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Beaumont: Gators, gushers and gumbo

Photos courtesy Beaumont CVB

You don’t know Big Al yet, but if you’re a fan of the CMT cable network, you’ll be hearing about him soon.

Big Al is the largest alligator in captivity in the state of Texas. This spring, Al and his handlers at Gator Country in Beaumont will be the stars of Gator 911, a new reality show on CMT. But you don’t have to settle for seeing him on television. Big Al and Gator Country are one of the highlights of a visit to Beaumont, a town that breaks Texas stereotypes to provide a wealth of entertainment and education options for tourists.

“I like to say that Beaumont has ’gators, gardens, gushers and great food,” said Elizabeth Eddins, tourism director for the Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’ve got more museums per capita than any other destination in the state.”

Group tours in Beaumont often hit the high points of many different areas, including nature, museums, oil heritage and Cajun culture. But there’s no better place to start than Big Al.

Natural wonders
Even before the debut of Gator 911, Gator Country has become the most popular attraction in Beaumont. Besides Big Al, the place features a wealth of other reptiles, along with a staff of experts in alligator rescue and rehabilitation.

“They have over 130 different alligators, as well as turtles and snakes,” Eddins said. “The gang out there is very dedicated to conservation, education and doing shows. They have daily shows where they talk about the different animal habitats.”

Alligators are native to Texas, and many of the critters that live at Gator Country have been rescued from public areas and private swimming pools and brought here to live in peace. During presentations, guides at the park explain how they wrangle the alligators and how some are nursed back to health and then released into the wild in safer places.

One of those places is the Neches River, which leads into a wilderness area known as the Big Thicket National Preserve. The river is a prime place to see wildlife in its natural habitat, and groups can take a ride on the Cardinal, a 40-passenger, open-air pontoon boat to get a closer look.

“They bring you up the Neches River and into the Big Thicket,” Eddins said. “The Neches River has been called ‘the last wild river.’ It has a lot of plants and animals, and on the boat, they can educate people about them while they’re riding.”

Another great place to see wildlife is the Shangri La Botanical Gardens, located just outside of Beaumont.  From the high-tech bird blind at the gardens, visitors can watch dozens of species of birds and even get a zoomed-in look, thanks to special video cameras that have been mounted in the trees.

Visitors will also find all kinds of flora in the garden. More than 300 species of plants have been arranged thematically in various areas that include the Line Garden, the Shape Garden and the Color Garden.

Beyond the plants and animals, Shangri La has gone to great lengths to receive a platinum LEED certification for its efforts in sustainability.

“What’s really neat is that 100 percent of what people see out there is sustainable,” Eddins said. “They joke that if you were to leave your fork on the ground, within a few weeks, it would evaporate.”

Museum capital
Beaumont’s cultural diversity and oil-rich heritage are on display at a number of museums around the city. Among the most popular is the Fire Museum of Texas, where a 24-foot, Dalmatian-spotted working fire hydrant has become a downtown landmark.

“Inside is a museum that is dedicated to the fire industry of the whole state,” Eddins said. “They have fire trucks that have been retired by the city of Beaumont, as well as arm patches from fire departments all across the state. It takes people through the beginning of the fire industry and shows how it’s run today.”

Interesting exhibits at the museum include an antique horse-drawn fire engine as well as unusual tools and equipment used by firefighters in the past.  Groups visiting the museum can also arrange for meals, entertainment and other events there.

Much of Beaumont’s 20th-century history revolves around the discovery of oil, and a number of museums in town deal with the science and history of petroleum in the area. The Texas Energy Museum gives visitors a background on just how oil came to exist in the area to begin with.

“It’s a geology museum that explains why this area was so rich with minerals and nutrients and why there was an oil boom here,” Eddins said. “It goes through the whole science of oil, mining and refining.”

Among highlights of the museum is a series of animatronic figures that represent key people in the Beaumont oil boom. The figures each give a short presentation about who they are and the role they played in the city’s history.

Groups interested in learning more about the city’s oil boom can visit the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, where clapboard buildings re-create the original boomtown that sprung up around the 1901 Lucas Gusher, which was the world’s largest. The museum also features a re-creation of the oil derrick, which can spew a stream of water hundreds of feet into the air.

Cajun and cooking
Given Beaumont’s location in east Texas just across the border from Louisiana, it should come as no surprise that the city enjoys a touch of Cajun flavor and culture.

“We like to say that we’re Texas with a Cajun kick,” Eddins said. “We’re influenced by the Cajun heritage and have a lot of that here, from crawfish to barbecued crab, jumbo, etouffee and jambalaya.”

The convention and visitors bureau can help groups set up cooking classes and demonstrations. Instructors use local ingredients such as rice, sausage, hot sauce and other items manufactured around Beaumont to create jambalaya and other Cajun favorites.

Food lovers will also enjoy visiting famous restaurants and specialty food manufacturers that got their start in the city. Jason’s Deli, Sweet Leaf Tea and TexJoy steak seasoning were all born in Beaumont and make great points of interest for groups taking a culinary tour of the city.

For more information:

Beaumont’s Faith Trail

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.