By Jennifer Babisak
If it weren’t for Victoria, Texas might lay claim to only five flags—the banners of Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy, and the United States. After all, Victoria County was the site of the state’s only French settlement—the short-lived Fort Saint Louis, established on the banks of Garcitas Creek in 1685 by French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle.
Today, the city celebrates that early French heritage while reflecting the numerous other civilizations that have called this cultural crossroads home.
Surmising that a place defined by such independent spirit would hold promise as a weekend getaway, I recently visited Victoria with my three children (ages eight, six, and one), where we met up with their grandmother and four-year-old cousin.
We began our weekend at the Victoria Educational Gardens, a collection of 19 themed gardens at the former site of Foster Field, a World War II training base for pilots of single-engine fighter planes. Many of the gardens’ features give subtle nods to its military history, like the weathered blue concrete border around the tropical and water gardens, which denotes the perimeter of the base’s former Olympic-size pool. Master Gardener Brynn Lee gestured to the spot where the lilac blooms of a morning glory now turn sunward and told us, “Airmen used to conduct landing practice here. They would ride a zipline into the pool.”
In the Children’s Garden, we stepped onto a 12-foot-wide muted yellow sun carved into stone. As the centerpiece of the sensory area of the Children’s Garden, it serves as a spot for children to sit, close their eyes, and listen to such garden sounds as the gentle trickle of a fountain, the faint chirping of wrens, and the wind rustling through the branches of a palm tree.
After walking through the butterfly garden—a tangle of fragrant host plants such as milkweed and pipevines aflurry with a kaleidoscopic cloud of winged beauties—we entered through whimsical gates into a fenced “Secret Garden.” The kids shrieked when they spied a four-inch garden spider encamped in a sprawling white mistflower, but our four-year-old immediately took to the caterpillars found crawling on much of the garden’s greenery, petting some of them softly.
The Museum of the Coastal Bend houses seven of the eight iron cannons recovered from the remains of Fort Saint Louis.
As we walked beneath an arbor of roses, our six-year-old ran ahead to a labyrinth constructed of limestone blocks set in gravel, and the rest of the kids followed. The children energetically navigated the maze countless times, although they ignored the meditation bench at the labyrinth’s center. Finding their inner Zen would have to wait.
We soon turned our attention to lunch, continuing the rehabbed aviation theme at Sky Restaurant, located in the former Air Force Officer’s Club at the Victoria Regional Airport. The kids devoured some State Fair-worthy fried mac-and-cheese while I tackled the Chicken BBQ Burger—a mountain of meat topped with melted mozzarella, grilled onions, and bacon on a sourdough bun. From the parking lot, we were told, you can watch planes take off and land, but we had a full agenda elsewhere.
Next, we made the 10-minute drive to the campus of Victoria College, where the Museum of the Coastal Bend illustrates Victoria’s history from prehistoric to modern times. The museum houses seven of the eight iron cannons recovered from the remains of Fort Saint Louis (the eighth is on loan to the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin). Nearby, a plastic replica called a “touching cannon” gives children the opportunity to stick their hands in the barrel and feel the weapon’s heft with-out jeopardizing the integrity of the actual artifacts.
Among the mastodon teeth (weighing 10 pounds each!) and conch shell hammers in the display on Early Peoples of the Texas Coastal Bend, my eight-year-old son, Caleb, became fascinated with an ancient spear-throwing instrument called an atlatl. One of humankind’s earliest inventions, an atlatl consists of a stick with a handle on one end and a hook (which engages a dart) on the other. The device allowed hunters to throw farther and faster, striking prey with more force.
Museum Director Sue Prudhomme thrilled Caleb with news that on Saturdays, the museum allows visitors to check out atlatls for supervised use on the green. “In the Americas, including Coastal Bend Texas, early people used atlatls to hunt mammoths and mastodons,” Sue told us. “As recently as 600 years ago, early European explorers of the Gulf of Mexico related encounters with indigenous people who used the atlatl to hunt and as a weapon.” Heading to the grassy area outside of the museum, Caleb hooked a five-foot-long dart onto an atlatl and sent it soaring through the air.
Early the next morning, we hiked through Riverside Park, a 565-acre green space with a public golf course, sand volleyball court, disc-golf course, and nearly five miles of access to the Guadalupe River, where anglers can cast for catfish, sunfish, and alligator gar. A cloak of green trees, accented with tangled masses of mustang grape vines, shades the river, and we longed to climb into canoes for a trip along the 4.1-mile Victoria Paddling Trail. But, mindful that toddlers and canoes aren’t exactly compatible, we lured the kids from the water with the promise of excitement at the Texas Zoo, proclaimed the “National Zoo of Texas” in 1984 by the Texas Legislature.
After a picnic lunch, we joined a group participating in the new Wildside Tours program, which offers personal encounters with some of the zoo’s 300 animals. Animal Curator Michael Magaw and his staff have trained most of the animals—including tigers and lions—to sit on scales for weight checks and offer their paws for nail trims. He’s even trained some of them to walk on leashes so he can take them on the road for educational outings. When he revealed that Coco the Coyote sleeps in his hotel room when they travel, the children erupted in giggles.
In the 30-foot-tall aviary, nearly 50 parakeets flitted around us. We each held foot-long wooden sticks with sprigs of millet attached to one end. Initially, the children were alarmed when the parakeets began to peck at the millet, but they soon relaxed into a jovial camaraderie.
My own little fledglings were hungry again, too, so we soon headed downtown to Rosebud Fountain & Grill, which occupies a brick building that served as a drugstore from 1910-1998. Traces of history remain in the dining room’s tin moulding, original hexagonal tile, marble-topped soda fountain counter, and swivel-stools.
Sitting in a reclaimed church pew pulled up to a 10-foot-long farmhouse table, we savored juicy cheeseburgers and sweet-potato fries. We polished off the meal with a stop at the soda fountain, where chocolate shakes and scoops of Blue Bell provided a sweet end to our weekend adventure.
From the April 2013 issue.