recreation.
Sea Rim State Park offers swimming, kayaking, camping and airboat tours, and the 17-mile Pleasure Island on Sabine Lake has two golf courses (regular and disc golf), the Fun Island Depot for kids, as well as RV parks, picnic areas and a waterfront boardwalk.
Our tour began at the Museum of the Gulf Coast where visitors can learn all about the area, past and present.
There are murals and exhibits on the prehistory of the area, the Civil War and the Spindletop gusher, as well as tributes to the many Gulf Coasters who went on to fame and fortune like J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, Janis Joplin and her schoolmate in Port Arthur, Jimmy Johnson, one of two coaches in football history to win championships at the college and professional levels.
There is also a gallery of 21 works by world-renowned artist Robert Rauschenberg
They have a replica of Janis’ pop-art covered Porsche, a Civil War cannon, and a fresnel lens from the Sabine Banks Lighthouse.
And it’s a great place to find out about the area’s rich musical heritage, with exhibits on the many music legends from the Gulf Coast.
There’s Janis, of course, and the Big Bopper and George Jones and Tex Ritter and ZZ Top and my personal favorite, Percy Sledge: “When a maa..han loves a woman… she can do no wrong. Turn his back on his best friend if he put her down.”
But then there are the musicians who inspired and mentored later generations in rock and roll, blues, zydeco, western swing, R & B and swamp pop: “Moon” Mullican, “Ivory Joe” Hunter, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Barbara Lynn, Tony Joe White (remember “Polk Salad Annie”?) and many more.
Port Arthur has welcomed newcomers from all over the US and the world throughout its history and this diversity is reflected in the city’s many spiritual sites.
The parishioners of Queen of Vietnam Martyr’s Catholic Church created a Hoa Binh (“area of peace”) with a statue of Mary “in gratitude for their escape from Asia and the city which welcomed them.”
There is also a shrine to Our Lady of Guadelupe set on rocks brought to the site from Mount Tepayac, Mexico City, where the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego.
We visited the Buu Mon Buddhist Temple, which was originally a Baptist church and then a Vietnamese Catholic church.
In 1986, the steeple was replaced with a stupa and Abbot Thich Huyen Viet moved in with a small congregation.
The temple water garden, with its bamboo, lotus flowers, water lilies and bamboo, banana, and citrus trees, draws thousands of visitors each year.
A Circuitous Path to Buddhism
It was here that I and my fellow travelers met Bhante Kassapa, a wonderfully calm and welcoming monk who had tea with us and showed us around and talked with us about his circuitous path to Buddhism.
He served in the US Air Force and later became a Franciscan monk. After ten years he returned to secular life and worked in aviation. In 2006 he became a Buddhist monk.
Bhante Kassapa teaches meditation and the principles of Buddhism in a wide variety of settings. He speaks at churches, universities, and even radio talk shows, and he’s the chaplain for Buddhist inmates at the federal prison in Beaumont.
Since he took over as chaplain his meditation group has grown steadily.
“One of the reasons I think why it works for them,” he says, “is that in the beginning, Buddha had to take himself out of society for a number of years while he discovered who he was, and these guys have a similar situation.”
Maw Maw’s Homemade Boudain
After an afternoon in the peace and tranquility of the water garden, it was time for some serious chow, and from what I hear the number one place for serious chow in the Golden Triangle is Larry’s French Market and Cajun Cafeteria in nearby Groves, Texas.
They’ve got alligator and frog’s legs and heaps of crawfish, as well as Cajun favorites like crawfish pistolettes, seafood gumbo, shrimp etouffé, dirty rice, andouille sausage gumbo, fried oyster poboys (or shrimp or catfish, take your pick).
Take my advice, get the buffet so you can try everything. I loved the ‘gator — like a cross between an octopus and a scallop with a lot of interesting flavors of its own.
You also have to try the andouille sausage — beef, seasoned with salt, cracked black pepper, and garlic, and smoked over pecan wood and sugar cane — and the house specialty, Boudain — pork and rice sausage that includes the liver and heart.
The business was started by Albin and Lariza (Maw Maw) Judice as a grocery store in 1925, and the popularity of Maw Maw’s homemade Boudain caused it to grow into a deli.
Now it’s a 440-seat restaurant and dance place run by their grandson Larry, with live bands — cajun, country and swamp pop — Wednesday through Sunday nights and diners and dancers from all over Texas and Louisiana.
A great place to eat a delicious meal and dance the night away.