Ahoy, maties, there be pirates in Galveston! The city regularly plays up its swashbuckling history but this summer there’s even more emphasis on the shadier side of sea-faring. As a destination for summer family fun, steal away to Galveston.
First for pirate sites — Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast is a permanent attraction in historic downtown Galveston. It focuses primarily on the history of Jean Laffite. Laffite preferred the term “privateer” to “pirate.” And he did have a privateer commission from the government of Cartagena, which gave him permission to plunder ships from unfriendly countries and keep a percent of the booty. However, he pretty much took that paper as carte blanche to do as he pleased.
During the War of 1812 he was instrumental in helping Gen. Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans and was hailed as a patriot. After the war, however, he went back to his pirating practice, becoming persona non grata in the area.
His buccaneering bolt-hole had been Barataria, three small islands off the coast of Louisiana. Now he was forced to find another headquarters, which he called “Campeche.” We know it now as Galveston Island.
A treasure map with clues keeps young visitors searching the exhibits for answers. Multiple posters provide lots of text with lots of information. At $10 per adult head, it might be a bit pricey but I found it worthwhile.
Sharing the building is a haunted house, Haunted Mayfield Manor, but I passed on that one!
The other big pirate place is at Moody Gardens, in their Discovery Museum. They have a National Geographic exhibition called “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah,” which will run until Sept. 28.
The Whydah was a slave ship built in London in 1715. Pirates captured the ship near the Bahamas in February 1717. They sold the slaves and sailed the ship until it was sunk in a storm off Cape Cod two months later. The wreck is the first authenticated pirate shipwreck ever discovered in U.S. waters and is still undergoing underwater excavation.
Visitors to this exhibit will see gold and silver coins from all over the world, gold jewelry, swords, pistols and personal property of the pirates. Displays include information about some of the pirates including John King who, at younger than 11, chose to become a pirate when the ship he and his mother were traveling on was seized by the pirate crew. Other displays illustrate the discovery and recovery efforts surrounding the wreck.
Admission to this exhibition is high dollar — but by buying a Moody Gardens day pass, you’ll save a lot of money and can treat yourself to a whole day’s entertainment. The pass includes admission to the Aquarium Pyramid, the Rainforest Pyramid, the MG 3-D Theater, the 4D Special FX Theater, the Ridefilm Theater, the Discovery Museum, a ride on the Colonel Paddleboat and entrance to Palm Beach, a water-play area with a white sand beach, lazy river, wave pool and water slides. For more information, www.moodygardens.com.
If that’s not wet enough for your kids, visit Schlitterbahn. On 26 acres with 33 different watery attractions, features include two racing uphill water coasters, a wave pool, water slides, whitewater rapids and the Boogie Bahn surf ride.
And, of course, there’s always the ocean — the Gulf of Mexico, to be more correct. Galveston’s beaches aren’t the most beautiful but there are a number of public areas and, best of all, it’s free.
A real on-the-water treat is the Bay Watch Dolphin Tour. This one-hour tour will give you a view of Galveston from the harbor and practically guarantee you’ll spot some of those beautiful mammals.
Strolling down the Strand is another popular tourist activity — especially with stops for ice cream or fudge. Souvenir shops and tattoo parlors stand out but don’t miss the Galveston Historical Foundation’s shop, Eighteen Seventy One. Here you’ll find an excellent selection of books on the area, vintage toys and games and gift items.
When the sun goes down, there’s still more family fun in Galveston. Check out the Pleasure Pier. It’s not huge, but has enough rides to entertain — from a loop-the-loop roller coaster and giant Ferris Wheel to whirling teacups and a double-decker carousel. Arcade games tout the chance to bring home large, homely, stuffed critters.
Galveston offers a treasure chest full of tourist treats. I’ve hit highlights for those who travel with children — and who enjoy theme park-y entertainment. Many of these attractions have educational value and/or provide physical activities. Some — well, they’re just fun.
Whatever your family is looking for, you’ll probably find it in Galveston. So set sail for the south. It’s less than an eight-hour drive from Edmond to beaches, boats and buccaneer booty.
ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.