In the middle-ish-income Philadelphia neighborhood of row homes where I was raised, you had two vacation options: You were either a Poconos Mountains family or a Jersey Shore family. There were no other choices. We were the latter.
Once a year my brothers and I would sardine into our parents’ Ford Aerostar and tolerate the 90-minute drive east to Avalon, where we spent steamy days catching waves, fighting greenhead flies, and riding roller coasters at the Wildwood boardwalk; evenings devouring chocolate soft-serve; and late nights playing rounds of Uno. Despite the distinct lack of piña coladas, pure white sands, and crystal-clear waters, this was my family’s paradise, and we never wanted to leave.
Today I live in Texas, with a native Texan wife. Port Aransas is her Avalon. It’s the slice of the Texas Gulf Coast she visited with her family growing up, where her grandmother would sit and watch the ocean, where she and her siblings would return from a day at the beach only to hop in the hotel pool before dinner. At night they’d use flashlights to find perfect seashells while walking along the beach. Unbeknownst to them, their aunt was walking 40 feet ahead, dropping shells that she’d bought at a surf shop. That didn’t matter—to Sarah and her siblings, these nights were the luckiest they’d ever had.
Recently I suggested a weekend in Port A, and Sarah’s eyes lit up. As we prepared for the trip, I thought about my own traditions and wondered, since we lived in Texas and were raising little Texans, when I’d get the chance to expose my daughters Evie, age 2, and Birdie, 4 months, to the things I loved as a kid. But those things lie 1,500 miles away from this part of the world, while Sarah’s are just a few hours’ drive away. I felt an urge to find my paradise again, this time in Port Aransas, to be a part of something I didn’t yet know but could share with my children.
So it was that one recent weekend my family made the drive south from Houston via Highway 59. The beach called to me, but I wanted to get to know this coastal town, and my first afternoon there I visited the Port Aransas Museum, located inside a two-story house near the center of the community.
Port Aransas is located on Mustang Island, which got its name from wild horses brought there by Spaniards in the 1800s. Around that time the area was raided by pirates who, according to local lore, buried treasure deep in the sand. Europeans first settled in Port A around the 1850s, changing the name a few times. It was Ropesville until 1896, then Tarpon, after the large fish that populated island waters. By the time the 1916 Texas Hurricane hit, the city had been renamed Port Aransas. The storm wiped out much of the town, but residents returned to rebuild it.
In 1931 Texas opened a toll road connecting the inland town of Aransas Pass to the ferry landing for Port A, and in 1950 came a second road connecting Corpus Christi to Mustang Island—renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Causeway in 1963—which helped turn Port Aransas into the tourism destination it is today. The town now draws about 6 million people each year, nearly 90 percent of them from Texas.
“The primary reason people come down to Port A is our beaches,” said Jeff Hentz, president of the town’s tourism board. “But that, the active watersports, excursion opportunities, shopping, the history museums—all these things add up to people staying for seven days instead of two to three days.”
The town, Hentz said, wants to attract more visitors throughout the year, and it does have much to offer in the non-summer months: In September and October it hosts weekend events that include everything from a music festival to a 5K to an event that I helped judge during my visit, the World Food Championships, a competition between Texas chefs that draws thousands of tourists to the city and shines a spotlight on Port A’s own food scene. During the holidays, meanwhile, the town hosts a weekend holiday market, tree lighting, and annual lighted boat parade.
Wintertime visitors enjoy an average high temperature of around 65 degrees, great for picnics on the beach and evenings spent watching the boats while eating fresh Gulf oysters and other bounty straight from the sea. Which is exactly what we did, by the way, our first night in Port A. I devoured fresh shrimp with creamy, buttery grits at chef Gail Huesmann’s The Black Marlin Bar and Grill, a casual Gulf comfort food restaurant at the Palmilla Beach Resort. It’s a dish I’ll remember for a long time.
