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Galveston: Luxury Travel Guide to Texas's Victorian Island

Beautiful Gulf Island Near Houston Has History, Culture, Nature, & Ghosts

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Historic, charming Galveston is a Texas legend and favorite getaway retreat under an hour from Houston.

Galveston flaunts a subtropical climate and 32 miles of beaches and palm trees. Hurricanes love this barrier island, but so do Galveston's five million annual visitors. They come to soak up its Victorian mood and festive atmosphere, and come away with respect and admiration for this tenacious island and its proud citizens.

Galveston is warm and sunny for much of the year. As the locals say, it's always island time! Here, the top reasons for luxury travelers to consider Galveston.

Galveston's Hotel Galvez, Ghost-Friendly Queen of the Gulf

Sociable bar at ©Hotel Galvez.

Many visitors feel that there is only one place to stay in Galvewston. The elegant, Spanish Mission-style Hotel Galvez is the top choice. This gracious, 1911-vintage hotel tempts guests with postcard-like views of the Gulf, proximity to the beach, a lively pool scene, and a bit of ghostly fun.

Check room rates at Hotel Galvez >>

  • The best rooms at Hotel Galvez: the spa-inspired, allergen-free suites on the sixth floor. These feature rain showers, Simmons HealthSmart mattresses, Anichini bedding, and 42-inch flat screen TVs

  • Hotel Galvez is home to a full-service spa offering many marine-themed treatments such as skin-buffing sea salt scrubs. The spa has a beauty salon and a meditation garden. Its adjacent gym is free to guests

  • Hotel Galvez, like many historic hotels, is said to be haunted. A light-hearted walking tour is designed to attract ghosts -- and believers
  • The service attitude of Hotel Galvez: wifi is free throughout the property. And the lobby dispenses complimentary iced lemon and cucumber water to sun-parched guests. And live music entertains guests on some evenings

  • Many rooms have only showers, but not tubs. I went to soak in the hotel's hot tub, which turned out to be wonderfully social, replete with wonderful characters telling flavorful stories. My feeling: Hotel Galvez's hot tub is a great Galveston experience

If Hotel Galvez is booked, the chateau-look Tremont House downtown makes up for its lack of a swimming pool with soaking tubs, a swanky interior, and rooftop bar.

Moody Gardens Hotel on Galveston Bay offers a unique view of Moody Pyramids as well as proximity to Schlitterbahn Waterpark and Lone Star Flight Museum.

Historic Galveston's Marvelous Museums

Up, up, and away with Galvestion's ©Lone Star Flight Museum.

Galveston's museums spotlight this proud island's confidence and grit. What makes them fascinating experiences: they are often converted from unique machines, and incorporate one-of-a-kind historic vessels such as war planes or oil rigs.

Texas Seaport Museum showcases Tall Ship Elissa, a three-masted, iron-hulled 1877 sailing ship that was built in Scotland.

The Lone Star Flight Museum flaunts an extensive collection of restored aircraft, retired military vehicles, and aviation exhibits

  • Two enormous hangars display over 30 aircraft, most in flying condition
  • Among those featured are World War II fighters, bombers, "liaison trainers," and sleek executive aircraft
  • Enthusiasts come from as far away as Japan to ride the museum's "war birds" as part of the Flight Experience program
  • Private events at the museum allow guests to dine and dance under the wings of historic planes
  • The Lone Star Flight Museum is also home to the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame Education Center

The Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum is a retired oil rig that has been converted into an engrossing museum.

  • The museum has three floors of exhibits, theater, videos, and interactive displays
  • Everything illuminates the fact that science, engineering, and ingenuity are required to operate an offshore drilling rig
  • Located on Pier 19, Ocean Star is just a short walk from Galveston's main shopping district on the Strand.

Galveston's Appealing Amusements

Moody Gardens in Galveston Bay. ©www.galvestons.com

Visitors who want more from Galveston than a beach are in for a cornucopia of classic yet cutting-edge amusements.

Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark is a state-of-the-art indoor-outdoor waterpark. Its 26-acre property has 33 attractions masterminded by a family of water ride designers.

  • Schlitterbahn opened in 2006 as the world's first convertible indoor-outdoor waterpark. Its 70,000-square- foot heated area. Wasserfest Indoor Waterpark, is open from October through March
  • Schlitterbahn's "transportainment" is an interconnected three-river system that lets families travel to the next ride without burning their feet on a hot day
  • There are plenty of shaded tables for picnics
  • And a patented drying system following the inevitable dunking
  • Private luxury cabanas are available for rent
  • Adult visitors like the 1,100-square-foot hot tub with swim-up bar
  • Parking and use of inner tubes are complimentary

Pleasure Pier features thrill rides over the water, shops, and eateries. Some of its rides are charmingly retro, like spinning teacups and bumper cars. Kids love them as much as ever.

