Childhood summer vacations spent on the sand at Port Aransas passed far too quickly. Even though my sisters and I would collapse from exhaustion at the end of long, hot days romping in the waves, we’d nevertheless complain mightily when Mom knew we’d had too much sun and insisted we go inside the screened-in porch of our beach cottage to play Monopoly.
In the wintertime, I’d daydream about being back in Port A, squealing at the purplish-blue Portuguese man-of-war washed up by high tide, visiting our favorite seafood shack to buy fresh shrimp for dinner, or putting on our nicer clothes for the occasional splurge on a meal at the Tarpon Inn. I’d try to conjure up a whiff of the sea air washing over me on the five-minute ferry ride from Aransas Pass to the tip of Mustang Island, where Port Aransas perches.
In fact, in the midst of winter I still find myself longing for those lazy days in Port A, listening to the gulls’ cries and the whoosh of waves tumbling toward the shore. And it dawns on me that unlike my childhood years, I’m no longer tethered to the school calendar. The beauty of visiting in the off-season includes not just lower lodging prices, but the joy of relishing the seashore in relative solitude.
And as I return on a winter day, I get out of my car on the ferry and breathe in the briny, yet comforting Gulf air, and I’m transported back. Yet it’s hard to believe this is the sleepy fishing village of my childhood. Shopping and dining options have exploded over the years, as have the ways in which we can now explore and appreciate the natural wonders of this coastal treasure.
Winter visitors zip about in golf carts (the cart-rental business ranks among the booming industries here). The proliferation of upscale condo developments, along with the addition of an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course, speaks of a fancier lifestyle than the one we indulged all those years ago, but I find that there’s plenty for my more modest budget, too.
Here are some favorite finds in my off-season rediscovery of Port Aransas.
Back to Nature
One of Port Aransas’ best-kept secrets remains the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, which offers free programs that introduce visitors to the seaside environs. Displays in the main building include an exhibit of sand from around the world; it’s hard to believe how much sand can differ in texture and color (from fine-grained, paprika hued, to coarse black or powder white). There’s an exhibit on endangered whooping cranes, which winter in the area between November and March, and the story of their rescue from the brink of extinction. Movies on “Science and the Sea” are daily features Monday through Thursday when the auditorium is not otherwise occupied.
Several aquaria inside the UTMSI hold native fish, including creepy-looking ocellated-moray and shrimp eels. I especially enjoy the outdoors portion of the institute, the Wetlands Education Center, a laboratory for marine scientists and students. A guided tour offered twice weekly takes visitors through the 3.5-acre salt marsh, bound by dunes and populated by several bird species, but I arrive at a non-tour time and take a self-guided walk along boardwalks, with views of the Gulf and wind in my face, to read the displays detailing plant and animal life here. You can occasionally get a close-up view of redfish swimming in the salt marsh, and black-crowned night herons are regular visitors.
At the Port Aransas Nature Preserve, which covers 1,200 acres on the north side of the island along the Corpus Christi Channel, I walk the network of trails, which vary in length from a quarter-mile to one mile. I catch glimpses of native and visiting birds (ospreys and white pelicans spend the winter here) and take in views of dunes, sand flats, and marshes. At the nearby Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, I admire the gardens brimming with local plants, found at the entrance to the nature trail. I’ve missed the guided Wednesday-morning walk, so I follow the raised boardwalk over an expansive pond thick with cattails and climb the steps of an observation tower to get a good look at all manner of feathered friends. Gators named Boots and Bags did not reveal themselves, as I hear they sometimes will.
I follow the boardwalk over an expansive pond thick with cattails. Gators named Boots and Bags did not reveal themselves, as I hear they sometimes will.
My favorite stretch of sand in the area lies about 20 miles south of Port Aransas, and it’s well worth the drive: Padre Island National Seashore is the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world and delivers plenty of nature programming with only a $10-per-vehicle admission charge. I spend an hour or so walking alongside the dunes at the water’s edge. It’s just me, beach, sandpipers, salt water, and gulls sailing overhead.
National park rangers lead birding classes on Saturday to teach novices how to pick proper binoculars, use a field guide, and choose locations conducive to spying birds. Daily birding tours last two hours, with a drive around the park for expert-led birdwatching. The rangers also lead easy walks, two or three days a week, on the beach to talk about local ecology. The park store sells birding and wildlife books for all ages, too.
