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A Galveston Primer

Even in the new, the past is present

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Lindsay Schwartz

GALVESTON PAST AND PRESENT Lindsay Schwartz walks Babe’s Beach, the Galveston beach named for her sons’ great-grandfather, former state senator A.R. “Babe” Schwartz. (Photo: Will van Overbeek)

We all used to go down to the beach in front of the Galvez hotel,” my mom, Phyllis Milstein, reminisces about growing up in mid-century Galveston. “We used to have ‘Splash Day,’ when the boys would cruise the beach, and the girls would cruise the beach, and all the Galveston and Houston kids would meet our friends there. In front of the Galvez was the place to see and be seen!”

What goes around Galveston comes around: after a long decline, the newly restored (and renamed) Grand Galvez hotel signifies an island renewal. Its exterior pretty in Palm Beach pink, and its interior decked in Baccarat chandeliers, marble floors, and wicker chairs for lounging and people-watching, the Grand Galvez offers a luxurious view to Galveston’s storied past. Once again, it is destined to become a “place to see and be seen” for new generations.

And while there is lots new going on, we can still take a deep breath crossing the causeway, looking forward to a little reduction in blood pressure. Because what’s old is new again, but the past is always present.

That will be especially true the weekend of April 13, when the Tall Ships Challenge festival comes to Galveston’s Harborside. A fleet of tall ships (large, traditionally-rigged sailboats with multiple masts and sails) will sail along the Gulf Coast, stopping in three ports: Galveston, St. Petersburg, Fla., and Pensacola, Fla. Galveston’s own 1877 Elissa – the Official Tall Ship of Texas, a National Historic Landmark, and one of only three ships of her kind in the world to still sail actively – is one of the six majestic ships participating. Go for tours of the tall ships, sailing excursions, interactions with crews, and lots of music, food, and maritime-themed events. And don’t miss Thursday’s Parade of Sail along the Seawall, as the tall ships sail their way along the Gulf Coast into port. Find more information and tickets here.

Later in the season, on June 10, the World Ocean Day Festival brings kayaking, beach tours, and interactive exhibits for all ages hosted by Moody Gardens, Turtle Island Restoration Network, The American Bird Conservancy and Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, Galveston Arts Center, and more. Prepare to view and vote: there’s a Beautify the Bucket trash can-decorating contest and a Marine Debris Art Contest, with winners determined by visitors’ votes. Go to artistboat.org for details.

Juneteenth, or June 19, commemorates the day in 1865 when 250,000 Black Texas slaves were freed following an order issued in Galveston. The Island is home to the first historically African American secondary school and public library in Texas. Learn more on a self-guided tour of Galveston’s Black institutions and monuments celebrating Black accomplishments. Find details here.

Then on August 12 and 13, the Houston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) holds its 36th annual Sandcastle Competition. This isn’t light competition. Architects spend months devising plans for intricate sand structures that they will build on East Beach for five intense hours Saturday morning, working to win the Golden Bucket Award. They’ll be judged on originality of concept, artistic execution, technical difficulty, carving technique, and utilization of the site. In addition to the Golden Bucket, competitors vie for awards in categories including Traditional Castle, Houston-centric, World History, Greatest Feat of Structural Ingenuity, and more. Spectators are invited to view the competition, one of the world’s largest sandcastle competitions, and even take hands-on sandcastle building lessons as they stroll the beach. Visit aiahouston.org for more information.

If you aren’t free to visit the Island during these special weekends, don’t fret. Galveston beaches – 32 miles of them – are always open, and are entertainment in themselves. Phyllis’ advice is to go shelling on East Beach. “Drive down onto the sand to the very eastern tip,” she says. “There are always great shells there.” Rent umbrellas and chairs at the beaches along the Seawall and make a morning of it.

“When I was a child, my mother and daddy took me to swim in the lagoon, which is the pocket of water at the very end of the east Seawall before you get down to the beach. You can fish off the sand down there and sit and watch all the ships going into the Houston Ship Channel.” That lagoon is now East End Lagoon Nature Park and Preserve and is one of Galveston’s largest undeveloped areas at almost 700 acres. You’ll see walking trails as well as coastal prairie, wetlands, and wildlife including many species of birds you won’t see in the city. Learn more here and sign up for free guided nature walks here.

One more tip for your beach day: “You have to have your shovels and pails and sand molds for making castles, and then take wet sand and dribble it over the top of your castles,” Phyllis says. Maybe not Golden Bucket Award material, but the memories made will make up for that.

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