2015.06.08-12: Galveston Vacation

The End
The last photo we took in Galveston
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

In the middle of M’s 17-day stretch of paid leave, we took a five-day jaunt to Galveston, having enjoyed last year’s trip to Corpus Christi Bay so much. M booked the hotel back in February when she asked for the days off, and then researched and planned activities for us. I hope you’ll enjoy my description of the trip.

◊ Getting There

Knowing the trip wouldn’t take all day, we were in no hurry to leave on Monday morning. We’d packed some the night before and finished in the morning. Since Monday is our trash pickup day, we arranged for a neighbor to bring up the polycart for us.

This happy guy greeted us just southeast of Bastrop
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

We left our garage at 10:20, taking TX195 to Georgetown where we accessed Toll Road 130, easily and quickly bypassing Round Rock and Austin. At the airport exit (exactly one hour from home), our route turned east on TX71, which took us to our first stop: lunch at McDonald’s in Bastrop (11:44 to 12:22). After lunch, we continued on TX71 until it came to I-10 at Columbus. We’d been on the interstate for exactly three minutes when RL said she had to go to the bathroom, so we hit the next station. Back on the road, we stayed on I-10 for another 40 minutes, exiting at TX99 to head south (and miss Houston). I didn’t know (because it wasn’t on the maps) that TX99 turned into a toll road, with no cash options. So I assumed it had a “pay by mail” option like the toll roads around Austin and went on. We took that to 59/69, and then accessed TX6.

(Yes, we could have taken I-10 straight into Houston proper and then I-45 straight down to Galveston, but I have heard horror stories about traffic in Houston and didn’t want to find out for myself — I haven’t been in Houston since the early 1990s.)

TX6 took us almost all the way to Galveston, at a relatively slow pace (heavier traffic than we’re used to, and plenty of traffic lights), and I-45 got us onto the island. We arrived at our hotel at 15:42, having gone more than four hours since our last stop.

The entire trip down required five hours and 22 minutes for 272 miles, a poorer-than-usual average of 50.7 miles per hour. (Our trips to my parents’ house often average 60 miles per hour, by comparison.)

Our hotel in Galveston
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

◊ The Hotel

The Comfort Inn & Suites is on Seawall Boulevard, which runs along the Gulf side of the island of Galveston. If you jaywalk right across the street, then the hotel is about a minute’s walk from the beach. If you obey crosswalk rules, it’s more like five minutes — very close.

The Good: Nice, clean room. The TV used the correct aspect ratio (which is rare in our experience), and had more than the usual number of channels (including a few kids’ channels that most hotels don’t carry). Breakfast was included in the cost of the room: cereal, scrambled eggs, bananas, waffles, yogurt, and a few other items that I saw. The room had a fridge and a microwave, light-blocking curtains, comfortable beds and coverings, a full-length mirror in the entryway. The clientele seemed quiet and friendly — at least until our last night, when a much louder crowd moved in — I had to plead with a woman who was playing ball with her three-year-old right outside our door at 23:00.

The best part of the room was probably the balcony — about five feet deep and ten feet wide, walled off from other balconies, with a solid railing and two aluminum chairs, and fully shaded. We used cheap clamps from Walmart to secure beach towels and swim clothes to the chairs for quick drying.

On The Balcony
Our hotel room’s private balcony, with the Gulf of Mexico visible in the background at left
(Copyright © 2015 by Marline Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Another huge perk of the hotel was the parking area underneath the building, where our minivan stayed out of the hot sun during our stay.

The last bonus I’ll mention wasn’t really a feature of the hotel, but of the entire town — a curious lack of insects. Oh, I saw a few — there was a giant cockroach near the garage entry of the stairs, and a few ants along the edges of sidewalks (where tourists habitually drop stuff that ants love to eat). But almost none compared to most places I’ve lived or visited. Even at night, under the street lamps and the lights in the under-hotel parking garage, there were no moths, mosquitoes, crickets, june bugs, or even house flies. I wondered about this several times, walking at night or getting something from the car after dark. Does the city use some kind of spray that other towns haven’t heard of? Are the lights emitting on a frequency that bugs can’t see or aren’t attracted to? Both my wife and my Dad suggested that an abundance of birds in the area might be keeping the flying bugs at bay, which I guess is a possibility.

