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Galveston's rising tide

Texas tourist haven bounces back from Hurricane Ike

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Surfers prepare to take to the Gulf of Mexico in Galveston.

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Surfers prepare to take to the Gulf of Mexico in Galveston.

In 2008, Hurricane Ike wreaked havoc on the Texas island city of Galveston. Among the casualties of high winds and flooding were thousands of trees, including the majestic oaks that had formed leafy canopies along the streets of the city's historic district.

But what has emerged from the stumps and broken trunks of those trees speaks to the sense of renewal in Galveston, about a 45-minute drive south of Houston, and the ability of its residents to rebuild after the periodic storms that dominate its history and infuse every part of its culture.

Beautiful sculptures of birds, animals, even the Wizard of Oz's Tin Man, carved out of the remaining trunks dot the front lawns of the historic homes. Pamela Petty of Galveston Island Tours says the tree sculptures demonstrate the resilience of residents who have always lived with the prospect of devastation from the seas.

"Suddenly those canopies of 100-year old oaks were gone," says Petty. "It's completely changed the look of the district."

Many of these houses survived not only Ike, but also The Great Storm of 1900 that killed more than 8,000 people (and was so memorably described in Erik Larson's 2000 bestseller Isaac's Storm); and 1961's Hurricane Carla that spawned a tornado across Galveston Island, killing eight people, injuring 55 and damaging 200 buildings, destroying at least 60.

As they always do, the people of Galveston rallied after Ike.

"Most people just re-built," says Christine Hopkins, director of communications for Hotel Galvez & Spa and its sister hotels The Tremont House and Harbor House. "We didn't really ask for a lot of help. Texas just got after it," says the native islander (referred to locally as BOI or Born on Island).

Visitors can take in the sculptures, many created by Galveston artist Earl Jones, Houston's Jim Phillips and Dayle Lewis of Richmond, Ind., on a free self-guided tour or via electric shuttle bus with Galveston Island Tours.

Nearby is one of the more eccentric buildings in the city, Bishop's House, a "chateau-esque" mansion built of granite, limestone and sandstone and lined inside with exquisite woods from around the world.

Downtown Galveston, meanwhile, is home to restaurants, galleries, shops, a harbour tour where you'll likely spot dolphins and the cruise ship terminal. Since 2010, Galveston has welcomed five new cruise ships to its port, including the Disney Magic, Crown Princess, Carnival Magic, Carnival Triumph and Royal Caribbean's Mariners of the Seas.

The massive cruise ships are quite a sight, dwarfing the modest-sized buildings nearby, and are in sharp contrast to the restored Elissa tall ship, docked at The Texas Seaport Museum.

Downtown is also central to Mardi Gras. Galveston has the nation's third largest celebration after New Orleans and Mobile, Ala.

The island has a sultry southern coast feel with seafood restaurants dotting the Main Street along the seawall. Locals walk and run on the beach below the seawall in the early mornings, often bringing their dogs, as the sun rises over the gulf and early-bird surfers take to the waves.

After the 1900 hurricane, Galveston Island spent decades building and extending an impressive five-metre-tall, 16-kilometre long seawall that successfully kept Ike at bay from the front, but couldn't prevent a huge storm surge sneaking in the back through the harbour.

Many buildings display high-water marks nearing three metres from the storm five years ago this September.

Rising up along the seawall is the Hotel Galvez (built in 1911; watch out for the ghost in Room 501!), owned by members of the Mitchell family who, since the 1970s, have poured millions of dollars into not only their hotels in town, but also other projects along the seawall and downtown. A downstairs Hall of History, open to the public, reflects a hotel history that mirrors the island itself.

Gaido's Seafood, celebrating its 102nd anniversary this year, is one of the city's oldest eateries. During a recent visit, snapper and flounder were in season, and the family-owned establishment was happily cooking it up eight different ways and serving it with delicious crawfish and oysters. The restaurant's pecan pie has been named best in the state by Texas Monthly for several years.

Since 2011, more than $100 million has been invested on the island to develop new and improved tourist attractions, including the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier amusement park, which juts into the gulf.

Two other highlights include Moody Gardens, a combination zoo, botanical gardens, museum and waterslide park that includes a penguin exhibit where group or individual visits with a penguin are on offer for a fee; and the Lone-Star Flight Museum where visitors can see (and even fly in) restored Second World War aircraft including a B17 bomber.

With events and festivals filling the calendar year-round, great beaches in and just out of town, historic tours and great food and drink, Galveston is a year-round destination. But you'll find bargains if you come out of peak season (from U.S. Memorial Day -- the final Monday in May -- to Labour Day) when rates soar along with the temperatures.

The summer of 2012 drew a record number of tourists to Galveston and the island was recognized as one of the Top 10 family vacations of 2013 by Family Vacation Critic and one of the Top 5 Best Gulf Coast Beaches by Travel Channel.

"There's never a dull moment," says Hopkins. "There's always something going on. I was born and raised here and I really enjoy being a tourist in my own town."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 D1

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