  • The Pier is open 363 days per year for dining and 266 days for rides and games
  • Its dramatic backdrop: beach and ocean
  • All rides start 30 feet above the waves, many going much higher
  • The Texas Star Flyer, a supersized swing, lifts guests 230 feet over the sea

Moody Gardens are also known as the Pyramids of Galveston. The first pyramid is a rainforest, the second an aquarium, and the third an interactive museum, Discovery. Amongst Moody Gardens' lures:

  • Fauna and flora from all over the world are gathered in the rainforest pyramid for visitors' benefit
  • Up-close-and-personal penguin encounters at the aquarium pyramid, furnishing smiles and photo ops
  • The Jam, an exhibit in the discovery pyramid, devoting four galleries to the science and mathematics of music
  • An 800-passenger, paddlewheel boat, The Colonel, straight out of the mid-1800s
  • A par-72 seaside golf course
  • A water park with a white sandy beach
  • Moody Gardens' 3D screen is the biggest in Texas. Its 4D Special FX and Ridefilm theaters are also big attractions
  • Moody Gardens' annual Festival of Lights in November and December is the largest holiday lighting display on the Gulf Coast with more than a million lights that stretch over a mile

Galveston's Mardi Gras celebration every February is one of the splashiest in the US, lasting for 12 days

Galveston's Nifty Nature

Galveston's avian life lures birders. ©www.galveston.com

Galveston Island is a premier American ecotourism destination that captivates nature lovers and birdwatchers.

Active visitors can enjoy biking, fishing, kayaking, and camping. They may also tour national wildlife refuges and nature parks.

Galveston is a pilgrimage place not just for migratory birds, but for the birders who love them.

  • Galveston's location on the trans-Gulf migration route attracts over 300 species of birds during spring and autumn
  • Galveston Bay, a productive estuarine ecosystem with harbors and salt marshes, is a rich habitat for water birds such as herons
  • Galveston FeatherFest & Nature PhotoFest every April coincides with the spring migration. It gives participants the chance to spot hundreds of species as they fly south over Galveston. This major US birding event convenes birdwatchers and nature photographers from across the country

Playful, sweet-tempered bottlenose dolphins are populous in Galveston Bay, and the subject of various dolphin-watching boat tours such as Baywatch Dolphin Tours

Galveston's Waterfront: The Strand Antiques District & a Prosperous Port

Galveston's cruise pier abuts the historic Strand neighborhood. ©www.galveston.com

The Port of Galveston is America's second-busiest port, with both commercial and cruise ships coming and going.

Cruises take Galveston passengers to the Caribbean, to Cancun and Mexico's eastern coast, and some to the Panama Canal. Glittering, modern ships that whose home is the Port of Galveston include"

Steps from the cruise terminal is Galveston's historic downtown shopping district, The Strand. This lovely, 36-block historic shopping district was developed in the 1880s, and historic preservation has maintained its vintage beauty.

  • The Strand's 100-plus shops, restaurants, and galleries housed in authentic Victorian iron-front buildings
  • Many of these shops are antique stores, featuring finds that landed in this port city from Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America
  • Cafés and restaurants abound in The Strand as well
  • Many visitors discover The Strand on foot, but you can also take a trolley or a horse-drawn carriage

The port district also contains the Texas Seaport Museum, the vintage-1877 Tall Ship ELISSA, and the Ocean Star Oil Rig Museum

  • Harbor tours aboard Seagull II, the Texas Seaport Museum's ship, give visitors the big picture of Galveston. Its one-hour historic harbor tour combines local lore and landmarks with dolphin-watching
  • A documentary film on the Great Storm of 1900 screens hourly at Pier 21 Theatre. The Great Storm was Galveston's defining event; to know about it is to understand Galveston's soul

Galveston's Savory Seafood

Galveston means shrimp. ©www.galveston.com

Galveston, nicknamed Queen of the Gulf, is a busy commercial fishing port particularly famous for its shrimp and oysters.

Two show-stealing Galveston restaurants, Rudy & Paco and Gaido's, combine old-fashioned service with some of the Gulf's freshest seafood.

  • Gaido's opened in 1911 and is today a must-visit Galveston restaurant
  • Gaido's is located just across from Galveston's beach
  • Steak or red snapper with crabmeat topping is a favorite Gaido's recipe

Rudy & Paco is next door to the Grand 1894 Opera House.

  • Rudy & Paco's personal service makes every diner feel important
  • The cuisine is surf and turf with Latin American flair
  • Soft-shell crab is a classic seasonal delicacy that shines here
  • Rudy & Paco offers an extensive wine list

Galveston's Remarkable Resilience

Galveston endures. ©www.galveston.com

Galveston has flourished despite regular hurricane trauma. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 was America's the most fatal hurricane ever.

But Galveston continues to thrive, thanks to its islanders' tenacity. Locals are eager to share moving, uplifting tales of how Galveston's families healed and rebuilt time and again.

Galveston may be battered by hurricanes, but its fierce spirit cannot be broken.

The resilience of Galveston in the face of these natural disasters is a source of fierce pride for every BOI (Born on Island) and IBC (Islander by Choice).
 