Looking For Food
Seagulls were ubiquitous along the coast, as one would expect
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

The Bad: There was no towel rack in the room, except the small one next to the sink for hand towels. Just two small hooks for bath towels. As I noted last year in Corpus Christi, you’d think a beachfront hotel would have a fold-down rack in every room for beach towels, swimsuits, etc. Assuming this in advance, we brought our Ikea drying rack to spread out our swim gear. It turned out to not help because the room’s air conditioner was some kind that cools the air without drying the air. The humidity in the room therefore prevented hung items from drying. So we used the aforementioned clamps to secure wet items on the balcony, where they dried quickly.

One view of our hotel room
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

Unlike many hotels, there actually was an exhaust fan in the bathroom, but it was so weak as to be useless — it didn’t keep the mirror from fogging and didn’t help the bath towels to dry. The cheap ones in our house are many times more effective. The television defaulted to CNN every time we turned it on, which isn’t always a good idea with small children — often the news can be scary or gory. The digital clock on the night stand ran fast, gaining several minutes every hour; my wife had to reset it a couple of times each day. The only high shelf was in the closet; we’re accustomed to the TV cabinet being taller, so there’s a place to set items out of reach of the kids. The hotel advertised an indoor pool, which was one reason we chose it, but that pool turned out to be the size of a large hot tub and was usually crowded. If we’d had a rainy or cool day that prevented us visiting the beach, I’m sure it would have been jam-packed. Exterior doors didn’t require a key card, which bothered my wife. Anyone could walk into the parking area below the hotel and access the stairwells or elevator without being seen. (Most other hotels we’ve stayed at require a key card to gain entry via exterior doors.)

Most of the negatives were minor and turned out to not affect us. The only big issue was drying the swim stuff. Note to beachfront hotels: strongly consider including a fold-down drying rack in each room and/or using air conditioning systems that lower the indoor humidity somewhat. (At home, our conditioned air will dry a swimsuit in an hour or so.)

We rate this among the best of the hotels we’ve booked during our 9-year marriage.

◊ First Afternoon

After checking in and bringing up luggage, we donned swim gear and had an enjoyable two hours on the beach in front of our hotel. A couple of my very best photos from the trip were made during this time. The kids were ecstatic.

BW runs from the surf during our Monday afternoon visit to the beach
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Jazz Hands
RL exclaims her happiness during our first visit to the beach in Galveston
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

A Beach Patrol vehicle seen Monday evening
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

We ordered Papa John’s pizza for supper and picked it up two blocks from the hotel. All of us ate ravenously.

We took an evening walk along the seawall and then headed up for bed. RL didn’t sleep well that first night, waking me several times just as I’d fallen back to sleep. This was the biggest negative (for me) of our entire trip — I am next to useless, mentally and emotionally, if I don’t get a good night’s rest. I came very close to renting a second room, but eventually we all got sufficient rest.

◊ Port Bolivar Ferry

Tuesday morning (9th), after breakfast in the hotel and picking up a few items from a nearby Walmart (clamps for drying stuff on the balcony, paper plates, spare SD card for my camera), we headed eastward up the island to ride the ferry. It’s sometimes called the Galveston Ferry or Port Bolivar Ferry or just the TX87 Ferry, because it’s part of state highway 87 and therefore free. Neither RnB had ever been on any boat before, so this was a first for both of them.

Holding RnB on the ferry
(Copyright © 2015 by Marline Fry.)

To drive from Galveston Island, there was almost no wait time, though we were singled out for a “random” inspection. That didn’t take long and the officers were polite about it, much like the random inspections upon entering Ft. Hood. It took about 10 minutes to load 50 or so vehicles onto the ferry and then we were off. We walked to the upper deck where I made several photos and M pointed out stuff to RnB. The ride was about 18 minutes.

