Texas Beach Guide: Port Aransas
By: Kristin Finan
Some places just feel like home.
For me, Port Aransas is one. This beach town with a population of fewer than 5,000 people has been calling me ever since I was a little kid and now has become a favorite of my children, too. From long walks on the soft sand at dusk as we pluck shells from the shore to raucous dinners with friends at our favorite waterfront restaurants, to visit Port Aransas is to make unforgettable memories.
If You Go
There are multiple ways to get to Port Aransas, which is located about 200 miles, or a little under four hours, from Austin. We like the route that includes crossing onto the island on the Port Aransas Ferry – simply drive onto the ferry, turn off your engine and enjoy the seagulls, dolphins and jumping fish that greet you as the boat delivers you to paradise.
Port Aransas is famous for its sandcastles – there’s even an event called Texas SandFest that draws visitors from all over the world (it’s typically held in April but this year will be Oct. 15-17). But you can actually learn to build one any time of year thanks to Mark Landrum, aka “the Port Aransas Sandcastle Guy.” With the help of buckets, shovels and carving tools, Landrum taught our kids a 45-minute building lesson that incorporated essential skills such as how to stack the sand at the base of your castle and how to carve a staircase.
RELATED: Lessons in life and death on the beach in Port Aransas
Another must-do any time of year is taking the boat over to San Jose Island (also called St. Jo by locals), where 21 miles of uninhabited beach await. Expect pristine sand, incredible shelling and fishing and only a handful of people. The Jetty Boat passenger ferry runs back and forth numerous times a day; it’s about a 10-minute ride.
If you need a break from the sun or a rainy-day plan, we love Fire It Ceramics, where you can hand-paint a personalized souvenir or gift inside the large facility ideal for social distancing. Be aware that your pieces will need to be fired overnight, so make sure you go early in your visit, if possible, to ensure you have time to pick everything up before heading home.
Finally, the best way to get around the island is by renting a golf cart. We like Life in Paradise and Island Motor Bikes.
The waterfront Cinnamon Shore offers gorgeous vacation rentals ranging from one-bedroom townhomes to multifamily houses. On-site pools, restaurants and live music add to its draw. My parents own a unit at Seabreeze Suites, which we love for its beach-entry pool and hot tub, suites with full kitchens, affordable rates and proximity to pirate-themed restaurant/bar, The Gaff.
Eat & Drink:
We always start our visits to Port A at Virginia’s on the Bay, which features gorgeous, waterfront views as well as flavorful drinks, fresh oysters and other seafood favorites. Fins is fun for burgers and seafood and offers gluten-free options. And Grumbles Seafood Co. is the place to go for fresh seafood and salads.
The Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center hosts Birding on the Boardwalk on Wednesdays at 9 a.m., where you can stroll the facility with local experts who can educate you on some of the incredible birds who call the coast home. Note that the center is also home to alligators and yes, you very well may spy one, as we did, when you go. Mosquitos are plentiful here, too, so bring insect repellent.
Texas Beach Guide: Galveston
By: Pam LeBlanc
I’ve been visiting Galveston since I was a kid, and I still remember leaning over the balcony railing from a room at the Flagship Inn, which was built on a pier over the crashing waves along Seawall Boulevard. The hotel is long gone, replaced by a pier and carnival rides, but the warm spot for this Texas treasure remains. An easy 4-hour drive from Austin puts you right on the beach, and when you’ve had enough of the sun and sand, you can head to town for a dose of history. Galveston is the birthplace of Juneteenth, Pirate Jean Lafitte once called the island home, and one of the state’s greatest natural disasters –– the hurricane of 1900 –– took place here.
If You Go
Galveston is located about 210 miles southeast of Austin, and it takes just less than 4 hours to drive there.
Start by gathering the family and heading to the beach –– it stretches for 32 miles –– for swimming, fishing, surfing, dolphin watching, sunbathing and lollygagging.
