I was born the day Gemini VII launched, so I grew up at a time when fascination with the space program was at its peak. I had Major Matt Mason toys and I watched every Apollo mission on TV. So, when we decided to spend the winter in Galveston, Texas— only about 40 miles from Space Center Houston— I knew there was one place we had to visit.
Space Center Houston is a large complex that has been the home of manned space flight mission control since the Gemini program. They offer a tour of the newly renovated Apollo Mission Control, a tour to see a Saturn V rocket up close and a very good museum devoted to manned spaceflight. Unfortunately, because of Covid 19, visitors are not allowed in the building to visit Mission Control. That’s because there are active missions underway and the ground crew need to be protected. It just means I’ll have to visit again in the future. I was disappointed not to see Mission Control, but there are still so many things to see and do that it was a full day.
The different Space Centers around the country reflect the different parts they played in the Space Program, which means they are unique and each is worth a visit. If you get hungry while visiting Space Center Houston, my recommendation is to skip the food at the Space Center and drive a short distance down the road to Frenchie’s Italian Restaurant to eat where the astronauts eat. The food is excellent and the walls are covered with Nasa memorabilia.
At the end of November, as cold weather was beginning to take hold of Tennessee, we headed south to Galveston to take part in the Xscapers Winter Basecamp. Hoping to avoid cold weather and meet other full time travelers like us. We connected with a bunch of travelers and had a wonderful time getting to know them and while the weather wasn’t perfect, we had plenty of beautiful days to explore and learn that Galveston has a lot to offer.
Galveston Island has a long and colorful history that begins when pirates built the first permanent structures on the island. It was the capitol of the Republic of Texas, and a major port city. Then it was almost completely destroyed by a hurricane in 1900, only to be reborn as a paradise of drinking and gambling during Prohibition. All of these layers of history make Galveston Island, and the city of Galveston, on the island’s eastern end, an interesting place to visit even if it didn’t also have the long stretch of beach along the Gulf Coast.
You get to Galveston by driving across the causeway from Texas City, or you can arrive by ferry from the Bolivar Peninsula, a route on and off the island that avoids Houston traffic. Once on the island you’ll find the city is laid out in a grid with numbered streets running north to south and named streets running east to west which makes it very easy to navigate.
The downtown includes Galveston Seaport and The Strand Historic District. Named for Strand Street, the district includes a large swath of the city. There are lots of shops to explore and restaurants to try. Since we don’t have room for anything we avoided going into a lot of the shops, but, we were tempted in by The Kitchen Chick, on Market Street, which features a really well curated collection of gourmet kitchen gadgets, olive oils and vinegars. I had to exercise real self control but I did leave with a little something. The other place we were tempted to visit is La King’s Confectionery. The store began in Houston in 1927, then moved to Galveston in the 70’s to recreate an old fashioned confectionery. They make about fifty different candies from old time recipes from salt water taffy to hand dipped chocolates and the store features a 1920’s soda fountain as well. It was hard to choose, but we left with several chocolate candies including rum cordials and chocolate covered peanut butter caramel cups. These were not your typical peanut butter cups, either. They had a layer of peanut butter covered with a layer of buttery caramel surrounded by a layer of chocolate.
A few blocks away on Market Street is Maceo Spice and Import Company. The store features jars of just about every herb and spice, plus a number of spice blends to go with local seafood, barbecue or brisket (this IS Texas, after all). The rest of the store features Italian food staples from pasta and sauce (including their own excellent tomato gravy) to pannatone and good olive oil. At the back of the store is a deli counter where you can order lunch to go or to eat at one of the tables outside. If you want a good muffuletta, this is the place to go.
The historic district includes a neighborhood of gorgeous Victorian houses with lots of tropical flair, survivors of the 1900 Hurricane that devastated the island. Since it was Christmas time, many of the houses were dressed up for a Christmas decorating contest. It’s well worth your time to wander the tree-lined streets. Wandering the neighborhood is also a great way to spend your time as you wait for a table at one of the many restaurants.
It’s short walk from the Strand to the Seaport where you will find the Ocean Star Drilling Rig and Museum. If you’ve ever been curious how a drilling rig operates, this museum is worth a visit. There is an indoor museum to help orient you before you go outside to walk the decks and look at all the heavy equipment up close. Much of the museum, though, is an advertisement for the oil industry.
On the Gulf side of the island are the beaches and the famed Seawall built to better protect the city after the 1900 hurricane. Here you’ll find the beach town vibe with lots of gift shops, restaurants, bars and hotels. Standing amid the garish newcomers is the Hotel Galvez and Spa which has been facing the Gulf since 1911. Just a short walk down the Seawall is Pleasure Pier (pictured at the start of this article), an amusement park on a pier extending into the Gulf. The Seawall is worth a visit to stroll along or to ride your bike, though there is no guard rail to keep you from falling on to the beach. It’s great for an early morning stroll to watch sunrise over the gulf, or to watch lights come on on the piers as daylight fades into night at sunset.
Driving west on San Luis Pass Road soon takes you out of the city and you find yourself surrounded by bright colored beach houses for several miles until you cross through the Galveston Island State Park which covers the island from the Gulf beach to Galveston Bay. Beyond the state park is the town of Jamaica Beach which has churches, a police and fire station and several stores. Beyond the town there are clusters of beach houses along both sides of the road all the way to the end of the island. On the bay side of the island there are some very nice residential communities with boat access to the bay.
Galveston island offers quite a few RV campgrounds. Sandpiper RV Resort at Stewart Beach is the closest to The Strand area, but is little more than a parking lot for RV’s. On the west end of the Seawall is Dellanera RV Park which is a small campground located right on the beach. If you want to see the ocean from your RV, this is the place to stay. Next is Stella Mare RV Resort a large campground across the road from the beach. Jamaica Beach RV Resort is a very busy campground that offers a lot of amenities including a mini golf course. The last one is Galveston Island RV Resort where we stayed. It’s the furthest west on the island which has the advantage of being far from the noise of town. I will have more to say about them in a future post. Spoiler alert: we loved it.
Galveston Island may not have tropical weather— most days were in the 60’s and there were a few cold and rainy days—but it still has a lot to offer for a winter stay. The city is home to UTMB hospital complex for any medical needs, there is a Home Depot, Target, Kroger and most other stores you might need. Anything you can’t find on the island is just across the causeway in the Houston area. After two months we only scratched the surface. We skipped many of the museums and the Moody Gardens because of Covid 19 activity in the area. But, we will be back to explore more.