Beautiful Spring Weather Sends Out the Invitation for a Gulf Coast Day Trip

Pleasure Pier is being constructed at the location of the Hurricane Ike-damaged Flagship Hotel.

Finally, I have a few–and I would say, “well-deserved”–days off.  It’s not really enough time to go on any major vacation, and really, with this great, spring weather, I’m just happy to putter in the garden, catch up on some much-needed tasks around the house, and just kick back a little.

Yesterday, my niece, her husband, and I headed out to one of our favorite day-trip destinations–Galveston.  Though it’s just about an hour’s drive down I-45, Galveston’s old port city flavor and the wide-open waters of the Gulf of Mexico always make for a fun time.  Less than 4 years has passed since Hurricane Ike inflicted major destruction upon the island city and the surrounding coast and even further inland;  however, little evidence of Ike remains, and at lunchtime, mid-week, vehicles buzzed along Seawall Boulevard, a surprising number of sunworshipers dotted the beaches, and a good crowd of other diners had decided upon Fish Tales as had we.  From our breezy spot on the upper deck, we could watch the construction of the new amusement complex, Pleasure Pier, where the Ike-damaged Flagship Hotel had once stood.

Bolivar Ferry is part of S.H. 87, connecting Galveston Island to the Bolivar Peninsula.

Though the sky was cloudless, the northern breeze crossing the restaurant deck had raised goose-bumps, so we were glad to escape to the sun-heated car (not something we’re usually glad to do most months in southeast Texas) and decided upon another of our favorite “to-do’s” when in Galveston–ride the Bolivar Ferry.  Actually a part of the Texas state highway department, this fleet of car-carrying ferries crosses the mouth of Galveston Bay and connects the east end of Galveston Island to the Bolivar Penisula.  You can get out of your car and have a great vantage point to see all kinds of boats, landmarks, and wildlife.  On this particular day, I couldn’t help but notice the intimate juxtaposition of the gulf coast’s naturaleza (I like that word in Spanish better than just “nature” in English) with the petro-chemical complexes of the area.  As part of the state highways, the ferry is free to ride, and those who just want the enjoyment of the ride can park their cars, walk on board, and make their own polical–or non-political–observations.

Once more on solid land, we headed down S.H. 87, which scoots merely yards from the rolling gulf surf.  I was particularly amazed at the great number of new beach houses that have been built since Ike tore up this peninsula.  Though raised high on tall piers, I couldn’t help but think that these summer getaway houses would be like tinkertoys if another hurricane were to make its path across the peninsula.

Smith Oaks Sanctuary's Rookery and other areas are filled with roseate spoonbills, cormorants, egrets and other birds.

The paved beach highway comes to an end just south of the small town of High Island, and unless you decide to turn around and go back to the ferry and return to Galveston, you go north and after about 20 miles, hit Winnie, where I-10 will take you back west to Houston, or east and

This web-footed neotropical cormorant perches on narrow branch.

onto Beaumont, then Louisiana.  However, we drove into High Island, which sits on raised area about 1/2 mile from the coast.  In High Island, my niece and her husband took me to one of those places that truly surprise you upon discovering them.  Smith Oaks Sanctuary was once a farm, which belongs to the Houston Audobon Society.  I had never been there before, so rather than write what I have since found out, I suggest that you read about this wonderful place here.   Whether you are and avid birder or just enjoy nature and wildlife, Smith Oaks, though off the beaten path, was for us a great desitination for a day trip from Houston.

A great egret protects its nest while two roseate spoonbills roost nearby.

A rose-breasted grosbeak munches on a mulberry.

A scarlet tanager chooses its next mulberry

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A Glimpse of Galveston Almost Two Years after Hurricane Ike

Balveston Seawall and beach after a shower on a Thursday afternoon.

An old post indicates that it had been more than a year since the last time I went to Galveston.  Today I took another road trip, heading down to the coast, just to enjoy the day.  On the drive down, the skies were mostly cloudy with enough of a shower here and there to get the wipers going.

Just when I got to the causeway (the bridge that connects Galveston Island with the Texas mainland), it really started to pour, and I thought I might just have to turn around and head back home.  However, when I got to 61st St. and turned to go over to the seawall, the rain gave up, and it was just overcast the rest of the time.