But Galveston has much more to offer than plenty of waterfront. The island community, one of wealthiest cities in the nation back in the 1800s and the second busiest immigration station in U.S. history, serves up plenty of history. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, but even after the Civil War ended in April 1965, most Texas slaves didn’t know they were free. That began to change when Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order No. 3, declaring their freedom, on June 19, 1865. Today, visitors can download an interactive tour app offered by the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau to important African American history sites, including a memorial to the millions of enslaved men, women and children from Africa who came through the Galveston port of entry. A statue in front of Ashton Villa commemorates Juneteenth, and the community commemorates that proclamation each year. The self-guided tour also highlights historically black schools, churches and monuments celebrating black accomplishments.
The Texas Seaport Museum, at 2200 Harborside Drive, unveils renovations this summer, including an interactive experience focused on the island’s immigration history. You can check a database to see names of the people who took their first steps on American soil right here. Plus, now you can sip a brew at the museum’s new craft beer bar within view of Galveston Harbor and the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa. Want more history? Drop by one of the island’s restored Victorian mansions open for public tours. The list includes Ashton Villa, Moody Mansion and Bishop’s Palace. Take time to explore the Strand, the historic downtown district filled with restaurants, shops and La King’s Confectionery, where you can watch the staff hand-pull taffy or get a scoop of ice cream.
Kids will love Schlitterbahn Waterpark Galveston and Moody Gardens, where you can get an up-close look at aquariums populated by jellyfish, sharks and penguins, or walk through a living rainforest alongside tropical birds. Wait until evening, when skies darken and the lights brighten the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, home to a roller coaster, high-flying swings, a Ferris wheel and more.
Nature lovers can time their visit with the spring and fall bird migrations, when migrating warblers, buntings and orioles come ashore after flying across the Gulf of Mexico.
RELATED: Becoming a birder at Galveston’s FeatherFest
That’s not enough? Take a ghost tour, watch cruise ships dock, or time your visit with the sandcastle competition in August, the Brew Masters Craft Festival on Labor Day, or the Shrimp Festival in September. And did you know Galveston is home to the third largest Mardi Gras celebration in the country each February?
For a taste of old-school luxury, book a room at the historic Hotel Galvez, at 2024 Seawall Boulevard, just across the street from the beach. If you prefer the bustling downtown district, check out the Tremont House, at 2300 Ship’s Mechanic Row, and don’t miss the rooftop bar.
Eat & Drink:
I can’t go to Galveston without stopping at Benno’s Cajun Seafood, 1212 Seawall Boulevard, for a fried seafood platter heaped with oysters, shrimp, and hushpuppies. It’s not fancy, but the place proves that fried doesn’t have to mean greasy –– and besides, they serve wine in a beer mug.
Rudy & Paco Restaurant, 2028 Postoffice Street, is known for its Central American twist on steaks and seafood, and Gaido’s Seafood Restaurant, 3828 Seawall Boulevard, which opened more than 100 years ago, is an institution that serves fresh Gulf fare. For omelets, French toast, waffles and baked goods, don’t miss the Sunflower Bakery & Café at 512 14th Street.
Want to explore the island at a slower pace? Rent an electric bike from Zipp E Bikes, 2311 Mechanic Street. The bikes are quiet and easy to ride, and perfect for a ride up to the East End Lagoon Nature Preserve, where you can park and walk through 685 acres of brush and coastal wetland.
Texas Beach Guide: Corpus Christi
By: Kristin Finan
If you want the convenience of a large city combined with the laid-back vibe of a beach town, look no further than Corpus Christi, the self-dubbed Gulf Coast Capital that seamlessly blends big-name attractions, innovative restaurants, Texas culture and gorgeous beaches.
If You Go
Corpus Christi is an easy-breezy 3 hours and 15 minutes from Austin. Simply take Highway I-35 South to Highway I-37 South and, before you know it, you’re at the beach.
