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A Taste of East Texas

Marley loudly proclaimed his arrival and proceeded to take over the room. I couldn’t tell if the shrill squawks were a reggae imitation of his namesake, Bob Marley, but they sure left an impression.

I met Marley, an endangered Northern Rockhopper penguin, at Moody Gardens’ aquarium on a recent trip to the complementary east Texas neighbors Galveston and Houston.

Galveston offers a mix of history and laid-back beach vibe, while Houston, 40 miles west, is a cosmopolitan metropolis filled with a wide choice of museums, theaters and restaurants.

Gardens on the Gulf

I started in Galveston, located on an island in the Gulf of Mexico with 32 miles of beaches, a busy cruise port and a downtown and surrounding neighborhoods filled with historic buildings and Victorian houses.

The busiest stretch of beach is in front of a seawall built after a devastating 1900 hurricane and across the road from hotels, resorts, restaurants and shops. Those who don’t want to soak up the sun on the beach can take in the ocean view on a 10-mile-long sidewalk alongside the beach, credited by the Guinness Book of Records with being the longest continuous sidewalk in the world, or hit the Historic Pleasure Pier, which juts into the gulf with old-fashioned rides, carnival games and souvenir shops.

My first stop, however, was on the bay side of the island at Moody Gardens, a 242-acre multi-faceted complex that has an aquarium, rainforest and science discovery center in three large glass pyramids; an artificial beach; cruises aboard a paddlewheel boat; a hotel; and a convention center.

The aquarium is undergoing a $30 million multistage renovation set for completion next May. Its blue pyramid contains 1.5 million gallons of water with a variety of sharks, seals, rays, seahorses, eels, jellyfish and thousands of fish from the north Pacific, Caribbean, tropical Pacific and south Atlantic oceans, which can be seen swimming above and around you in a large acrylic tunnel.

One of the most popular programs is the penguin encounter, where groups of up to 16 can meet and interact with Marley or one of the other six species of tropical penguins showcased in an exhibit that replicates South Georgia Island, complete with seasonal lighting.

Island History

I next headed downtown for a stroll along the historic and busy Strand, lined with restored 19th-century buildings that house restaurants and shops.

A block away, Pier 21 has become an entertainment district with restaurants, shops and museums, such as the Texas Seaport Museum and the 1877 tall ship Elissa.

An informative movie at Pier 21 provides background about the Great Storm of 1900 — this was before they named hurricanes — which killed more than 6,000 and is considered the most devastating natural disaster in United States history. It also altered the course of Galveston history.

“Before the Storm of 1900, Galveston was one of the biggest metropolises in Texas,” said Mary Beth Bassett, public relations coordinator for the Galveston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It was called the Wall Street of the South.”

Despite the extensive damage of the 1900 hurricane and 2008’s Hurricane Ike, which left eight feet of water on the Strand, many Victorian-era structures survived and have been restored, spurred by the active Galveston Historical Foundation, which buys threatened buildings, stabilizes them and sells them to buyers who agree to restore them.

“Historic tours are a major selling point,” said the historical foundation’s Jami Durham. “We have the largest Victorian district in Texas.”

A pleasant walk along tree-lined trees in the city’s six historic districts takes you by houses of all shapes, sizes and colors. Diamond-shaped plaques mark survivors of the 1900 hurricane, while trunks of trees destroyed by Ike have been turned into interesting pieces of sculpture.

You can also tour huge Victorian mansions such as the Bishop’s Palace, Moody Mansion and Ashton Villa along Broadway and the ornate Grand 1894 Opera House on Postoffice Street, another thoroughfare with great shopping and dining.