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A Coastal Charmer—Rockport

Written by Larry Ditto. Photographs by Kevin Stillman.
Diners on the rooftop deck of Charlotte Plummer’s restaurant in nearby Fulton can enjoy a view of Fulton Harbor as well as scrumptious seafood and steaks.

Rockport appears to suffer from a split personality. On the one hand, it offers enough water- and wildlife-related activities to run the most rugged tourist ragged. On the other hand, the town induces a state of relaxation in visitors that borders on shiftlessness.

“When people first get here, they are very conscious of time, money, unpacking, and doing this and that. They’re in third gear,” says Wayne Nugent, owner of The Habitat guest cabins. “But after they’ve been here a while, they’re just kind of moseying along. My dad used to call it the Rockport Syndrome.”

The laid-back atmosphere beguiles many who come for a weekend but stay for a lifetime. That’s when they discover the truth of the old adage “Still waters run deep.” For while Rockport may seem no more than a sleepy little fishing village, it teems with life every bit as active as a school of baitfish fleeing a horde of hungry speckled trout.

“The variety of outdoor activities is what’s so appealing about Rockport,” says fishing guide Danny Adams Sr. “There’s fishing, duck hunting, birdwatching, water-skiing, sailboating, hiking, camping, crabbing, swimming, sunbathing, shel­l­ing, oystering—I don’t know of anywhere else in Texas you can do all of that.”

But it’s not just tourists who find plenty to do here. Locals, too, testify that you can be as busy as you want to be in Rockport. “The heart of this town is its volunteers,” says Rockport resident Mindy Durham. “Show an interest, and four groups will snap you up to try to use your expertise, no matter what it is. I have never in my life been so busy and so involved.” To put that last comment in perspective, you need to know that Mindy, as a former teacher and real estate appraiser, understands busy.

Like many who live here, Mindy once regarded Rockport as a place to play. She grew up in Corpus Christi and later lived in Houston, but Rockport remained central in her life. “I would come to Rockport with my high school friends to ski and sail and do so many water-related things,” she says.

Rockport’s laid-back atmosphere beguiles visitors who come for a weekend but stay for a lifetime.

Since she’s now director of Rockport’s Texas Maritime Museum, water-related things still dominate Mindy’s life. “The museum has a wealth of interesting information about the maritime history of the Texas coast and how influential our coastline has been in the development of the state,” she says. Her favorite exhibit—and the favorite of many visitors—is a seven-foot-tall model of the Bullwinkle offshore drilling rig, the largest rig in the Gulf of Mexico when it was built in the 1980s, some 375 miles east of Rockport. “A scale model of the museum inside the model shows how huge the rigs are by comparison,” she points out. Almost lost inside the rig model, the museum model would fit comfortably in the palm of your hand.

Another of the museum’s popular attractions started out as a temporary exhibit. “The Allure of Fishing,” now a permanent display, includes handcarved lures, a handmade mahogany tackle box, antique reels (some dating to the 1920s), and other intriguing fishing equipment. To use the 1940s-era Rock-It Automatic Fish Scaler, anglers were instructed to place a fish in the cylindrical metal contraption, which has a serrated interior, and pull it behind the boat until the fish was scaled.

The fishing exhibit fits right in with the main reason many people visit Rockport. According to Chuck Scates, manager of Redfish Lodge on Copano Bay, there are more fishing guides and offshore fishing boats here than anywhere else along the Texas coast. Rockport is special, he explains, because it has easy access to both offshore and bay fishing, thus offering many different ways of fishing. “You can do shallow-water-flats fishing, you can fish shell reefs, you can use live bait or lures,” says Chuck. “Fly-fishing is my love—it’s the stalk and the hunt. You have to literally see the fish to present the fly to it. Plus, you’re using light tackle, and both those things excite me.” Chuck holds the world record for the biggest spotted sea trout (speckled trout) caught on a two-pound test tippet (the lightest class of fishing line).

While fishing first draws many to Rockport, what keeps them coming back is the tugs on their hearts, not on their lines. “There’s a lot more to this place than just fishing,” Chuck continues. “Every time I go on the bay, I see something new. Some­times I see feral hogs or deer on the shoreline, or I might watch a pod of tailing redfish work across a flat, feeding and kicking shrimp out of the water.” (A “pod of tailing redfish” is a group of five to 10 redfish feeding on the bottom with their tail fins sticking out of the water.)

