When Houstonians go to the beach, they usually head for Galveston. But some road-less-traveled types opt instead for the eccentric appeal of the Bolivar Peninsula, a short ferry ride from East Beach. Bolivar’s draws include good beach-combing on desolate stretches of sand, barbecued crabs, and rare birds, but it shocks many first-time visitors with its bizarre combination of rural and industrial—think roseate spoonbills perched on pumpjacks.

Galveston has a history of civilized refinement, but Bolivar’s fascinating past is primarily that of pirates. The 27-mile sand spit is named after the Latin American rebel leader Simón Bolívar, who gave French pirate Jean Lafitte a “letter of marque” commissioning him as an official privateer with permission to attack Spanish ships.

In fact, legend has it that Lafitte’s entire pirate crew held parties on Bolivar’s beaches—and with our tips below, you can too.

Car Cruising: A How-to Guide

Bolivar beach-lovers have their own style. Everyone drives on the beach—even environmentalists on their way to the shorebird sanctuary. (There’s no other way to get there.) Buy an annual beach parking pass ($10 at just about any retail establishment), and look for one of the access points along Highway 87.

You can bring your own volleyball nets, umbrellas, anything. In fact, we ourselves witnessed one couple arrive in their pick-up carrying an upholstered loveseat, surf-casting rods, and a cooler full of beer. They parked on the beach, unloaded the couch, and fished in comfort.

Where to Stay

There are few hotels to speak of on Bolivar Peninsula. The best accommodations are beach houses. A three-bedroom will accommodate six people and run you around $300 a night with a two-night minimum. There’s also generally a cleaning deposit.

Most of the beach houses on Bolivar are relatively new. That’s because Hurricane Ike’s more than 20-foot storm surge washed away almost every building on the peninsula in 2008. The best rents are on or very near the beach and come with well-equipped kitchens, new appliances, wi-fi, and cable television. Two real estate companies handle the vast majority of rentals: RE/MAX On The Water (409-684-3377, remaxonthewater.com) and Swede’s Real Estate (409-684-3345, swedesrealestate.com).

Where the Locals Go: Tiki Beach Bar and Grill

Home to the largest bandstand on the Peninsula, Tiki Beach Bar features live music on Saturday and Sunday nights. The bar also has its own volleyball court, horseshoe pit, and pool table. The shrimp po’boy here is terrific, as is the burger and the “crimp burger,” a sandwich made with a ground crab and shrimp patty. Be advised that smoking is permitted in both the indoor and outdoor dining rooms. 1369 Hwy. 87, Crystal Beach, 409-684-9594.

 

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Fun for Families

Bird-Watching 

Bolivar is among the nation’s foremost destinations for bird-watchers. High Island’s Smith Oaks Sanctuary is the most famous of the bird-watching areas maintained by the Houston Audubon Society around Bolivar Peninsula. Kids love “The Rookery,” an artificial island in the Smith Oaks Sanctuary that provides a predator-free nesting place for thousands of great herons, roseate spoonbills, egrets, and cormorants. Another great spot is Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. Visit during high tide when the Western sandpipers, short-billed dowitchers, and American avocets are concentrated along the water’s edge. houstonaudubon.org.

Bolivar Ferry

Kids will like the Bolivar Ferry more than most any DisneyWorld ride—and unlike DisneyWorld, the ferry is free. The three-mile excursion takes about 15 minutes, just long enough to climb the stairs to the upper deck and get a look at the massive oil tankers, the acrobatic dolphins, and the amazing spectacle of the Houston Ship Channel. The ferry operates 24 hours per day, 365 days a year. 409-795-2230, crystalbeach.com/greer.htm.

 

Lunch spot #bbb15

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Where to Dine Out: Stingaree Restaurant and Marina, Crystal Beach 

Opened in 1986, Stingaree is the center of everything in Bolivar. It’s the best restaurant on the peninsula, as well as a marina, bait shop, bar, and live music venue. You can get your crabs boiled, fried, or barbecued, and there are five varieties of cooked oysters; they won’t sell raw oysters out of season. The grilled yellow fin tuna steak is outstanding, and Gulf red snapper comes broiled, fried, or pecan-crusted. Fishermen can take advantage of the “you hook ’em, we cook ’em” policy—bring your fish to the restaurant, and the kitchen will prepare it for you. A cocktail in the second-floor dining room as the sun sets makes for the perfect date night. 1295 N. Stingaree Rd., Crystal Beach, 409-684-2731, stingaree.com.

Why to Eat In: Fresh Shrimp

There is a large sign on Highway 87, across from the side street named Canal W, that reads “Fresh Seafood.” If you drive down to the end of the street, you’ll find shrimp and oyster boats tied up to private docks with tiny seafood stands beside them. One sports a sign that reads: “Buy Shrimp Here! I Need Money.” Fresh shrimp right off the boat sells for around $7.50 a pound.

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