Our plan had been to turn around on the other side (Bolivar Peninsula) and ride the ferry back to Galveston. Instead, upon exiting the ferry, we saw a very long line of cars waiting to go the other direction. Knowing the wait would be incredible, we drove on, hoping to see something interesting. We did see Fort Travis Seashore Park, but it looked abandoned and we knew nothing about it, so we drove on. Seeing nothing else but ramshackle homes for several minutes, we turned around and headed back to get in line.

We waited almost an hour to get back on the return ferry. I suggested letting the kids out of their car seats, but M said no, because we didn’t know when the line would move again. RnB were very patient and understanding during this time. M fed them snacks from her backpack while we waited.

By the time we got back on the ferry and returned to Galveston Island, it was time for a late lunch. We found the first McDonald’s and stopped. Surprisingly, RL ate again — an entire hamburger. She almost never eats very well and certainly not right after a snack.

One of several giant ships I saw while riding the TX87 ferry
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Back at the hotel, M took care of RnB’s naps while I walked for an hour along Seawall Blvd., snapping photos of plaques along the way.

Hurricane Ike Bench
A three image composite of a Hurricane Ike memorial bench
Click here to see it large enough to read the text
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

Burying Daddy in the sand
(Copyright © 2015 by Marline Fry.)

◊ Stewart Beach

In the afternoon, we visited Stewart Beach, where the children again had a very enjoyable time, including burying me in the sand. We rented two chairs and an umbrella, mainly to have somewhere to set my camera bag and our beach bag — off the sand and out of the sun.

When we were ready to leave, we learned that the outdoor shower heads were all non-working, and the indoor showers had long lines — at least for the women’s side. I managed to shower off most of the sand and salt, not realizing that MRB were just waiting. They endured until we got back to the hotel.

At the request of the children, we had Papa John’s pizza again. Again, they devoured their food.

Chasing Birds
BW chasing gulls at Stewart Beach
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

◊ Galveston’s Children’s Museum

Wednesday (10th), after breakfast in the hotel, we drove near downtown Galveston (Old Galveston) to the children’s museum, which is in the basement of the historic Moody Mansion. It was the smallest children’s museum we’ve been to (the seventh for our kids, and the fourth in Texas), but one of the most enjoyable. It seemed geared toward the younger set; probably children over 8 or 10 wouldn’t enjoy it much. RnB made pretend pizza in a restaurant, which RL named “99-44 Restaurant”. She took orders over the phone, rolled dough, cooked and served the pizza. They also pretended to be doctors and veterinarians, boat captains, and stage performers. We stayed there until lunch time.

Moody Mansion
Galveston’s Moody Mansion, which houses the children’s museum — this image is from my cell phone
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

◊ Downtown Galveston & Seawolf Park

RnB fell asleep almost immediately after getting back in the Sedona, and BW stayed asleep when we got to Burger King for lunch. I held him while we ordered, waited, got our food and drinks (from a soda fountain with a touchscreen interface), and ate. He woke just as we were finishing, and then ate six chicken nuggets (a record for either child).

RnB inside the USS Cavalla
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

Then we drove around actual downtown a bit, including The Strand, where there are shops and restaurants far from the beaches, the ship yards, and a few neighborhoods — some still recovering from 2008’s Hurricane Ike. RL slept during much of this driving, and BW eventually slept too. M suggested seeing Tall Ship Elissa, which would have cost $24, but we instead decided the kids would enjoy Seawolf Park ($16), which would allow them more time to sleep in the car. (M checked the attractions’ websites on her phone as I drove, and also used Verizon Navigator to get directions.)

At the end of mostly empty Pelican Island, Seawolf Park houses a World War 2 era submarine and destroyer, both self-tourable, fishing piers, picnic tables, and a playground. I think it’s safe to say that touring the submarine (USS Cavalla) was the most enjoyable part for all of us. Parts of it were air conditioned. The children could have stayed in there for days, opening drawers and exploring the rooms. M and I began to feel a little claustrophobic after 30 minutes or so — the vessel was not intended for people of our size. M is 5’5″ and respectably trim, so I don’t know how tiny the seamen must have been who manned the Cavalla. They certainly were not my size. The destroyer (USS Stewart) was not air conditioned in any way, so M and RL found a shady, breezy spot on deck to wait while BW and I clambered around inside. He had a blast once again.

