Discover history and simple pleasures in Baffin Bay

April, 2021

I have to agree with the 6-year-old girl who scribbled down a daily schedule for a visit to her family’s fishing cabin on Baffin Bay a few years ago.

Her 14-point lineup, still held by a magnet to the refrigerator in the little house, starts with breakfast and features multiple slots for reading, fishing, playing games, eating and sleeping. That’s about it.

Hannah Kernan wrote this schedule when she was 9 while staying at the family beach house in Riviera Beach. Pam LeBlanc photo

I followed Hannah’s program pretty much exactly, if you count the kayak as a toy and shooting a pellet gun at targets made out of empty beer cans as a game, which I do.

My husband and I visited the house in the tiny Texas coastal community of Riviera Beach recently at the invite of Steffen Saustrup, the girl’s father and a friend. We also squeezed in some good old fashioned bird watching and lots of porch sitting. And while we were there, Saustrup, a geophysical research scientist at the University of Texas, explained the history of the place and his connection to it.

Steffen Saustrup and Marion Burch enjoy sunset at Riviera Beach. Pam LeBlanc photo

Thomas Koch, a land developer from St. Paul, Minn., dreamed of creating a resort town here on the edge of the Laguna Salada finger of Baffin Bay, a salty inlet between Corpus Christi and Port Mansfield, more than a century ago. He bought a chunk of land from the King Ranch in 1907, laid out the town of Riviera along the railroad tracks, and named it for the French Riviera, which he’d once visited. (I don’t see the resemblance, but who am I to judge?)

Koch wanted to develop Riviera into a residential community, then connect it to a beach resort called Riviera Beach that he would create 10 miles to the east. He went to work, luring potential landowners to the area and extending a railroad line between the two communities in 1912.

Dylan Cimbala fishes off a dock in Riviera Beach. Pam LeBlanc photo

A manicured park and a few businesses popped up along the bayfront beach, but then the area got hit by a double-wallop: A multi-year drought and a hurricane that slammed the area in 1916, wiping out nearly all the businesses and homes.

Riviera still remains, but you can’t see any sign of the resort-that-might-have-been in Riviera Beach today except a cluster of weekend homes.

The dock behind a house owned by Steffen Saustrup and his friends and family was knocked crooked during Hurricane Hanna in 2020. Pam LeBlanc photo

Saustrup’s connection to the area runs deep. His great aunt Willie Huppertz bought a piece of this Gulf Coast paradise for $500 back in 1940. An accountant for the state of Texas who lived in Austin, she chose the area because some of her friends had already purchased land and built cabins along the same road. They’d come for weekends, tipping cocktails and fishing, swimming and laughing the hours away.

At first, she’d camp out on her land, Saustrup told me. But after a few years she built her own cinder block cabin, which didn’t have hot water or air conditioning. Saustrup fondly recalls visiting as a child.

“I loved to come down here with my mom and (Great) Aunt Willie and stay a couple of weeks,” Saustrup says. He caught his first redfish here on a cane pole, and remembers celebrating his birthday at the King’s Inn, a famous old restaurant still operating in nearby Loyola Beach.

Willie died in 1981, and the house sat vacant until it was torn down in 1995. Then, starting in 2007, Saustrup and a collection of family members and friends pitched in to build a new house, where they could recreate the special retreat that Willie had made. They poured the foundation just next to Willie’s old cabin, put up the walls and finished out the interior. It quickly earned the same name as the original – Casa de Risa, or “House of laughter” in Spanish.

Today, Saustrup, two of his brothers, two cousins and our mutual friend Jimmy Harvey share ownership of the house, which is filled with memories.

“It’s quiet. It’s good fishing. It’s good for my soul,” Saustrup says. “This place is such a magical place.”

During my visit, we ventured over to visit the neighbors Bill and Charlotte Norton, who had lit a campfire and were watching the lights of the wind turbines flash in unison across Laguna Salida, as they mourned the loss of their black lab Leo, whom they had buried on the property a day earlier. Bill Waters, 72, who lives in New Braunfels but bought a weekend house across the street three years ago, showed up, too.

“I like it down here because there’s peace and quiet and you can see the stars at night,” Waters said. “This is the last bastion of solitude. You look up and down the coast and everything else is overbuilt and overpriced.”

Chris LeBlanc kayaks in Baffin Bay. Pam LeBlanc photo

Today Baffin Bay is well known for its redfish and speckled trout fishing. Tourists still flock to Kings Inn in nearby Loyola Beach for fried food. The long-time bait shop called Kraatz’s, run by a famously cranky woman, is now Tooter’s Bayside Bar, but other than that things seem pretty familiar.

