Galveston, Texas: The Indomitable Island

Family Fun on the Texas Gulf Coast

By Stephen Hartshorne

The Hotel Galvez fronts boldly on the Gulf of Mexico, a symbol of the indomitable spirit of Galveston Island. Photos by Stephen Hartshorne
The Hotel Galvez fronts boldly on the Gulf of Mexico, a symbol of the indomitable spirit of Galveston Island. Photos by Stephen Hartshorne

Galveston is one of those destinations where there really is something for everyone. I happen to love those parts of America where the culture was shaped by other nationalities like the Dutch in New York or the French in New Orleans.

In Galveston you can really feel the grandeur of Spain, most notably in the Hotel Galvez that fronts boldly on the Gulf of Mexico, named for Governor Bernardo de Galvez, one of the most interesting characters in the history of the Gulf Coast.

I also love historic American architecture, and Galveston’s position as the commercial center of the Gulf in the late 1800s led to the building of block after block of magnificent Victorian mansions. More than 2,000 buildings in Galveston are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

But that’s just me. Galveston is a great destination for all kinds of reasons. But don’t take my word for it. Ask the five million people who come here every year.

The pyramids of Moody Gardens
The pyramids of Moody Gardens

There are miles and miles of beautiful beaches, possibly the best birding and fishing in the world (FDR came here to fish for ten days), as well as surfing, sailing, kayaking, shopping, antiques, art galleries, fine dining, you name it.

Not to mention the Galveston Railroad Museum, the Lone Star Flight Museum, and the Texas Seaport Museum, home to the 1877 tall ship Elissa.

Then there’s The Grand, an opera house built in 1894, which has hosted appearances by George M. Cohan, Lionel Barrymore, Paderewski, John Philip Sousa, and Sarah Bernhardt.

And the nightlife is legendary. My favorite band, The Stone Coyotes from right here in Franklin County, Massachusetts, has a great song that goes “Going down to Galveston/ Listen to a dance band./ We’ll go walkin’ on the Strand./ When’s the last time/ You heard a good dance band?”

Legendary Nightlife

There are train tours, paddlewheel boats, duck tours, harbor tours and aerial tours. Or if you’re in a romantic mood, try a moonlight ride in a horse-drawn carriage. In the fall there’s a motorcyle rally that draws more than 500,000 riders.

And, on top of all that, there are three destinations you just can’t miss: Moody Gardens with its Aquarium Pyramid, its Rainforest Pyramid and its Discovery Museum; the Moody Mansion, a fascinating trip into the life of a very wealthy family during America’s Gilded Age; and Schlitterbahn Galveston, a 26-acre state-of-the-art waterpark that really has to be seen to be believed.

A walk-though aquarium at Moody Gardens
A walk-though aquarium at Moody Gardens

A Center for Hippotherapy

Moody Gardens began, believe it or not, as a center for hippotherapy. What? It was a riding program for people with head injuries, and while it has grown into a major tourist attraction and a conservation center, it remains one of the premier educational/recreational centers in the Southwest for people with a wide range of physical and emotional disabilities.

They are also offer lots of programs for educators on how to excite their students interest in the rainforests, the oceans and even outer space.

There are three enormous pyramids at Moody Gardens, and on my visit we started at the Aquarium Pyramid, where I got to meet Hendrix, a rockhopper penguin, and his trainer T’Noya.

Hendrix is really quite a lovable character (watch the video), but the rest of the Aquarium Pyramid is amazing as well, with up-close views of sharks, seals, penguins, sea horses, moray eels, and all kinds of other aquatic creatures.

Hendrix, a rockhopper penguin born in captivity
Hendrix, a rockhopper penguin born in captivity

You get the feeling that the sea creatures are as entertained looking at the humans as we are looking at them.

The Rainforest Pyramid has more than 1,700 species of plants and animals from the rainforests of Asia, the tropical Americas and Africa, with exhibits that really get kids interested.

