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Houston, we have an escape: discover the pleasures of the Texan Riviera

Follow the lyrics of a great songwriter to discover fine beaches and rich heritage. Simon Calder is a fellow down Galveston way

Jimmy Webb has surely done more for US tourism than any other songwriter. Countless lovestruck tourists have aimed for the industrial city of Wichita in Kansas, celebrated in Webb's "Wichita Lineman". MacArthur Park in Los Angeles receives many more visitors than a modest municipal open space might expect. And by the time you get to Phoenix you'll find music fans in the Arizona state capital simply because of Webb's heartbreaking lyrics ("By the time I get to Phoenix she'll be rising/She'll find the note I left hanging on her door").

Yet from the traveller's perspective, the seaside town in Texas that is the backdrop for Webb's most poignant song is far more intriguing and compelling: "Galveston, oh Galveston, I still hear your sea waves crashing".

Those waves crash against one of America's finest beaches, backed by a historic commercial heart and fabulous seafood, all sprinkled with a frisson of laid-back hippiedom.

Strangely, you will look in vain in Galveston for any tribute to the man who put the Texas resort back on the map. That map is an odd one. Galveston is unlike anywhere you have been in America. The city – or port, or resort – lies on the Gulf Coast, that hot-headed body of water that delivers us the Gulf Stream. It comprises an island that is anchored to the rest of Texas by a bridge misnamed the Galveston Causeway. This is also the last gasp of Interstate 45 on its journey from Dallas and Houston.

All of Galveston Island is low lying – which, over the centuries, has proved a problem. Most of the 32-mile southern shore is a soft, sandy beach. Yet because of its position guarding the waterways stretching inland to Houston, in its time Galveston was an international hub.

The golden age of Galveston still resonates along The Strand, as the main street is known. It is flanked by handsome banks that would not look out of place in New York – and indeed, for a time, it was known as the Wall Street of Texas because of the huddle of financial institutions.

The bankers were attracted by Galveston's primacy as the port for the south-central US, and its status as a gateway for migrants second only to Ellis Island in New York. It is also on an avian superhighway, making it one of the best birding destinations in the US; Featherfest 2013 takes place next weekend.

In the late 19th century, Galveston was one big get-rich-quick scheme, with thousands of immigrants arriving from Europe and a thriving trade with the East Coast ports of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The performing arts thrived, thanks to the 1894 Grand Opera House – still the Official Opera House of Texas.

Galveston acquired millionaires, and those millionaires acquired palaces around the eastern end of Broadway. The most notable is the Bishop's Palace, built in 1892 by the railroad magnate Walter Gresham. It resembles a Scottish baronial castle transplanted from Tayside to the Gulf of Mexico. But as the 19th century ended, so did Galveston's good fortune. The 1900 "Great Storm" was the worst natural disaster in US history. Some 8,000 residents, one-third of the island's population, died when 100mph winds and a 15ft surge of water slammed into the frail structures in which most people lived.

The redbrick testaments to prosperity along The Strand survived. So did an assortment of less robust premises. Twentieth-century developers focused their demolition squads in more profitable locations, and as a result these relics have endured to the 21st century to become bars, restaurants and art galleries. The tight 30-block grid of historic Galveston is a joy to wander through, with little sign of damage from the latest battering, Hurricane Rita in 2005.

The coming of the freeway brought Galveston within an hour of Houston. As the biggest Texan city mushroomed after the Second World War, the island's breezy shores became the answer to the question "How do we escape the city this weekend?", and the Texan Riviera flourished.

Galveston still fulfils the role of the ideal antidote to high-rise, high‑energy Houston. It is also the closest that Texas gets to Blackpool. While you may look in vain for kiss-me-quick hats, Galveston has a pleasure pier and six million visitors a year. In place of Harry Ramsden's, Gaido's has been dispensing succulent seafood for a century at 3828 Seawall Boulevard.

From the restaurant you can gaze across to the beach. Jimmy Webb's haunting lyrics may return – a soldier's lament for a girl left behind. "I am so afraid of dying/Before I dry the tears she's crying." Or you may instead find yourself humming the line from Dr Hook's big hit: "Sylvia's mother says Sylvia's marrying a fellow down Galveston way."

Whichever you prefer, tune in to this singular slice of Texas.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Fly to Houston. While BA and United can get you there non-stop from Heathrow, they touch down at the city's George Bush airport – a long way north of the city, while Galveston is south-east. It could well save time and money to get an indirect flight that lands at Houston's Hobby airport, a short drive from Galveston. Delta and American both offer connections via their hubs. Once there, you will need to rent a car; Alamo offers good deals, best booked through a broker such as Holiday Autos.

More information

Simon Calder's film 48 hours in Houston includes a sequence in Galveston: bit.ly/48Hou

See also galveston.com