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Galveston Is a Tourist Hot Spot Once Again

I met Fish Hook by the Galveston Channel on a breezy evening earlier this year. As he sipped an Icehouse tallboy and fiddled with a cigarette he had yet to light, I asked him how he had ended up here.

“I was running from the Feds,” he said, a floppy bucket hat with a skull-and-crossbones patch slightly obscuring his tanned face. He said he’d grown up on a dairy farm about eighty miles northeast of Dallas, in Sulphur Springs, but around twenty years ago he fell in with the wrong crowd, the kind that ultimately leads a young man to throw away his cellphone, change his name, and head to a part of the state where folks disappear.

Fish Hook (who told me his real name was James Crider) now works as a commercial fisherman, and when he’s in port, he lives in his GMC Yukon SUV with his dog. “I love the deep water,” he said with a sigh as he stared out at the muddy channel glittering with moonlight. His job suits him, he said—“I don’t tell people this, but I’d pay to do it.”

Galveston is a nineteenth-century boomtown that turned into a low-key getaway, a place where palm trees swish beside Victorian mansions, where mobsters and oil tycoons and Frank Sinatra came to have a good time. It lies less than an hour southeast of Houston but feels like an alternate universe.

An island, a port city in the libertine mold of New Orleans, a place haunted by tragedy and filled with riches. For much of the past fifty years, Galveston languished as a place to go when you couldn’t afford a real vacation—to California, to Cancún, to Destin. But the city of more than 52,000 is on the rise again, thanks to robust development, lavishly renovated hotels, towering cruise ships that leave from a low-slung port, old money, and fresh ideas. Galveston is undergoing a transformation, one of many in its long history.

Fish Hook and I were standing in the parking lot of Katie’s Seafood House, which overlooks boats docked along the channel. The previous afternoon I’d eaten nearby at Fisherman’s Wharf, a Texas-size complex of deep-fried anything that felt like stepping back into the eighties. But Katie’s (4.5 stars on Yelp) serves grouper and red snapper and oysters fresh from the ocean in a soothing white-and-yellow interior that reminded me of a fish shack I once visited in the Hamptons. “That place is good,” Fish Hook said of Katie’s, though he’s never actually eaten there (too expensive). The restaurant buys seafood from his boat, and years in the fish trade have given him a sixth sense. 

He prepped his own dinner as we chatted. “I found some pineapple washed up and paired it with banana vodka,” he said, which didn’t make sense to me until he clarified that he’d found the fruit lying in the sand. He pointed to a beach-rat banquet in the trunk of his SUV: pineapple chunks and stuffed jalapeños and Gulf shrimp ready for the grill on wooden skewers. He’d planned to cook it over a bonfire in the parking lot, but after the cops shut down that plan, he was heading to the kitchen on the boat. Prison is where he got the name Fish Hook, by the way, because he has a hook lodged in one nipple. I was so surprised by this detail that I forgot to ask how it happened. 

Fish Hook is a quintessential Galvestonian, or at least a certain kind of Galveston character. Part outlaw, part hustler, part tender soul. I thought of him after we said goodbye. The city is a strange mix of beauty and devastation, cynicism and hope. More than anything, it seems to live outside convention. There’s a sweet resiliency, born perhaps of living under the constant threat of  hurricanes. As Fish Hook put it, “When life gives you lemons, I make vodka.”

Galveston is almost three hundred miles from my home in Dallas, though it always seemed farther. My family visited the port city once when I was a kid; the only detail I remember is camping beside loud motorcyclists, and though this seems unlikely, I remember them as Hells Angels. When I was in college, friends from Houston spun tales of playing on beaches covered with tar balls, which is why we headed to South Padre Island for spring break. 

Galveston has been explored in song (a classic Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell collaboration) and in books (Gary Cartwright, Erik Larson, Nic Pizzolatto, Sarah Bird), but in real life, the island long had a reputation for lame beaches and lamer shot bars. Then, about four years ago, I noticed a shift. Galveston was becoming an actual desired destination. Airbnbs sprang up along the water and throughout inland neighborhoods, and then came news that a Dallas hotelier was restoring the once fabled Hotel Galvez to its Jazz Age glory.

Foodie spots like Sugar & Rye and Fish Company Taco disrupted the city’s reputation for mediocre grub. The past decade has seen the port develop into a major cruise hub, with more than 350 departures scheduled for 2023. By the time Royal Caribbean debuted a $125 million terminal last November and brought in the eighteen-deck Allure of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship to sail from Texas, I knew it was time to meet Galveston again.

Traveling down the long causeway linking mainland to island doesn’t make for the most promising introduction. Rusty silos and empty lots give a whiff of industrial despair. But it takes only ten minutes driving east on the island to reach the heart of downtown known as the Strand. The district’s ornate nineteenth-century buildings recall the time when the area was known as the Wall Street of the South because it was home to the state’s five largest banks as well as a bustling retail scene in what was then a booming port city.

Now it’s a tourist district with a spring-break-for-families vibe. It was the Sunday before Mardi Gras, and slinky women in bikini tops shared the sidewalk with dowdy middle-aged couples. Most visitors were draped in shiny strands of purple, gold, and green beads. It was hard to believe this party place was the site of the worst natural disaster in our country’s history: the 1900 hurricane that walloped Galveston’s future and took at least six thousand lives. “Many bodies were buried where they were found,” writes historian Kathleen Maca in her 2016 book Ghosts of Galveston, “which means that almost any portion of ground walked on today might be a grave.” 

