Beyond the sand and surf, Victorian charm beckons

THE BALTIMORE SUN

GALVESTON, TEXAS / / She was only a child at the time, but Bettie Brown's recollection of the hurricane of 1900 is still retold in vivid detail. She was standing on the staircase of her parents' Italianate mansion when the waters swept through the first floor, rising and bringing horrible things with it. Some reports would later say that the storm surge washed clear over Galveston Island.

Brown's mother acted on an inspiration to leave Ashton Villa's doors and tall, graceful windows wide open to the torrent, and so the only lasting effects the delicate-looking home sustained were a basement filled with sand and a wrought-iron fence rendered forever "shorter," the bottom few feet buried by the grade change.

This 1859 mansion, now on the National Register of Historic Places and open to daily guided tours, is one of the town's most engaging survival stories. But other historic houses have tales to tell. The castle-like 1888 Bishop's Palace and the turreted 1895 Moody Mansion are also on the tour-home circuit and, along with the boutique-filled buildings of the Strand National Historic Landmark district a few blocks away, they keep Gal- veston at the forefront of Victorian destinations.

That's probably not the image most of the nation expects at the mention of Texas, let alone Galveston.

Galveston's gulf-side beaches are the main reason spring-breakers and families vacation here. Many more come to embark from the port of Galveston on weeklong cruises to the Caribbean. But unlike many modern seaside communities, Galveston isn't a master-planned resort with coordinated color schemes or a unifying theme. Its attractions sprang not from a developer's blueprint but from the convergence of history, industry, philanthropy and -- you just can't avoid it -- that awful storm.

If people still talk about the 1900 hurricane, that's because it remains the most deadly natural disaster in U.S. history. Of the 35,000 or so people living here at the time, more than 6,000 on Galveston Island (and thousands more on the mainland) lost their lives. From a strictly geologic standpoint, the island served its purpose. It's basically a 2 1 / 2 -mile-wide sandbar, a barrier island that bore the brunt of nature so the continent wouldn't have to. From the human standpoint, the storm forever changed Galveston's fortunes from formidable seaport to languid township. To this day, it counts only some 60,000 inhabitants.

Thomas Edison himself filmed the recovery effort. In fluttering black-and-white scenes spotted with age, men relaunch a boat stranded ashore; a woman in a bonnet and long dress strolls up to watch. Another segment shows a man in a suit holding a clipboard and checking his watch as workers atop a haystack of shattered lumber pick through the rubble, looking for bodies.

To defy future tempests, Galveston promptly set about raising the grade of the city and building a sea wall. So far, at more than a century old and counting, the project has worked. The wall measures a few ticks over 10 miles, almost a third the length of the island, and is crowned by the stop-and-go traffic of Seawall Boulevard.

The sea wall doubles as a boardwalk. This is a breezy expanse where stone breakers push into the gulf at regular intervals. Fishing jetties and souvenir stands perch out over the water on spindly wooden legs. People stroll the wide concrete sidewalk or pedal fringe-topped surreys. There's always the scent of something on the wind -- salt, rain, seaweed --that fills the lungs with a strange sense of freedom.

Down below, at the base of the sea wall, the beach spreads in either direction, set with rental umbrellas here, volleyball nets there. Families gather around picnic baskets. Teens bob along the water's surface on inflatable toys. The water is shallow and usually gentle enough for toddlers to play chase with the surf. A perpetual mix of humidity, salt spray and sand as fine as face powder hangs in the air and clings to car windows. People who make Galveston a habit just wipe their windshields and go on about their vacation.

Despite the pizza joints and bikini shops and ragged, empty lots, the heart of Seawall Boulevard doesn't look all that different now than it did in postcards from the early 1900s. The most recognizable landmark was, and still is, the Spanish-mission architecture of the 1911 Hotel Galvez. The hotel -- heck, the whole town and the vast bay behind it -- took the name of a Spanish colonial governor of the 1780s, Bernardo de Galvez, who happened never to pay a visit.

Pirates frequented it, though. This was Jean Lafitte's lair after he was forced out of New Orleans (until the spring of 1820, when he was forced out of here, too). There's always someone who hopes to find the treasure he's said to have buried on Galveston. The forces of time and nature being what they are, it's hard to know where to look. But dig in the right places, and it's possible to unearth some of the island's naughtier secrets.

