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SPECIAL CRUISE ISSUE: GALVESTON

Two-step into Texas history

Pirates, hurricanes, booms and busts: Nothing keeps this Gulf Coast city down for long. Explore its rich history, characters and seafood.

January 28, 2007|Shermakaye Bass | Special to The Times

Galveston, Texas — GALVESTON is a survivor's town, sort of the unsinkable Molly Brown of the Texas Gulf Coast.

It has weathered catastrophic hurricanes (especially in 1900), pirate colonies and financial booms and busts.

Right now, Galveston is sailing high economic seas, largely because of its cruise business, which was launched with a single ship in 2000 (Carnival's Celebration) and has since lured Royal Caribbean, Princess and Celebrity.

Which is fitting. The island city's soul has always been sea commerce of some sort.

Jean Lafitte, the renowned buccaneer, started the first permanent settlement on Galveston Island (then called Campeche) in 1817. His followers numbered about 1,000, and when they weren't pillaging, they were playing in the settlement's pool halls and gambling houses.

Lafitte and his ragtag band decamped in 1821. Fewer than 20 years later, Galveston was incorporated and its thriving port earned it the nickname "Ellis Island of the West."

Galveston is still full of cultural non sequiturs and surprises. To wit: Within a dozen or so blocks of the city's lavish historic residential districts is one of the granddaddies of Texas dive bars, the Poop Deck.

Like any American port city, Galveston has areas you probably shouldn't explore on foot (primarily along western Seawall Boulevard and up the numbered streets from Seawall to Broadway), but in tourist areas such as the Strand, the East End Historical District and the port, walking is best. A trolley takes visitors from the Seawall to downtown.

There's no shortage of diversions, as I've learned on numerous trips here from my home in Austin. This time, my friend Caroline Duncan Tinkle and I returned to check out what a cruise passenger might be able to see in a short time. Most of the attractions revolve around historic architecture and preservation; port industry, culture and history; beaches and parks; birding and marine life; a clutch of arts centers, regional museums and, of course, the city's storied history.

If you arrive by early afternoon the day before your cruise leaves, you'll have time to take a self-guided tour of the "Broadway Beauties," three of the city's most illustrious and opulent homes: the 1886 Bishop's Palace, the 1859 Ashton Villa (it also houses the Heritage Visitors Center) and the extravagant 1895 Moody Mansion.

The 15-block stroll from one to the other will lead you past scores of stunners from the mid-19th to early-20th centuries. And if you have the legs for a longer excursion, take a self-guided walking tour of the East End district, where many homes predate the 1900 hurricane, which leveled much of the city. (Go to www.galveston.com/selfguidedtours/ or get a brochure at the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau office (23rd and Strand streets, [409] 797-5144, main office at 2027 61st St.). Although not concentrated in one area, other jewels include the Michel B. Menard Home, the 1830s Samuel May Williams Home and the 1847 Powhatan House.

Later, you may want to pop into the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe (413 20th St.; [409] 762-9199; cover charge varies), where the specialty is obviously acoustic, with a tendency toward folk. We peeked in, but the evening's entertainment hadn't started yet; instead, we had an after-dinner drink at the Poop Deck (30th Street and Seawall; [409] 763-9151).

Some revere the Poop and some fear it because of its hole-in-the-wall atmosphere. But on my many trips here, I've found nothing scary about this grungy bar on stilts, with its wide deck overlooking the gulf. Drinks (cash only) are cheap. If you stay awhile, as we did, you'll get into the spirit of things, and before long, you may find yourself singing sea chanteys with the locals.

Next day, we headed to the Strand, where most visitors hang out if they have only an afternoon. Clustered around Market and Post Office streets between 22nd and 26th streets are several antiques stores. They aren't the cheapest, but most boast high-quality items. Check out the Antique Warehouse (423 25th St., at Post Office Street; [409] 762-8620), which has two floors of architectural salvage, antique housewares and nice collectibles; also Vic's Estate & Fine Jewelry (2413 Market St.; [409] 762-5792) for interesting wearables; Andrea's Antiques & Collectibles (2215 Post Office St.; [409] 763-6295), a tight space but chock-full of days-past desirables; and La Maison Rouge (418 22nd St.; [409] 763-0717).

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