“It’s changed over the years, but not as much as the rest of the world has changed,” Saustrup says.

He shows me an old black and white photo of his grandmother Josephine, along with her sisters Willie and Meta, and flips through an album of snapshots taken during construction of the new house. I wander outside and admire the grounds: Gnarled mesquite trees twist in the backyard, and a long wooden dock, knocked crooked by flotsam loosed by Hurricane Hanna in 2020, reaches its fingers into the laguna.

Willie Huppertz, center, is Steffen Saustrup’s great aunt. She bought a lot in Riviera Beach in 1940 and built a cinder block cabin there a few years later. Pam LeBlanc photo

“Sometimes I come down and fish hard, and sometimes I just relax and stare at the water,” Saustrup says.

Our little group does a little of both. We cast fishing lines into the silvery water, pulling in a few drum and one redfish. (The February freeze has impacted fishing. Locals said in March that they’re just not biting like they used to.) We scatter seed behind the house and ooh and aah as green jays, which look like they’ve been dipped in bright green and blue paint, pick out the sunflower seeds. We paddle kayaks across the laguna, to the border of the Kenedy Ranch, thinking about the cowboys who worked the scrub-covered land decades ago. We shoot at targets with pellet guns.

And we pick up take-out food at the bustling King’s Inn, where clusters of people are waiting for tables and a sign reminds gentlemen to remove their hats. It’s known for fried shrimp and something called Bombay salad, a sort of guacamole made with curry and served on iceburg lettuce. (Covid wary, we get ours to go.)

Dylan Cimbala eats fried shrimp, oysters and chicken strips from Kings Inn in nearby Loyola Beach, Texas. Pam LeBlanc photo

Saustrup tells us stories about the area, including the Thanksgiving festival, which features a turkey shoot, games and an evening dance, that takes place annually at Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church in nearby Vattman. Thanksgiving dinner, he says, is always punctuated by the sound of shotguns outside and someone calling bingo numbers inside.

And in Riviera, the Riviera Historical Museum, part of which is housed in a 1910 bank building, features news clippings, photographs, artifacts, ancestral information and even some tools used to build the Kings Inn restaurant.

I love the history here, and frankly, I’m glad that Koch’s plan to make this desolate, scrub-covered piece of the Texas coast the next French Riviera didn’t work out so well. We need places like this, without shops or high-rise hotels or hordes of people.

Saustrup likes it the way it is, too. That’s why, before he loads his car and leaves each time he visits, he walks down to the end of the pier behind the house and sits for a few minutes to goodbye.

“I always feel like I should stay just one more day,” he says.

If You Go

Getting there:

From Austin, it takes a little less than 4 hours to drive to Riviera Beach, which is about 10 miles east of the small town of Riviera along U.S. Highway 77. The Baffin Bay Lodge, www.baffinbaylodge.com, offers very basic, no-frills rooms starting at $120 per night. Nearby Loyola Beach has a few small lodges, including Birds of Paradise Inn & Gardens, www.birdsofparadiseinn.com, which caters to bird watchers. VRBO also lists several homes available for rent in the area.

Do:

Several guiding services, including Baffin Bay Guide Services, www.baffinbayguideservices.com, take clients out to fish for speckled trout or redfish. Bring a kayak and paddle in Laguna Salada. You can access the water at Riviera Fishing Pier on County Road 2360, but the pier is undergoing repairs due to Hurricane Hanna. birding in estuarine-tidal mud flats and salt marshes, head to Kaufer-Hubert Memorial Park at the mouth of Vattmann Creek. For more information go to http://www.stxmaps.com/go/birding-sites-in-baffin-bay.html.

 

Eat and Drink:

Don’t miss King’s Inn, 1116 South County Road 2270 in Loyola Beach, for fried shrimp and oysters (ask for them in flour instead of cornmeal), and the famous Bombay salad, a curry-spiced avocado salad served on iceberg lettuce. Don’t expect a menu. If you need to know what they offer, the server will tell you. For more information go to www.kingsinnriviera.com. Baffin Bay Seafood, 1294 County Road 2360, also serves a selection of fresh Gulf seafood. For more information go to www.baffinbayseafoodco.com.

 

Insider Tip:

Don’t come for the amenities, come for the peace and quiet. Bring a board game, a bottle of wine and groceries to cook at home, and enjoy the sunset.

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