  • The deadliest natural disaster in US history was the storm that hit Galveston on September 8, 1900, killing over 6,000. Many structures on the island were rebuilt over the years, and a 17-foot seawall was raised as protection from future tidal surges
  • A strong hurricane hits the city about every three years. 2008 brought Hurricane Ike, with 110mph winds and a 15-foot storm surge
  • Some homes that have survived hurricanes display watermarks, or blue lines on stairs to indicate the floodwaters' high-water mark

Galveston's many storm deaths have inspired the island's ghost-related attractions.

  • Haunted Mayfield Manor, a haunted house, is open year round. Background: Mayfield Manor served as the morgue after the deadly 1900 Storm

Galveston's Astounding Architecture

The Grand Opera House, built in 1894. ©www.galveston.com

If Galveston adopted a theme song, it could be Destiny's Child's Survivor. Not just Galveston's citizens, but its beautiful buildings as well have withstood hurricanes.

The arresting Grand Opera House was built in 1894.

  • "The Grand," a Texas landmark, has a captivating interior. Its auditorium seats 1,000, many in stylish sapphire-blue velvet seats
  • It is a theater for live performances, some of which are fund-raisers for Galveston
  • The Grand was back up and running only months after Hurricane Ike in 2008
  • Once again, it fulfilled its historic role as a gathering place for townsfolk to collectively grieve and transcend the losses borne by Galveston's hurricanes

Bishop's Palace has overcome numerous mega-storms. Built in 1892, it is a visually stunning and spatially impressive Victorian stone mansion.

  • Highlights of its well-designed audio tour are the painter's room and the main staircase
  • The American Institute of Architects and the Library of Congress respectively designated Bishop's Palace as a Top 100 architecturally significant building in America as well as a treasure of Victorian design

The Tree Sculptures on Galveston's historic East End were carved from the grand oak trees brutalized by Hurricane Ike in 2008.

  • A solar-powered shuttle bus tour hits all the hurricane landmarks

Galveston's Alluring Aquatics

Seagull II's tour is deservedly popular. ©www.galveston.com

Galveston has water sports for everyone, including the wet-suited athlete, the sketchbook-equipped artist, the Tweeting thrill-seeker, and the dolphin-chaser.

Jet Boat Thrill Ride: Sun Time's signature orange jet boat, SPINTIME, takes up to 11 passengers on a 15-minute thrill ride in Galveston's harbor.

  • This jet boat has no external parts. A propeller, rudder, and Hamilton 212 jet unit enable propulsion and steering instead
  • Water escapes a nozzle at the boat's aft at nearly 3,000 gallons per minute as SPINTIME cuts sharp turns and loops
  • Wild bottlenose dolphins may follow, putting on a show

Artist Boat Kayak Adventures combine healthy exercise with visual pleasure.

  • Paddlers in two-seat kayaks glide through protected lagoon wetlands, taking in Nature's show
  • The serene hush to the air is broken only by the flapping of wings and the splash of leaping fish. It's a joy to see fish somersault in the air as herons fly just overhead
  • About the name? Tours are designed to inspire artists and photographers. They do

Texas Seaport Museum's Seagull II furnishes one-hour dolphin-watching boat tours of Galveston's harbor.

  • Passengers are encouraged to bring cameras
  • Tip: video best captures dolphins' graceful aquatic antics and intelligent mammalian gazes

Murdoch's & Other Most Peaceful Places in Galveston

Broadway Cemetery is a place of peace. ©www.galveston.com

Galveston is a lively, active getaway destination. There's so much to do, visitors may crave time out for quiet reflection.

Murdoch's is the place. This Galveston icon began life in the late 1800s as a bathhouse that rented bathing suits and towels.

  • Murdoch's has been reborn after numerous hurricanes and today sells souvenirs.
  • Murdoch's familiar sea-resort souvenirs -- everything you can do with a seashell -- are nice to look at once you're home
  • But Murdoch's is much more than a trinket store. Its real draw is its incredibly relaxing hangout porch.
  • This covered porch, open to the public, connects Murdoch's two sections. But its function is much grander. In some ways, Murdoch's porch is Galveston's front yard
  • It offers comfy Adirondack chairs, benches, rocking chairs, and coin-operated binocular viewers against an aural backdrop of breaking waves and tinkling wind chimes
  • In this laid-back spot, visitors can enjoy the ocean breeze and a cold Galveston-brewed Falstaff beer
  • Here, you can be alone to gaze at the Gulf, or to write down your impression of this iron-willed island
  • Or you can take five with a friend, and talk about how a little bit of Galveston is good for the soul

Perhaps the most tranquil place in Galveston is a true resting place: verdant Broadway Cemetery, right in The Strand. Tours are available; a traditional time to visit is Halloween. Its ornate, 19th-century granite crypts are a little spooky, but undeniably lovely. Galveston lives on.

Galveston: How to Connect & Start Planning a Visit

Bishop's Palace, an 1892 gem. ©www.galveston.com
 

As is common in the travel industry, the Guest Author was provided with a complimentary visit for the purpose of describing Galveston. While this arrangement has not influenced her article, About.com believes in full editorial transparency. For more info, see our Ethics Policy.

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