The Discovery Pyramid houses a wide variety of science exhibits and is home to the Ridefilm Theater that provides a motion simulation experience. There’s also an IMAX 3D Theater in the Visitor’s Center.

Water, Water Everywhere!

As I said, the Schlitterbahn Waterpark has to be seen to be believed. The intrepid can experience free fall from a height of 81 feet at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour.

Then there are more than 30 attractions, some of them four stories high, that twist and turn and percolate according to your level of intrepidity. There’s even an endless wave for boogie boarding and body surfing.

There are lots of tubes and slides and shallow-water attractions for little kids and a swim-up bar for the grown-ups.

They’re closed in January and February, but during the “heated indoor season” (October to December and March and April) a huge convertible roof covers twelve of the water features in a tropical oasis.

The Schlitterbahn Waterpark
The Schlitterbahn Waterpark

Right next door is the Lone Star Flight Museum with one of the largest collections of historic aircraft in the world. You can even take a flight aboard a B-17 or a B-25.

The Moody Mansion

I really enjoyed the Moody Mansion because it offered a chance to step into the Gilded Age and see what life was like for a fabulously well-to-do family at the turn of the century.

At that time Galveston was the Wall Street of the West, as is still evidenced by rows and rows of stately historic Victorian mansions, all bearing markers to show the high water mark during the hurricane of 1900.

The craftsmanship of the Moody Mansion and its furnishings is really breathtaking, and it’s all the more interesting because it reflects the personalities of the Moody family.

Ceiling restoration work at the Moody Mansion
Ceiling restoration work at the Moody Mansion

Colonel William L. Moody moved to Galveston in 1866. He prospered in the cotton business and opened a private bank.

His son, William L. Moody, Jr., expanded the family’s banking operations and founded what was to become one of the largest insurance companies in the country.

The mansion was actually built by Mrs. Richard Willis, a widow who was trying unsuccessfully to persuade her married daughter to move to Galveston from New York.

She commissioned English architect William Tyndall, who installed many features considered very modern at the time including a dumbwaiter, an elevator, a system for circulating rainwater, and a network of speaking tubes.

W.L. Moody, Jr., bought the house after the hurricane of 1900. On the death of his son Shearn in 1936, Moody began educating his sole surviving child, Mary Moody Northen, in the fine points of business and finance. Upon his death in 1954, Mrs. Northen took over one of the largest business empires in the world.

Mary Moody, shown here at age 18, later managed one of the largest business empires in the world.
Mary Moody, shown here at age 18, later managed one of the largest business empires in the world.

She later turned her talents to philanthropy, particularly history and historic preservation, and set up a foundation to preserve the family home. The docents at the mansion say Mary saved everything, so there is a lot of interesting material for exhibits in all the different rooms in the house.

In her bedroom, you can see a replica of the dress she wore at her debutante ball in 1911.

In the carriage house you can view her favorite car, a 1931 Studebaker Dictator. You can also see her father’s 1949 Cadillac and a 1953 Cadillac he bought for her, supposedly to get her to quit driving the old Studebaker. It didn’t work. She loved the Dictator.

The Hotel Galvez

Probably the grandest structure in Galveston is the Hotel Galvez, which fronts bravely on the Gulf of Mexico, an emblem of the Island’s indomitable spirit. It was built by a group of businessmen in 1911 to show that Galveston was back in business after the devastating hurricane in September, 1900 which killed more than 6,000 people and destroyed more than 3,600 buildings.

The lobby of the Hotel Galvez
The lobby of the Hotel Galvez

In the aftermath of that storm the entire city was actually raised eight feet and the sea wall was raised 17 feet. While these measures were successful in preventing catastrophic hurricane damage, the city never regained its ascendancy as a commercial center and was eclipsed by Houston after the digging of the Houston Ship Channel in 1917.

Galveston became more of a vacation resort, with many wealthy families moving into the Hotel Galvez for the summer.

