About 30 minutes south of Houston, right off I-45, is the small, coastal town of Kemah, part of the grouping of towns called Bay Area Houston. Kemah is known for its bustling boardwalk, nestled along Clear Creek Channel which opens up into Galveston Bay. The area is a charming Gulf Coast destination that gets millions of visitors each year.
Back in earlier days, Kemah used to be a rustic shrimping port on Galveston Bay where you could buy some fresh shrimp and a beer and sit by the dock on an afternoon to watch the boats come in. During the 90s, a developer built the boardwalk and brought in amusement rides, restaurants, shops and carnival games and turned it into a tourist attraction. I do have to admit, it is somewhat "touristy", but to me, that's not a bad thing. On a recent sunny day in early February, I was one of those tourists enjoying a stroll along the Kemah Boardwalk.
The Kemah boardwalk is essentially an amusement park featuring some great rides, such as The Boardwalk Bullet, a 96' wooden roller coaster. It reaches speeds of 51 mph and gets so close to the water's edge, it feels like it will fling you into the bay! You'll also find midway games, theme shops and souvenir stores. There are plenty of restaurants along the boardwalk, and most have seats overlooking the water. All of the restaurants are good and of course, they all offer plenty of seafood dishes. You won't get a fresher catch anywhere else. In addition to the rides and midway games, there are often events or festivals going on at the Boardwalk. Check the Kemah Boardwalk website for up-to-date information.
I started my afternoon in Kemah with lunch at the Aquarium Restaurant. This restaurant offers many attractions beyond its good food – they feature a 50,000-gallon, floor-to-ceiling aquarium housing more than 100 species of tropical fish and sharks, and Stingray Reef, where you can touch and feed live stingrays. They've also added a Rainforest themed exhibit with piranhas, snakes, scorpions, tarantulas. Under the blue glow of the huge aquarium, I enjoyed a New Orleans Po-Boy with shrimp which was really fresh and tasty. If you don't feel like a sit-down lunch, another great option is to check out the food vendors along the boardwalk. You'll find the expected carnival type fare along with some unique items worth trying. Just "graze" your way through and sample a few items from different carts.
After lunch, I thought about going on the Bullet, but decided that wasn't best done right after a big meal, so instead, I meandered along the boardwalk, enjoying the relaxing sight of boats floating slowly by. I checked out some of the shops, which are what you'd typically expect to find in a touristy area – souvenirs, Kemah T-shirts, beach wear.
There's no entry fee for the boardwalk, but the rides cost $4-5 each. If you think you will be going on several rides, your best bet is to get an all-day pass. The cost is $20, but with a little pre-planning, you can sometimes get discount coupons. In fact, right now in February, there's a Wintertime Blues promotion on the Kemah Boardwalk website which offers an all-day pass at $5 when you buy one at regular price. During other times of the year, check the Houston Chronicle for discounts coupons or search online.
Still in the neighborhood at dinner time? You can certainly try one of the other many restaurants along the boardwalk, but what I'd recommend is walking a few blocks over to Highway 146 and eating at T-Bone Tom's, a down-home, family style restaurant where the food is really good and really plentiful. You can get seafood here, but when a place has "T-Bone" in the title, your best bet is usually the meat and that's for sure true here. I started with an appetizer of "Armadillo Eggs", which aren’t eggs and they're not from armadillos, either. These are large jalapeños, stuffed with brisket and deep fried. Served with a creamy dipping sauce, they are really fantastic. I could have made a whole dinner of these, but I also had to try their ribeye steak. This was 14 ounces of choice, tender beef, bathed in some sort of magic marinade with a pineapple tang to it. It was truly a memorable dinner. (we covered T-Bone Tom's a few years back during our quest for the best chicken-fried steak. Read about it here.)
Overall, Kemah is the perfect family getaway. It's a paradise for children and a romantic date for couples. There’s lots to do during the cooler months and it’s a great destination during the warm months when the water activities and refreshing Gulf breezes keep you cool. Make a day of it!