If you’re really looking, there’s still some evidence of the havoc Ike wreaked upon Galveston.  There are still a few restaurants and shops at the far end of Seawall Blvd. that never re-opened and look rough on the outside.  The Flagship Hotel, which sits on piers out over the water, has the same gaping hole and looks much the same as the last time I was there.  However, for the most part, the businesses appear to be back to about the same as in the pre-Ike days.  In fact, there are a few new hotels and shops, and a lot of the old ones have spruced up.

There were a lot of people enjoying the beaches near the San Luis Hotel, but the numbers began to dwindle very quickly not far down.  It was, however, a Thursday, and had just rained.

Murdoch's, restaurant and souvenir shop, rebuilt after Hurricane Ike.

Four-wheeling alongside the waves.

Nobody to save on this lazy afternoon

Flagship Hotel, a bit desolate and glum.

A new hotel nearing completion, just about one block from the Flagship.

Some new construction mixed in with the older houses just a block or so in from the beach.

A Glimpse of Galveston 10 Months After Hurricane Ike

The Galveston Seawall, built to protect the city from hurricanes

The Galveston Seawall, built to protect the city from hurricanes

Hurricane Ike hit on September 13, 2008, just a little more than 10 months ago. Preparing for the storm to come through Houston, going through the dramatic ordeal first-hand, and waiting for life to return to normal afterward are experiences I won’t forget.

But in these past 10 months, I haven’t gone to the coast, where the worst of Ike’s fury was felt.

I’m not a beach person, except for walks in cooler weather, but a day trip to Galveston has always proved a good diversion, whether for a jaunt through a few antique shops or a leisurely lunch at some seafood restaurant.

I knew that the worst of Ike’s devastation had been on the part of Galveston Island which is unprotected by the seawall and along Bolivar Peninsula, a short ferry ride to the east. I had seen news footage and photos of lot after lot, where homes had been completely washed away.

I had heard that the Galveston Seawall, built in the very early 1900s, after the 1900 hurricane, had protected most of the original part of the city from the horrific damage from which other areas had suffered, but I also knew that much of the city had been covered by water and getting the brunt of the Category 2 winds head on had to have had some effect.

So when I started heading down Broadway, which is what I-45 becomes after it passes over the Galveston Causeway, I was surprised that most everything looked the same as the last time I had been there. Galveston, though a popular spot for vacationers, has never really been much glass and glitter. Broadway has a lot of fast food restaurants, local seafood and Mexican places, and antique and thrift stores. Many had new roofs, but, otherwise, there weren’t many changes.

Nonetheless, a couple of things caught my eye. The most obvious is the price of gas is about 25 cents less in Galveston than even the cheapest stations in Houston. The second difference took me a moment longer to notice. Looking down the streets, something made me think of winter. Then I realized what was so strange. Most of the hardwood trees, the majority of which are Live Oaks, are dead. The streets and boulevards of Galveston are lined with these old majestic oak trees, and it appears that only about 5% are still alive. It must have been the salt water covering the land that killed them. It makes the city streets look bleak, all these big, old trees without leaves. I suppose they will have to be cut down, then how bleak will everything look?

I spent a little while along the seawall. Most activities appear back to normal, at least to my eye. Surf shops selling the requisite T-shirts and other touristy items are open, restaurants with outside decks spill over with customers, and bathing suit-clad vacationers stream in and out of the hotels and motels, many of which look completely refurbished. Yet, there is evidence of the storm: metal railings grotesquely twisted lead down from the seawall to the beach, and only rough pilings remain from the once notorious Balinese Room, other restaurants, and fishing piers that jutted out over the beach and water before Ike hit. Likewise, the Flagship Hotel, built upon concrete pilings out over the water stands damaged and forlorn, probably never to re-open. But there is also new construction, evidence that there is money to be made from those who come for a day at the beach, those who want an uncomplicated getaway, and those who just want a pleasant meal next to the rolling waves.

The Flagship Hotel, once a popular destination, now sits damaged and empty.

The Flagship Hotel, once a popular destination, now sits damaged and empty.

A pelican sits on a piling of a washed-away pier.

A pelican rests on a piling of a washed-away pier.

Construction of new buildings over the beach next to the seawall.

Construction of new buildings over the beach next to the seawall.

Miller's Landing Seafood Restaurant, re-adorned in Victorian style after Hurrican Ike.

Miller's Landing Seafood Restaurant, re-adorned in Victorian style after Hurricane Ike.