Danny Adams often finds that his fishing trips turn into something more as well. “My favorite place is in the back of St. Charles Bay, near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge,” he says. “Few boats go back there because of the shallow reefs. You can see deer, whooping cranes, alligators, tailing redfish, geese, and ducks by the thousands. It’s pristine. This is the way the Karankawa Indians saw it 400 years ago. There has not been, and hopefully never will be, any development. It’s coastal land as God intended it to be.”

Reverence for the environment underpins another Rockport staple: birding. The area ranks as one of the top birdwatching sites in the nation, not only because of the number of species that visit or live here, but also because of the ease with which they can be seen. The wind-sculpted live oaks lining the waterfront hold many year-round feathered residents, but birding booms during the fall and spring migrations. In the spring, birds cutting across the Gulf of Mexico sometimes run into late northers and arrive exhausted, falling into the first tree or bush they see. During these “fall-outs,” birders with binoculars flock to the town, where a single tree may hold hundreds of brightly colored birds.

Several sites within the city offer birdwatchers prime viewing. Just north of downtown, along the waterfront, lies the Connie Hagar Wildlife Sanctuary, named for the self-taught birder who first brought national attention to Rockport in the 1940s. (The late naturalist chronicled her sightings and eventually convinced leading ornithologists to check out the variety of birds in the area.) Shorebirds and ducks are the chief attractions here. Farther north of downtown on Texas 35, volunteers from the Friends of Connie Hagar organization, working with the Texas Department of Trans­portation and the City of Rockport, have added plants, trails, and boardwalks to a public picnic ground and created two unusual gardens, one designed to produce fruits and berries for all birds, the other to attract hummingbirds and butterflies. The gardens demonstrate to visitors how they can turn their own property into a sanctuary for beautiful winged creatures.

On the south side of town, on Loop 70, is the Connie Hagar Cottage Sanctuary. For several decades, Con­nie and her husband, Jack, lived on the site—now cleared of all buildings—and ran a tourist court here. To­day, an observation platform sits at the north end of the Hagars’ property, and a trail winds through the trees where Connie did much of her birdwatching. Walking the trail, seeing and hearing birds in the trees all around, and thinking of the influence this one woman had on so many people’s lives, you realize that enduring legacies can be built of bird calls, feathers, and memories, not just brick, wood, and asphalt.

Another good place to watch birds is from the swimming pool at Redfish Lodge. The lodge sits at the end of a mile-long peninsula that divides Copano Bay from Port Bay, and the swimming pool occupies the last little spit of sand. The view of the setting sun from the pool competes for attention with a rookery less than a hundred yards away on a small island, where roseate spoonbills, blue herons, cormorants, and egrets nest. One particular blue heron, dubbed Henry by locals, hangs out on the beach in front of the lodge at dusk, spearing baitfish in the surf.

Arguably the most famous birding site in the Rockport area, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge provides a winter home to one of only three flocks of whooping cranes in existence. The refuge’s more than 70,000 acres support not only the whoopers and hundreds of other kinds of birds, but also deer, alligators, javelinas, feral hogs, bobcats, and raccoons. Visitation is limited to an interpretive center, a 16-mile paved tour road, and six hiking trails; the rest is reserved for the animals.

While fishing first draws many to rockport, what keeps them coming back is the tugs on their hearts, not on their lines.

Closer to town, Goose Island State Park harbors the Texas cham­pion live oak tree, called simply Big Tree (see “Texas Cham­pion Trees,” January 1999). “Fishing and birding are the two most popular attractions at Goose Island,” says park ranger Tom Breuer. “Crabbing is good in the summer; that’s a nice activity for kids. People use chicken necks to bait their crab nets. Crabs have a good sense of smell, and it doesn’t take long for them to find the bait. Blue crabs are the most common, but we do have a few stone crabs.”

Campsites situated right on the water let visitors cook and eat their catch just feet from where they landed it. However, uninvited guests wearing masks often try to share the feast: A sign in the park office warns, “Man has yet to invent a raccoon-proof ice chest.”

Coastal wildlife and scenery also attract a species found so long in Rockport as to be almost synonymous with the town: artists. “The interest in art here developed in the 1950s through a group of people who eventually started a guild, which turned into a nonprofit organization, the Rockport Center for the Arts,” explains Mary Lucille Jackson, executive director of the center. “The same things that attracted the birders and fishers attracted the artists. A great many artists saw this as a haven, a relaxed place where they could develop their art and have the kind of lifestyle they wanted.”

