Travel: A cruise round the western Caribbean

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In the Gulf of Mexico, just 50 miles from Houston, on the coast of Texas, lies Galveston, an island made famous by the Glen Campbell song.

Here, on the railings at Pier 21, an historic wharf and hub for boat rides and authentic American grill and seafood restaurants, I rested and squinted as beams of the fading sunlight reflected off the majestic white vessel that I would be boarding 24 hours later.

I thought of my younger brother, a somewhat veteran cruiser, experiencing the Caribbean while working in ship engine rooms. As a first-time cruiser, I was looking forward to having my own sea tales to tell.

After a nine-hour flight from Heathrow to Houston, I was in Galveston to begin a six-day trip aboard Carnival Cruise Lines’ largest ship, Magic, for a voyage around the western Caribbean from its new home port.

With 1500 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, Galveston is also home to many Texan firsts, including the state’s first post office, first opera house, first golf course and first electric lights, as well as a port once renowned in the 19th century as one of the busiest on the Gulf Coast for the export of cotton.

An ideal destination to tag a few days’ stay at the beginning or end of a cruise, this island has a colourful, if not tragic, history due to the storms that have battered the coastline - most famously the Great Storm of 1900, the deadliest natural disaster in United States history, and more recently Hurricane Ike.

Blue plaques pop up all around - at shops, museums, hotels - some high, some low, as height markers to remember the flooding of that disastrous storm in 2008. These signs, some of which stand eight feet tall, are worn with pride and are evidence of the island’s remarkable turnaround.

Some 32 miles of unbroken sands edge Galveston, and my overnight bed at Hotel Galvez, a grand 1911-built hotel named after the Spanish count who also gives his name to the island, is surrounded by palm trees and was once the accommodation of choice for Franklin Roosevelt and Frank Sinatra.

The view out to the blackened sea as the sun hides for the day is rather dramatic and the beaches, dotted with fishing rods, are just one of the reasons this island is a perfect year-round holiday destination, blending hot weather and rich history.

Despite intensive restoration, the island remains quaint and charming. It isn’t trying to be modern, it’s kept that old-world feel with bikes, trams and horse-drawn carriages parked on the side streets and buildings with well-preserved Victorian architecture.

In further testament to its resilience, oak trees destroyed by Ike, which once towered over the leafy neighbourhoods, have now been carved into polished wood sculptures, such as characters from The Wizard Of Oz.

The Galveston Cruise Terminal is located within walking distance of the historical downtown shopping district, harbour tours on Pier 21 and The Grand 1894 Opera House.

While dolphins playfully jumped around the edge of the ship, there was an air of excitement throughout the town as the 130,000-ton Carnival Magic settled into its home port.

“It’s Las Vegas on water,” one passenger gushed. And with a glittering, neon casino aboard, complete with glass elevators and bizarre hairy chest competitions, I could see why.

My first couple of days were mostly spent testing out the abundance of culinary delights - from the laid-back Caribbean-themed Red Frog Pub to Italian Cucina del Capitano.

Cruises offer much more than good food and wine, though, and are an ideal way to tour lesser-known places you may not have considered visiting.

After three days at sea, I once again crossed the gangway on to land for a few hours in Cozumel.

This island in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico is a bustling port for ships where pier-side bars serve up delicious frozen daiquiris.

I found a shaded spot at the end of the dock for some respite from the scorching sun to stare in awe at the bluest of seas, which lapped gently against the ship’s monstrous steel frame. Reggae music hummed and exotic smells wafted around me.

Further inland is a square block of gift shops selling souvenirs, jewellery and knick-knacks, all of which can be grabbed at bargain price if you’re willing to negotiate.

Port days offer a nice change of scenery but I was eager to retreat to my favourite hideaway - the Cloud 9 saunas and thermal suites, with the Thalassotherapy pool which is filled with 91F sea water - good for cleansing the skin and relieving muscle pain.

While I could spy many a passenger enjoying the sun from the quieter, adult-only Serenity deck, I couldn’t manage to pull myself away from the heated mosaic recliners.

One bemused passenger asked: “Are you still here, have you had any lunch yet?”

I had. “Go straight to the buffet at the Lido Market Place Mongolian Wok,” another veteran passenger who had travelled the Mediterranean on several of the vessel’s summer runs advised.

Another packed-out area was Magic’s water park, with a 312ft spiral water slide. Squeals of delight from children and adults alike can be heard above the daily pop tunes blasting out around the Lido.

If a movie night under the stars doesn’t take your fancy, there’s always the Showtime Theatre. Destination Unknown, the largest show ever staged on a Carnival ship, includes acrobatics, cheeky costumes and fire.

It was the ideal finale before docking in Galveston, a place where I could have started the trip all over again.

BEST FOR: Families and young adults looking for a lively but cultural holiday.

TIME TO GO: Carnival Magic is offering year-round seven-day cruises from Galveston, where temperatures reach as high as 32C in August and as low as 9C in January. Temperatures in Cozumel stay well above 20C all year round.

DON’T MISS: Evening entertainment in the Showtime Theatre and seafood restaurants of Galveston.

NEED TO KNOW: Prepare to wait in line in Lido Marketplace and book in advance for spa treatments and dining in Cucina del Capitano.

DON’T FORGET: Formal evening wear as well as casual clothing.

n Charlotte Birch was a guest on Carnival Magic, which offers nine nights’ fly/cruise, with BA flights into Houston, from £1199 (based on April 21 departure). Call Carnival reservations on 0845 351 0556 or visit www.carnivalcruise.co.uk