Down around Matagorda Bay and environs, you find unexpected stores of art, shiploads of history, hundreds of bird species for the watching and wary folks keeping an eye out for the next hurricane. In a mini-region along the Coastal Bend, about halfway between Galveston and Corpus Christi, you can spend a whole weekend soaking up the heritage and natural history of an area brimming with some of the greatest, little-known finds in the state. Winter is prime visiting time, too, so pack the binoculars and head on out.
You’ll start in surprisingly rich Victoria, Victoria Electric Cooperative headquarters, then head 25 miles southeast toward the Gulf on U.S. Highway 87, stopping when you reach Port Lavaca, perched on Matagorda Bay. From there, you’ll follow Texas Highway 35 southwest, then Texas Highway 239 southeast, on a 26-mile drive to Austwell, skirting the shores of San Antonio Bay, the gateway to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.
The seat of Victoria County, which lies about 120 miles southeast of San Antonio, was founded by Spanish settlers in 1824 and grew as more families arrived from Germany and Ireland. The town survived a burning following the massacre of Republic forces at nearby Goliad in 1836 and an 1846 cholera epidemic. To appreciate its survival is to explore its glories in such sites as Memorial Square, with its handsome courthouse and charming bandstand, pioneer graves and a wooden, wind-driven gristmill. At the Nave Museum, inside a grand, Greco-Roman building, find the work of Royston Nave, a Texas painter whose work won raves in New York in the 1920s. Fortify yourself with lasagna and homemade pie at Fossati’s on South Main Street, a friendly café with comfortably creaky floors, said to be the oldest deli in Texas.
Victoria Convention and Visitors Bureau, 700 Main Ctr., Ste. 102, Victoria; (361) 582-4285, 1-800-926-5774
The Calhoun County seat overlooks Lavaca Bay from a bluff-top setting, where you watch kayakers paddling along to get a better glimpse of the feathered friends populating these waters. This area sits midway along the magnificent Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, with roughly 20 mapped viewing sites in this particular vicinity. Maybe the best place to add birds to your life list—some 400 species have been noted in this county alone—is at Port Lavaca’s Lighthouse Beach and Bird Sanctuary, with its Formosa Wetland Walkway and Alcoa Bird Tower, the latter crafted entirely from recycled plastic.
Port Lavaca/Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, 2300 Texas Hwy. 35, Port Lavaca, (361) 552-2959
Here’s your jumping-off point to visit the 70,504-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, renowned for its winter colony of exquisite whooping cranes. One of just two crane species on the continent, this endangered crane draws attention for its looks —it’s snowy white with black wing tips and a bright-red crown, and at 4–5 feet in height, it’s the tallest bird in North America. It’s also known for its noisy call that can be heard for miles. The whooping crane comes with a good story, too, as preservation efforts have brought it back from near-extinction numbers of just 15 birds in 1937 to roughly 200 in the vicinity today. You can see them between November and March by taking the 16-mile driving tour through the refuge. Among the 390-odd other species you’ll also see here are roseate spoonbills, ibises, herons and egrets. Do stop at the 40-foot-tall observation tower, furnished with two high-power spotting scopes.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, FM 2040, Austwell; (361) 286-3559 Admission $3-$5.
For a Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail map, contact Texas Parks & Wildlife, (800) 792-1112 or visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us.
The seventh edition of June Naylor’s book, Texas: Off the Beaten Path, is now in stores.