One of those artists, Lisa Baer, now owns the gallery that bears her aunt Estelle Stair’s name. “I love this place and feel really lucky to be here,” says Lisa. “This was our vacation place when I was growing up in Rockdale; we came here every summer. My dad liked to fish, and I always took art classes. My high school didn’t offer art classes; this was the only place I could take them.”

Today, through exhibits and classes at the gallery, Lisa continues a long Rockport tradition of nurturing artistic talent, some of which springs from surprising sources. She gestures toward figures of shorebirds carved from wood and tells a little about the artist. “Jerry Lewis was an aerospace engineer on NASA’s Viking project to Mars [in the mid-1970s],” she says. “After he retired, he moved to Rockport and got interested in art. We attract very interesting people who’ve done a lot and want to settle down here. It makes for an interesting community.”

That community now includes about 150 artists and more than a dozen galleries and art-oriented shops, most of which lie downtown along South Austin Street. A favorite for browsers is Moby Dan’s Nautical Curiosities. Though small, the shop offers a wide variety of items that live up to its name: Galileo thermometers, which use balls floating in liquid to tell temperature; neon palm trees, flamingos, and dolphins; and antique sextants and telescopes. You’ll also find gourmet packaged foods, prints of works by local artists, and mailboxes made to look like pelicans, hummingbirds, locomotives, and golf bags.

Another intriguing shop is Kay Stanley’s Golden Needles and Quilts. You can’t buy quilts here, but you can buy everything needed to make one. “Our specialty is patterns,” says Kay. Freelance quilt designer Jackie Dodge, another Rockport resident, creates designs for the shop’s Block-of-the-Month group. Each month, members get another block, and at the end of a year, they have enough for a complete quilt.

The 1998 quilt, titled A Year on the Coast, shows a lighthouse, a whooping crane, quilts on the beach, a bluebonnet, a leaping marlin, a lightning whelk, a Texas flag, a child on the beach, a hummingbird, and Big Tree. “Our look is coastal—landscapes, birds, and cool colors,” says Kay. “Being on the coast, we need bright and cool. Warm does not sell in this shop!” That’s ironic, because warm is one of the feelings you get from visiting Rockport. Another is stuffed. There is no shortage of good food here. Kline’s Cafe, Sandollar Pavillion, and Duck Inn are standard meeting places for fishing guides and their clients, who tuck into huge breakfasts before heading out for a day on the water. You can buy fish and shrimp right off boats in the harbors, or you can enjoy it at area restaurants.

The Big Fisherman (six miles south of town, but well worth the drive) offers all-you-can-eat seafood, steak, and chicken in a cavernous building that routinely seats more than 300 for dinner. If you’d like to dine dockside, try Charlotte Plummer’s restaurant in Fulton, where you can enjoy a view of Fulton Harbor. Seafood is served fried, grilled, broiled, and blackened, and the Key lime pie finishes off a meal nicely.

But be sure to reserve one evening for a trip to another Fulton spot, The Boiling Pot. Here, shrimp, crab, sausage, new potatoes, and corn on the cob—a mix called the Cajun Combo—are boiled together with spices and served (dumped, actually) on butcher paper-covered tables. Eager eaters whack crab claws with wooden mallets and peel crawfish tails and shrimp until their thumbs are sore. Servers keep bringing steaming pans of whatever you ask for until you groan, “Please. No more.”

Food may be the only thing you’ll get enough of in Rockport. Too many fish and birds? No way. Too many beautiful sunsets? Nope. Overdose on art? Not likely. Enough time for it all? Probably not, unless you live here. Which is why so many people have happily taken up residence. “It’s wonderful living in this small town,” says Mindy Durham. “For me, moving here was almost like coming home.” Most of us, like the birds, will remain migrants, stopping only briefly in this alluring coastal village. But some lucky few will rise to the bait, swallow hook, line, and sinker—and come home to Rockport.

Rockport Essentials

Rockport, 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi on Texas 35, is surrounded on three sides by the waters of Aransas, Copano, and Port bays. For information on the area, write to the Rockport/Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce, 404 Broadway, Rockport 78382; 361/729-6445 or 800/242-0071. Web site: www.rockport-fulton.orgRockport's area code is 361. All sites wheelchair accessible unless otherwise noted.

Accommodations

Redfish Lodge on Copano Bay offers luxury rooms, meals, a swimming pool, tennis court, fishing pier, and guided fishing, birding, and hunting trips. All rooms have wraparound porches with views of Copano and Port bays. Not wheel-chair accessible. Write to Box 2295, Rockport 78381; 800/392-9324. Web site: www.redfishlodge.com.