If you’re a true Texan, you’ve gotta love Whataburger, and if you’re in Corpus Christi, you should know that’s the place where it all started. Although the original location on Ayers Street is no longer standing, you can visit the flagship, beachside location at 121 N. Shoreline Blvd. When you go, be prepared – this Whataburger is unlike any other. Expect a statue of founder Harmon Dobson, a mural that’s a nod to all of the flags that have flown over Texas and an elevator that takes you to the restaurant’s second-floor outdoor patio featuring panoramic waterfront views.
Just a short walk away, at 600 N. Shoreline Blvd., you’ll find the memorial to beloved Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez called “Mirador De La Flor,” which is anchored by a life-size bronze statue of her sculpted by local artist H.W. “Buddy” Tatum.
Among the highlights of a visit to Corpus is always the Texas State Aquarium, a nonprofit aquarium that’s home to more than 300 species including bottlenose dolphins, raptors, birds and mammals. Exhibits include the Coral Reef, Jungle, Caribbean Sea, Dolphin Bay and Aquatic Nursery. The aquarium also rescues injured and ill wildlife, plans beach clean-ups and organizes many other events for the local community.
The USS Lexington, nicknamed “The Blue Ghost,” is another prime Corpus Christi attraction. This Essex-class aircraft carrier was built during World War II for the United States Navy and has since been turned into a museum. Expect escape rooms, a 3-D theater, flight simulator and more.
The Omni Corpus Christi Hotel is situated directly on the bay and offers affordable rates along with ocean views. The V Boutique Hotel downtown is art-deco themed and a short walk from the marina.
Eat & Drink:
With its surfboard-lined walls, live music calendar and hulking burgers, Executive Surf Club is an ideal place to kick off a weekend in Corpus Christi. BKK Thai Kitchen and Bar is a fun spot for flavorful fusion.
Snag the See You Soon CC Attractions Pass, which grants you admission to five Corpus Christi attractions – USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, Texas State Aquarium, South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center, Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History and the Art Museum of South Texas – and saves you more than 20 percent.
Texas Beach Guide: South Padre Island
By: Pam LeBlanc
White sands and frothy waters merge at the state’s southernmost tip, where visitors enjoy the beaches –– and more –– on the largest barrier island in the world. In March, college students pile into cars and head to South Padre Island to party, but the rest of the year the island attracts families looking for a laid-back escape, fishermen out to try their luck, plus surfers, bird watchers, thrill seekers and nature lovers.
If You Go
It’s about 360 miles –– a five-and-a-half to six-hour drive –– from Austin to South Padre Island. Southwest, United and American Airlines all offer flights from Austin to Harlingen, 40 miles away, but they include stopovers in Houston.
Book a room at The Pearl South Padre, located near the Queen Isabella Causeway. The mid-level hotel has direct beach access, plus an expansive swimming pool, hot tubs and a restaurant.
When you’ve had enough of the beach, take a break with a visit to Sea Turtle Inc. Ila Loetscher, long known as the Turtle Lady of South Padre Island, started taking in sick and injured sea turtles here in 1977. She also dressed them in frilly dresses and tiny wigs, but we’ll forgive her, because she created an organization that has since saved hundreds of endangered sea turtles. Loetscher died in 2000, but today the center carries on her mission of rehabilitation, conservation and public education. Between April and August, the organization works hard to protect eggs laid on local beaches. Crews scan the dunes daily, looking for nesting mothers, then dig up their eggs, load them gently into a Styrofoam ice chest, and deliver them to Sea Turtle Inc.’s headquarters, where they are counted and logged before being re-buried in a protected corral, safe from predators. When the turtles hatch, they’re released on nearby beaches. An estimated one in 300 survive to adulthood. The center, located at 6617 Padre Boulevard, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the summer). Admission is $10 for adults and $4 for children during the summer. For more information call 956-761-4511 or go to seaturtleinc.org.