A few blocks of Post Office Street once formed The Line, a red-light district whose reputation outshone, so to speak, that of the Best Little Whorehouse in Texas Chicken Ranch in LaGrange, Texas. A popular phrase in those days was "going down The Line."

The Balinese Room, which fronts Seawall Boulevard and squats over the gulf on a long wooden pier, was once the epicenter of Galveston's illegal gambling industry. Years after the dice stopped rolling, the former hot spot entered the pop-culture vocabulary through ZZ Top's 1975 "Balinese."

Beyond the sea wall proper, Seawall Boulevard runs to the end of the island. Most vacationers don't go out that far unless they're browsing the new housing complexes on the island's western tip or looking to find the deliberately undeveloped beaches at Galveston Island State Park. Instead, they turn toward the bay side of the island, in the direction of Offats Bayou and the glass pyramids of Moody Gardens. The crowds here on any given weekend may well rival those on the beach.

At first glance, Moody Gardens' three pyramids resemble the famous ones in Egypt. But these are made of glass. They're at the center of a bay-front botanic-garden complex that includes restaurants, a spa and a 428-room hotel.

The clear one, the Rainforest Pyramid, serves as a conservatory for tropical plants and a home to iguanas, bats (in an enclosed area) and macaws. The blue one, the Aquarium Pyramid, has separate habitats for penguins and marine life from four parts of the world. A submerged glass tunnel enables visitors to walk under sharks, sea turtles and rays.

Even those visitors who don't waste any time in the lamentably maintained upper level of the pink-glassed Discovery Pyramid (a sort of children's museum) find that exploring Moody Gardens makes for a very full day. Aside from the main exhibits, there are Imax films, virtual-reality rides and hourlong excursions on Offats Bayou aboard the Colonel paddle-wheeler. Palm Beach, also part of the garden complex, is a water park for toddlers. Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark, better for older kids, is next door.

Across town, in the historic downtown and seaport, it takes the better half of another day to see the 1877 tall ship Elissa; watch a hurricane documentary called The Great Storm; shop for souvenirs along the Strand and check the schedule at the Grand 1894 Opera House for evening performances.

Touring all three of the Victorian homes on Broadway is another half a day well-spent among architectural embellishments, exotic woods, period furniture and the personal effects of the people who once lived in them. The photogenic Bishop's Palace, best known of the three, was recognized by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 100 most important buildings in America. Moody Mansion -- occupied by the family whose foundation would later establish Moody Gardens -- is memorable for a large stained-glass window.

And Ashton Villa, whose iron balconies wouldn't be out of place in New Orleans' Garden District, is said to be haunted. Bettie Brown, adventurous, well-traveled and eccentric, liked Galveston so much she decided to stay.

Toni Salama writes for the Chicago Tribune.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Galveston, Texas, is a port of embarkation for Carnival and Royal Caribbean. Galveston Island is only 2 1/2 miles wide and 32 miles long. Most points of interest are found on the eastern third of the island. Galveston Island Trolley ($1.25) operates between the Strand and Seawall Boulevard.

LODGING

Hotel Galvez

-- which has reigned at 2024 Seawall Blvd. since 1911, has been completely restored - and happens to have the most scenic pool in town. Expect rooms to start at about $206 for a weekend night. (877-999-3223; wyndham.com)

San Luis Resort

-- at 5222 Seawall Blvd., is Galveston's upscale, multivenue complex offering several hotels, condos, restaurants, a pool with cabana rentals, a spa and a convention center. Figure on $229 for a weekend night. (800-445-0090; sanluisresort.com)

ATTRACTIONS

Moody Gardens

-- 1 Hope Blvd., a $45 day pass is good for one admission to each of the park's attractions. A $50 two-day pass allows unlimited admission on consecutive days. (800-582- 4673; moodygardens.com)

Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark

-- at 2026 Lockheed Drive, is open year-round. Single-day admissions for winter are $28 for adults, $23 for children. (409- 770-9283; schlitterbahn.com)

Tour homes

-- All three tour homes (Ashton Villa, 2328 Broadway; Moody Mansion, 2618 Broadway; and Bishop's Palace, 1402 Broadway) are open daily year-round. Admission to each is $6 for adults, but combination tickets may save a few dollars.

INFORMATION

Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau

-- 888-425- 4753; galveston.com

[ TONI SALAMA]

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