GALVESTON, Texas — The Galveston Island Ferry, which is Texas’ version of the famous New York Staten Island Ferry, may be the best tourist bargain in the Lone Star State.
It’s free, and the roughly 20-minute ride each way between Port Bolivar and Galveston is an entertaining diversion from the beaches and historic districts that are the biggest local tourist draw. Nowhere else in Texas can you cross and share a waterway with ships on one of the world’s busiest channels, feed scores of seagulls eager for bread and spot dolphins swimming within shouting distance of the boat.
“The scenery, looking at everything, I’ve enjoyed it since
I was a child,” Destiny Perry-Inman, 30, of Kirbyville, Texas, said on a recent trip. “I’d come here every summer with my dad. I would recommend it to people who enjoy this sort of thing.”
Passengers standing on the bow can get a saltwater shower as the nearly football-field-long ferry plows through a swell or the wake of a ship. At night, the lights of gigantic petrochemical plants in nearby Texas City burn on the horizon to the northwest. A line of ocean-going freighters and tankers dot the horizon leading into the open Gulf of Mexico.
“We love it,” Millie Garfield, of Victorville, Calif., said, as she accompanied her daughter and 5-year-old grandson. “It’s a neat experience for kids.”
Garfield’s daughter, Sarah Emerson, is from Silsbee, Texas, about 90 miles northeast of Galveston. Whenever she gets out-of-town visitors, she said the ferry is a must-do trip.
You don’t get to see the Statue of Liberty on this crossing, but like its East Coast counterpart, which for decades has been hauling passengers between Staten Island and Manhattan, the Bolivar Ferry has operated for generations. It carries vehicles and passengers the nearly three miles across Galveston Bay from the island to the Bolivar Peninsula, a sliver of land separating the bay from the Gulf of Mexico. The ferry runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, halted only by the occasional approach of a hurricane or tropical storm.
Officially, the ferry run by the Texas Department of Transportation is an extension of Highway 87, which parallels the coastline northeast out of Galveston. It saves motorists a three-hour, 140-mile drive around the bay to Bolivar from Galveston.
“It is a state highway,” department spokesman Hank Glamann says of the ferry. “It’s just a chunk that happens to float.”
The boats in the ferry fleet carried 1.4 million vehicles and nearly 4.4 million passengers in the past year. People can remain in their cars, get out and stand on the deck or climb stairs to a second deck for a seagull’s eye view. The fleet’s newest $23 million vessel is being prepared to enter service to expand the number of boats to six.
The busiest time of the year is June, July and August, and hours-long waits to drive aboard a boat are not uncommon. People merely wanting to take the boat ride can walk aboard and avoid the lines after parking at the ferry landing.