Free fun in Galveston

Sponsored by Lexus of Austin

See a movie, cruise for dolphins and taste hand-pulled taffy without spending a dime.

Galveston has always been a great Texas destination because of the way it manages to maintain a low-key, beach-town vibe while also offering big-name attractions for family fun.

Want to relax? Rent a surrey (those brightly colored bike-cart hybrids you see people pedaling) and cruise the seawall.

Need speed? Test out any of the heart-stopping rides on the Pleasure Pier.

Traveling on a budget and looking for some ideas that won’t cost you a cent? Galveston — about 3 1/2 hours from Austin — also has you covered.

Tree sculpture tour

When life gives you a hurricane, make art. At least that’s the philosophy of a group of Galveston homeowners who decided to turn trees ravaged by 2008’s Hurricane Ike into ornate sculptures.

As you travel the island, expect to find everything from the historical (a replica of the figurehead from the island’s famous Tall Ship Elissa) to the whimsical (a pod of dolphins with a mermaid). Kids will appreciate recognizable items such as a guitar, a squirrel and even SpongeBob SquarePants.

“What I like is the reaction of the people,” said Earl Jones, a Galveston artist who has created about 20 of the tree sculptures in the area. “I like doing something that people get enjoyment out of. Not only that, but on occasion I have a chance to relay messages of hope, of peace and of love. It’s a great outlet for me. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it.”

Find a list of sculpture addresses online at galveston.com/treesculpturetour — many are centered in the city’s East End Historic District — then take a free driving tour.

Visitors to Galveston can take a free self-guided tour of more than two dozen intricate tree sculptures. (Kristin Finan/American-Statesman)

Bolivar ferry ride

Warm ocean breezes. Rolling waves. A dolphin’s dorsal fin gliding out of the water. There’s nothing like seeing Galveston by boat. But if you’re short on funds or traveling with small children or others who may not be willing to sit still for an extended dolphin tour, simply hop on the Galveston Island Ferry to Bolivar.

Regularly scheduled ferry service between Galveston and Port Bolivar started in 1929 and has been operated by the state since 1934. It takes about 20 minutes to make the 2.7-mile one-way trip, which is plenty of time to get out of your car and take in the views. Once you arrive in Bolivar, you can sight-see there or turn back around and board the ferry for the return trip. The service is offered 24 hours a day; find more information at txdot.gov.

Sea turtle tour

If you love sea turtles — and really, who doesn’t love sea turtles? — schedule a visit to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Galveston Sea Turtle Facility, which offers free tours by appointment on Thursdays. Visitors will watch a video about research being done there, participate in a question-and-answer session and then walk through the facility to check out captive-reared Loggerhead sea turtles.

Tour space is limited through the summer. Visit galvestonlab.sefsc.noaa.gov for more information, or call 409-766-3500 to book a tour.

Galveston Beach between Murdoch's Bath House and the Pleasure Pier. (Nell Carroll/American-Statesman)

Taffy demonstration at La King’s Confectionery

La King’s Confectionery dates back to 1927, when Jimmy King learned how to make “Old World” candy in Houston.

In 1976, his son, Jack, moved to Galveston and recreated an old-fashioned confectionery in the historic Strand District. These days, it’s a must-visit destination thanks to its working 1920s soda fountain, delicious handcrafted shakes, homemade candy and saltwater taffy, which you can watch being made in store Wednesday through Sundays.

After a free hourlong taffy-making demonstration, made using antique equipment, guests receive samples. Call 409-762-6100 or visit lakingsconfectionery.com for more information.

Movie night on the Strand

No visit to Galveston is complete without spending some time in the historic Strand District, which is filled with shops, museums and restaurants.

Start the day at the Railroad Museum, which is not free but fairly cheap ($8 for adults, $5 for children, free for children 3 and younger) and offers everything a train enthusiast could want, from detailed model train layouts to diningware displays. On Saturdays, the museum also offers train rides every 20 minutes between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. ($4, galvestonrrmuseum.com).

After a fun-filled day exploring the area, head to Saegerfest Park, which hosts Movie Night on the Strand on the first Saturday of the month. It’s a great excuse to grab a blanket or some lawn chairs and take in a free family-friendly flick. Visit galveston.com/saengerfestpark for more information.

Insider Tips

• Love tree sculptures? The Galveston Historical Foundation offers guided sculpture tours several times a week using a solar-powered shuttle bus. www.galvestonislandtours.com.
• If you want to get up close and personal with animals, Moody Gardens offers a variety of animal experiences, including a public penguin encounter, a private penguin encounter and a penguin and seal experience. 409-683-4102, moodygardens.com.
• For a sweet bargain, don’t miss the “sweet treat happy hour” at Star Drug Store daily between 3 and 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. galvestonstardrug.com.
• Pier 21 Theatre shows several excellent movies that focus on Galveston’s past. galveston.com/pier21theatre.

Where to stay

• San Luis Resort. 5223 Seawall Blvd. 409-744-1500, sanluisresort.com.
• Hotel Galvez. 2024 Seawall Blvd. 409-765-7721, hotelgalvez.com.
• Tremont House. 2300 Mechanic St. 409-763-0300, thetremonthouse.com.

Where to eat
• Gaido’s. 3828 Seawall Blvd. 409-761-5500, gaidos.com.
• Sunflower Cafe. 512 14th St. 409-763-5500, thesunflowerbakeryandcafe.com.
• Rudy & Paco. 2028 Post Office St. 409-762-3696, rudyandpaco.com.
• The Steakhouse at San Luis Resort. 5222 Seawall Blvd. 409-744-1500, sanluisresort.com.

What to do

• Pleasure Pier. 2501 Seawall Blvd. 409-766-4950, pleasurepier.com.
• Galveston Island State Park. 14901 FM 3005. 409-737-1222, tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/galveston-island.
• Baywatch Dolphin Tours. 2100 Harborside Drive. 832-859-4557, galvestonbaywatch.com.
• Seawolf Park. 100 Seawolf Park Blvd. 409-797-5114, galveston.com/seawolfpark.

Photo by Galveston City Visitors Bureau