The Habitat, a quarter-mile from St. Charles Bay near the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, consists of 3 modern log cabins on a 2-acre lake surrounded by about 8 acres of woodlands. Each cabin has cooking facilities, a screened porch, and an outdoor grill. No phones. Not wheelchair accessible. Write to Box 282, Fulton 78358; 361/729-2362.

Rockport has a number of bed and breakfasts, among them The Hoopes House (417 N. Broadway; 729-8424), Blue Heron Inn (801 Patton St.; 729-7526), and Chandler House (801 S. Church; 729-2285). The latter serves lunch from 11:30-2:30 Tue-Fri (Tue-Sat June-Dec). Only The Hoopes House is partially wheelchair accessible. A complete list of accommodations, including other bed and breakfasts, hotels, motels, and RV parks, is available from the chamber of commerce.

Attractions

The Texas Maritime Museum is at 1202 Navigation Cir.(78382), on the waterfront at Rockport Harbor. Hours: Tue-Sat 10-4, Sun 1-4. Call 729-1271 or 729-6644.

Goose Island State Park is on Park Rd. 13 off Texas 35, about 10 miles north of Rockport. For camping reservations, call 512/389-8900. Park hours: Daily 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Write to 202 S. Palmetto, Rockport 78382; 361/729-2858 (between 8 and 5).

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is about 30 miles north of Rockport via Texas 35, FM 774, and FM 2040. Its 40-foot observation tower with free telescopes is situated for viewing whooping cranes, which feed in the marsh from Nov. through Apr. Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset. Partially wheelchair accessible. Write to Box 100, Austwell 77950; 361/286-3559.

Rockport birding sites include Connie Hagar Wildlife Sanctuary(north of downtown along Broadway/Fulton Beach Rd.), Connie Hagar Cottage Sanctuary (intersection of Church [Loop 70] and First streets), and TxDOT's Demonstration Gardens and Wetlands Pond (at a roadside park in the heart of town on Texas 35). For information on these and other birding sites in the area, write to Friends of Connie Hagar, Box 586, Rockport 78381 (729-6887), or request The Birder's Guide to the Rockport-Fulton Area (\$2.75, including tax and shipping) from the chamber of commerce. The chamber also provides a free list of birding boat tours and maintains a bulletin board showing where recent sightings of various species have occurred.

The 1.75-mile long Copano Bay State Fishing Pier, about 6 miles north of Fulton on Texas 35, claims to be the world's longest lighted fishing pier. It's open 24 hours daily; there is a charge of \$1.75 per piece of fishing tackle. A bait, tackle, and snack shop at the south end of the causeway opens Mon-Thu 6:30 a.m.-midnight, and around the clock Fri-Sun and on major holidays. Write to Box 39, Fulton 78358; 729-7762.

Rockport supports more than 100 professional fishing guides; contact the chamber of commerce for names.

Festivals

Rockport hosts the Texas State Kite Festival each May (May 15-16, 1999). For details, see By the Way, URL.

The 3rd annual Rockport Festival of Wines takes place on the grounds of the Texas Maritime Museum on May 29 from 4-10. Admission (age 21 and older only): \$15. Contact the Texas Maritime Museum at the address and phone number listed previously, or call 800/242-0071.

The Rockport Center for the Arts sponsors the annual Rockport Art Festival (see story, Texas Highways, July 1995) each Fourth of July weekend (July 3-4, 1999). Ranked as one of the top 10 juried art festivals in the nation in various surveys, it consists entirely of fine art (no arts and crafts). Not wheelchair accessible, but golf carts available. Write to 902 Navigation Circle, Rockport 78382; 729-5519.

The Hummer/Bird Celebration, held at a local school on the second full weekend after Labor Day (Sep. 16-19, 1999), marks the fall hummingbird migration. Contact the chamber of commerce.

Rockport Seafair, held Columbus Day weekend (Oct. 10-11, 1999), features seafood, crab races, a carnival, and arts and crafts. Contact the chamber of commerce.

