I feel the wind in my face on a december evening on the Kemah Boardwalk, an old-fashioned amusement park on Galveston Bay. With a crowd of fellow spectators, I huddle up to a rail overlooking Clear Creek Channel, waiting for the annual League City Christmas Boat Lane Parade on Clear Lake to commence.
“It kicks off the holiday season down here, and it’s been a long tradition,” says Shari Sweeney, vice president of the Clear Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which produces the event.
The first twinkle of holiday lights approaches on the water at dusk, and a procession of wind- and motor-powered boats slowly churns into view. They flaunt their holiday decor and vie for about 50 prizes. The 53rd annual lighted boat parade is slated for December 13 this year.
“Some get really competitive. They start planning a year before,” Sweeney says of the longtime serious competitors she calls “old salts.”
The old salts put in among 100 participating boats at the South Shore Harbor Resort in League City, shoot through Clear Creek Channel and take a U-turn in Galveston Bay near the amusement park’s northeast corner.
From the Kemah Boardwalk, I watch the boat lights gleam against the darkening horizon and reflect on the water.
The participants’ fun-loving dedication is on full display. Captains and passengers—some dressed up as Santa Claus or the Grinch—wave and shout “Merry Christ- mas!” to the cheering audience. Creative boats include one disguised as a cartoonlike space shuttle. Another serves as a stage for an onboard song-and-dance troupe showboating to Elvis tunes. And the “Boardwalk Fantasea Yacht” sprouts a decorative Christmas tree farm on its roof. Several watercrafts spray snowflakes over the crowd.
When the wintery bay breeze gets too cold, parties retreat into some of the amusement park’s nearly dozen restaurants. I opt for a table at The Flying Dutchman, a waterfront seafood house. I can still see the boat parade while dining on yellowfin tuna and ceviche.
Warmed by the food, I venture back outside to explore the boardwalk’s amusements. A ride on the C.P. Huntington Train gives an overview of the park’s restaurants, rides, shops and attractions. From a wooden bench on the garland- and bow-lined replica train, I inhale the aroma of saltwater and funnel cakes. I glide through tunnels and among swaying palms, rubbernecking at rides including a double-decker carousel, Ferris wheel, Pharaoh’s Fury pendulum ride and Drop Zone 140-foot free fall. The lighted rides stand out brightly against the night sky.
“What we offer here is diverse,” says Jim Doering, general manager of the Kemah Boardwalk, which is built in the former shrimping community named for an indigenous word, “kemah,” loosely translated today to mean “wind in the face.” He describes how the old-timey carnival-like atmosphere attracts people of all ages—children, dating couples and older folks walking hand in hand.
With just a few minutes until the rides close, I buy a ticket for what’s billed as the “Coolest Coaster on the Coast.” The park’s classic wooden roller coaster stands 96 feet tall and reaches a top speed of 51 mph. Just before the ride’s first plunge, I glance over my shoulder at the bay below where I had earlier watched the boat parade. The now-dark water stretches out to the twilight sky, and the Kemah Boardwalk sparkles at its edge. Then the coaster dives 92 feet, rumbling and clattering around bends and over crests for a ride that leaves me breathless.
Blinking wind-induced tears from my eyes, I descend into the December night ready for rest. I’ve reserved a quiet room a couple of blocks away at the Seaside Inn Bed and Breakfast. There, I take an evening soak in a private indoor hot tub, sleep in a king-size bed and then greet the morning from the inn’s private pier—enjoying a partial view of the boardwalk, sunshine and once again, a bay breeze in my face.
Suzanne Halko, staff writer