Pros: Next to the water...
Cons: Plastic corporate chain restaurants, lack of organically grown local culture...
The Kemah Boardwalk is something of an enigma to me. I honestly don't understand why it's become so incredibly popular with Houstonians. What's even more puzzling to me is the way that people seem to actually think of the place as a destination. Bizarre.
In my opinion, Kemah just isn't all that great. Oh sure, it's nice enough the first time you visit. And it is kind of cool to visit during the Christmas holidays. And hanging out near the water -- any water -- is always a recipe for good times. Yet, I just can't get away from the phoniness of the whole Kemah scene. Let me explain...
If You Build It, They Will Come...
Kemah is sort of a mock quaint waterfront town. At one time it had some legitimate funkiness to it and some working fishing boats, but those days are long gone. The shrimp boats moved across the channel to Seabrook around the time that mother nature took care of tearing up most of the Kemah blight. In the storm's wake came Kemah's white knight -- the Houston corporate restaurant empire that is the hidden power behind Landry's seafood houses, Joe's Crab Shack, the Cadillac Bar, and many similar concept restaurants. The Kemah Boardwalk is Landry's Restaurants, Incorporated.
It's no mistake that every restaurant you happen to hear associated with the name "Kemah" is owned by Landrys. The Kemah Boardwalk is essentially a magnet intended to pull people in and keep them eating and drinking and fattening the coffers of the Landry's folks.
There are no real "local flavor" restaurants in Kemah -- none anywhere near the boardwalk area anyway. There are also no genuine top-flight restaurants -- places where uncompromising service and quality are ways of life. These are corporate restaurants, not good restaurants. You won't get waiters, you'll get "servers" working part-time jobs until they find a real job. If Olive Garden is your idea of a "good" italian restaurant, a vist to Kemah will make you happy as a pig at slop time. The food is equally average and undistinctive with wine and beer selections that will rival your local Exxon On the Run. (If you're a real foodie, you know where I'm coming from.)
The one restaurant that really shook up the Houston restaurant industry was the Aquarium. When it first opened, you had outrageously long lines to get in. People loved the experience of the big dining room surrounded by glassed in fish tanks. The food was probably as good as you'll ever get in a corporate run restaurant, though the service is just as mediocre. Nowadays, Houstonians don't need to trek to Kemah even if they love the aquarium experience -- there's a new Aquarium restaurant in downtown Houston's Theatre District, complete with ferris wheel, carroussel, and the whole boardwalk experience in a less hectic, lower key, but still expensive environment. Personally, I far prefer the downtown location to Kemah.
I'm generally unimpressed by the feel of the whole Kemah experience. It's just got that squeeky clean fake corporate feel to the whole area. It's like the difference between visiting the Mexico Pavilioin at Walt Disney World and then actually experiencing a real vacation at a small luxury hotel on a hidden cove just out of Huatulco. You do find some hints of legitimate quaintness in the side streets of Kemah, but by and large, these are faint echos, long since drowned out by "No Parking Any Time" signs, which are more prevalent in Kemah than bushes.
But let's talk about the Boardwalk for a sec, shall we?
Like everything else in Kemah, the boardwalk is phony and contrived. Kemah is not a resort town and it never had a boardwalk until Landry's rode into town. Ten years ago, nobody cared about Kemah. Newness alone isn't a good enough reason to criticize something though. After all, progress happens. My criticism though is that the boardwalk just isn't good.
America has some good boardwalks -- they're in some of the classic Atlantic coast seaside resort towns. They're places that have become town centers because they've grown organically, because they have diverse businesses along them, because they have a sense of excitement, and most importantly, because they have a good beach to back them up!
There's no beach at Kemah. In fact, there's not much of a waterfront.
The boardwalk is basically a sidewalk along the channel that connects the Gulf of Mexico to Clear Lake -- Houston's marina to end all marinas (I've heard it's the biggest leisure boating facility on the Gulf, and 3rd in the U.S. only to San Diego and Annapolis in sheer number of small craft). Along the boardwalk is a tiny amusement park area containing a ferris wheel and a carrousel. A miniature train runs along the boardwalk. There's no competition with Landry's. There's no genuine funk. There's no character. No beach. The Kemah Boardwalk gets boring very fast (how many times can you really walk 50 yards, looking at people in all the flavors of Landry's restaurants?) The boardwalk bores me. If it bores you too, you could always take a nap. If you do, the Landry's folks hope you're enough of a sap to spring for the big bucks at their pre-packaged phony "inn".
The Boardwalk Inn is a very modern small hotel containing 52 rooms. The rooms are almost always booked up on weekends and prices can easily top $200 a night. If you're from out-of-town and have your heart set on staying on the Kemah Boardwalk, book for a weekday and you'll have better luck getting the room you want, and at more reasonable rates (though you could still do far better staying at one of the small local B&Bs, or at the Holiday Inn or Hilton (site of the infamous "Mad Dentist" murder).
Kemah is located to the southeast of Houston in the Clear Lake Area. The easiest way to get there is probably to head south on I-45, then exit NASA Road 1. Head east about 4-5 miles, then hang a right when the road dead ends in Seabrook. Cross the bridge and you'll be in Kemah. Hang a left past the marina and follow the line of lemmings to the waterfront.
Parking is in acres of surface lots, which fill early on weekends. You can drive around the lots aimlessly looking for a spot, which is what most Houstonians like doing, or you can simply head straight for the parking garage. I've never quite understood why people skip the garage, preferring to waste time hunting for non-existent spaces, then parking illegally 10 blocks away and walking, but that's the usual modus operandi of Kemah visitors. (It does help explain why they think the Cadillac Bar is "good" mexican food.) If you do visit Kemah, at least be smart and head straight to the garage -- there's almost always parking there, even on a weekend, and it's mere steps to the boardwalk and the restaurants).
A Better Waterfront Experience...
The obvious alternative to Kemah is Galveston. Anyone visiting Houston who wants to experience a seaside weekend experience should head to Galveston and leave Kemah for the undemanding teeming millions of Wal-Mart shoppers.
For everything plastic and phony in Kemah, you'll find the genuine article in Galveston -- and just minutes further down I-45.
Galveston has a real beach running for miles along the Gulf of Mexico.
Galveston has real history and real quaintness with a downtown area that reflects its Victorian era heritage.
Galveston has real attractions that are worth seeing, like the classic old Bishops Palace and the Moody Mansion.
Galveston has real variety when it comes to hotels, including some places with true class -- like the Tremont House, and places with real heritage -- like the Hotel Galvez, and places with real funkiness.
Galveston doesn't get boring. Kemah does.
Lots of people like Kemah, I'm just not one of them. Go ahead and check it out for yourself and see -- after all, there's nothing quite as valid as doing your own recon.
If you're like me though, you'll skip Kemah and head south another 15 minutes or so to Galveston. That's where you'll find genuine Gulf Coast beach ambience with real restaurants, real beaches, real hotels, real shops, real history, and real fun for the whole family.