Now that we’ve taken a glance Downtown, let’s head on out to the highway (shameless Judas Priest plug), down the I-45 freeway (that bane of most Houstonian drivers), to Clear Lake, Kemah, and Galveston.
First up is Clear Lake, home to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA for us laypersons. Clear Lake is home to the Johnson Space Center, which houses Mission Control, Space Camp, and other divisions of NASA. Boeing and Lockheed-Martin also have sprawling facilities in Clear Lake. Because of these high tech industries such as Space Exploration, Oil, and Mining, Clear Lake has a high population of engineer level employees. Some notable residents of Clear Lake are WWE Hall of Famer Booker T, Princess Mary of Denmark, and Ellison Onizuka, one of the 7 astronauts on the ill-fated final launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
Clear Lake City, or a good portion of it, was developed on top of the former Clear Lake City STOLport (Short Takeoff/Landing), a private airfield run by Houston Metro Airlines, and was located on Highway 3, just South of Houston's Ellington Field (where you can see the Wings over Houston Airshow). The airline once ran up to 22 daily roundtrip flights between the STOLport and Houston's Intercontinental Airport, but shut down in 1993. The airfield was abandoned and now no trace of it remains in Clear Lake.
Aside from the Wings over Houston Airshow, other goings on in Clear Lake are the Bay Area Houston Ballet and Theatre Group's performances, as well as the Clear Lake Symphony's music. The annual Ballunar Festival takes place for the hot-air balloon fans, as well as the annual Gulf Coast Film Festival for movie buffs. For the nature lovers out there, there is the Armand Bayou Nature Center, the largest urban wilderness preserve in the United States. Its 2500 acres is home to 370 species of birdlife, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
Down the road from Clear Lake is Kemah, and its infamous entertainment venues. Believe it or not, Kemah had its start in tourism during the 1920's as an "investment" from the Maceo crime syndicate, which also ran Galveston Island around that period. The syndicate built lavish casino venues on the boardwalk which prospered until the Maceos were brought down by the Texas Rangers in the 1950's. Along the same time, commercial fishing fleets began to call Kemah home as the Clear Creek Channel opened.
In the 1990's tourism once again boomed in Kemah, thanks in part to the opening of several Landry's Restaurants chains. The restaurants opened up right on the Boardwalk where casinos used to stand. More restaurants came, then amusement rides began running on the Boardwalk (my personal favorite is the Boardwalk Bullet, a Roller Coaster that rises 96 feet high and goes faster than 51 mph), oh, and right smack dab in the middle of the Boardwalk...the Boardwalk Inn.
Each one of the 52 rooms comes with its own balcony so you can look out over the Boardwalk waterfront and even out towards the Galveston Bay channel. I haven't had a chance to stay here yet, but its on my bucket list! I have however, traversed the Boardwalk from one end to the other, and it has been rightfully picked as one of the best entertainment areas in the United States!
Moving right along!
Head down the Gulf Freeway to its very end and you come to Galveston Island.
The original "Island of Doom", named thus by explorer Cabeza de Vaca after being shipwrecked there in 1528, Galveston has been making seaworthy news ever since.
Originally established by Mexico in 1825, and its first Customs House built in 1830, Galveston has always been a burgeoning seaport and even served as the capital of the Republic of Texas in 1836 when interim President David Burnet temporarily moved the government there. Along with being the first Port of Entry into Texas, other firsts include the first Post Office and Naval Base in 1836, the first Masonic Order in Texas in 1840, the first cotton compress was built in 1842, the first Insurance Company was formed on the island in 1854. Galveston is also the site of the deadliest natural disaster in US history. On September 8, 1900, a hurricane made landfall on the island, and after all was said and done, somewhere between 6,000 and 12,000 people were lost. In most official reports though, the number lies around 8,000. As a result of the storm, a seawall was built 17 feet high and 10 miles long.
During the 1920's and 1930's, Galveston broke out as a major tourist destination, even though Houston to the north had developed into the major metropolis following the Great Storm of 1900. Under the influence of the Maceo syndicate, the island exploited the Prohibition of alcohol and gambling, offering adult entertainment to wealthy Houstonians and out of towners. Along with prostitution, Galveston has become the "Sin City of the Gulf".
After World War II, along with the major withdrawal of US Armed Forces being based at Galveston Airfield, and multiple massive raids by the Texas Rangers, tourism to the island dropped significantly, crashing the local economy.
Enough history, let's get to whats going on now.
Since the 1950's preservation of the past and new growth for tourism has exploded on the island. Attractions, restaurants, and hotels were built, and crowds, both local and out of state, made Galveston their second home.
So now you want to visit Galveston?
Let's start with lodging. I've stayed at the very best property on the island.
Welcome to the fabulous Moody Gardens Hotel, set in the massive 242 acre Moody Gardens education tourism park. The rooms are set with a tropical ambiance and are spacious and quite comfortable. Depending on your room, you have amazing views of the Moody Gardens pyramids, Galveston Bay, or the inner island. My favorite perk of this hotel is the 12PM check out, allowing the guest to sleep in after a day of adventure on the island or in Moody Gardens. Also, the nightly rates are not bad at all!
So now we have our lodging, what's there to do besides the Galveston State Park and its beaches, or the amazing Moody Gardens? Well, you have the Galveston Arts Center, which just moved back to its original location in the First National Bank building on the Strand, built in 1878. There's also the huge Schlitterbahn waterpark, and if you're on the Island at the right time of the year, there's the ArtWalk that covers several areas of the island, although the majority is centered downtown. You've also got the Galveston Symphony Orchestra and the Galveston Ballet as well.
So, if you're looking for somewhere outside of Downtown Houston with a beachfront, come on down to the "Playground of the South"!