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Play by the Bay

Corpus Christi offers waves of family adventure
Written by Jennifer Babisak. Photographs by Will van Overbeek.

(Photos by Will van Overbeek)

Living within minutes of Galveston gives our family easy beach access,  so until recently I’ve neglected to show my children the rest of the Texas coast. I decide to remedy this shortcoming with a trip to Corpus Christi, where the kids—Caleb (8), Madi (5), and Esther (1)— and I find far more family fun than just playing on the beach.

We find a convenient base for our adventures in an eighth-floor suite at the Omni Corpus Christi Hotel. The room’s upscale beach decor in-cludes driftwood lamps with linen shades, glass flower vases filled with shells, and oversized conch shell sculptures. Our room’s 20-foot wall of windows allows us bird’s-eye views of the city’s attractions, including the USS Lexington, a World War II aircraft carrier that now floats in bay waters just north of the 
hotel. When night falls, we gaze out the north-facing windows again to take in the jewel-toned dance of LED lights on the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge.

Morning brings its own spectacular views; this time I look out the east-facing windows and watch sunrise’s faint glow erupt into a fiery orange ball. As I sip my coffee, sailboats and ships take to the water, and the bay awakens to the commerce and recreation of the day.

Eager to explore those waters ourselves, we walk down the seawall and board the Karma—a 30-year-old shrimp boat reinvented as a floating classroom. Operated by Texas A&M’s Sea Grant College Program, the boat offers educational excursions to area schoolchildren as well as regular public cruises. Captain Whitney Curry motors us out beyond the jetties into the open green waters of the bay, where Russ Miget and his crew lower a shrimp net and 
a plankton net into the water. They reel in the nets and hoist the catch into shallow basins filled with a few inches of seawater. As the creatures swim around in temporary captivity, Russ gently picks up several pigfish, hermit crabs, and lizard fish and enthralls us with a lesson in marine biology.

Texas A&M's Sea Grant College Program operates the Karma, a floating classroom where Camille McCutchon, Maggie Lovoi and Mia Lovoi interact with sea creatures.

The plankton in our harvest are too small to observe with the naked eye, so the crew collects seawater in a test tube, places it beneath the lens of a microscope, and projects the wriggly image onto the wall. All the while, two dolphins follow behind the Karma, feasting on the escapees from the shrimp net and popping in and out of the wake like sleek surface missiles.

For more scientific exploration, we head to the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History. In its Children’s Wharf area, a skeletal cast of a pterodactyl hangs from the ceiling, and interactive exhibits such as 3-D dinosaur puzzles invite the children to play. A bat cave painted in dusky shades of purple and blue contains a padded floor and a suspended bar, enabling little gymnasts to hang upside down. Outside the museum, life-size replicas of Columbus’ ships Pinta and Santa Maria—complete with hand-forged nails and hemp caulking—allow visitors to study details of 15th-Century ship construction.

When lunch calls, we stop at Hester’s Cafe & Coffee Bar in the Six Points area of town, where walls splashed in bright shades of coral and turquoise contrast with the delicate la-vender daisies on each table. With breakfast served all day, I indulge in an egg, spinach, and Swiss sourdough panini while the kids stick with classic PB&J. Giant Buckaroo cook-
ies (a cranberry and white chocolate combo) top off our meal.

Attached to the café, the Bleu Frog Mercantile offers antiques, modern home decor, and a children’s section stocked with toys and games. Observing the rambunctious children, the salesclerk points out one of Bleu Frog’s top sellers, an “indestructible book” designed to withstand wear and tear from little hands. With three kids to please, we choose a set of watercolors and a sketchpad for evening entertainment in the hotel room.

Next, we venture to The Art Museum of South Texas, whose striking facade seamlessly blends into the maritime landscape. Architect Philip Johnson designed it this way, with white concrete and shell-aggregate walls to reflect the afternoon sun. An expansion by Mexico City architects Victor and Ricardo Legorreta in 2006 introduced a series of 13 copper rooftop pyramids. We take in some of the 1,400 works in the permanent collection, ranging from an 18th-Century portrait by French artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard to contemporary sculptures by Corpus Christi artist Danny O’Dowdy. The children’s eyes grow wide as we approach a vibrant chandelier, its spirals of glass tangled together in a frenzy of blues. “We saw that in Dallas!” they exclaim. As I frown in confusion, our guide says, “That’s a Chihuly,” and I realize that the children know what they’re talking about—their grandmother had recently taken them to see an exhibit of the famed glass-sculptor’s work at the Dallas Arboretum. Art resonates with all ages.

