Half the population of Beaumont seems to be packed into Rao’s Bakery on this Friday morning, and when I bite into my Zummo’s sausage kolach—warm, yeasty bread wrapped around a juicy sausage link—I understand why.
Dean Conwell stops here often on his way to work. “It’s a gathering place where you’ll find lawyers, nurses, plumbers and financial advisers all sitting together,” he says. “I go there to get the pulse of what is happening in town.”
Rao’s opened in 1941, and current owner Jake Tortorice Jr. took over about 20 years ago. His stamp on the place includes Sicilian-style cheesecake, frozen coffee and Lolly Waffles. Tortorice fell in love with these Belgian waffles-on-a-stick a few years ago. “They are lighter and fluffier, with a smooth taste, and the stick turns them into a take-out thing.”
Kolache and Lolly Waffles consumed, I start my outdoorsy Beaumont weekend on the paddling trail from Cook’s Lake to Scatterman Lake. I join Big Thicket Outfitters guide Gerald Serta and three others on the 4.8-mile loop, paddling up the left fork of the Neches River to Cook’s Lake, then across a cypress swamp, part of the Big Thicket National Preserve. Ripples and splashes in coffee-and-cream-colored water hint at fish beneath the surface, and the calls of pileated woodpeckers, kingfishers and ducks fill the woods. We emerge onto Scatterman Lake and trace its edge, sneaking close to herons and egrets, scanning the trees for ospreys and kites.
Serta also guides kayakers on the Village Creek Paddling Trail, which covers 21 miles through the Big Thicket to Village Creek State Park.
I explore the Big Thicket on foot, too, hiking trails such as the Sundew, 1.5 miles through longleaf pines that harbor several types of carnivorous plants, including the sundew, for which it’s named. The Woodlands Trail crosses the Big Sandy Creek floodplain and dense stands of hardwood, running 5.4 miles. Pick up a trail map and guide to both hiking and paddling trails at the Beaumont visitor center.
The Big Thicket harbors dozens of species of birds and makes it easy for them to hide—but at Cattail Marsh, a 900-acre wetland constructed by the City of Beaumont Water Utilities Department in 1993, birds strut in plain view. Karin Warren, who manages the property, tells me that more than 350 species have been recorded here, and she points out egrets, wood ducks, ibis, herons, roseate spoonbills, teal, gallinules, black-necked stilts and a wood stork in a matter of minutes.
I can’t leave without seeing an alligator, and that need is easily met at Gator Country. This facility makes no bones about its theme-park appeal, but underneath it is a rescue and educational operation. Owners Jana and Gary Saurage say they love alligators and explain they would rather rescue the creatures from storm drains and neighborhoods than see them killed. More than 400 of the intimidating critters call Gator Country home, including Big Al, a 13-foot-4-inch, half-ton fellow.
Gator Country also runs swamp tours leaving from Pine Tree Lodge, where you’ll find alligator on the menu along with a variety of seafood and steaks. I recommend the catfish. I also recommend lunch at Willy Burger, where meat is ground fresh daily, or its neighbor, Crown Pizza, where pies include Beaumont-centric ingredients such as crawfish tails. Rather than choose, I sat on the patio and ordered from both restaurants.
Those gathered at Rao’s on Friday morning seemed to have reconvened Saturday night at Suga’s Deep South Cuisine & Jazz Bar. Suga’s serves slightly elevated Southern cuisine, featuring hand-cut steaks, fresh seafood and bison. I savored a juicy pork chop and greens accompanied by smooth saxophone music then thought: Beaumont knows how to have a good time.
Melissa Gaskill is an Austin writer who specializes in travel and nature topics.
Correction: A photo caption with this story misstated the type of trees shown. Stands of East Texas pines at the Big Thicket were shown, not hardwoods.