By Tim Johnson
J Griffis Smith
Garth Brooks, the best-selling country artist of all time, sings a song called I’d Rather Have Nothing, about banishing his heartache in a rum-soaked paradise – a sort of “Margaritaville” for the cowboy singing set. “Got in my truck and headed for Kansas/Morning found me in Port Aransas/Sipping on Rum/In the warm Texas sun,” he sings. The Texas Gulf Coast is like that – while hopefully you won’t have any heartache, it’s a place where you’ll find both rum and pickup trucks and, of course, plenty of lovely, warm sun. From the Mexican border near South Padre Island, through Port Aransas and Corpus Christi Bay all the way up to Galveston and on to the Louisiana state line, the Lone Star State is home to more than 1,000 kilometres of coastline, a wide arc ringing the Gulf of Mexico that’s lined with beaches and beautiful barrier islands. Whether or not you arrive in a pickup truck is your choice – many families come down here in a minivan – but once you get here, you’ll definitely have plenty to do in these rootin’ tootin’ beach towns.
This small town, home to just a few thousand people, is located on Mustang Island, which stretches almost 30 kilometres in length and is one of the largest barrier islands in the world, wedged between Corpus Christi Bay and the Gulf. Mustang is a nature lover’s dream and truly a great place to get outside. If you’re looking for untamed nature, head to Mustang Island State Park, which occupies the entire southern third of the island, where you’ll find more than 1,600 hectares of sand dunes, sea oats and morning glories, plus eight kilometres of open beach and three separate paddling trails, perfect for a canoe or kayak – the largest, the North Trail, runs more than 13 kilometres, meandering among small uninhabited islands in Corpus Christi Bay and through excellent shallow-water fishing grounds.
But if you’re looking for some more serious fishing, you’re definitely in the right place – Port Aransas is known informally as the Fishing Capital of Texas. Casual anglers (including families) can drop a line from one of the town’s four public piers and pull up flounder, redfish and black drum, while those looking for a more comprehensive experience can choose from a number of local operators offering half-and-full day charters, rolling into the deep sea waters for marlin, tuna and kingfish. And if you’re really serious about angling, plan your vacation around one of the several major fishing tournaments that take place here each year – the biggest, the Deep Sea Roundup, takes place every July and is the largest and oldest event of its kind on the Gulf Coast (2013 will be its 78th year).
But if fishing’s not your thing, no problem – the shores around Port Aransas are filled with plenty of other activities. Nearby San Jose Island, a short jetty boat ride away, offers some excellent shelling along untouched beaches. And Mustang Island receives some of the nation’s best prevailing winds, so visitors often go windsurfing and kite boarding, as well as parasailing and jet skiing, and you can even hang ten and go surfing – not a typical Texas activity, but this area is full of surprises.
South Padre Island
South Padre Island CVB
Just a few kilometres north of the Mexican border, this resort area – one of the most popular in Texas, welcoming some one million visitors every year – is officially a “no tie zone.” An official proclamation in 1997 banned this formal accessory, so once you cross the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge, make sure to toss those ties out the window and into the warm waters of Laguna Madre Bay. You definitely won’t have any use for them in this Lone Star paradise, which experiences some of the finest weather in the U.S. – breezy summers with temperatures in the upper 20s and warm, pleasant winters (thus, in addition to the tie thing, in South Padre, there’s no jacket required).
And while the string of high-rise resorts that lines the shore may evoke a Spring Break sort of feel, South Padre has actually become a prime destination for eco-tourists. The island is home to 306 recorded species of birds, making it one of the top bird-watching destinations in the Western Hemisphere. And in addition to many small operators that offer dolphin and sea turtle spotting excursions, you’ll also find the South Padre Island Dolphin Research and Sealife Nature Center, where all ages can appreciate, view – or even handle, through a series of touch tanks – some amazing local sea creatures, including octopus, crabs, starfish and snails (and they also offer one of the best dolphin tours on the island).
And being so close to Mexico, you probably should make a run for the border. Book a tour in advance, or just drive on down to Brownsville, just a few minutes away, park your car and walk over the Rio Grande and into bustling Matamoros, where you will find vibrant markets and some of the best authentic Mexican food within walking distance of the United States.
A short drive from Houston, this historic seaside city is a world away. One of the largest and most important ports in the 19th century, this city of 50,000 opened the first post office, insurance company and opera house, and lit the first gas lamps and electric lights in the state of Texas. And while times have changed since Galveston competed with New Orleans for the title of America’s most important cotton port, and despite a devastating hurricane in 1900, the city retains a great deal of its historic infrastructure and the feel of a city that was once one of the most prominent in the nation.
To experience this history, take a stroll through one of the city’s old neighbourhoods, including the Silk Stocking National Historic District (home to several fine examples of the Queen Anne architectural style) or the East End National Historic District (where you will find both Greek Revival and Late Victorian buildings), but the majority of your time should be spent on the Strand. Here in this 36-block downtown district you’ll find small galleries and museums, celebrations such as the city’s annual Mardi Gras, charming 19th-century elements such as cobblestone streets, gas lamps, horse-and-carriage rides and an old fashioned trolley.
And the Strand is home to Galveston’s greatest food and drink. Just a couple blocks from the sea, enjoy some of the best seafood in Texas – here, you’ll find everything from fare with South American flair at a place like Rudy & Paco (which serves up great ceviche and all sorts of fresh fish served with cilantro, habanero and jalapeno) to cheery local favourite Yaga’s Café, where you can order shrimp po’boys and enjoy some live music. And after all that eating, work it off by taking a walk along the city’s newly opened Pleasure Pier, which juts more than 300 metres into the Gulf and includes rides and attractions that will be appreciated by every member of the family.