Getting to the beach in New Jersey is always a bit of a trek. You likely have to walk a couple of blocks from your beach house, then scamper past crowds to cross the boardwalk, follow a trail through the dunes, and then dance on scolding sand for a half mile or so.
So you can imagine how surprised I was by the Texan way of accessing the beach. In Port Aransas you just drive your car—or golf cart, which is a thing here—down any road that gets you there, then drive in the sand until you find a suitable parking spot. You walk maybe 30 seconds before setting down a blanket or tent—also a thing here. I decided I could dig it.
There are other things about Port A that I prefer over New Jersey. At most Jersey beaches you have to pay for entry, which is mostly unheard of here, except at state parks. And you don’t have to hide your beer with koozies or, worse, by pouring it into soda cans. According to city police, having a can of beer or two with friends is just fine, as long as it’s between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. What kind of freedom-loving folks run these beaches? Oh, that’s right—Texans.
Our first full morning here, we set up a tent, slathered the girls in sunblock, and sat with them at the edge of the ocean as the tide arrived. Evie and I dug holes, and she built a sand chair for herself and another for Birdie.
I walked a half-mile to the Port A Jetty, where several dozen fishermen had been casting their lines hoping for redfish or grouper. I chatted with a few of them about whether the fish were biting, then made my way back to Sarah and the kids, all sitting together in the shallow saltwater. Evie’s red hair had curled up, and Birdie squinted against the sun. It was our first beach vacation, just the four of us.
That evening we pulled into the parking lot for Red Dragon Pirate Cruises, which nods to Port Aransas’s swashbuckling past with booze, children’s games, and campy comedy, all on a 70-foot boat. The cruise leaves from Turtle Cove and heads north up the Lydia Ann Channel before passing the Aransas Pass Lighthouse and turning back toward the city.
Young actors dressed in Jack Sparrow gear put on a show that involved lots of spraying water guns and a hunt for buried treasure. The experience was tailor-made for elementary-school-age kids and, strangely, bachelorette parties—there was one on our boat, the ladies throwing back frozen margaritas and mai tais. Evie was just a touch too young for it all, although she did pick up a handful of pirate coins during a treasure hunt after the actors dropped a bunch right in front of her.
That made Sarah think about her childhood seashell expeditions. So we decided to make an evening trek to the beach, pulling up and using the light from our smartphones to lead Evie across the sand as she picked up shells. Listening to her chatter on about her discoveries and the sound of rolling waves, I felt much more myself than I’d ever expected. Sarah’s traditions were becoming our traditions.
I knew that the next morning we’d have to make the drive north back to Houston. That melancholy feeling came over me, the one I had felt so many times as a kid while crawling through New Jersey traffic: Can’t we just stay forever?
When to Go
Port Aransas is a popular summer destination, but we recommend considering shoulder season—September–October and April–May—when there are fewer crowds. November through February, when temperatures regularly reach the mid-60s and the redfish and flounder are biting, is also lovely. The only time you may want to avoid a visit is March, during spring break.
- The bright and welcoming Palmilla Beach Resort & Golf Community (palmillabeach.com) offers condominium-style rentals plus standalone homes, along with beach access, a nine-hole golf course, a swimming pool, and onsite restaurants. From $140 per night.
- Many families rent beach houses from local agencies. Starkey Properties (starkeyproperties.com) offers houses up and down the island as well as golf carts that guests can book. From $200 per two-night stay.
- The Black Marlin Bar & Grill (blackmarlinbarandgrill.com) is a local favorite thanks to its fresh Gulf fare. Brunch is popular here.
- For good Tex-Mex breakfast, visit the leisurely Restaurant San Juan (sanjuanrestaurant.net) for migas, chilaquiles, and breakfast tacos.
- The best family spot is Seafood and Spaghetti Works (seafoodandspaghettiworks.webs.com), which offers everything from fish entrées to pizza, burgers, and red sauce Italian. Best salad bar in town, too.
- Venetian Hot Plate (venetianhotplate.com) offers seafood-forward pasta dishes inside a cozy dining room.