Galveston to Corpus on FM 521, Texas Highway 35, and other roads
Snow geese, the Big Tree, sandy beaches—and one gigantic chemical plant.
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Unlike California, Texas has no single highway that hugs the coast. To stay as close to the shoreline as possible, my husband, Kit, and I zigzagged around, navigating some twenty roads as we made our way from Galveston to Corpus Christi. We drove through plenty of time-warped towns, passed more chemical plants than we ever could have imagined, and saw plowed field after plowed field. Where were the palm trees and breathtaking views? We found them, all right, but it took a while. Nevertheless, we enjoyed every minute of the trip—well, almost.
We began at the San Luis Pass Bridge, on the western end of Galveston, where we paid a $2 toll and said good-bye to the Island’s multimillion-dollar beach houses. We were now on Follets Island, but it offers little more than a couple of houses and a bait stand. Still, this was the only stretch of our drive where we could actually see the Gulf of Mexico. This view should in no way be confused with the grand vistas along the Pacific Coast Highway. You won’t see blue water crashing against jagged rocks, only coffee-colored waves gently lapping the sand. But, hey, it’s ours. Ironically, the name of the road is Blue Water Highway.
We soon arrived in Surfside, a small community of beach shacks at the south end of the island, and decided to stop for lunch at the Red Snapper Inn. We were impressed by the excellent service and good food, from sautéed soft-shell crabs to shrimp poorboys. Our appetites sated, we resumed our drive and headed toward Freeport, a desolate community that butts up against the Dow Chemical plant at Oyster Creek, which, along with the cleverly named Plant A and Plant B, forms the largest facility of its kind in the nation. We began to see huge pine trees as we approached the small town of Jones Creek. We must have passed six historical markers in just two miles—and a couple of signs that said “Prison Area: Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers”—before we turned off to the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, a 27,000-acre jewel where we spotted hundreds of snow geese.
After leaving the park, we found our way to FM 521 West. When we had mapped out our route, we’d had no clue that the STP nuclear-power plant was on our course. A little spot off the road proved ideal for a photo-op, but before Kit could get the camera, a dark SUV pulled up. A blond man asked if we were lost, and when we told him that we had stopped to take a photo, he said okay and drove off. Kit mentioned the incident to the friendly woman who worked at the visitors center, and she confirmed that security had been beefed up since September 11. Then she pointed out the window and said, “There he is now.” As we drove away from the facility, two cars followed us for a couple of minutes before finally making U-turns.
We picked up Texas Highway 35 and headed to Palacios, the City by the Sea. Longhorns stood grazing in a pasture as we made our way to the Luther Hotel, where I had booked a room. Lyndon B. Johnson and movie stars like Rita Hayworth stayed at the Luther during its glory years, but those days are long gone. The smell of stale cigarette smoke and fried chicken permeated the air, and the orange carpet looked as if it hadn’t been vacuumed in years.
After we checked in, Kit went for a jog along the waterfront. When he returned, he said, “You’re not going to believe this—I just got propositioned by a hooker!” This stop was getting better by the minute. To fill me in on his adventure, we went to the only decent-looking restaurant in town, the Outrigger. The food was okay, but it was too pricey.
We left Palacios at eight in the morning—and not a second too soon. A better idea would have been to stay at the new Best Western in Port Lavaca, a small fishing town about 25 minutes south. We then drove through Port O’Connor and Seadrift and picked up Texas Highway 35 to continue on toward Rockport. A must-stop on this route is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where, from November through March, you might spot a whooping crane if you’re lucky. (We were lucky.) After completing the fourteen-mile auto tour of the refuge, we stopped to take photos of alligators before getting back on the road. We passed mile after mile of plowed fields until we arrived at Goose Island State Park, the home of the state’s largest coastal live oak tree. The Big Tree, also known as the Goose Island Oak and the Lamar Oak, is more than one thousand years old and has a trunk that measures 35 feet in circumference. Legend has it that the Karankawa Indians used it as a council tree.
After we left the park, the terrain on 35 changed, as palm trees replaced the empty fields. The Rockport-Fulton area is a charming community along Aransas Bay that is filled with tiny shops, restaurants, and art galleries (the region supposedly has the highest concentration of artists in the state). We took a left on to Fulton Beach Road, passing many seafood vendors, piers, and the Fulton Mansion State Historical Site. The three-story house, which was built in the 1870’s by cattle baron George Fulton, boasted state-of-the-art luxuries when it was completed, such as central heat, gas lights, and flush toilets. Our inn for the night, Hoopes’ House, proved to be a smartly decorated bed-and-breakfast built in the 1890’s. Since we were staying only about fifteen minutes from Aransas Pass and the ferry to Port Aransas, we decided to go to Port A for dinner. Our entrées of duck with sweet-potato hash and pecan-crusted amberjack were worth the drive.
We returned to Port Aransas, a tiny beach town that hasn’t lost its laid-back feel, the next morning. Our first stop was the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, which is a research facility with a few displays on saltwater fish. Beyond the institute is the South Jetty, a granite and concrete structure that stretches for a mile into the Gulf. As we pushed through the crowds, we watched dolphins play alongside fishing boats and gulls dive for fish in the waves. At the beach we caught some rays while gazing at the coastline that stretched for miles. Now this was paradise. We were in no rush to get to Corpus, so we took our time and enjoyed it.
Aransas National Wildlife Refuge; from the Rockport-Fulton area, take Texas Hwy 35 North to FM 774, then go east to FM 2040; 361-286-3559; $3 per person or $5 per vehicle
Best Western, 2202 Texas Hwy 35 North, Port Lavaca; 361-553-6800; rooms $59 to $74
Fulton Mansion State Historical Site, 317 S Fulton Beach Rd, Fulton; 361-729-0386; closed Mon; $6, students $2
Goose Island State Park, 202 S Palmetto, Rockport; 361-729-2858; $5 per person per day, children 12 and under free
Hoopes’ House, 417 N Broadway, Rockport; 361-729-8424 or 800-924-1008; rooms $150
Red Snapper Inn, 402 Blue Water Hwy, Surfside Beach; 979-239-3226
San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, 6801 County Road 306, Brazoria; 979-964-3639
University of Texas Marine Science Institute, 750 Channel View Dr, Port Aransas; 361-749-6711; closed Sat and Sun