If you love the briny smell of salt air, the sound of waves breaking and dissolving on a sand beach, the circling and calling of sea gulls, and the whisper of sea breezes blowing in from distant lands, you’ve probably already discovered your favorite place along the roughly 370 miles of the Texas coast.
But maybe you’re a new Texan, or someone who hasn’t yet made that trek to the Gulf of Mexico—someone who’s just never experienced what brings tourists, winter Texans, fishing aficionados, birders, artists and weekend beachcombers back again and again to Texas’ shoreline.
My coastal journey spanned the stretch between Palacios and Aransas Pass along State Highway 35 and the short jaunt between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas on State Highway 361.
Palacios, a small, quiet town with abundant fishing opportunities and a loyal extended family of seasonal residents, claims the title “Shrimp Capital of Texas” with a fleet of nearly 400 trawlers. The town’s most distinguished landmark is the 100-plus-year-old Luther Hotel, its expansive lawn stretching toward the waters of Tres Palacios Bay. Sit in one of the oversized rocking chairs on the grand front porch and enjoy the breeze coming in from the Gulf. In its heyday, the Luther hosted glamorous guests such as actress Rita Hayworth and big-band leader Tommy Dorsey. In its dotage, the hotel has the feel of a comfortable old slipper and attracts enthusiastic regulars who appreciate its history and worn, back-to-basics ambiance. No telephones or Internet connections. The “ice machine” is a cooler of ice with a metal scoop.
Just southwest of Palacios is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, 115,000 acres of native vegetation and marshland. The refuge was instrumental in repopulating the nearly extinct Whooping Crane and provides winter nesting grounds for more than 500 species of migrating birds. A slow drive through the refuge or an attentive walk along one of the many nature trails is an act of discovery. We saw an armadillo, many monarch butterflies, a strikingly elegant Great White Egret and a rattlesnake within a 15-minute period. Yes, a rattlesnake. The insistent rattle alerted us. We minded our manners and walked briskly past. The snake quickly slithered into the tall grasses. Nice lesson.
The Rockport-Fulton area on Aransas Bay, a longtime destination for deep sea and bay fishing, is also one of the most popular resort areas on the coast (and, thankfully, has been spared from the BP oil spill disaster). Interspersed with modern, full-service accommodations such as the Lighthouse Inn at Aransas Bay are clusters of single cottages around a common courtyard, vestiges of another era. A seemingly endless string of long, wooden piers juts into the water, stations for the ever-hopeful angler.
Just a short distance inland is evidence of Rockport’s claim as a leading center for the arts. With more than 300 professional artists in residence, there is no shortage of galleries featuring the work of painters, sculptors, weavers and potters. See the dramatic work in granite of internationally renowned sculptor Jesús Moroles at the Rockport Center for the Arts.
Don’t miss taking the iconic ferry between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas—home to dolphin watch boat tours. Climb aboard the Mustang II at Woody’s Sports Center and ride the waves to the playground of more than 400 dolphins individually documented by the University of Texas Marine Science Institute. The Mustang II’s first mate is T-Joe, a salty and energetic guide—part entertainer, part marine encyclopedia. He delights in introducing the children on board to the “touch tank,” an aquatic petting zoo with puffer fish, sea horses, crabs, squid, sea robins and starfish.
Then there are the oysters. And the shrimp, and crab and wild-caught flounder. And more. As you would expect, there are abundant seafood restaurants. I enjoyed fresh, locally harvested oysters at the Outrigger in Palacios, fresh gulf flounder at Crab-N Restaurant, between Rockport and Aransas Pass, and a memorable wasabi crab cake with ginger sauce at Beulah’s (now The Pelican Club) in Port Aransas.
So come on down. The water’s fine!
Carol Moczygemba is Texas Co-op Power’s executive editor.