Shopping

Rockport offers a wealth of interesting shops, including Moby Dan's Nautical Curiosities, 415 S. Austin. Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5:30; 729-9225 or 800/568-6185. Golden Needles & Quilts, 701 N. Allen (behind the Duck Inn). Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5; 729-7873. Pat's Place, 415 S. Austin, is the place for reference books on birding and the Rockport area. Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5; 729-8453. 4 the Birds, 92 S. Austin, is a combination gift shop and art gallery that specializes in wild-bird items; it also offers framing and sells birding supplies. Partially wheelchair accessible. Hours: Mon-Sat 9:30-5:30, Sun 10-4; 790-9700. Connections of Rockport, 209 S. Austin, offers Jeep Collins' jewelry and a variety of gifts. Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5; 729-4298. Hidden Treasures, 207 S. Austin, carries women's fashions. Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5; 729-5177. Victoria's Gold & Gems, at the corner of Austin and Main streets, has nautical jewelry, as well as coins from the Spanish treasure ship Atocha, discovered off the coast of Florida's Key West in 1971. Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5:30; 729-4457 or 800/568-6185.

Art Galleries

Rockport Center for the Arts is at 902 Navigation Circle; 729-5519. All paintings on display are for sale; there is also a gift shop with items handcrafted by Texas artists. Admission: Free. Hours: Tue-Sat 10-4, Sun 1-4.

Estelle Stair (pronounced "star") Gallery, 406 S. Austin, was started by one of Rockport's pioneer artists. It concentrates on items evocative of the area; classes, workshops, and basic art supplies are available. Hours: Tue-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5; 729-2478.

Frame of Mine, 1010 Wharf St., features original artwork and collector prints by John Dearman, Herb Booth, John Cowan, Evelyn Atkinson, Betty Fletcher, Pat Evans, Kay Barnebey, and other artists whose work has coastal themes. Movable ramp for wheelchairs available; call ahead. Hours: Mon-Sat 10-5; 729-0967.

Simon Michael School and Gallery of Fine Art, 510 E. King St., offers one of the largest selections of paintings in the area. Owner Simon Michael founded the first fine arts school in Rockport in 1947. Now in his nineties, the artist still completes a painting a day. Hours: Daily 9-4; 729-6233.

Restaurants

The Big Fisherman, at 510 Texas 188, 6 miles south of Rockport and about a mile north of Texas 35, is the place for big appetites. Sep-May hours: Mon-Thu 11-9, Fri-Sun 11-10. June-Aug hours: Mon-Thu 11-10, Fri-Sun 11-11. Call 729-1734.

The Boiling Pot, 201 S. Fulton Beach Rd., in nearby Fulton, is the area's let-your-hair-down place to eat. Hours: Mon-Thu 4 until closed; Fri-Sun noon until closed. Call 729-6972.

Charlotte Plummer's, in Fulton at 202 N. Fulton Beach Rd., serves seafood and steaks in a dining area overlooking Fulton Harbor. Sep-May hours: Sun-Thu 11-9, Fri-Sat 11-10. June-Aug hours: Sun-Thu 11-10, Fri-Sat 11-11. Call 729-1185.

Cove Harbor Grill & Marina, south of Rockport on Texas 35 at 161 Cove Harbor North, is a popular boat-launching site for fishermen; its open-air patio dining area overlooks the harbor. Sep-May hours: Mon, Wed-Thu, and Sun 11-8:30, Fri-Sat 11-9:30. June-Aug hours: Wed-Mon 7 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Closed Tue. Call 729-6151.

Crab-N, on Texas 35 Business, about 5 miles south of Rockport at 210 Gulfgate, enjoys a reputation for fine seafood dishes. Hours: Sun-Thu 5 p.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Summer hours (Memorial Day-Labor Day): Sun-Thu 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Not wheelchair accessible. Call 758-2371.

Duck Inn, 701 Broadway, known for fresh seafood pre-pared to order, has been attracting customers for more than 50 years. Hours: Tue-Thu 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-9 p.m, Fri-Sat 6 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Sun 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Not wheelchair accessible. Call 729-6663.

For decades, Kline's Cafe, 106 S. Austin, has been entertaining customers with its clock collection and stuffing them with seafood. Hours: Fri-Tue 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Call 729-8538.

Mac's Barbecue, 815 E. Market, is the refuge for anyone who has had enough fresh seafood, but the brisket is so good that even seafood fanatics need to find a way to squeeze in a visit. Hours: Mon-Wed 11-8, Thu-Sat 11-9. Not wheelchair accessible. Call 729-9388.

Sandollar Pavillion Restaurant and Bar, 910 N. Fulton Beach Rd., specializes in broiled flounder and shrimp salad. Hours: Sun-Mon and Thu 7 a.m.-9 p.m., Fri-Sat 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Closed Tue-Wed and Sun. Call 729-8909.

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