Our first gas fillup was at a Valero just before leaving Pelican Island, where we put in only 17.436 gallons for 344.7 miles. That includes 10.7 miles in Killeen before the trip, 62 miles around the Galveston area, and the very long wait for the ferry, but we still managed 19.77 miles per gallon on the tank.

◊ Wednesday Evening

Back at the hotel, the kids again wanted pizza, and M suggested Little Caesar’s to save money, so we picked up a $5.55 “Hot N Ready” pie and added crazy bread to the order. Again, the children ate as if we’d been starving them.

After supper, we donned swimming clothes and went to the beach in front of our hotel, playing the surf until BW and M were shivering in the shade.

MRB In Light Surf
From Wednesday evening’s swim
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

The Boardwalk Tower blocks the sun
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

◊ Kemah Boardwalk & San Jacinto Monument

For our last full day in Galveston (11th), we drove north off the island and up TX146 to Kemah, arriving at the Kemah Boardwalk a few minutes before it opened at 10:30. Aside from the hotel room, we spent more money at Kemah than on anything else during this vacation, but it felt worth it. (We had intended a visit to Moody Gardens, which would have cost even more money, but didn’t go for various reasons, including the cost.)

Kemah is like a small amusement park. You don’t pay to get in, but do pay to ride the rides, play the games, and eat. After finding restrooms, we bought all-day ride tickets (wristbands), which was the bulk of our spending that day. We rode the C.P. Huntington Train, the Rockin’ Rocket (a rocking and spinning boat-shaped thing), two ferris wheels, the double-decker carousel, the Wipeout (just RL & I), and the Boardwalk Tower (a slowly spinning air conditioned circle of windows that rises above the entire park). There were other, more adult rides, but neither of our children were tall enough to ride them even accompanied by adults, so we skipped them — M and I have ridden plenty of roller coasters in our lives; neither of us felt the need to make the other spouse wait with RnB while we indulged.

RnB on the double-decker carousel
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

We had lunch at the Aquarium restaurant, which simulated being “under the sea”, including several large fish tanks, one of which included a 200-pound Australian grouper and a leopard shark. The food was amazing, the staff attentive and friendly (even providing a scissor to cut the excess from BW’s wristband) and knowledgeable about the fish in the tanks, the ambiance excellent. Best of all was the air conditioning inside, which was sorely needed after walking two hours in the heat and humidity. Again, we felt the cost was worth it. This was the first nice restaurant in which M and I have indulged since having children. For the first time during our trip, RL ate sparingly, but BW continued to eat with gusto.

Surprisingly, a woman at the table next to us commented that our children were very well-behaved. I say “surprisingly” because I feel like we’re constantly nagging our children to be quiet, sit still, get back in their chairs, stop making messes, etc. But then I observed her child (grandchild?) obey nothing she said, run around the room with impunity, do whatever he wanted as if he’d been raised in the wild and this was his first experience with civilization. As far as I could tell, she never scolded him, never offered incentives (either negative or positive), never even tried to reason with him — he was close to RL’s age but sitting in a giant stroller contraption and holding a five-foot inflatable robot. He refused to sit in a regular chair, so she just strapped him back into the giant stroller when their food came.

I don’t mean the previous paragraph as judgment on either the woman or the child; just an anecdotal observation. Indeed, our children seemed well-behaved by comparison.

After eating, we changed RnB into their swimsuits and they played in the splash pad area for 30 minutes while M and I sat in the shade nearby. Then, after bathroom breaks, we rode a couple more rides and found a shady spot (Sand Bar and Grill) to have cold drinks. Then we headed out.