 

In the interactive children’s area of the museum, called the Artcade, a carpeted stage, puppet theater, and trunks overflowing with costumes and puppets provide materials for creative play. After the kids stage a puppet show, they move on to the art kits, which offer projects based on current exhibits. Art instructor Letty Gomez guides the kids through a collage activity, helping them form landscapes from assorted scraps of patterned paper. With the museum’s closing time fast approaching, I encourage the kids to wrap up their projects, but my daughter Madi protests. Letty, giving a sympathetic smile, says, “We hear that a lot.”

The next day, we cross the Harbor Bridge to reach attractions just across Corpus Christi Bay. Though we had enjoyed views of the USS Lexington from a distance, up close we’re astonished by the size of the 42,000-ton ship. The aircraft carrier served 21 months of Pacific Theater combat in World War II, and then functioned as a Naval trainer carrier before retiring to Corpus Christi in 1992. Its flight deck (spanning the equivalent of three football fields stacked end to end) displays nearly a dozen vintage aircraft, such as a royal blue KA-3B Skywarrior. We climb a seemingly endless maze of ladders to get to the wind-whipped ledge of the Navigation Bridge. In the Pilot House, a barrage of gray instruments and a few elevated seats serve as backdrop for the complicated task of piloting such a large ship.

After climbing so many flights with Esther strapped to my back, I welcome the chance to relax in the comfy seats of the Joe Jessel 3D Mega Theater and take in Legends of Flight, a movie that documents the past century of aviation. Wearing their 3-D glasses, the kids gasp as vintage planes appear to fly straight at us.

Just down the street, at the Texas State Aquarium, Caleb and Madi make a beeline for the H-E-B Splash Park, where they frolic among the multicolored spray jets on the splash pad. Esther and I watch them play while keeping ourselves dry (if sandy) in Owen’s Paleo Park, a large sandbox and “fossil” dig site full of casts of prehistoric Coastal Bend residents like giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats.

Later, we check out the Aquarium’s newest attraction, Stingray Lagoon, an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to touch and even hand-feed nearly 30 indigenous Gulf stingrays. In a long shallow pool surrounded by a dozen tiki huts, the rays glide within our reach. Caleb tentatively reaches his hand in the tank, but recoils as the largest of the rays—a 100-pound southern stingray named Bertha—sends water cascading over the tank’s wall with a flop of her massive tail.

In the turquoise waters of Tortuga Cay, four sea turtles are undergoing rehabilitation, having arrived at the Aquarium after suffering injuries from netting and fishing line. As we watch the turtles glide through their tank, Caleb surprises me by pointing out one difference between the turtles and tortoises. “Tortoises have feet and turtles have flippers,” he says matter-of-factly.

When hunger calls, we head to Tavern on the Bay at Harrison’s Landing, which offers outdoor seating on a floating dock, as well as live music most nights. The gentle sea breeze and guitarist strumming mellow rhythms lull us into relaxation. Confirming that this is a kid-friendly tavern, a balloon artist stops by our table and crafts the children an assortment of whimsical swords, a heart, and a dog. While Caleb and Esther snack on chicken tenders and Fritos, Madi and I share a chicken salad wrap, enjoying the contrast of celery, onion, and cranberries. We take our time walking back to the hotel, the gentle sea breeze tempting us to enjoy the night air for a few moments longer.

Though we have fun strolling along McGee beach (located near downtown) and romping about the adjacent playgrounds lining the esplanade, the children yearn for the sand and surf of the open Gulf, so the next morning we venture off the mainland for some beach play. En route, we swing by the South Texas Botanical Gardens & Nature Center. At the Gardens’ entrance, a trio of white-and-yellow cockatoos startles us with a loud and friendly “Hi!” We walk trails leading to fragrant displays of roses, orchids, and plumeria. A flagstone path leads us into the magical enclosure of a butterfly house, where butterflies and dragonflies skim just above our heads.

When we can’t ignore the ocean’s call a second longer, we cross the JFK Causeway bridge, which connects Corpus Christi to Padre Island, the longest barrier island in the world. Here, Padre Island National Seashore stretches for 66 miles of unspoiled beauty. Windswept dunes capped by delicate yellow blossoms provide a tranquil backdrop for our play. All is quiet here save for the crashing of the surf, the caw of seagulls, and the giggles of the children as they cover me in sand. We’ve found another beach city to love.

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