RELATED: Fishing and sea turtles and birding, oh my: A weekend at South Padre Island
You’re not a true Texan until you’ve fished for redfish off the Texas coast. You can charter a bay boat (we used Capt. Hector Torres Jr.) at Parrot Eyes Watersports and spend a morning casting. Under Texas Parks and Wildlife regulations, only keep those that measure between 20 and 28 inches. (For $10, the chef at the Painted Marlin will cook and serve you your catch.)
A five-hour, private fishing charter booked through Parrot Eyes Watersports costs $450 for two people.
Learn about the bottlenose dolphins that live around South Padre Island on an hour-and-a-half boat tour with Breakaway Cruises. You’ll board a boat at Sea Ranch Marina and head out to the bay, where you’re likely to spot some of the island’s most famous mammals. (You’ll also get a peek at other resident marine creatures when the crew drags a net behind the boat. A recent trip turned up a squid, a small butterfly ray, an annoyed-looking blue crab, a trio of starfish, a flounder and a fist-sized, slimy-looking sea slug called a Spanish dancer. All were safely released to the sea after we had a look.) Tours are $20 per person.
Need an adrenaline boost? Take to the skies for an overview of the island from a parasail. Several companies offer rides, including Coconut Jacks, located at 2301 Laguna Boulevard. Passengers strap on harnesses and are slowly reeled up, up and away from the boat. From what seems like outer space, they can peer down on the island and boats far below. Cost is $75.
At the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, 6801 Padre Boulevard, visitors can walk more than half a mile along a boardwalk through 43 acres of ponds, marshes and scrub, pausing in five blinds to watch ducks fledge, fish spawn, butterflies flutter by and exotic-looking birds make an appearance. There’s even a five-story observation tower which serves up a birds-eye view of the Laguna Madre. Birds aren’t all that’s on display at the center, which has expanded to include an alligator sanctuary that houses about 50 juvenile gators and a couple of older whoppers. Admission is $8 for adults; $7 seniors and students ages 13 to 18; $5 ages 4 to 12; and free for ages under 4.
Eat & Drink:
For the best fresh ceviche, island style, head to Ceviche Ceviche, 1004 Padre Boulevard, where you can customize your raw fish with ingredients like mango, avocado, jicama, red cabbage, onion and cilantro. The Painted Marlin Grille offers al fresco dining with a view of the bay as well as amazing fried and grilled fish, plus the best hush puppies on the planet. (Don’t miss the mango key lime pie.) And Blackbeard’s has been turning out burgers, fried shrimp and steaks since 1978.
Hoping to catch a glimpse of the next test flight at the SpaceX Boca Chica launch site, just across the bay from South Padre Island? Check www.spacex.com for updates, and remember that launches can be delayed due to weather or equipment issues.
Texas Beach Guide: Rockport
By: Mauri Elbel
In Rockport, savoring life’s simple pleasures comes easy. In this laid-back coastal enclave surrounded by Copano and Aransas Bays, the waves whisper to slow down, soak in the salty sea air and release your stresses with the tide. Whenever we feel the need to press pause on life’s hurried pace, we head to Rockport where our days begin with sunrise strolls along Fulton Beach Road, flanked by rippled waters and windswept oaks, and end with fiery sunsets that paint the sky and sea in pastels. A longtime favorite among Texans seeking a relaxing Gulf Coast retreat, this once-sleepy fishing village has evolved into a charming seaside destination luring everyone from anglers and artists to beach-lovers and bird-watchers.
If You Go
Roughly 200 miles and a 3.5-hour drive separates Austin from Rockport. We like to take the lesser-trafficked route cutting through the tiny Texas towns of Karnes City, Kenedy, Beeville and Sinton –– it won’t add more than a few minutes to the trip and the scenic backdrops of sprawling cotton fields, bobbing oil rigs, grazing cattle and towering white wind turbines spinning against blue skies more than make up for it.
