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Going Coastal

Destination: Port Aransas

By Karen Hoffman Blizzard

Travel time from:

  • Austin - 4.25 hours /
  • Brownsville - 3.5 hours /
  • Dallas - 7.5 hours /
  • El Paso - 12.25 hours /
  • Houston - 3.5 hours /
  • San Antonio - 3 hours /
  • Lubbock - 9.5 hours

In the off-season along the Coastal Bend, you'll find whoopers, funky art and miles of uncrowded beaches.

Fall and spring in Port Aransas and vicinity are times of transition. In September and October, the largest flock of whooping cranes in the U.S. migrates 2,500 miles to this region from Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada. At the same time, 8,000 to 10,000 "winter Texans" travel here to escape the colder regions of the country. Birds and humans winter together in the warm coastal climate until the waters of March bring spring thaws and they begin their respective journeys north again, trading places with throngs of beachgoers who flood the area from March through September.

My husband, Mike, and I set out to join the winter Texans for a few days in February. Habitual off-season travelers, we are drawn to the prospect of fresh seafood, funky shops and deserted beaches in the coastal town affectionately known as "Port A," and also nearby Rockport. The proximity of Goose Island and Mustang Island state parks and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge promises plenty of wildlife-watching and nature experiences as well.

Before we get to see any genuine wildlife, though, Mike wants to stop in the small town of Cuero, which gained the national spotlight in July 2007 when a rancher found what was thought to be a dead chupacabra – the legendary goat-sucking creatures allegedly found in various locations in Latin America. Although the DNA results have proved inconclusive, more than 16,000 chupacabra T-shirts have been sold in Cuero – and Mike just has to have one. Fifteen minutes later we're on the road again, with a chupacabra riding along on Mike's shirtfront.

An hour and a half later, we drive out onto the Lamar Peninsula to Goose Island State Park, which juts off the mainland at the convergence of the Copano, Aransas and St. Charles bays. The park is popular because of the variety of activities it offers, from excellent birdwatching and nature hikes to camping, boating and fishing from a 1,620-foot pier. In September, you can witness the fall hummingbird migration during the annual Rockport-Fulton Hummer/Bird Celebration, which draws thousands of visitors.

A main feature of the park is one of the largest live oaks in Texas, known as the Big Tree. At more than 1,000 years old, this majestic tree wows visitors with its crown spread of 90 feet and trunk circumference of 35 feet. The surrounding oaks are impressive also, and we wander through the grove enjoying the play of light and shade filtering through gnarled branches. On the other side of the park, brown pelicans doze on the water in the steady ocean breeze as gulls circle overhead. We walk out to the end of the pier and follow a small flight of steps down to the water's edge, crunching our way across oyster shells and sand.

After lingering in the park for a couple of very enjoyable hours, we drive the remaining short distance to the artsy beach town of Rockport, where we check in at the Rockport Village Inn Motel. Rated as a "find" by Frommer's Texas travel guide, the Village Inn is economical with spacious rooms and kitchenettes. Best of all, it's within walking distance of the art district, where we head next.

Situated on a small outcropping on the Aransas Bay, the Rockport Center for the Arts and the Texas Maritime Museum are the anchors of the local art scene, contributing to Rockport's ranking among the 100 best small art towns in the country. The art center holds an annual art festival in July, exhibits the work of regional, national and internationally acclaimed artists, and offers artists' receptions, gallery talks and a variety of art activities and classes.

We walk through the art center into a light-flooded gallery of stunning watercolors. Jewelry is on display in an adjoining room. After reveling in the wash of color, we walk across the street to the Maritime Museum to view a fascinating exhibit of scale ship models and their histories, among other displays and sea-going items of historical interest.

That evening we drive to nearby Fulton for dinner at Charlotte Plummer's Seafare restaurant, where we bask happily in fresh amberjack and crab accompanied by tasty margaritas. On our way back to Rockport we stop in at the Poor Man's Country Club, a favorite local hangout with big-screen TVs for watching sports. The regulars say they enjoy the high ceilings and friendly ambience, as well as the company of the javelina, water buffalo, deer and gar mounted on the walls. And the homemade bread pudding does not disappoint!

At sunrise the next morning, we drive about 30 miles to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, home to the Texas flock of whooping cranes as well as many species of migratory birds and native wildlife and plants. The majority of the 115,000-acre refuge is located on the Blackjack Peninsula, between San Antonio Bay on the east and St. Charles Bay on the west. The public use area, which includes a visitor center, 10 nature trails and a 16-mile auto loop, is located on the west side of the refuge.

Of the several nature trails we hike, we see the most wildlife along Heron Flats Trail, near Thomas Slough and the alligator pond. Looking toward the Intracoastal Waterway through binoculars, we observe whooping cranes standing in the water – the first cranes we've seen on the trip thus far. The Texas whooping crane flock has been making a gradual comeback from the brink of extinction in the 1940s. According to the census report issued by Tom Stehn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's whooping crane coordinator, cranes in Texas reached a record total of 266 in 2007-2008.

