Texas: Where oil and water mix

The vast US state has much more to offer than high-rise cities and heavy drilling. Ben Isaacs travels through the Lone Star State to find a wealth of beaches and birdlife

It was a typical Texan afternoon: I sat on the pristine beach looking back on a morning of coastal birdwatching and pondered when I should sail down the bayou. Honestly, this is how it works in south-east Texas. If you're looking for cowboys on dusty trails, you'll be disappointed. This particular corner of the Lone Star State – just west of the Louisiana state line – is very different. Local seafood is as common as steak; the paranormal trumps pragmatism.

My journey had started in Houston, Texas's biggest city. Its clean streets and steel-and-glass skyline initially reminded me of Dallas, its smaller but more glitzy cousin, around 225 miles north via Interstate 45. But the Big D has nothing to match H Town's sprawling Memorial Park and port-city ethnic diversity.

The Houstonian Hotel, right next to the park, blended right in to the nearby green space with 18 acres of its own. Was this really America's fourth-largest metropolis? This corner of the state is reputed to offer an astonishing selection of natural beauty – I just had to find it. Joggers and families were pottering round the Memorial Park, but aside from a few squirrels, wildlife was in short supply. So I set a course for the I-45 causeway and on to Galveston Island.

The city of Galveston is to Houston what Brighton is to London: cute boutiques and fresh sea air just a stone's throw from a bustling metropolis. The difference being that where Brighton is packed with try-hard trendies, Galveston is full of ghosts (apparently; I saw none) and tree sculptures (I saw lots).

Galveston is a survivor. In 1900 the island was hit by what is still America's deadliest hurricane. Depending on which source you trust, the death toll was as high as 12,000 and many islanders believe the deceased live on, roaming the streets in which they perished. In 2008 Hurricane Ike destroyed buildings and businesses, although this time far fewer lives were lost. Nature is at her most beautiful here, but she can also be cruel. Buildings still bear the scars, and many walls have lines painted on them to show how high flooding reached in that street. However, they feel like badges of honour rather than a request for sympathy.

East End oaks killed by the floods were reduced to stumps soon after; but now they are used as a medium for art. Intricate sculpting has turned death into beauty. Every street has a mermaid, a dolphin, a dog or something more outré (the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz for example, outside 1702 Winnie at 17th Street). It's both folksy and audacious.

The island's appeal lies less in its urban setting, and more in its 32 miles of beaches. Although some of these had crowds of sun-worshippers, or fishermen, or crabbers, many were deserted save for naturalists with binoculars and cameras.

Galveston Island is not only a busy thoroughfare for migrating birds, it's also heavily populated by resident shorebirds. Laughing gulls filled the air with noise. I was keen to see the reddish egret, the official city bird, but things didn't go to plan. The little heron will find its way on to the endangered species list sooner rather than later and failing to find them on the Texas coast, where they are most common, seemed a bad sign. A white ibis with a huge curved bill was my favourite spot of the day, and I willed him on as he dug into the local seafood.

From Galveston, I took a 100-mile diversion to Beaumont, which is probably the most intriguing Texan city you've never heard of. If you could pinpoint a place where the south-west of America becomes the south-east, Beaumont would be it. It's swampy, boasts an alligator park – and Cajun food is huge here. Billboards on the freeway advised drivers to take the next exit for out-of-state casinos; ads for strip clubs vied with those urging sinners to go to church instead. This is Texas with a side order of deep-fried Louisiana. Most significantly, though, Beaumont is where the US oil industry was born.

The Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum and the Texas Energy Museum explain and celebrate the discovery of massive oil supplies that helped form the modern-day US. Although Spindletop features a slightly cheesy replica of the tiny, original 1890s settlement which you can poke around in, the highlight is when they let off a "gusher". The oil is replaced by water (enough to make anyone in the UK suffering through drought-driven hose-pipe bans cringe) and is shot 150 feet in the air. It provides a cooling mist on a hot day. I doubt the oil provided such refreshment. Unsurprisingly, ancient fossil fuels feature heavily at the Energy Museum; you don't get to be at the forefront of the energy business without a dedication to science.

If it's "green" you're after, then head once again to the water; this time the intoxicating serenity of the Neches River. Regular boat tours give birdwatchers and nature-lovers the chance to seek out everything from turtles to ospreys, although the sight of circling vultures unnerved me – did they know something about my swollen insect bite that I didn't?

Just outside Beaumont, the Shangri La Botanical Gardens and Nature Centre was the first building in the state to receive the Green Council's platinum award. It offers stimulation via its goal of educating the public about conservation, and it provides serenity by providing a peaceful and calm space despite its proximity to the freeway. Where other aspects of Texas life seems to be dedicated to extracting and processing one of nature's richest resources, life in these parts also seems to be about observing and enjoying the wild. Perhaps Beaumont proves that oil and water can mix.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer flew from Heathrow to Houston with United Airlines (0845 607 6760; unitedairlines.co.uk), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies the same route.

Visiting there

Gator Country, Beaumont (gatorrescue.com); admission $12 (£8).

Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, 5550 University Drive, Beaumont (spindletop.org); $5.

Texas Energy Museum, Beaumont (texasenergymuseum.com); admission $2.

Neches River Adventures, Beaumont (nechesriveradventures.org); admission $15.

Shangri-la Gardens, 111 West Park Avenue, Orange 77630 (shangrilagardens.org); admission $6.

More information

Texas Tourism: traveltex.com