The Rockport-Fulton area beguiles visitors with its natural beauty and laid-back style
By Kathleen Kaska
During the past two decades, I’ve fallen in love with the Rockport area and have made it my vacation home, hiking the birding trails, exploring isolated wetlands, and lounging on a float in the warm, shallow waters of Aransas Bay. Need other enticements to visit? Imagine sipping a glass of wine on a quiet fishing pier while watching a tricolored heron spear a fish in the surf, taking a leisurely boat cruise at sunset, or dining on some of the best seafood the Gulf has to offer.
Here are some tips on making the most of your trip.
Start on foot at the Rockport Harbor in the Rockport Heritage District. Overlooking the bay, the Rockport Center for the Arts, housed in the 1890 Victorian Bruhl-O’Connor Home, boasts one of the best selections of coastal art in the area, with exhibits that change nine times a year. The gift shop offers original jewelry, paintings, and other artwork with prices that range from $10 to a few hundred dollars. Whenever I visit, I always find a treasure I can’t live without.
“We have three galleries, where we often have more than 100 original pieces by painters, potters, photographers, and sculptors,” says the center’s executive director Beverly Trifonidis. “We display works by local artists as well as artists from across the United States.” Sometimes the mix also includes other countries: The center’s biennial Shorelines exhibit, which runs Oct. 19 to Nov. 19 this year, includes artists from Canada and The Netherlands.
The Skimmer drifts along San José Island’s shoreline, where gulls, terns, and pelicans dive for their evening meals.
A 10,000-square-foot sculpture garden at the back of the center features a striking piece by Kent Ullburg entitled Rites of Spring—a pair of bronze whooping cranes standing sentinel to their winter home—and the abstract Uccelli (Birds of St. Francis) by Charles Umlauf. The garden also showcases works by Sandy Scott, Leo Osborne, Jane DeDecker, and Jesus Moroles.
Now, step across the street to the Texas Maritime Museum, where you’ll find a 1:12 scale model of French explorer Robert Cavelier Sieur de LaSalle’s ship La Belle, which sank off the Texas coast in 1686 and was excavated in 1995. The museum also displays items salvaged from the wreck, including the ship’s wooden nocturnal (a navigational device) and crewmembers’ personal items such as belt buckles, a shoe, a hairbrush, and wooden checkers pieces. A video kiosk tells the story of the complicated excavation. Climb to the top of the museum’s 48-foot “lighthouse” for a panoramic view of Rockport Harbor and Aransas Bay.
More exhibits await nearby at The Aquarium at Rockport Harbor. Here you can learn about several marine ecosystems—bays, jetties, seagrass flats—and see examples of marine life from each one. Be sure to check out the 150-gallon Jetties tank, which usually contains colorful sea urchins and sergeant majors.
Then, take a short walk along the Rockport Beach Park, where black skimmers often line up in formation on the shore to buffer the wind. Circle back and stop in at the Bay Education Center to see the SOS (Science on a Sphere) exhibit created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which uses computers and video projectors to display global data on a large sphere.
Or, go west from the museum and stroll down Austin Street, where century-old buildings have been transformed into restaurants, art galleries, and gift shops. Thanks to a city streetscape project, stately palm trees and new masonry planters filled with bougainvilleas line the sidewalks, and bright-blue, shaded benches sit at the corner of Main and South Austin streets. My favorite downtown places remain the vintage souvenir shops I looked for as a child, like the 65-year-old Sea Shell Shoppe, where baskets of whale eyes, rooster conch, and giant spiny whelks line the shelves.
The briny aroma wafting in from the bay has always given me an appetite for seafood, and I recommend Charlotte Plummer’s Seafare Restaurant at the Fulton Harbor. Wall-to-wall windows give diners a view of the fishing boats that supply the restaurant with fresh seafood. The menu includes stuffed flounder, fried oysters, and soft-shell crab. If you arrive early, you can avoid a wait and also give yourself time for one more ad-venture before calling it a day.
Docked behind Charlotte Plummer’s, the Skimmer, piloted by Tommy Moore, departs every evening around 7 between June and September for a cruise to San José Island. The boat drifts along the island’s shoreline, where gulls, terns, and pelicans dive for their evening meals. You might even spot a lone coyote slinking along the water’s edge. Bring along a cooler stocked with drinks; you can enjoy a toast as the sun slips below the horizon and the lights illuminate the harbor.
Get an early start on your second day in Rockport, and drive again to nearby Fulton. Pay a visit to the eclectic Cheryl’s by the Bay. On weekends, an outdoor café springs to life in front of the restaurant, where owner Cheryl Cuzco Bangert’s son, A.O. Cuzco, serves rich chicory coffee and lifts hot beignets from a fryer. “After a visit to Paris, A.O. fell in love with street food,” says Bangert, “and being part of a fifth-generation restaurant family, decided his contribution would be serving simple fare from our courtyard.” Pull up a chair, and be prepared to dust yourself in powdered sugar. At $3 a basket, the light and airy sweets are a fine way to kick off a day of exploration. Or ease into your day with a mimosa and a Croque Monsieur, the French version of a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich.
Consider returning to Cheryl’s for dinner. I enjoy the restaurant’s signature Brazilian black beans-and-rice served with grilled pork, or one of the seafood entrées—sautéed shrimp ajo, lime-shrimp and orzo, or coconut-shrimp curry over a bed of rice.
At the Rockport Center