Autumn in Port Aransas
Port Aransas, on the northern tip of Mustang Island, is accessible by free, 24-hour TxDOT ferry service from Aransas Pass and by the JFK Causeway from Corpus Christi. For more details on accommodations, attractions, restaurants, fishing charters, and other things to do on the island, call the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce, 800/45-COAST; www.portaransas.org. While you're on the island, visit the chamber office (421 W. Cotter, open Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat 9-3) for maps and brochures galore. You'll need a permit ($6, available almost everywhere in town) to park on the beach to the right of Horace Caldwell Pier. Contact information for attractions mentioned in the story follows. The area code is 361.
Prime Port Aransas spots for birdwatching include Paradise Pond, with boardwalks over a freshwater pond and a butterfly garden (on Cut-Off Rd.); the Port Aransas Birding Center, with boardwalks and an observation tower (off Ross Rd., behind the water treatment plant); and the Port Aransas Wetlands, a tidal flat on Texas 361, toward Corpus Christi.
The Port Aransas Parks and Recreation Dept. offers free, guided birding walks (Wed. at 9 a.m.) and shelling walks (4th Fri. each month at 9 a.m.). Call 749-4158.
Fisherman's Wharf, 900 N. Tarpon, offers birding, fishing, and dolphin-viewing tours. Call 800/605-5448; www.wharfcat.com.
Slowride Guide Services, at 821 S. Commercial in Aransas Pass, rents kayaks and offers guided kayak trips focusing on sightseeing, birding, shelling, and fishing. Call 758-0463; www.slowrideguide.com.
Woody's Sports Center, at 136 W. Cotter, offers dolphin-watching excursions, fishing charters, parasailing and jet-skiing adventures, and trips to San José Island. Call 749-5252; www.gulfcoastfishing.com.
Rent bicycles at Island Bikes, 736 Tarpon (749-2453; islandbikes.net) and at EV Planet, 428 S. Alister, which also rents electric cars (749-3003).
The Visitor Center at the UT Marine Science Institute, at 750 Channel View Dr., opens Mon-Fri 8-5. Call 749-6805.
Shops/Galleries include: The Art Center for the Island (749-7334), Bilmore & Son (749-5880), Cita (749-2711), Our Favorite Things (749-3404), and Simply Black & White (749-5051).
Dining and Drinking
Here are some favorites. The area code is 361.
The Beach Lodge, 2016 On the Beach, 749-5713. Bathing suits and flip-flops fit right in at this casual joint overlooking the Gulf, where a well-stocked jukebox, ice-cold beer and margaritas, and hefty burgers beckon residents and tourists alike.
Beeman's Coffee Bar, 229 Beach St., 749-7616. Homemade pastries, overstuffed sandwiches, and expertly prepared coffees lure all kinds of folks to this zany indoor-outdoor coffeehouse. In the morning, you can read the paper on the outside patio, decorated with flowering plants and painted rocks, and sloowwwwly wake up.
Taquería San Juan, 14 S. Cut-Off Rd., 749-6521. In a new location near the Paradise Pond bird-ing site, the ultra-casual TSJ still pleases crowds with inexpensive Mexican delectables, including fat breakfast tacos and cheesy enchiladas.
The Pier House, 230 On the Beach, 749-2031. At the entrance of the Horace Caldwell Pier, which juts a quarter-mile into the Gulf of Mexi-co, The Pier House sells bait and other fishin' supplies, but also serves up basic breakfast and lunch items, including Frito pies and chili dogs.
The Island Cafe & Smokehouse, 224 W. Cotter; 361/749-660, appears in the main story.
The Other Guys Seafood Cafe, 104 E. Cotter, 749-4972. New Orleans-style shrimp gumbo and po-boys make this a great place for lunch. Owner Guy Carnathan's other res-taurant, Beulah's/The Pelican Club (749-0580), serves fine cuisine on the waterfront.
