Ride a wave, hunt for shells, build a sand castle, spy on wildlife, eat the catch of the day, watch the sun set: Now is the perfect time to rediscover the endlessly surprising swath of sand where Texas meets the Gulf.

I was a lucky kid. I lived on Galveston Bay, where I could ride my horse in the surf and watch the moon pop out of the water from my bedroom window. But my luck didn’t last. The industrial pollution finally got so thick that my family fled, chased inland by waves of dead fish. I’ve held a bit of a grudge against the entire Texas coast ever since.

Three decades, however, is a long time to snub such a large swath of land, so a few months ago I went back to La Porte, my old stomping grounds. While in some respects the place remains a throwback to the old days, the only dead fish I saw were in the snapshots of proud fishermen at Linda’s Sylvan Beach Bait and Tackle, in Sylvan Beach Park. In fact, the bay water was so clear that it inspired me to prowl the rest of our vast coast, where I soon discovered that, while I had been off pouting, things had actually improved. Where once there were only dozens of brown pelicans, now there are a few thousand. Whooping cranes and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are rebounding like NBA hotdoggers. Historic buildings, once razed for parking lots, are treasured. Wetlands, finally recognized as filters for the bays and nurseries for all manner of marine babies, are being protected and replanted. Every year coastal hatcheries are pouring 30 million red drum fingerlings into the bays to replenish the once dwindling population. And you can even eat Texas oysters without making sure your will is in order.

No, I’m not saying that everything is perfect. But this watery edge of Texas just keeps getting better.

The Lower Coast

The bad news was that the car rental company at the Harlingen airport was oversold and I’d have to wait for the tuna-can-on-wheels I’d reserved. The good news was that the manager took pity on me and handed me the keys to a swank Chevy convertible, no extra charge. It was as if the travel gods were daring me not to have a good time on South Padre Island, a place I had disparaged for years as, well, shallow—nothing but characterless high-rise condos, Jell-O shots, and sun-scorched parasailors. An hour later, as I crossed the soaring causeway from Port Isabel to South Padre, I decided it was high time I learned—literally—to have fun on this brash and flashy isle.

I started my education with lessons in sand-castle building, the best way to get attention on the beach without breaking the law. Forget the packed-and-upturned-Styrofoam-cup concept. Under the patient instruction of


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