The hotel has seen many famous guests over the years including Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson. General Douglas MacArthur, Harold Hughes, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, and many other celebrities were also regular guests.

Like the City of Galveston, the 226-room hotel is named for Count Bernardo de Galvez, a very colorful character who was the Spanish governor of Louisiana during the American Revolution, and helped the American cause immeasurably by raising an army in the Spanish possessions and driving the British out of Louisiana and Florida.

Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor of Lousiana who helped win the American Revolution
Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana who helped win the American Revolution. He never set foot in Galveston, but his portrait presides in the hotel lobby, with the kind of eyes that seem to follow you around.

The Grandeur of Spain

To me the Hotel Galvez evoked the grandeur of Spain. Walking through its circular grand entrance into the lobby with its cathdral ceilings, ornate mouldings and hand-painted stencilings, I was reminded of the movie Don Juan DeMarco, which also celebrates the romance and enchantment of the Spanish nobility.

Johnny Depp, the title character, speaking of his true love, says, “You see your unborn children in her eyes and you know that your heart has found a home.” I didn’t see any unborn children, but my heart did feel very much at home, even though I had never been there before.

We dined at Bernardo’s Restaurant where sous chef Larry Cephus came to our table to chat and explained the combination of searing and slow-baking that gave our sea bass fillets such exquisite flavor and texture.

And the furnishings were tasteful and luxurious — the marble bathrooms, the cherry armoires, the promenade, the pool, the spa…

But there was something else that I just couldn’t put my finger on. Perhaps it was the welcoming spirit of Bernardo himself.

Downtown Renewal

The Hotel Galvez is one of more than 20 Galveston properties purchased and rebuilt or restored by islanders George and Cynthia Michell who together with the Galveston Historical Society led a dramatically successful campaign of downtown renewal beginning in 1976.

Gambling raids by the Texas Rangers in 1957 put an end to Galveston’s years as a gambling mecca, and for two decades the city languished, and many downtown buildings were abandoned.

Over the last 30 years, the Mitchells have invested more than $125 million in rehabilitating historic properties and today the downtown area boasts some of the finest historic architecture in the world and it’s listed as a National Historic Landmark District by the National Park Service.

Mitchell Historic Properties operates three hotels: the Hotel Galvez, the Tremont Hotel (119 rooms) and the Harbor House at Pier 21 (42 rooms).

Hurricane Ike

In September of 2008, Galveston was clobbered by Hurricane Ike with winds of of 100 miles per hour and a storm surge of more than 17 feet.

The evacuation was orderly and efficient and no lives were lost. The new hurricane-proof construction along the sea wall in Galveston was undamaged. It’s built to allow the water to sweep through the ground floor, leaving the upper stories intact.

Galveston Island has miles of beaches.
Galveston Island has miles of beaches.

There was water damage to the spa in the basement of the Hotel Galvez, but that’s been cleaned up and the Hotel was otherwise undamaged.

The city immediately began a massive clean-up and restoration effort, and a year later, all the businesses in Galveston are up and running, and many are doing better than ever before.

The Schlitterbahn Waterpark and other major attractions hardly missed a beat. They began rebuilding as soon as they were allowed back by the authorities. The Grand Opera House had to replace some of their seats, but they were open within two months.

A lot of business owners who leased their properties were unable to get back in until the owners could settle up with the insurance companies. We heard a lot of jokes about what was wind damage and what was water damage, and delays of this kind held up some reopenings.

But it’s amazing how fast delays of this kind are swept away when they are costing people money. Galveston is an indomitable island, and like the rest of the Gulf Coast, they’re back in business.

During my visit to Texas, the winds from a microburst in Sunderland, Massachusetts, picked up a tobacco barn, carried it fifty feet, and plunked it down on the exact stretch of Route 47 where I ride my scooter to work. Thank goodness I was safe in Galveston.

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