Shells, 522 E. Ave. G, 749-7621. With a focus on "fresh," chalkboard specials at this tiny restaurant include seared mahi mahi with chile-lime sauce, roasted garlic with focaccia, and scallop sashimi.
The Wharf, 500 S. Cut-Off Rd., 749-0075. Ample portions of well-prepared fresh fish, oysters, steaks, soups, and salads bring crowds to this casual eatery.
Venetian Hot Plate, 232 Beach St., 749-7617. In 1995, Linda and Maurice Halioua, who hailed from Italy but were working in chic restaurants in Philadelphia, wrote "Texas or Bust" on the back of a U-Haul and relocated to Port Aransas. You'll need to make reservations at their cozy eatery, where the signature dish, filet mignon medallions with Gorgonzola cream sauce, draws raves.
Marcel's, 905 Texas 361, 749-5577. Chef Marcel Althauser moved from Germany to Port Aransas in 1990, bringing with him a love of "eating in season." White tablecloths and candles set a luxurious mood for enjoying Marcel's inventive German cuisine.
And, a Watering-Hole Trio
Back Porch, 132 Cotter, 749-2800. Are you in Puerto Vallarta or Port Aransas? After a long day of relaxing, unwind at this late-night palapa bar next to the marina.
Shorty's Place, 823 Tarpon, 749-8077. This tiny watering hole, a 57-year institution just off the waterfront, made its way into the July 2002 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. A beer will set you back $2, and the bar's popular "Pig Party," an annual barbecue that takes place this year on October 18, is free.
Lovett's Bar, 315 S. Alister, 749-4466. Wanna watch the game, see a band, play a round of pool, or have a mai tai before noon? This friendly neighborhood bar, furnished with neon signs and smoke-tinged wooden walls, will welcome you with open arms.
Where to Stay
Now that the summer crowds have dissipated, you can have your pick of area lodgings, which range from swanky condos with stunning views of the Gulf to no-frills cottages with little to distract you from the fun outside. Do you need a full kitchen? A place that accepts pets? A commodious home base for a family getaway? The Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce's excellent Web site, www.portaransas.org, includes a comprehensive list to help you winnow out your favorites. Call 800/45-COAST to request a copy by mail.
The Tarpon Inn's appeal today stems more from its wide, breezy porches and storied past than from its modest quarters. First constructed in 1886, the inn now features 24 small, air-conditioned rooms in a lovely 1923 structure listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel's lobby features the famous "tarpon scale" wall, plus photos galore of old Port A; the hotel guest book boasts names like Austrian movie vixen Hedy Lamarr, Oscar-winning Hollywood tough-guy Victor McLaglan, and cake magnate Duncan Hines. Never mind the rooms' spare furnishings; you'll spend most of your time on the shade-dappled porch, enjoying the sounds of rustling palm fronds, watching hummingbirds cavort in lush foliage, and imagining that the walls could talk. Call 800/365-6784; www.thetarponinn.com.
Speaking of buildings telling stories, influential Texas architect O'Neil Ford, who had designed two private residences at Port Aransas in the 1940s, returned to the island in the Fifties to build an elaborate residence for businessman Jack Cobb. The house, constructed of handmade Mexican brick with numerous alcoves to let in Gulf breezes, eventually became a beach club and then a hotel with an elusive, provocative history. It stands today as the pet- and people-friendly inn Belles' By the Sea, a honeycomb of rooms arranged around a circular pool and courtyard, a plant-filled breezeway, and an expansive patio rimmed with huge agaves. Call 361/749-6138; www.bellespa.com.
Other lodgings I can vouch for include the Sandcastle Condominiums, with full kitchens and sumptuous suites overlooking the ocean (800/727-6201; www.sandcastlecondo.com), and the zany, eye-popping A Laughing Horse Lodge, whose whimsically appointed rooms and cabanas (two blocks from the beach) boast some of the most powerful A/C units on the island (877/734-9219; www.alaughinghorselodge.com).
From the October 2003 issue.