A swirl of wind and rain whipped up in the warm waters of the Caribbean in September last year and took aim at Texas' beach communities. Although the news coverage of Hurricane Ikea Category 2 storm that made landfall in the early morning hours of September 13sometimes implied that the popular seaside resort town of Galveston, 45 miles south of Houston, had been virtually wiped out, "we are definitely open for business and still booking," says Meg Winchester, CMP, director of sales for the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"The seawall did its job," Winchester says of the 10-mile-long, 17-foot-tall structure that was built after the 1900 hurricane that took 6,000 lives. "Everything built behind it, which is the majority of our hotels and restaurants, suffered little damage. Some of them opened up immediately." Some, like the AAA Four Diamond 244-room San Luis Resort that served as press headquarters for the city, never closed.
Three months later, Texas beaches were once again ready to welcome groups and meetings. It's not a moment too soon. With incentive business struggling in the economic downturn, properties need all the opportunities they can get to attract groups, and cannot afford to stay closed for long.
From the seaside Victorian charm of Galveston to the unspoiled beauty of the South Padre Island seashore, Texas offers some of the best beaches in the country, drawing millions of nature lovers each year in search of world-class fishing, golf, birding, boating, shelling, hanging ten, or hanging out. Tiny fishing towns, historic hotels, distinctive museums, picturesque marinas, shops, galleries, and a variety of unique attractions dot a coastline that serves as a backdrop for fabulous sunrises, sunsets, and water, water, everywhere.
Most affected by Ike's storm surge were the graceful 119-room Tremont Hotel in Galveston, which is expected to finish renovations by April, the Lone Star Flight Museum, and stores at the Strand shopping district. A $6 million beach renovation started in Nov will be finished by Mar 31, in time for the endangered Kemp's ridley turtle season. Updates can be found on www.galveston.com.
"As soon as we figured out that we weren't that damaged on a hospitality basis, we started getting pictures out on our website, got a podcast up, and sent press releases to get the word out that Galveston was still here," says Winchester.
For some groups that couldn't reschedule, facilities in Irving and the new La Torretta del Lago Resort & Spa with 445 rooms in Montgomery stepped in.
"People have been very supportive," says Winchester, "and we've been able to keep the majority of business for 2009. The groups that have come since Ike have said, 'we were expecting complete devastation, but you guys look great.'" Winchester adds soberly that the residential sector "was really devastated by the storm and the aftermath, and we would never discount that side of it." Still, she adds, "tourism is going to be one of the economic drivers that brings Galveston back." Clear Skies in Corpus Christi
The largest city on the coast, one of the busiest ports in the country, and a center for naval air training, petroleum, and shipping, Corpus Christi welcomes more than 7 million visitors each year. The city's main convention hotel, the Omni with 38,000 sf of function space, consists of the Bayfront Tower along with the nearby Omni Marina Tower ("the two operate as one hotel," says Caleb DuBose, director of sales), for a combined room total of 821, featuring spacious suites and spectacular views of the city's marina. At the top of the Bayfront is the elegant Republic of Texas Bar & Grill, the only AAA Four Diamond restaurant south of San Antonio, serving up steaks and seafood with views through surrounding floor-to-ceiling windows.
The popular Water Street Oyster Bar is just one block from the Bayfront, and features catch-of-the-day specials. The 15,000-sf Brewster Street Ice House is the perfect party place, boasting one of the largest selections of imported tequilas, live music, and plenty of room for dancing. Hester's Café & Coffee Bar is charm personified in the heart of Old Town-complete with an adjacent shop to browse in after you've had your fill of omelets and pastries. Still need more coffee? Check out the upscale Agua Java for Latin American flavorfiguratively and literally.
The Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi is home to dolphins, otters, sharks, hawks, and falcons, while nearby, the USS Lexington takes visitors back in time on this WWII aircraft carrier dubbed "The Blue Ghost" by Tokyo Rose for its refusal to sink despite repeated attacks. The Museum of Science and History features ancient shipwrecks, live reptiles, and replicas of Christopher Columbus' ships, the Santa Maria and the Pinta.
