Beaumont - history, food and family excursions, just a stone's throw east

Written by: Patsy Oliver. Photos by Patsy Oliver.

My daughter Heather, and I recently spent a three-day weekend in Beaumont. I've driven through it a hundred times, but I regret to say I never thought to stop and see what it had to offer.

We had a loose itinerary, with room to change and adapt as we saw fit. We were both really surprised that there was so much to keep us busy; one day we will have to go back to check a few more highlights off our list.

Our first stop Friday afternoon was the Fire Museum of Texas, a quaint little assembly of fire trucks and memorabilia housed in a museum which adjoins a functioning modern fire station. Entry is free but donations are accepted.

You'll get a fascinating look at how fires were fought in the early days.

There's a huge spotted fire hydrant just across the street in a plaza that makes for a great photo op, donated by Disney in 1999. There you will also find the State of Texas Firefighter Memorial, a beautiful bronze statue honoring all firefighters in Texas. The site is also home to a memorial in memory of the fallen New York City firefighters who died on 9/11.

Next we checked into the MCM Eleganté Hotel. Located just off I-10 at Washington, this 280-room hotel was bustling with activity that weekend.

The hotel has a restaurant, conference center, business center, lovely outdoor pool, billiard tables, bar, concierge and on-site spa services, and more. And if you need your Starbucks, you can get it there as well. We especially liked that there was a sink/mirror area in our room with a closet just outside the bathroom. That's always nice when more than one person is trying to get ready in the morning.

That evening we went to the historic Jefferson Theatre. We were lucky enough to run into General Manager Lenny Caballero, who took us on a private tour and filled us in on some of the Jefferson's history. Built in 1927, the Jefferson was the venue that overshadowed other theaters of its time.

It saw the premiers of some unforgettable motion pictures, including “It's a Wonderful Life” in 1946. It was not the official world premier, but it was a very big deal. Stewart and director Frank Capra were in attendance.

Caballero said that actor John Travolta recently visited and asked to have the theater reserved for a private showing of an old movie for him and his companions, who were working on a new movie. Caballero said Travolta loved the theater and its history.

From wall to wall, top to bottom – including some tunnels once used by actors and artists to travel underground from the theater to the Beaumont Hotel (THE place to stay back in the day) – the Jefferson is a magnificent history lesson of its own. It now offers Classic Movie Nights. Call the box office (800-782-3081) for show times and what's playing.

Also a must-see and just a short walk from the Jefferson is the beautiful and nostalgic Julie Rogers Theatre. Even more decadent than the Jefferson, it is home to the Symphony of Southeast Texas as well as presentations by the Beaumont Civic Opera, Beaumont Civic Ballet and Beaumont Ballet Theatre. The stage has seen greats such as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Roberta Peters and Van Cliburn.

After seeing the theaters, we had a delicious dinner at The Grill. Everything we tried was delicious, but my favorite was probably the coconut pie we shared for dessert. The Bangkok Shrimp appetizer was also at the top of our list. Reservations are recommended, especially on the weekend.

On Saturday morning, we had a yummy breakfast at Willy Burger. Their renowned burgers, garnered a spotlight on NBC's “The Texas Bucket List.” If you're not that hungry, wait until you are!

Then we were off for a relaxing ride on the Neches River aboard the Ivory Bill. You'll want to make reservations in advance to assure a spot on the boat at the website or by calling 409-651-5326. Cost is $15 for adults, $10 for those 65 and older or 12 and under, and children 3 and under are free. Tours are available most Saturdays March to November. We thoroughly enjoyed the colorfully narrated ride, which began by taking us through the Port of Beaumont. We learned that the most U.S. military hardware of all kinds in the nation is exported from that port. Just a bit farther down the river and only a mile from I-10, you feel like you're in a secluded and tranquil escape far from everything. In the summer, alligators can be seen along the banks and atop logs. That day, there was a cool breeze and the water was also still cool, so we didn't see any. We did see some turtles and egrets. We also learned that the land surrounding the river in that area is now part of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Beginning in the late 1800s, the thousand-year-old cypress trees along both sides of the banks and well beyond were harvested and pretty much wiped out. Their descendants are now just over a hundred years old and making a nice comeback. The canals originally created to float the huge trees out can still be seen winding their way toward the river.

After the boat tour and only about 10 minutes away (we were amused when a local told us that everything is 10 minutes away – but it's true!), we had lunch at Sartin's West Seafood, where we had to try their famous barbecued crabs. They did not disappoint.

Then we headed – you guessed it, 10 minutes away – to the McFaddin-Ward House. The majestic Beaux-Arts colonial-style home was built in 1905. W. P. H. and Ida Caldwell McFaddin moved their young family – two sons and one daughter – into the house in 1907, as Beaumont was still enjoying the economic effects of the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901. In 1919, the McFaddins’ daughter, Mamie, married Carroll Ward, and the couple moved into the house with her parents. They lived their entire lives there, making few changes to the house or its décor after 1950. The house was donated as a museum upon Mamie's death in 1982. It was then restored extensively, with care not to disturb the furnishings and tapestries, and opened as a museum in 1986. We learned that some of the curtains separating some rooms off the downstairs foyer had to be replaced, but had been exactly duplicated by the original maker which was still in business. The “Pink Room,” a parlor just off the main dining room, needed a great deal of cleaning to reveal the intricate details of the original wallpaper. Our tour guide, public relations coordinator Marcus Powers, explained that the workers spent countless hours with standard pink erasers, carefully removing the layer that had built up on the paper over the years. They used so many erasers that they had to send someone to Houston to get more, as they couldn't find any more in Beaumont.

The home and its gardens are a gorgeous look into “the good life” led by the family during their time there. There's also touching history about those who worked for the family. I don't want to spoil it for you, so go see and hear for yourself.

We also managed to squeeze in a sweet treat at Rao's Bakery. You don't want to miss this stop. Although there are a couple of other locations, including one on Cypresswood Drive in Spring, there's just something special about the original bakery, founded in 1941 by Johnny Rao at its present location, the corner of 10th and Calder in Beaumont.

And if you're looking for a cute hideaway for a nibble or dinner, a drink and a dance, head over to the Pine Tree Lodge. Although a bit off the beaten path and about 30 minutes from most places instead of 10, it's a fun diversion and suitable for all ages. We saw silver-haired couples, grandmothers and grandchildren, fathers and toddlers, teens, young couples, all dancing to the beat of the live band. As new people arrived, it seemed they always were met with someone they knew – kind of like “Cheers” bayou-style. We joked that if we didn't know where we were, we wouldn't have known if it was Texas or Louisiana.

On our next trip, we plan to visit more museums, including the Spindletop Gladys City Boomtown Museum, the Museum of the Gulf Coast in Port Arthur (home of the Golden Triangle's most famous native, Janis Joplin) and maybe take in some art and antiquing – yes, they have that, too!

To plan the weekend trip to suit your style, visit