The plethora of wooden piers, bait shops and fishing boats hugging Rockport’s shores hint at its favorite pastime: fishing. Many Rockport properties have private piers guests have access to, but there’s also lighted public fishing piers such as the Rockport Beach Piers on the north and south ends of the Rockport Beach waterfront and the South Breakwater Pier at the end of Market Street. Cast your line off of the Rockport Harbor seawall and the shoreline at Little Bay for free, or test out the newly reconstructed Fulton Pier on the Fulton Harbor ($5). Increase your odds for fishing success by hiring a pro –– the Coastal Bend area is home to a multitude of saltwater fishing guides ready to take you to where the big fish play. Before crabbing or fishing these coastal waters for everything from speckled trout and redfish to flounder and black drum, remember to purchase a fishing license and saltwater stamp (not needed for those under 17).
Rockport Beach, Texas’ first Blue Wave Beach, is a meticulously-maintained mile-long stretch dotted with children’s playgrounds and picnic cabanas that’s calmer, cleaner and more shallow than the other beaches that line the Texas Coast, making it perfect for families with little ones. When you’re not fishing or beaching, have some fun on the water by renting a kayak, paddleboard or booking a whooping crane tour or dolphin watching cruise with Rockport Birding and Kayak Adventures, which also rents golf carts when you’re ready to roll around on solid ground.
Art lovers should visit the Rockport Center for the Arts, featuring monthly changing exhibits and a gallery room displaying the talents of local artists (admission is free). Then shop the handful of art galleries sprinkled along South Austin Street –– Rockport’s version of a Main Street lined with colorful stores and boutiques.
History buffs can explore the Texas Maritime Museum, which recounts the state’s rich maritime history from Spanish exploration to the search for offshore oil and gas, or take a tour back in time at the Fulton Mansion, a 29-room mansion built in the 1870s.
Nature lovers should check out Aransas Pathways, offering adventures in the form of birding, history, hike and bike trails, and kayaking. Head to Goose Island State Park for camping, fishing, hiking and birding –– be sure to visit the more than 1,000-year-old Big Tree that measures over 35 feet in circumference while you are there. Make the drive to one of the oldest wildlife refuges and top birding spots in the country, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which serves as the winter home of the only wild flock of whooping cranes.
Eat & Drink:
No trip to the Texas coast is complete without sampling some seafood. Charlotte Plummer’s has been a Rockport staple since the 1970s and still serves up island-famous seafood platters, delicious po’ boys and shrimp gumbo from its waterfront restaurant. Dig into crab cakes made with bay shrimp and lump crab, coconut fried shrimp, or bring in your own catch to have it prepared how you like it while watching the boats and birds from the deck of lively Paradise Key Dockside Bar & Grill. If you’re craving sushi, Sushi Luck is a cozy and quaint mom and pop Japanese restaurant run by Yuji and Tatsumi Isada, who prepare deliciously fresh sushi, sashimi and authentic Japanese cuisine. Start with a savory grilled Caesar salad before indulging in wood-fired pizzas, steaks and lobster at The Groove. Prepare your own Italian-inspired dinner at home paired with the perfect wine from Italian Cowboy Food and Provisions –– this reimagined Italian market’s encyclopedic collection of wines are sourced solely from Italy.
Miss Kitty’s Fishing Getaways, www.rockporthomerentals.com, offers a multitude of vacation rental homes spanning cozy coastal cottages to bayfront villas ideal for large families or groups. Kontiki Beach Resort, www.kontikibeachresorts.com, features condos in a gated waterfront property featuring well-lit fishing piers, a pool, tennis courts and a boat ramp. For boutique bayside lodging where elegant rooms come with ocean views and a complimentary grab-and-go breakfast, stay at the Lighthouse Inn at Aransas Bay, www.lighthousetexas.com.
Try out crabbing, which requires little skill but ample patience by baiting weighted lines with poultry necks and securing them to the pier. When the line is taut, slowly and steadily pull it toward the pier until the crab is close enough to net. Enjoy your free dinner of crab cakes or a crab boil, compliments of the sea.