Back in Port Aransas, I see golfers enjoying the relatively new Newport Dunes, a gorgeous Arnold Palmer-designed course unfolding along the seashore. Distinguished as the first Texas golf course sitting right next to the Gulf of Mexico, Newport Dunes measures more than 6,900 yards from the back tees; the par-71 course provides ample challenges in the way of wind from the ocean, rolling fairways, and fast greens, with the bonus of gulls and pelicans drifting high overhead. The layout is similar to Scottish links, with stacked-wall bunkers and fairways banked by native grasses.
Roam Around Town
Housed inside an early-20th-Century home built from a kit, the Port Aransas Museum surprises me with its bounty of well-detailed town and coastal history. Volunteers offer insight into the museum’s recorded and videotaped oral histories dating to the 1920s. An excellent collection of vintage photography and films shows the island town’s earliest days, and exhibits include the lens used in the local Lydia Ann Lighthouse from 1864 until 1956, as well as part of a Farley Boat like the one used for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s tarpon-fishing expedition here in 1937.
On my next trip, I want to explore Farley Boat Works, just a few blocks away from the museum and administered by the museum staff. Purchased last winter by the Port Aransas Preservation and Historical Association, Farley Boat Works teaches boat-building by experts in the craft. Perhaps most interesting, the projects will include constructing the “Port A skiff,” a rowing-sailing boat particular to this island that will be built into a fleet for rental at the city marina; and making a traditional Farley tarpon boat.
On the edge of town, I wander into Mustang Island Art Gallery, where paintings and other pieces by local and regional artists fill a modern building with high ceilings and plenty of natural light. Collectors looking for riches in bluebonnet scenery and other landscapes can find abundant examples to browse here, along with bronzes and woodcarvings.
Eat and Sleep
Budget dining doesn’t get better than the gratifying breakfast at Avery’s Kitchen, where massive omelets, biscuits and gravy, and plenty of strong coffee come with a side of friendly service. For lunch, I find much to like in a robust burger topped with avocado and bacon at Port Aransas Brewing Company, which offers a selection of more than 100 different mainstream and craft beers, including five made on-site. I also enjoy the changing blackboard menu at the unassuming and affordable Shell’s, where I savor a lush bowl of pasta studded with shrimp.
On my last night in Port A, I happen upon Lisabella’s, the star restaurant at- traction at Cinnamon Shore, the posh new residential development just south of Newport Dunes. An appetizer of warm goat cheese on grilled crostini starts dinner in the right vein, with a plate of baby greens, decorated with walnut bits, sliced pear, crumbled gorgonzola cheese, and balsamic vinaigrette the appropriate chaser. Freshly caught, grilled snapper gets a treatment of tomatoes, basil, capers, garlic, and lemon zest. I’m fond also of the grilled pizza topped with shrimp, pancetta, red onion, tomato, jalapeño, goat cheese, mozzarella, and a drizzle of olive oil.
Dinner at Lisabella’s couldn’t be easier for guests renting a home or condo at Cinnamon Shore, where the architecture imparts an updated seaside vernacular that reminds me of Key West. Roughly one-third of homeowners here lease their properties to vacationers, wedding parties, and business-meeting groups; it’s anticipated that when the development is complete, about half of the 200 single-family homes and 100 condos arranged around manicured grounds (complete with two swimming pools) will be available for lease. Retail offerings will eventually include a day spa, a home-furnishings store, and clothing and accessories boutiques. Movies are shown on sum- mer evenings on the Great Lawn, and occasional events are held on the property’s town center. A boardwalk spanning the 300- foot-deep sand dunes links the community to the beach, and the Cinnamon Shore concierge can provide conveniences like chairs and umbrellas as well as surfing and kayaking lessons.
My choice for a mid-range hotel option with plenty of character remains the Tarpon Inn, just off the harbor in the center of Port A. An 1886 landmark, the Tarpon has been extensively updated to achieve a nice balance between old charm and mostly modern comfort, with all 24 rooms opening onto a wide, shady porch with rocking chairs. For a trip back to my childhood, I like Sea and Sand Cottages: Brightly painted exteriors of petite, 1950s-era wood-frame houses open to simple, comfortable-enough inte- riors with kitchens for cooking your own shrimp. And though I probably won’t get too much sun on a winter day, the living room is just perfect for playing a game of Monopoly.