Located on Mustang Island, one of Jean Lafitte’s haunts, Port Aransas gained international fame in the early twentieth century for its tarpon fishing; between 1899 and 1910 the town was simply called “Tarpon.” The majestic silver fish began disappearing in the 1950s, forcing Port A to rely more heavily on tourism, which today is its principal industry. It’s rumored that there are more hotel rooms in the city than residents.
All those rooms mean that there’s something for everyone and every budget here, from lavish resorts by the ocean to modest cottages closer to town. One popular option is to rent a room in one of Mustang Island’s innumerable, and largely indistinguishable, condominium towers. The rooms in these towers are rented out by their snowbird/winter Texan owners during the summer tourist season.
But First: A Lesson from the Sandcastle Guy
Mark Landrum, the self-described “Sandcastle Guy” of Port Aransas, admits that he can’t be around sand for long before he feels the urge to build. All he needs are plastic buckets, a shovel, metal shaping tools, plastic spoons and knives, and a large brush.
Landrum took his first sandcastle lesson in 1999, and was immediately hooked. “I got real excited about it, because the way I built sandcastles before was just turning buckets upside down.” He was working as an accountant when he caught sandcastle fever eight years ago; now he’s a full-time “master sculptor.” His black Chevy Avalanche, covered with custom signs listing his phone number, is a common sight on the beaches of Port Aransas.
The crucial element in sandcastle building is water. Too little of it and your building will crumble; too much of it and you won’t be able to mold the sand. Landrum keeps several buckets of seawater on hand at all times to ensure the proper sand consistency. It doesn’t matter how brilliant an artist you are if you can’t keep your building from collapsing. 361-290-0414, sandrum.com, $70 per class.
Best Beachfront Bets
Mustang Island State Park
With five miles of open beach, Mustang Island State Park is a popular option for hikers, swimmers, campers, sunbathers, and bikers. Activities include boogie boarding, sand volleyball, and just hanging out, not necessarily in that order. But there are no private beaches on Mustang Island, so feel free to hang out anywhere along its 18 miles of oceanfront real estate. Except for a few free areas within the Port A city limits, you’ll have to buy a $12 permit to park on the beach. 361-749-5246.
San José Island
Beachgoers in pursuit of true solitude can take a boat to the uninhabited, privately owned San José Island (known locally as Saint Joe), where the beaches are pristine and there’s nary a condominium or ATV in sight. sanjoseislandtexas.com.
Also recommended: Port A’s I.B. Magee Beach Park, which allows overnight camping.
Where to Stay
Port Royal Ocean Resort & Conference Center
On family vacations as a child, we remember gazing jealously at Port Royal’s twin waterslides from one of the more modest neighboring condominiums. Little did we know that those waterslides are only the most prominent of Port Royal’s envy-inducing amenities, which include a heated lap pool, three hot tubs, a children’s pool, a swim-up bar and grill, a poolside bandstand, sand volleyball courts, lighted tennis courts, and dog-friendly areas. 6317 State Highway 361, 361-749-5011, port-royal.com. Rooms from $314–$819 a night.
Founded in 1886, this small hotel has been in continual operation for over a hundred years, surviving fires, hurricanes, and tidal waves. The walls of the lobby are covered with yellowing Tarpon scales, each signed by the lucky angler—including President Franklin Roosevelt, who stayed here in 1937. None of the inn’s 24 quaint rooms has a television or telephone (its sole concession to the 21st century is free wi-fi), but you won’t miss them when you’re sitting in a rocking chair on the wide veranda, enjoying the cool Gulf breeze. 200 E. Cotter Ave., 800-365-6784, thetarponinn.com. Rooms from $89–$300 a night.
Also recommended: Sandcastle Condominiums and Conference Center, 800 Sandcastle Dr., 800-727-6201, sandcastlecondos.com, $120–$540 a night.
Where to Go When It Rains: Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi
The most impressive works of art on display at this regional museum are the buildings themselves. The original gallery, designed in 1972 by Philip Johnson, was built entirely from white shellcrete and plaster; a new wing by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta was added in 2006 and features inventive, pyramid-shaped skylights. Both galleries make exceptional use of natural light and offer sweeping views of Corpus Christi Bay. 1902 North Shoreline Blvd., 361-825-3500, artmuseumofsouthtexas.org, $4 to $8.
Where the Locals Go: Wild Horse Saloon & Grill
This is the kind of bar where women call each other “baby doll,” the Lone Star flows freely, the kitchen serves wings as fast as you can order them, and everyone smokes (inside, of course). You’ll find all types here—the Wild Horse represents everything that’s great about Port A … except maybe the smoking. 212 Beach St., 361-749-0105, facebook.com/portawildhorse.
The Best Bird-Watching Around: Turnbull Birding Center
Along with Bolivar, Port A offers some of the best bird-watching in the country, and few spots are better than this—notwithstanding the periodic fumes from a nearby sewage treatment plant. On a recent afternoon we climbed the center’s observation tower and met several veteran birders who had been camped there since 6:30 a.m. Equipped with binoculars and telephoto lenses, they had already counted 120 species, including a Gray Catbird, a Baltimore Oriole, and a Neotropic Cormorant. And birds aren’t the only notable fauna: alligators are frequently spotted in the summer. 1356 Ross Ave., 361-749-4111, cityofportaransas.org
Where to Eat
Shell’s Pasta and Seafood
When we asked our waitress whether the seafood at this popular restaurant was caught locally, we were told that “most of it” was; upon further inquiry, “most of it” turned out to mean just two items: the blue crab cakes and the black drum fish. But those crab cakes, served with a key lime aioli sauce, turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip. Skip the drum fish. 522 Ave. G, 361-749-7621, eatatshells.com.
Beach and Station Street Grill
This funky seafood shack serves locally caught fare at a reasonable price. Finding the indoor dining area a bit cramped, we elected to sit out on the patio with a drowsy golden lab, enjoying our grouper Pontchartrain. Like the restaurant, the fish was well-seasoned and unpretentious. 235 E. Beach Ave., 361-749-2303.