Published News

TEXAS HIGHWAYS - July 2002

Carol Barrington
Kemah on the Boardwalk

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Until the mid-1900s, the unpretentious, somewhat funky community of Kemah (pop.1,200-plus) slumbered along year-to-year, storm-to-storm, on the west shore of Galveston Bay.

Visitors- mostly from the Greater Houston area - "escaped" to Kemah to fish or to feast of fresh seafood while relaxing on the outside decks of the restaurants that overlooked the Clear Creek Channel. Gulls breezed in and hovered overhead for handouts; boats looped between Clear Lake and Galveston Bay within view of the diners; and a few nearby shops and galleries filled in around the edges.

All in all, going to Kemah meant time out from stress, routine, and work. As lagniappe, it also provided a golden opportunity to buy shrimp fresh off the boats across the channel in Seabrook at better-than-Houston market prices. Few folks came to Kemah without a cooler in the car trunk.

What a difference vision, imagination, and an estimated $75 million dollars can make!

The gulls still hover, the boat parade continues its human comedy, and you can still buy fresh shrimp in nearby Seabrook, but what was Kemah's laid-back restaurant row has bloomed into a 30-acre family-entertainment complex called Kemah Boardwalk, a mega-project unveiled four years ago by Landry's Restaurants, Inc. Handsomely designed and beautifully maintained, it already challenges San Antonio's River Walk, the Alamo, and Space Center Houston as one of the top tourism draws in Texas. Tilman Fertitta, Landry's chief executive officer, remembers: "One evening in 1992, I realized that this waterfront could become unbelievable, if the city would let me close off the street and build a boardwalk that had both a front and a back." City officials ultimately agreed, and the project hit the drawing boards.

Today, walking through Kemah Boardwalk's entrance arch sets the stage for carnival-like fun. Calliope music draws you to a classic carousel at the bay end of the site, and a 65 foot-high Ferris wheel offers breezy views in all directions; from the top seats, the large sailboats tacking back and forth in Galveston Bay look like bathtub toys.

Dining here is optional, but seven restaurants beckon, all part of the Landry's chain. (Lovers of lunch in "old Kemah" will be glad to hear that the Flying Dutchman's famous and succulent shrimp salad is still delicious.) Optional, too, is participation in the amusement park rides and games, each of which cost $2 per person. Admission to the Boardwalk, however is free, and folks are welcome to freely stroll the grounds and waterfront Boardwalk, play in the dancing fountains, enjoy the seaside atmosphere, and attend special outdoor events on weekends - all at no charge.

Nearly a dozen midway-style arcade games punctuate the paved pedestrian zone that flows through the complex. Care to have your age, weight, and birth month guessed, or acquire a temporary tattoo? How about a stuffed animal, basketball, or inflatable Martian instead? Winning any of the latter at the arcade games isn't very difficult, even for children. One game is, in fact, rigged so that the player always wins. Which one? That's for players to discover. Whatever you play, rest assured that the odds at these arcade games definitely do not favor the house!

Additional family fun includes rides around the complex aboard the C.P. Huntington, a scaled-down replica of an 1863 Central Pacific train, and scooting remote-controlled model boats around a good-sized pond. Adults of a certain age get a kick out of the 1952 Chevy "police car" that hold place of honor in one of the plazas.

New this summer: a rock-climbing wall (equipment and instruction provided) and the "Pharaoh's Fury," a rocking boat ride behind the carousel.

Another big draw is the Aquarium restaurant, billed as an "underwater dining adventure" (and the prototype of additional Aquarium restaurants to come in other Landry locations). All together, this restaurant's five tanks contain more than 68,000 gallons of seawater and an estimated 1,000 fish.

Diners reach the Aquarium's second-level dining room via a staircase that curves around a clear, 30 foot-high, cylindrical tank. Luminous and fascinating, it's home to more than 100 flashing, silvery fish known as "look downs," and look down they do as you make your way to your table. The huge tank had to be lowered into place with a crane, and it currently is the only one of its kind in the world.

Once seated, you'll have a hard time taking your eyes off The Reef, the 50,000-gallon tank that anchors the main dining room. Moray eels slink in and out of the rocks, three species of shark speed by, and stingrays burrow into the bottom sand while more-social species flirt with spectators. In all, more than a hundred species of fish live in this 12-foot-wide tank, whose floor-to-ceiling walls allow great views. Yes, the fish can see you almost as well as you can see them, in case you wonder.

A smaller adjacent dining room features three thermal tanks on its end wall, each anchored by large, rainbow-brilliant chunks of living coral. Numerous species of tropical fish zip and flash amid sea anemones, starfish, and sea urchins, providing a continuously changing show that fascinates all, children in particular: "Wow! That's really cool!" "That starfish is eating something!"

The Aquarium's menu serves up far more than a 'themed' restaurant experience, however. The quality of the food brings crowds willing to endure what is often a three-hour wait for a table. While beef, chicken, and even hamburgers appear on the menu, it's no surprise that seafood is the house specialty. Top sellers include grilled mahi mahi topped with jumbo shrimp, and Gulf flounder stuffed with crabmeat and brushed in lemon butter. More-adventurous diners find it difficult to choose among the horseradish-crusted salmon, the ginger-pepper tuna, and the herb-crusted sea bass.

Eating light? Try the shrimp tortilla club sandwich or the chicken lettuce wrap. Either will leave you with room for one of the tempting desserts, most of which arrive with a nautical-themed garnish.

Try to time your visit to coincide with the fish-feeding times, 5:30 p.m. daily and at 11:30am from Friday through Sunday (the only days the Aquarium opens for lunch). Divers hand-deliver the food, some of it raw scraps of salmon, tuna, and mahi mahi from the kitchen.

If you want to get on the water while you're here, it's easy to go boating - weather permitting. Thirty-minute boat tours of Clear Lake and Galveston Bay leave from docks at Kemah Boardwalk daily. And shopping? Nearly two dozen retail shops and kiosks scattered along the Boardwalk sell a wide variety of gift items, ranging from lollipops to fine art, beignets to clothing, Christmas ornaments to educational toys. Outside the Boardwalk's boundaries, numerous privately owned shops, galleries, and eateries offer items you won't find anywhere else - be sure to seek them out.

"Houston has the third-largest port in the United States, and people have always been drawn to waterfront destinations," says Tilman Fertitta. "This entertainment complex places the Kemah waterfront on the map."

As Kemah's mayor pro tem Greg Collins puts it: "We're still just a dot on that map, not big - but Kemah's now very 'cool.' Our strongest draw remains what it has always been, the general seaside atmosphere. We have human theater, fresh air, boats, and the scent of sea - everything good that life on the water represents."

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