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Bayside Bliss

West Galveston Bay’s Shore-Hugging Towns—La Porte, Seabrook, Kemah, San Leon, and Texas City—offer hidden treasures and unexpected pleasures
Written by John T. Davis. Photographs by Jake Meharg.

The Sylvan Beach pier in La Porte offers a 1,234-foot-long platform for fishing, wavewatching and languid walks over West Galveston Bay. (Photo by Jake Meharg)

When a friend of mine in Houston bought a getaway house in Bacliff, on the western shore of Galveston Bay a few years ago, I scratched my head in puzzlement. If you want an escape, I asked him, why not seek out a place in the Hill Country? Why not a cabin in the cool New Mexico mountains?

Galveston Bay has no sugar-white beaches or azure surf. It’s a busy, blue-collar workplace where shrimpers and oystermen ply shallow, murky waters pocked by rusty oil and natural gas platforms and cargo-laden freighters run up and down the Houston Ship Channel in an unceasing procession.

But my amigo pointed out that he could leave his home near Rice University and in 45 minutes, be sitting barefoot with a glass of rum-and-something, looking out at the ever-changing panorama of sky and water and feeling the cares of the day slipping away.

And there is, I came to discover, a certain hardscrabble charm to the stretch of coast on the western edge of Galveston Bay, roughly between La Porte and Texas City. When my friend lost his place to Hurricane Ike in 2008 and chose to rebuild in the same spot, it made perfect sense to me.

Many attractions lie nearby: NASA, the beaches of Galveston, the San Jacinto battlefield, and, of course, the myriad urban temptations of Houston itself. But within the small arc of shore-hugging towns—La Porte, Seabrook, Kemah, San Leon, and Texas City—hidden treasures and small pleasures await.

The massive Port of Houston complex dominates La Porte, a no-nonsense industrial town. The salient features of the skyline are the huge cranes used for loading and unloading cargo containers on ships from a hundred ports of call. The futuristic span of the Fred Hartman Bridge gleams in the distance. Texas history buffs can drive down Bayridge Road and gawk at the hulking, two-story, 1927 Gatsby-esque mansion built for oil executive (and future Texas governor) Ross Sterling, and anglers can launch a boat or wet a line at Sylvan Beach.

Almost obscured by the port facility, the tiny community cemetery of Morgan’s Point contains a plaque with background on “Emily Morgan,” the woman celebrated as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” for supposedly providing a timely romantic distraction to General Santa Anna during the run-up to the Battle of San Jacinto. (The battlefield itself is scarcely a 10K jog from Morgan’s Point and La Porte.)

According to most authorities, the true story goes as follows: A free woman of color named Emily West contracted to work for plantation owner James Morgan in Morgan’s Point. She and other employees were seized by Mexican troops, and she was indeed present at the battle, although her supposed tryst with Santa Anna is 19th-Century hearsay. It’s still a great song, though.

Near La Porte, the communities of Seabrook and Kemah have mostly rebuilt their way out of the wreckage that Hurricane Ike left in its wake. But traces are still visible if you know where to look. Jeff Sauerwein, a manager at Tookie’s, a popular hamburger joint in Seabrook since 1975, points out a smudge on a window, about four feet off the floor—the high-water mark from the storm surge. The day the place reopened, the clientele lined up out the door to chow down on Tookie’s celebrated burgers, handmade onion rings, and “pelican eggs” (jalapeños stuffed with bacon and cheese).

This area—indeed, the entire arc of West Galveston Bay—has always been catnip for hurricanes, having weathered Carla in 1961, Allen in 1981, Alicia in 1983, and, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the unnamed Great Storm of 1900. Ike was just the latest in a long procession, a fact of life that no doubt has helped shape residents’ historical stoicism in the face of adversity.

The local fishmongers, among them Rose’s Seafood and Golden Seafood, have also rebuilt their former establishments in the shadow of the Kemah-Seabrook bridge, each unfailingly advertising a year-round SUPER SALE! I’m particularly fond of Pier 8, where you can order a pound of fried shrimp or a whole fried redfish to eat on the spot while the rest of your purchase is scaled, gutted, filleted, and otherwise rendered tasty. The local lingua franca is a fast-moving patois of English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

The centerpiece attraction of neighboring Kemah—the Kemah Boardwalk, a sprawling commercial collection of shops, rides, attractions, restaurants, and a marina—lies just across the mouth of Clear Creek Channel. Opened in 2001 by the Houston-based Landry’s Restaurant Inc. group to evoke the classic seaside boardwalks of Coney Island, Virginia Beach, and Santa Cruz, the Kemah Boardwalk took a pounding during Ike—boats in the marina and the adjoining Lakewood Yacht Club were tossed like pick-up sticks. But the complex as a whole has rebounded nicely, and today hardly any trace of the storm remains. Two new rides have been added to the amusement park, and the pleasure boats are once again lined up in tidy rows.

The Boardwalk has evolved into a year-round destination featuring festivals, live music, and seasonal events. In the summer, it hosts a live concert series, weekly fireworks, and other events. On a hospitably warm weekend night, the area is thronged with couples and families riding the big Ferris wheel, ascending the Boardwalk Tower ride, enjoying a show in the Rock the Dock concert series, or laying waste to platters of shrimp, oysters, and crabs at Landry’s Seafood.

