Vera Hartmann

On the barrier island of Galveston, Texas, everyone still talks about the Great Storm of 1900. In a few hours, what was once the apex of Gilded Age glamour was transformed into a pile of waterlogged rubble. By the time the island city recovered, Houston had taken over as the dominant Texan cultural center, and "the Wall Street of the South" was reduced to a backwater industrial town.

In the 1980's, though, the city reached into its past to regain much of that old-world splendor. Hotels were renovated, building foundations were fortified, and many of the refineries and fisheries were torn down. These days, more than a century after the Great Storm, Galveston is once again a gracious waterfront town. With its mild winters, historic houses, and stylish inns, it feels less like Texas oil country than like Charleston or Savannah—with the hint of an industrial edge.

Culture Club
Galveston may have gone through a down-and-out phase, but its high-culture past never fully disappeared. You can catch a glimpse of how the monied class lived by touring some of the city's historic mansions. The Bishop's Palace (1402 Broadway; 409/762-2475; half-hour tour $6), named for the Galveston-Houston Catholic diocese that occupied these quarters from 1923 to 1950, retains all the ornate detail from its Victorian heyday. (The staircase alone took three years to construct.) Thirteen blocks up, the Moody Mansion (2618 Broadway; 409/762-7668; one-hour tour $6) displays the treasures of the Moody family, one of Galveston's founding clans. The streets of the East End Historical District are lined with other opulent turn-of-the-century houses. For detailed information on the various mansions, call the Convention & Visitors Bureau at 888/425-4753.

The city's small but growing gallery district runs along Postoffice Street. Starting with the Buchanan Gallery (2217 Postoffice St.; 409/763-8683), which showcases contemporary artists, you can hop next door to the E Street Gallery & Coffee Haus (2219 Postoffice St.; 409/762-4122), where art and coffee are sold side by side. Once every six weeks the city holds Artwalk, a ramble through the best art studios (call 409/763-2403 for schedules).

If theater is more your style, catch a musical performed by an amateur group at the Strand Theater (2317 Ship's Mechanic Row; 409/763-4591; $15). For professional shows, head to the Grand 1894 Opera House (2020 Postoffice St.; 800/821-1894 or 409/ 765-1068; tickets $11—$60), a restored 1,000-seat theater where Broadway comes to town. Recently, the opera house has staged Rent and Annie Get Your Gun.

Where to Eat
Rudy & Paco 2028 Postoffice St.; 409/762-3696; lunch for two $21. Steak in chimichurri sauce and grilled red snapper doused with cilantro dressing are two favorites at this innovative Central and South American restaurant. Your table's plantain chips and salsa will be refilled continually, but resist the urge to fill up on them; you'll need room for the tres leches cake.

Queen's Bar B. Que 3428 Ave. S; 409/762-3151; lunch for two $12. Not for vegetarians or the faint of appetite. Authentic Texas barbecue—smoked chopped brisket sandwiches, pork ribs—is served in king-sized portions at Queen's, where lassos and neon lights lend a real roadhouse vibe. No wonder it's a Galveston mainstay.

Fisherman's Wharf Pier 22, at Harborside Dr.; 409/765-5708; dinner for two $35. Galveston abounds with busy, upscale fish markets, but the atmosphere at this one trumps them all. Feast on lobster, shrimp, snapper, and other just-off-the-boat Gulf catches while you gaze at the harbor through massive bay windows.

Benno's on the Beach 1200 Seawall Blvd.; 409/762-4621; lunch for two $15. If Cajun is your craving, head to Benno's, where fresh seafood comes piled high with all the sides (hush puppies, corn on the cob, french fries). Stuff yourself silly on the fried shrimp or the three-pound platter of steamed crawdads. Or just kick back with a beer on the outdoor patio and soak up the sun.

Mosquito Café 628 14th St.; 409/763-1010; dinner for two $40, breakfast for two $20. Breakfast has long been popular at the Mosquito (eggless Benedict made with shrimp, mushrooms, and hollandaise is worth a try); now the casual café has added dinner on Thursday through Saturday nights. Order the crawfish pot pie or the Mosquito Mac-n-Cheese (fusilli with scallops, rosemary, chicken consommé, and three cheeses).

The Steakhouse 5222 Seawall Blvd.; 409/744-1500; dinner for two $90. Beef is what's for dinner at this clubby restaurant. Meat lovers should refrain from eating all day, then dig into the USDA prime, grain-fed 20-ounce porterhouse. More heart-smart alternatives are available, but the place has its name for a reason.

Saltwater Grill 2017 Postoffice St.; 409/762-3474; dinner for two $40. Right across from the Opera House in the Strand District (the cultural heart of Galveston), you'll find the pre-theater destination of choice. The herb-crusted halibut and the pan-seared snapper are seasoned to perfection, but the Southern kettle specialties (gumbo, bouillabaisse) are what keep customers coming back. Saltwater also has one of the more extensive wine lists in town.

Where to Stay
The Mermaid & the Dolphin 1103 33rd St.; 888/922-1866 or 409/762-1561, fax 409/762-2077; doubles from $130, including breakfast. Most of the eight airy, antiques-filled guest suites in this 1866 Queen Anne mansion come with hand-carved mahogany beds and claw-foot tubs; all have access to back garden, pool, and hot tub. As if that weren't enticement enough, the creative breakfasts (soufflé, anyone?) are so enormous, you may have to skip dinner.

BEST VALUE: Tremont House 2300 Ship's Mechanic Row; 800/996-3426 or 409/763-0300, fax 409/763-1539; doubles from $119. A former dry-goods warehouse in the Strand underwent a major face-lift in the eighties. Today it's the grande dame of Galveston hotels (now managed by Wyndham), with its lobby atrium, afternoon tea service, and 117 rooms furnished with Victorian flair.

San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center 5222 Seawall Blvd.; 800/445-0090 or 409/744-1500, fax 409/744-7545; doubles from $119. Easily the most sophisticated of all the beachfront properties, which tend to be sprawling monoliths. With 250 rooms, a new full-service spa, and the Steakhouse, one of the top-rated meat joints in Texas, there's plenty to indulge in at this grand hotel.

Stacia Leigh B&B Pier 22 at Harborside Dr.; 409/750-8858; doubles from $125, including breakfast. Once owned by Mussolini (and later appearing in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), the schooner on which Stacia Leigh sits is now a thoroughly renovated two-story floating B&B. Its 11 guest rooms are surprisingly spacious (and, not surprisingly, decorated with nautical ornaments).

Harbor House 28 Pier 21; 800/874-3721 or 409/763-3321, fax 409/765-6421; doubles from $109. You're smack in the middle of the action—the pier on one side, the Strand on the other—at this 42-room newcomer. The building resembles a waterfront warehouse, with loftlike, light-filled guest rooms that have exposed beams, hardwood floors, and views of the open water.