The three-level Art Museum of South Texas is next to the American Bank arena and convention center (which offers 76,000 sf of newly renovated meeting space) and features mostly Texas artists. Its proximity to the harbor and port makes it a "beautiful evening venue," says Marilyn Ramey, assistant director. "Many groups rent the whole facility." An onsite auditorium can seat up to 200.
On a funkier note, the Texas Surf Museum is the only one of its kind in the state, chronicling the birth of surfing along the coast and featuring an extensive collection of surfing memorabilia, including "the earliest Texas-made surfboard," according to owner Brad Lomax. Life in the Loop
Driving the "loop" around the bay yields more treasures: the relaxing ferry ride to Port Aransas"Port A" with its 18 miles of open beach and new salt marsh Wetlands Education Center; Aransas Pass and its Lighthouse Lakes Kayak Trail; and the utterly charming Rockport-Fulton area, legendary for its appeal to artists who flock there to paint seascapes. The annual film festival draws filmmakers, industry professionals, and movie buffs for a weekend of rare documentaries, animated, and short films.
The newest hotel in the area is the Hilton Hampton Inn & Suites with 64 rooms, within easy reach of a mile-long beach, the Texas Maritime Museum, and the historic Fulton Mansion. The Victoria-style boutique Lighthouse Inn has 78 rooms and two conference rooms that overlook Aransas Bay, for groups of up to 75. Local dining includes Charlotte Plummer's Seafare, with famous seafood platters. For some more of the biggest fried shrimp you've ever seen, stop at Paradise Key Island Grill. Points North and South
One hundred and eighty miles separates Corpus Christi and Galveston, and between the two is laid-back Matagorda County, home to the new LCRA Matagorda Bay Nature Park, right on the central flyway for migratory birds. At the Texas Nature Conservancy at Mad Island Marsh Preserve, thousands of protected acres remain undisturbed for prime bird-watching and wildlife viewing. The Matagorda Island Lighthouse, the oldest operational lighthouse in the state, recently underwent a $1.23 million renovation.
The Padre Island National Seashore is a coastal wilderness ideal for any number of outdoor activities, from swimming to beachcombing. A must-see is yet another lighthouse at Port Isabel, built in 1853 and presiding over one square block at the water's edge-the smallest state park in Texas.
//SIDEBAR//Baseball and Birdies and Birds, Oh My!
If your idea of a good time doesn't include sand in your sandwich, there's lots more to Texas beaches than, well, beaches. You can have fun in the sun without catching so much as a glimpse of a wave.
For the sixth consecutive year, Corpus Christi was named "The Birdiest City in America" in a nationwide contest coordinated by the San Diego Audubon Society.
"It's not surprising, considering we are on their way as they travel south," says Michael Womack, executive director of the Corpus Christi Botanical Gardens, located on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. The 180-acre complex is a juxtaposition of colorful flowers and native wetlands, including an orchid house, sensory garden, and a lovely rose garden pavilion for outdoor events. A new 2,600-sf walk-through, open-air Butterfly House and the Anderson Bromeliad Conservatory are scheduled to open this year.
To see birdies of a different sort, Newport Dunes, the new 18-hole, links-style Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course opened last fall on Mustang Island. "I took a client out there," says Ed Persall, VP of convention sales, Corpus Christi CVB, "and at every hole all he could say was, 'wow.'" The course is part of the first phase of construction on Newport Beach and Golf, which will be an 1,800-acre resort community.
If sitting is more your style, then head over to Whataburger Field, pick up a foam finger at the Hook, Line, and Sinker gift shop, and settle in for one of the 70 home games of the Corpus Christi Hooks, a Double-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. Groups can choose from party decks around the field, the Champions Club, a huge covered picnic area, or one particularly refreshing venue: "You can watch the whole game from the pool and spa," says Andy Steavens, director of group sales. It doesn't get much cooler than that. Originally published Jan 01, 2009
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