I met Maca at the Galveston Railroad Museum, just off the Strand. We sat in a vintage club car decorated in swanky midcentury furniture. It’s available as a vacation rental. Maca, who is 62 and grew up in Houston, has written four books about the island. Flyers for haunted pub crawls and paranormal excursions are scattered at nearly every establishment across the city, but Maca’s depth of knowledge makes her tours of the Strand and the local cemeteries a coveted ticket. 

The museum has an enormous rail yard where you can wander around old trains filled with period detail, including a private car used in the fifties and sixties by The Honeymooners’ Jackie Gleason, who was afraid of flying (it’s also available as a vacation rental). But sad stories haunt the lines. The rail yard is close to the pier used by Atlantic slave traders, including Jean Lafitte and his pirates. 

“For a small island, there’s endless history,” Maca said. The Karankawa tribe lived in the area for hundreds of years but had been exiled by the 1850s. After the 1900 storm, mobsters arrived in Galveston, running the lawless Balinese Room, where the Rat Pack—Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.—rubbed elbows with crime bosses Sam and Rosario Maceo. And of course there were the brothels.

The Texas Rangers shut down Galveston’s hedonic treadmill in the 1950s. Decades of urban decay followed: a place that once rivaled Houston as Texas’s most vital city became something like Houston’s largest suburb. Then, in the eighties, fracking pioneer George P. Mitchell, who also founded the Woodlands, poured millions into downtown, making the Strand tourist-friendly again.

Galveston is a relatively small town, but more than seven million visitors stream through each year. The result is a parade of pleasure-seekers dancing on the bones of real pain. But the island has an extra dose of spooky; its lore lurks in the salt air and pretty gingerbread houses. I confess I jumped at every creak in my Airbnb, one of four in a row near the water. One morning, I got to chatting with my neighbor, a man from Houston, as he smoked a cigarette before heading out on a cruise with his wife and three granddaughters.

“Where to?” I asked.

“I don’t know actually,” he answered with a laugh, and took a long drag. To be fair, it was only 7 a.m. “I think Cozumel,” he said, and put out his butt in a sand-filled flowerpot.

“I moved here during the pandemic,” said a 21-year-old strawberry blonde named Anika Matthiessen, who was wearing cute tortoiseshell glasses as she rang up the silky wrap dress I bought at Ha.Ba’s, a boutique on a trendy stretch of Postoffice Street, near the Strand. “A lot of people who grew up here don’t appreciate this place, but I do,” she told me.

A place that’s affordable, close to the water, and an hour from a major airport—what’s not to like? But popularity spikes prices and property taxes, and when Matthiessen’s mom followed her daughter to Galveston, she struggled to find reasonable housing amid the booming vacation rentals. Nearly a fifth of all properties are being run as Airbnbs, Vrbos, or similar.

According to the most recent numbers available, hotel revenue reached record levels in 2021, growing by 55.88 percent from the previous pandemic year. The renovation of the seawall’s Galvez, which started in 2021, transformed a faded seaside curiosity into something out of The Great Gatsby. The recently refurbished Tremont House, in downtown, has a more intimate opulence. And the city has a new boutique hotel option in the Hotel Lucine, on the site of the former Treasure Isle Motel on the seawall; it is scheduled to open in July. 

“Galveston is the beginning of the road or the end of the road, depending on how you look at it,” said Keath Jacoby, who owns the Lucine with her husband, Dave, and another partner. She was born on the island (“BOI,” in local slang), though she shipped off as a young woman to New York City, where she worked in marketing. She moved back in 2016 and, at forty, has the glamorous air of a world traveler, though on the morning I met her and Dave for breakfast at Mosquito Cafe, a beloved local hangout, she was appealingly down-home (and visibly pregnant) in denim overalls and a black turtleneck.

Dave, who was raised in Philadelphia, worked in the hotel industry in Las Vegas before moving to Galveston with Keath. It wasn’t the smoothest transition. “I kept complaining about all the things this place didn’t have,” said 41-year-old Dave, who was wearing a faded denim snap shirt. “The hotels are bad; the food is bad. And then it hit me: we’re going to have to open the spot where we can hang out.” 

Lucine’s main restaurant is the Fancy, which is billed as “fine-ish dining,” a combination of French cuisine and local ingredients. Though the 61-room property was under construction when I visited, the floor plans gave me a Mad Men giddiness. The Jacobys are the kind of innovative and driven younger residents that cities on the verge want to lure, but the surge in vacation rentals hasn’t been so good for locals.

“We’ve lost a lot of families,” Keath told me. “We’re losing the next generation.” Through much of the previous century, the island was a blue-collar town, where academics from Texas A&M University at Galveston and doctors at the University of Texas Medical Branch lived alongside fishermen. But such middle-class ease is gone. 

“The problem with the resurgence is that it pushes out the people who make the city work,” said Dave. When I told Dave about Fish Hook living in his SUV, he told me about a guy near the hotel who sleeps in his Lexus.

On another morning, I walked down to a bit of beach near the seawall, a shallow stretch of hard-packed sand scattered with small, pale shells. A woman posed for a photo while standing in the cool surf. Behind her was the Ferris wheel of the Pleasure Pier, a boardwalk amusement park opened in 2012 by restaurant billionaire and Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta (a Galveston native) that brought a touch of Santa Monica razzle-dazzle to the Gulf Coast. 

The water was so serene it was hard to believe it could ever turn tumultuous. I took the ferry out to Bolivar Peninsula, another long, thin finger of sand lined with endless colorful cottages. On the way back I stood on the stern, watching the white churn, listening to the flag thwacking in the breeze. Kids were feeding the seagulls, who squawked and hovered, swooping in, swooping out. The distant oil refineries on the mainland rose across the water like a miniature skyline. Maybe not paradise, but some place entirely its own.

Source: texasmonthly