I am peering through dense brush toward the water, looking for more cranes when, suddenly, several roseate spoonbills appear in my binoculars, like an exotic pink surprise. They move about calmly for a few minutes and then fly off. I've never seen roseate spoonbills before, except in photographs, and the vision becomes a memorable highlight of the trip.

Another memory is created moments later, when I nearly stumble over an alligator that has crawled out of the pond to nap on the grass near the trail. Lesson learned: Never look off in the distance through binoculars while walking through alligator territory! The alligator and I watch each other warily, about six feet apart. Since it seems to be relaxed, I can't resist taking a couple of pictures before carefully easing on down the path.

We leave the refuge at noon and head south toward Port Aransas, stopping along the way for fresh seafood sandwiches at Off the Hook Seafood & More, a popular Rockport restaurant on Aransas Bay. In Aransas Pass we board the passenger ferry, which carries us over to Port Aransas in about 15 minutes. A short drive down Cotter Avenue brings us to the Tarpon Inn, named for the "silver king" of gamefish, the tarpon. Originally built in 1886 to house workers constructing the south jetty in Aransas Pass, over the decades it has served as headquarters for the Red Cross and the Salvation Army and was rebuilt following a hurricane and tidal wave in 1919. It has become as much a part of Port Aransas culture as the ocean itself and was designated a Texas Historic Landmark in 1979.

True to the hotel's namesake, the lobby walls are covered with more than 7,000 tarpon scales, each with the name and hometown of the angler who caught it. We are smitten by the long, breezy porches filled with rocking chairs and the hotel's proximity to the harbor, where we'll be able to charter boats and walk to restaurants. We're ready to experience the porch with a couple of good books. Hours later, after a cozy dinner at Shells Pasta & Seafood, we are feeling thoroughly relaxed.

The next morning, after a hearty down-home breakfast at the Beach & Station Street Grill, we drive out to Mustang Island State Park, which gets its name from the wild horses, or mesteños, that were brought to the island by Spanish explorers in the 19th century. Much beloved by spring break revelers, winter Texans and out-of-state visitors, the state park occupies nearly 4,000 acres and extends five miles along Mustang Island. The park's barrier reef ecosystem encompasses beach, dunes and marshes and is home to laughing gulls, pelicans, the endangered piping plover and many other species of birds. With housing developments springing up along other parts of the island, Mustang Island State Park is a true oasis and will become even more so as the area becomes more populated over time.

It's a glorious, unseasonably warm February day, and we go for a long run on the beach, weaving in and out of flocks of gulls and ocean spray. We encounter only a few other visitors, near the entrance. As we make our way down the beach, with lapping waves and crying gulls on one side and a long row of dunes unfolding on the other, we slip into that special "rhythm of mind" that can only be found oceanside, on a beach such as this one. We run past five or six tents along the way, noting that the primitive campsites are undesignated, allowing each camper to choose his or her own vista from which to become lost in sand and surf.

For those seeking more creature comforts, the park also offers sites with water and electricity, as well as shade shelters, portable restrooms and showers. Other popular activities include fishing from the jetties, birding, mountain biking and kayaking on the Mustang Island paddling trails.

Several hours later, we head back to Port Aransas and, hungry from the ocean air and exercise, go back to the hotel, clean up and walk over to the harbor area to check out the restaurants and small businesses. We stop in at Shorty's Place, known as the "oldest and friendliest" establishment in Port A and a popular gathering place for locals and winter Texans. If you go, bring a gimme cap and add it to the hundreds already hanging from the ceiling. A few doors down from Shorty's and across the street is a restaurant called Pelican Club Inc., formerly known as Beulah's, a longtime favorite dining establishment on the island. It's expensive, but we decide to give it a try. We dine upstairs, and despite the poor service, we enjoy the fresh and innovative seafood preparations.

The next morning I get up early, leave Mike sleeping and embark on a final, spontaneous adventure before we leave for Austin later that morning. I've been curious about St. Joseph Island (the locals call it "St. Jo's"), an uninhabited sand barrier island across the ship channel from Port Aransas. Fisherman's Wharf, a boat operator in the harbor, runs a small boat to and from St. Jo's at regular times throughout the day. I board the boat with about 10 others for the five-minute trip across the channel.

When we get there, nearly everyone heads to the jetty for some leisurely Sunday-morning fishing. Two other beachcombers and I go off in the opposite direction down the beach, searching for ocean treasures. I find several large, unbroken shells, but the true magic lies in the experience of walking in the warm sun, cooled by the ocean breeze and spray, in the company of gulls and pelicans. I feel a kinship with these "birds of a feather." It has been fun to join them and the other winter visitors – birds and humans alike – in Port Aransas and Rockport for a few days. No doubt, we'll return many times, whenever the Central Texas winters get a little too dreary or last a little too long.

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