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Rare finds in Galveston: More than a poor man's Rio

This may be the first and last time you'll ever see Rio de Janeiro and Galveston, Texas, separated only by a conjunction. Yet I couldn't help comparing the two port cities after strolling and jogging along Seawall Boulevard, a Gulf counterpart to the flagstone strand in Rio that runs from Copacabana to Ipanema and on into sunny infinity.

Galveston could be seen as a poor man's Rio, but it's more than that. During a too-short visit in January, I made a number of discoveries, rare finds indeed, of the kind that had me beginning conversations days and weeks later with, "If you ever get to Galveston, you'll have to see . . . ."

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"Galveston?" was the usual, puzzled response. Yes, Galveston. I had known it from a song and remembered it faintly from a night 20 years earlier when, on spring break from a Northern colleg, I'd driven down from Houston just to sink my feet in the sand. Now as I prepared to make the 50-mile trip from Houston again, this time by bus, I wondered: Can it be anything but oil rigs, oil slicks , and rotted wharves?

Galveston town is on long, lean Galveston Island, reachable by a channel bridge on Interstate 45, and when you run out of road and the shrimp boats come into view on the horizon you have arrived at Seawall Boulevard, the firrst of my heady discoveries. A concrete strip runs beside sand and sea for 10 miles, an ideal biking, jogging, and roller-skating course until the summer throngs come down seeking the gulf breezes that offer no relief to Houston. There were a few cars roaming the broad, flat and -- in this pleasant 60ish weather -- deserted beach, but I was told they would be forbidden when the sunbathing season started in April.

This is by dint of a recent ordinance. Galveston and the Texas gulf in general are cleaning up their acts. Swimming is safe and the fishing has improved with the tidying up of rivers feeding the gulf. Two hotels and a restaurant on Seawall Boulevard, all on my discovery list, are part of this awakening. Last June the long dormant Hotel Galvez was reopened, its breezy galleries, French doors, and ornate chandeliers brought back to life as it was in 1911, when the rambling white building first opened. If the service seemed a bit uneven in January, one could at least applaud Marriott for reviving the proud old building, now complete with pool and sauna.

Another Galveston novelty is the Flagship Hotel, a white cube that rests far out on a wooden pier near the Galvez. It was built in 1965 and for a decade was the city's top hotel, until it began to deteriorate; now a $2 million renovation has made it, according to its owners, better than new. Its odd placement 1,500 feet from shore had me shaking my head. "There are a number of hotels built on sand spits but none I know of on a pier over the water," said the manager, as gulls wheeled by the lobby. "If you have a room on one side you get the morning sun; on the other, the setting sun. We discourage our guests from fishing on their patios -- would you like to see a red snapper reeled past your nose?"

About a mile inland is the Strand, several blocks of splendid iron-front buildings left over from the 19th century, when this was the Wall Street of the Southewest. Galveston's primacy as a banking center and deepwater port ended with the 1900 hurricane, after which Buffalo Bayou was dredged and ships were floated all the way to Houston. Offices, shops, restaurants, and taverns have come to the high-ceilinged buildings with the huge gallery doors. For its bright upholstery, lush floral display, and warm service, for perhaps everything but the food, which seemed a bit heavy, I would include the restaurant Wentletrap on my list of Galveston rarities.

Not far from the Strand is the East End Historical District, a reviving residential area listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is full of Victorian mansions, some smartly redone and on public display, others reposing in charming decay.

Last but expressly not least is a restaurant called Clary's, at 8509 Teichman Road on the way out of town. Since he opened in 1977, Clary Milburn has won a solid reputation in southeast Texas. Clary, as he is known, learned to cook at home in Opelousas, La., and his gumbos and other dishes are strongly Louisiana in flavor. The main dining room is windowless, and an adjoining porch with high-tech chairs and tables affords a narrow glimpse of a bayou. "I don't want them watching, I want them eating." Clary says of his customers.

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And eat you will -- hot boiled shrimp for starters or perhaps Oysters Picayune, then grilled fillet of trout, or grilled oysters, fried crab balls, or seasoned baked crab, dishes I hadn't dreamed or se eing in Galveston and wouldn't hope to find in Rio.

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