I hate to be in a car for more than 45 minutes, so even a weekend jaunt to Austin or New Orleans can be problematic. But desperately needing some time away from Houston to rest and recharge my batteries, a Galveston staycation recently started looking better and better.
Having grown up vacationing on the white sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama, I have never been attracted to the less-than-pristine conditions of Galveston Island. But in recent years, I've learned to appreciate its beach town vibe. Nothing beats the sounds of the surf.
But not having spent a weekend on the island for a while, I wondered if it would provide the restful getway I was looking for. It's nice to report it's just what I needed, with new accommodations for the well-heeled, a historic museum for just about everyone and varied food options — including homemade S'mores.
Bunking in style
I made a reservation at the San Luis Resort and, since it was a slow weekend, was upgraded to the new Villas at the San Luis. The small enclave, located at the foot of entrance to to the hotel, is the crown jewel of the Fertitta empire, and compares with anything that Las Vegas has to offer (except for gambling).
Rates are steep, around $1,200 a night, but it's definitely a nice splurge, particularly if you factor in that it takes no airfare to get there, which may serve to make the stay seem a little more reasonable.
Each of the five villas is luxurious, with big-screen TVs in just about every room — even in the oversized bathroom — and a sophisticated high-tech sound system throughout. The large living room has comfy sofas, the bedroom features pillow cases monogrammed with the guest's initials, and a king-sized bathroom has a shower with four spa-like jets, an oversized soaker tub and a bevy of Moulton Brown bath and beauty products.
Probably the biggest attraction of each villa is the private veranda with a 27-jet hot tub. With a private bartender on call nearby, bubbly and bubbly is a winning combination.
The communal swimming pool for guests of the villas is nifty too, where the bartender stays on duty to make sure drinks are filled. At night, Holly, who was the bartender on the weekend we were there, suggested we make S'mores over the fire pit and supplied all the fixin's — graham crackers and Hershey's chocolate along with marshmallows that we roasted over the open flames.
With such a delightful atmosphere, we could have easily stayed at the villas the entire weekend without venturing out. And, honestly, it was hard to tear ourselves away, but we figured we needed to check out some other new attractions on the island.
Museums, yoga and beer drinking
The new Bryan Museum is a must-see for anyone with a love of history and renovation. J.P. Bryan, an avid collector of Texas memorabilia, oversaw the meticulous renovation of the grand Gothic Revival building that formerly was the Galveston Orphans Home, turning it into a history museum that features 70,000 items spanning over 2,500 years of history.
Docents with a wealth of knowledge of Texas history lead regular tours, but if you're pressed for time, it's fun to explore the grand two-story building, basement and grounds on your own. Be sure to stop by the museum's newest attraction: A mind-boggling diorama depicting the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, which was the decisive battle in the Texas revolution. Designed, created and installed by King & Country, the world foremost maker of miniatures, it features more than 1,200 hand-painted soldiers.
Tucked away on a sleepy road far from the beach and most tourist haunts, Galveston Island Brewing seems more attuned to locals. The lawn in front on the Saturday we visited was filled with regulars at a noon yoga class, while the atmosphere at the bar in the warehouse building was laid back.
You can choose from six core brews, ranging from Tiki Wheat to Nightfall, with a touch of chocolate flavor, along with seasonal brews and some pub grub, like soft pretzels, cheesy nachos and Maceo's Famous Muffalatas. And if you want to see how the beer is made, there's a tour every Saturday at 1 pm.
Seafood — and lots of it
A big part of any staycation revolves around food and Galveston has a lot of offerings, although we experienced mixed results.
Gaidos is a favorite and since we hadn't been there for while, we decided it was time to return. Since the wait for a table was 45 minutes, we took a seat at the bar, with a direct view into the kitchen, which isn't always a good thing. As we waited for our food, we saw how most items stayed under a heat lamp for far too long before being delivered. My crab cake was lukewarm, so they made up another one, but it had precious little crab.
The seafood platter was listless and nothing about the evening was memorable except for our vivacious bartender, Hue, who kept us entertained with her expertise in drinkmaking and lively banter. Every restaurant has an off night, so we're hoping this was the case.
We had a much better dining experience the next night at Ocean Grille & Beach Bar. The casual restaurant on the Seawall, where the preferred mode of dress is shorts and a T-shirt, has plenty of outdoor dining, with a big outdoor patio, an incredible wine list and an enticing menu. Houston chef Randy Evans, formerly of Haven, has consulted on the menu and it has a sophisticated flair.
Our favorite was the Oysters LaSalle, which consisted of six oysters broiled with Applewood smoked bacon, crimini mushrooms and creamy parmesan spinach. We asked for extra bread to sop up every last ounce of the bubbly mix.
Pan seared blue crab cakes topped with tomato avocado salad served with Tabasco Mash remoulade were another winner, as was the Mixed Fry Basket, a new take on the traditional fried basket, with Ramen fried shrimp, yellow cornmeal crusted fried oysters and tempura fried fish served with crispy fries.
But perhaps most impressive was the manager. When we asked for horseradish and she discovered the restaurant was out, she went next door to Bennos, a friendly competitor. and borrowed some for us.
Before leaving Galveston the next day, we stopped by the Hotel Galvez for their famed Sunday brunch. Galveston's grand hotel offers an amazing buffet, with made-to-order pasta and omelets, a carving station with prime rib and Bourbon-glazed ham, a seafood station with oversized containers of cocktail shrimp, smoked salmon, crab claws and oysters, shrimp gumbo and a whole lot more — all served in the delightful surroundings of the lobby and ballroom.
Save room for dessert, with a table that stretches the length of a long room, filled with cakes, cobblers, bread pudding, ice cream and other sweets.
And the friendly waitstaff is quick to top off your glass of champagne, mimosas, red or white wine.
The cost is an exceedingly reasonable $39.99 for adults, $35.99 for seniors (60 or older), $25.99 children ages 6 -11. It's served on Sunday from 11 am to 2 pm. Be sure to make reservations.
Feeling fat and happy, we headed home. The nicest thing about our weekend: Even with road work on I-45, which necessitated finding a different — and much more interesting — route through Alvin and other small towns, we were back in Houston in a little more than an hour.