Lucky us: A brilliantly sunny morning greets us on the day we plan to see Galveston by bicycle. It’s been years since I’ve looked at my favorite island from a bike seat, and I’m eager to revisit the sensory experience of taking in the sights and sounds and smells of a place that’s at once so historic and vibrant.
Galveston has a new beach this summer as part of its beach replenishment project. The city recently added 600,000 cubic yards of sand to the oceanfront between 61st and 76th streets, creating “Babe’s Beach” in an area that had been a non-recreational rock surface.
For Galveston tourism info, call the Galveston Island Visitors Center at 888/425-4753. The Visitors Center, at 2328 Broadway, opens daily 9-5.
Venturing out under a deep blue, cloudless sky, my husband and I slather on sunscreen and head for our loaner bikes. As overnight guests at the Harbor House, we have the option of borrowing bicycles from the concierge at the hotel’s sister lodging, the Hotel Galvez. We’d been advised to arrive early, before they’re all claimed. Leaving our drivers’ licenses as a deposit, we head out with two fat-tire touring bikes, equipped with baskets and old-fashioned bells, and helmets.
Rather than stick strictly to the Seawall, probably the most popular biking destination in Galveston, we want to explore some of the old neighborhoods. Bicycling along, we’re free to stop frequently to admire and take snapshots of the fascinating, ornate gingerbread detail prevalent in the design of so many of Galveston’s Victorian homes and commercial buildings.
We’ve decided to start our outing with the Tree Sculpture Tour, which is laid out on free maps available online and at the Galveston Island Visitors Center. I’ve seen bits and pieces of this tour by car, enough to know that enjoying this art show means wandering slowly in the open air for maximum appreciation.
Found primarily in the East End Historical District, just one mile—or about eight minutes by bike—from the Galvez, the collection of sculptures is an imaginative byproduct of 2008’s Hurricane Ike. The storm’s tidal surge brought winds and waves that destroyed thousands of Galveston’s magnificent oak trees. Local artists saw an opportunity in the trees’ wooden skeletons and created sculptures from their trunks and limbs.
These works stand mostly in the front and side yards of private homes, scattered throughout 50 square blocks. We spend nearly two leisurely hours pedaling our way along Postoffice, Church, Winnie, Ball, and Sealy streets, occasionally parking our bikes to get a closer look and take photos of the carvings, many of which are painted with a shiny, clear sealant.
I’m awestruck by several, including the Birds of Galveston at 1620 Sealy, a multi-limbed sculpture depicting 17 different birds, including pelicans and spoonbills. The Geisha at 1717 Ball Street is a carving of a woman wearing an intricately decorated kimono, facing westward, presumably toward Japan. A favorite of mine is Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, the sculpture at 1702 Winnie, which was the birth home of the late King Vidor, a 20th-Century filmmaker who directed part of The Wizard of Oz.
During our ride, one of my tires goes flat. No problem, however: We call the Galvez concierge on our cell phone, and the hotel delivers a replacement bike within minutes. The short delay simply gives us more time to walk along Postoffice Street, where there are five sculptures to examine.
As we roam around, we encounter other folks enjoying two-wheel touring. Many rent from Island Bicycle Company (located on Seawall Boulevard), the outfitter that also leases bikes to hotels like the Galvez and Doubletree, which in turn provide the bikes for their guests. In a friendly chat with fellow bicycle fans, we find we’re of similar minds about the advantages of sightseeing by bicycle: There’s no worry about parking, it’s easy to keep a water bottle and backpack in the bicycle basket, and we feel more connected with the city than we might if exploring by car.
After the sculpture tour, we stop for a little pick-me-up at Sunflower Bakery, located at the corner of Postoffice and 14th streets. The bakery’s glass case is filled with confections that make my heart go pitter-pat. We settle in for a snack in the yellow seating area next to windows overlooking the street. An iced tea, coffee, cranberry scone, and slice of chocolate meringue pie later, we’re good to go again.
Heading west, we ride a half-mile along Postoffice (also called Avenue E) to the historic Strand District. We pause to admire the handsome Grand 1894 Opera House and then continue two blocks to Church Street, arriving at Saint Mary’s Cathedral Basilica. We poke our heads inside to see the magnificent architectural detail adorning this gorgeous place, known as the Mother Church of Texas and built in 1847 to emulate King’s College Chapel in Cambridge. The church’s interior restoration after Hurricane Ike’s flooding was extensive, taking the better part of six years to complete.
Continuing west again, we park and lock our bikes at Postoffice and 25th Street. It’s Sunday, and Galveston’s Own Farmers Market is underway. We amble through the market in an empty downtown lot, enjoying a fresh green juice of blended spinach, celery, cucumber, and apple from Oasis Juice Bar & Market’s booth, and purchasing a jar of pickles from Jackie’s Gourmet and raw honey from Pure Beeing. If we were residents, we’d visit the market weekly for pastured chicken, bison, fresh eggs, and produce from local growers.
Crossing the street, we stroll through Deborah’s Community Garden, a corner of lush green in the heart of downtown and one of a handful of the city’s community plots. A gardener tending a raised bed of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, and herbs tells us that several items sold at the farmers market are grown in these gardens. We also learn that the University of Texas Medical Branch students who help cultivate the garden donate their produce to help feed the local hungry. Such a discovery in the center of town—complete with three goats kept in a pen—gives us a greater feel for the depth of Galveston’s personality.
Realizing it’s lunchtime, we climb on our bikes again and pedal west just four blocks to Maceo Spice & Import Company. Opened in 1944, this throwback provides a glimpse into Galveston’s Italian culture with its meat market and grocery shelves stocked with imported canned tomatoes, olive oils, vinegars, pastas, and 28 house-made spice blends. Vintage photos of the Maceo family decorate the walls, and a small scattering of tables fill quickly in the mornings with guests noshing on beignets and chicory coffee and at midday with patrons hungry for old-school deli sandwiches and daily specials like shrimp Creole, red beans and rice, and spaghetti and meatballs. (Beignets are served on Sundays only; call first to confirm the store is open.)
Locals say Maceo’s makes the best muffaletta this side of New Orleans, and we’re game to investigate. Served on thick, round Italian bread, slathered with olive salad and piled with cut-to-order ham, salami, and provolone, I admit to enjoying this sandwich as much as those I’ve had at NOLA’s Central Grocery.
Before pedaling down to the beach, we stop to poke around Flea by the Sea, just two blocks from Maceo’s. It’s one of the better vintage-goods shops I’ve come across in years, stocking collectibles like 1930s table fans, 1950s kitchen accessories, and cool 1960s lamps, bar ware, and cocktail tables—all in great condition.
Next we ride about a mile-and-a-half to Seawall Boulevard. We reach the waterside road at the Galveston Island Pleasure Pier, where we can see kids and parents enjoying the flashy rides. Heading east again on the Seawall, we relish the wind washing over us as we watch pelicans dive for their lunch and sandpipers run to and from the waves.
With the day running out on us, we scratch our original plans to ride around Stewart Beach Park and instead make one last stop—this time for a frosty afternoon beer at Ocean Grille and Beach Bar. The bar’s Gulf-front patio is the perfect spot to toast our two-wheel adventure and recount all we’ve seen—and what we might have missed had we been touring in a car. On our way back to the Galvez, we pass Island Bicycle Company and see other bicycling enthusiasts turning in their bikes, too. Reluctantly, we give our bikes back to the hotel concierge, promising to return for another day of pedal-powered prowling.