GALVESTON -- Driving along Broadway Boulevard for the first time in 2 1/2 years, I hardly expected physics laws to pop into my head. But as I gaped at this new Galveston, all I could think is that it's true -- that for every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.
In the Galveston I beheld recently, I realized that extraordinary beauty can truly be derived from widespread devastation. When last I'd seen this island city, exactly one month after Hurricane Ike unleashed its 110-mile-per-hour fury here in September 2008, causing more than $12 billion in damages, my heart broke as I drove around looking at the mess left behind. I feared that this pretty Victorian jewel would never shine in the same way again.
And I was right. When I drove down Broadway recently, turning toward the ocean to drive along the seawall, I could scarcely catch my breath.
Galveston has never looked more beautiful than it does today. Yes, the storm nearly pulled the place apart at the seams, but the strength of the city and its people made sure that its recovery would be equally dramatic. I hadn't realized how shabby Galveston had become in places, because its frayed edges were always part of its charm.
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But much after the Great Storm of 1900 claimed more than 6,000 lives in Galveston, the island has rebounded with a force to match the hurricane's fury. Taking in Galveston V.3, I saw that the latest, vast rebuilding effort has put a new gloss on the place. Homes are rebuilt, repainted and made like new. Landscaping is lush and healthy. Commercial buildings seem to sparkle as if still in their 1920s youth. Sure, there are still structures that need to be rehabbed and perhaps some that should be torn down, but the overall effect is a town turned giddy in its restoration.
As Galveston gleams in its newfound energy, it offers a plenitude of reasons for visitors to come enjoy its gifts again. Anniversaries of long-loved places are being celebrated, and a wealth of improved offerings begs inspection. Here's how you can spend a summer vacation -- even if just a long weekend -- reveling in Galveston's treasures.
The huge and handsome Hotel Galvez faces the Gulf of Mexico, looking over the famed seawall with unequaled elegance in its centennial year. Opened in 1911, the state's only historic beachfront hotel owns an enviable past, having served as home to a president -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt made it his official Summer White House in 1937, while he fished offshore -- and to the military, when, in 1942, the U.S. Coast Guard made the hotel its headquarters. Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the Galvez survived Hurricane Alicia's hammering in 1983 and proved to be that stalwart again in 2008.
Guests will find an intriguing hall of history, chock-full of more than a century's supply of old photos, on the level just below the Galvez's breathtaking lobby, which is a good place for people-watching and meeting up with friends. Newer additions include a beautiful spa, as well as a renovated pool area. Guests can borrow hotel bicycles for pedaling around town and along the seawall. There's a long calendar of events for the 100th birthday celebration (see the accompanying list, right).
If I'm not staying at the Galvez, I like its sister hotel, the Tremont House, a sophisticated inn in the historic Strand district, close to plenty of shopping, dining and nightspots.
But to stay on a pier, you need to book a room at the Harbor House, tucked into a renovated warehouse, where you can see cruise and cargo ships coming and going. Guests at Harbor House can use the fitness centers at either the Tremont or the Galvez, as well as the pool at the latter.
Facing the ocean, near the Galvez, the San Luis Resort Spa & Conference Center offers much under one roof, with its five restaurants, three tennis courts, fancy boutique, spa and kids' recreation center. The island's most vast resort remains the Moody Gardens Hotel and Spa, attached to the theme park of the same name with its rain forest, aquarium and IMAX theater.
An ocean of seafood
Gaido's, arguably Galveston's most famous restaurant, also celebrates its centennial this year. Opened by S.J. Gaido in 1911, it was among the many offerings from Italian immigrants and was for decades the place for white-tablecloth dining and the site where many Texans tasted their first stuffed flounder, deviled crab and oysters Rockefeller. And, as I discovered on my recent visit, those very dishes remain the same today, and the waiters seem exactly the same, even if the patrons are far more casually dressed than in the past. Menu updates through the years include dishes like blackened mahi-mahi and bacon-wrapped, jalapeño-stuffed shrimp, but I like that there's a distinctly dated feel to Gaido's; a trip to the past can always be a kick.
The feel is a bit more formal at Rudy & Paco, a place to celebrate with martinis, really good wine and fancy food in the Strand district. Restored after taking on several feet of Hurricane Ike's surge, the beautiful destination feels very New Orleans in that Brennan's kind of way. Seafood is the star, but the owners have added a Central American flair with dishes such as shrimp, beef and chicken empanadas, ceviche and camarones parilla. Note that the regulars have their own wine lockers in the dining room.
The vibe couldn't be more casual than at Sonny's Place on 19th Street, a beloved dive and med-school hangout. Open more than 60 years, this is the best joint for fried oysters on a bun, gumbo and -- you have to ask, because it's not on the menu -- the oyster mug. Some locals guided me there, and I'm forever grateful for having encountered the most genius way to eat freshly shucked oysters: Perhaps a dozen chilled, plump oysters are crammed into a frosty mug and topped with cocktail sauce and a spoonful of horseradish. You squirt some lemon on top, then dig your fork way down and come up with an oyster, some sauce and horseradish, spread that on your salted cracker and shove the works in your mouth. It's heaven.
For breakfast and a dose of local color, I enjoyed the Mod Coffeehouse on the Strand. The dreadlocked barista made me a perfect latte and described with passionate detail the fresh scones (the spinach-feta version was a winner), which I took to a quiet table for reading free local publications that led me to a cool class at The Yoga Haven.
Tree sculptures, otters and more
One of the tragedies Ike delivered was the destruction of Galveston's beautiful tree canopy. Thousands of live oaks -- many of them planted after the 1900 hurricane -- were either uprooted or destroyed in the saltwater soak. But in the following months, Galveston artists found a way to turn mountains of dead trees into brilliant creations. Dozens of the century-old oaks are now remarkable sculptures that have become a tourist attraction unto themselves. As I drove along the residential ends of streets like Sealy, Ball and 25th, I found tall wood carvings of pelicans, dolphins, mermaids, a giant owl, angels, a geisha and much more.
Also new for this year's visitors, Moody Gardens has just opened an all-new Rainforest Pyramid, thanks to a $25 million update. A treetop canopy walkway gives you a bird's-eye view of 1,000 species of exotic plants and animals, a new habitat for the endangered giant river otter and a look at free-roaming monkeys and tropical birds. At Moody Gardens' Palm Beach, enjoy a new wave pool, lazy river and giant tower slide.
For still more big waves, Schlitterbahn Galveston Island Waterpark welcomes you with its 32 attractions, including new-this-summer Shipwreck Harbor wave lagoon, which includes a 100,000-gallon pool of 3-foot waves and two new slides for kids.
History buffs will be excited to see the new addition to the Lone Star Flight Museum, the North American P-51 Mustang, thought to be the most effective fighter aircraft produced during World War II. And the Galveston Railroad Museum has finally reopened after Ike's damage, too.
Nighttime fun comes with Moody Gardens' Bands on the Sand concert series, starting Friday and continuing every Friday evening through August. Local bands get some love, and there are always fireworks afterward; tickets are just $10. Free entertainment is found on the first and second Saturday evening each month with Movie Nite on the Strand and Music Night on the Strand, respectively.
One of Galveston's biggest parties is the Juneteenth celebration, June 12-19. Commemorating the announcement of emancipation in 1865, this event was begun in Galveston and is celebrated far and wide today. The Galveston Island Juneteenth Coalition offers a parade, a picnic, prayer services, musicals, banquets and educational exhibits and demonstrations.
And I expect it will be stronger and more glorious than ever, much like Galveston Island itself.