Splash Pad
RnB playing at the Kemah splashpad
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

The San Jacinto Monument commemorates the final and decisive battle of the Texas Revolution in 1836
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

Instead of heading straight back to Galveston, I assumed (correctly) the children would sleep in the car and give me time to visit the San Jacinto Monument — the tallest masonry column in the world — near La Porte, Texas. (Prior to the trip, I had considered spending part of one day alone at the monument and nearby Battleship Texas while MRB swam, but it didn’t work out that way.) M stayed in the car with the sleeping children while I hurried around the monument, photographing it and the engraved panels in its base. A helpful tourist who didn’t speak much English used my camera to get a shot of me with the monument in the background. Knowing the kids wouldn’t stay asleep forever in a non-moving car, I skipped the museum and elevator ride to the top (which I hadn’t known about until I arrived), and began driving back to Galveston.

We arrived in town just in time for supper — Little Caesar’s again. None of us complained that we’d had pizza four nights in a row, but M and I agreed it would be a few weeks before we wanted pizza again.

After supper, we took one last, long walk along the beach, and then turned in for the night.

◊ The Trip Home

Friday (12th) morning, it didn’t require much time to repack and eat breakfast. I got the luggage back into the Sedona and we left the hotel at 08:58, stopping immediately for gas at Randall’s. This was a small fillup of 5.364 gallons for 93.3 miles (17.4 mpg). We left there at 09:06, which is when I started my trip timer and mileage.

Buc-ee’s in Bastrop
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry.)

Our route home was the same as the trip down, except we used TX6 all the way from I-45 to I-10 (skipping 59/69 and TX99 to avoid tolls). We had to stop for a restroom break in Sugarland (Burger King), lunch in Sealy (McDonald’s), restroom break in Bastrop (Buc-ee’s — our first ever visit to this quickly growing Texas chain of beaver-themed convenience stores), and again at the Berry Creek Food Mart north of Georgetown. We arrived home at 15:02.

(Note: I learned on the way back that a 90-minute side excursion could have gotten us to the home of my cousin Jason and his family in Lake Jackson, Texas, but by that point we were ready to be home and in our own beds and showers. To Jason et al: we’ll have to catch you next time. Sorry.)

So our elapsed trip time was five hours and 54 minutes for 272 miles — oddly the exact same mileage as the trip down, despite a different route — a poor average speed of 46.1 miles per hour. Our next gas fillup wasn’t until three days later, but we got 20.1 miles per gallon for the overall tank, our best of the entire vacation and not bad for a minivan.

◊ Summary / Wrapup

This was an excellent vacation, all things considered. We had more fun than we expected to, learned something new each day, and got plenty of fresh air and exercise. We never felt rushed but managed to do quite a bit. I somehow managed to avoid getting sunburned (lots of SPF 50 sunscreen, hat-wearing, and shade-finding was involved).

Both our children added new destinations to their “places I’ve been” lists, including the Gulf of Mexico (last year’s trip to Corpus Christi never got us within sight of the Gulf; we swam in Corpus Christi Bay). RL learned about crosswalks and the notification lights that tell you when to cross, how to know which buttons to press in elevators, and all kinds of other little tidbits that we all eventually pick up in life. Both children had their first boat rides, first amusement park experiences, first tours through a life-size ship and submarine, first meal in a nice restaurant, and more.

As mentioned, the worst part for me was the missed sleep on that first night. The next-worst part was the almost-an-hour wait to get back on the ferry (we learned later we could have parked and walked onto the ferry, and then walked-on again at the other side). I suppose the third-worst part was not having a freeway that circumvented Houston’s metroplex — we could have stayed on the interstates and experienced heavy Houston traffic, or do what we did, which was spend a lot of time on avenues (TX6) with many, many traffic lights and speed limit changes. None of these were horrible, and all were forgettable when stacked up against the enjoyable experiences throughout the five days and four nights of our trip.

The cost of the trip was negative in our books. When we received our income tax refund in February, we had set aside a specific amount for this vacation. As it turned out, we spent quite a bit less than that amount, including hotel, gas, Kemah, and food. The leftover money is a bonus to our savings account. Doesn’t get much better than that.

All 288 of the photos we made on this trip are in one Flickr set. You’ll need to be signed in as my friend or family contact to see them all. If you’re not a Flickr member and don’t want to be, I can send a guest pass link via email at your request.

Cutest Walk Ever
RnB hold hands while walking on the beach Thursday evening
(Copyright © 2015 by Wil C. Fry. Some rights reserved.)

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