Anglers can wet a line at the Sylvan Beach pier, and oyster aficionados can whet their appetites at Gilhooley’s Raw Bar.

The Boardwalk has its own lodging, the Boardwalk Inn, and most of the familiar chains line Texas 146, but I chose to headquarter in the quiet and charming Clipper House Inn, a complex of six restored cottages—three of them fishing shacks from the 1930s—arranged around a meticulous courtyard within walking distance of the Boardwalk. Innkeepers Barbara and Jerry Hopper arrived from Oklahoma when their daughter and son-in-law bought the Inn in 2006 and the adjoining Clear Creek Winery in 2007. Guests at the inn can attend tasting parties and even arrange to bottle their own custom wines. Clear Creek also partners in the Bay Breeze Wine Trail, which offers tours and tastings at wineries in Baytown and Galveston. Even if you can’t spend the night at the Clipper House, consider having dinner at Tabella’s, a farm-to-table restaurant on the property that welcomes non-guests, too.

When Ike put the nearby T-Bone Tom’s restaurant under, owner Barry Terrell put up a sign that read “Open Someday.” For the locals, someday (two-and-a-half months later) couldn’t come soon enough. “We have people who eat here every day,” says longtime general manager Anna Kennedy. “They all think they’re part-owners.”

Since man cannot live by shellfish alone, the restaurant remains a welcome destination for those in search of chicken-fried steak (the joint’s best seller), barbecue, and 14-ounce ribeyes.

Another dining destination, particularly popular with groups of touring bikers, is Noah’s Ark Bar and Grill in Bacliff, just across the road from the bay. The prize offering here? The spectacularly sloppy (and yummy) Noah’s Burger, featuring grilled onions, bacon, Swiss cheese, and jalapeños.

One of my favorite restaurants in the area has come roaring back after a complete post-Ike makeover. The Topwater Grill in San Leon is once again hosting landlubbers like me and the suntanned locals, who pull up to the adjoining dock on weekend poker runs. A small fleet of shrimpers tie up right outside. The oysters at Topwater are as fresh as they come—the restaurant has its own oyster boat out in the bay. The stuffed, grilled, and blackened flounder, redfish, and mahi mahi make a nice change from the usual fried seafood options (although Topwater’s fried shrimp are some of the best I’ve sampled).

Speaking of oysters, bivalve aficionados should also make it a point to stop into nearby Gilhooley’s for a platter of oysters Gilhooley. The pecan-grilled oysters, drizzled with garlic butter and dusted with Parmesan cheese, were named No. 1 on Houston food writer Robb Walsh’s “100 Favorite Houston Dishes” list in 2010.

Neighboring Texas City, with its sprawling, almost surreal petrochemical complex, offers a surprising array of attractions from birdwatching to windsurfing. The renovated, richly detailed Texas City Museum does an outstanding job of telling the story of the industrial hub from its founding in 1893 by an associate of privateer Jean Lafitte (settled by a pirate! how cool is that?) to the city’s status as a hub for early military aviation to the signature event in its modern history, the Texas City Disaster of 1947. The explosion of a French ship carrying ammonium nitrate touched off a series of explosions in the port that killed 600, injured 5,000, and destroyed ships, refineries, and a large portion of the Texas City port.

Since that tragic episode, the area has rebounded robustly. “Petroleum is the engine that keeps the city going,” says local historian Margaret Tuma, citing new schools, a convention center, a natatorium that accommodates both novice and experienced swimmers, parks, and other civic improvements in recent years.

Many of the historic structures in the city, such as the Davison House and the Dick-Wetzel House, were spared during Ike, as was much of the rest of the city, thanks to the encircling seawall that was built after Hurricane Carla in 1961. (Both the Davison and Dick-Wetzel homes, built by early settlers around the turn of the 20th Century, form part of the Heritage Square collection of historic structures at 1st Street and 3rd Avenue; they open periodically for tours.)

Today, Skyline Drive runs along the top of the seawall, stringing together a series of parks and fishing and birdwatching spots and creating a magnet for wade fishermen and windsurfers alike.

One site that was hard hit by Ike was the historic Texas City Dike, which protrudes five miles out into Galveston Bay like an accusatory finger. Today, though, the dike has been handsomely retrofitted with new solar lighting, new fishing piers and boat launches, and a beckoning, new man-made beach along the last couple of miles of the structure.

Okay, so it’s not the Riviera. But there is something uniquely pleasurable, and wholly Texan, about motoring slowly out towards the end of the dike on a sunny, breezy day, with perhaps a picnic lunch, a six-pack, and some fishing tackle in tow.

Landward, the fantastic, Wizard-of-Oz-like silhouettes of the refinery towers shimmer in the distance. Waves slap against the granite rip-rap, and the skyline of Galveston appears on the horizon. A bay shrimper chugs by, accompanied by the inevitable cloud of gulls. The old Bolivar lighthouse still stands sentry across the bay. And out on the water, the ships of the world ply their way through the Bolivar Roads channel, inbound to port or outbound to the open sea.

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