THE COMMON LOON HAS the sense to summer in Canada and avoid the Texas coast until fall, when the heat, hurricanes, and mosquitoes are less overwhelming. I never fully appreciated the bird’s wisdom until one winter several years ago when a group of friends and I rented a beach house on Bolivar Peninsula, a 27-mile-long sand spit northeast of Galveston. That December, the weather was on its best behavior: clear skies, warm days, and crisp nights. We played dominoes, prowled the beach, ran in and very quickly out of the cold surf, built bonfires, and cooked seafood into near extinction. Think The Big Chill without the suicide or the extramarital hanky-panky. The next winter when we gathered on Bolivar, it was the Big Freeze. An arctic blast had plunged temperatures into the 20’s and the wind chill into obscenities. Nevertheless, it was downright romantic. Like Doctor Zhivago, without the snow, the sleigh, and the Bolsheviks.
And so my friends and I return, winter after winter. I credit this not only to the magic of loon season but also to the peninsula’s throwback character. Birding, shelling, and lollygagging, rather than parasailing and bikini mud wrestling, still top Bolivar’s to-do list. You’ll find no gourmet bistros or festive faux-tropical restaurants here but plenty of comfy old joints, like Stingaree’s, serving fried oysters and shrimp. Wal-Mart? Ha! Instead, stock up on necessities and fripperies at the Gulf Coast Market, a paragon of preparedness, where you can score cheese, hose clamps, eggplant, bed linens, Cajun-style chicken stew in a jar, bread machines, lures, and kitchen faucets. (For seafood, however, you’d best go somewhere else—either catch it yourself or snag your blue crab and flounder from one of the handful of seafood markets scattered just off the two-lane main road that runs the length of the peninsula.)
You might suppose Bolivar owes its sleepy aura to a lifetime as the forgotten coast. But its human history begins with the Orcoquisa and Karankawa tribes and sweeps through the alleged landing of Cabeza de Vaca, in 1528, the pirate and slave trader Jean Lafitte’s reign in the early 1800’s, and a string of boom times fueled by cotton, watermelon, cattle, the railroad, and oil. Though hurricanes have left few remnants of the early years, the stalwart Bolivar Lighthouse—built in 1872 and now privately owned—still stands. These days the peninsula harbors a couple of weathered motels, a few birder-friendly B&B’s, and a smattering of RV parks, but most visitors do what we did and shack up in one of the many vacation homes for rent. My favorite is a rambling dowager built in 1927, with doors that refuse to shut and a salt-blasted screened porch facing the water. Of course, you couldn’t beat the exact location out of me, but with more than six hundred houses available, you should have no problem finding your own secret hideaway.
Considering its long history and proximity to Houston, just how does Bolivar avoid the carnival atmosphere that’s infected some other coastal communities? First, entrée is limited; the teeming masses of the metroplex can get there only via the fabulous, but leisurely, ferries from Galveston or via roundabout highway access to the northeast end of the peninsula, where it melds with the mainland. Lack of any public sewage treatment facilities has, so far, precluded the building of view-blocking high-rises. And the peninsula’s internationally acclaimed birding, from the carpet of shorebirds at Bolivar Flats to the spring migration bonanza, has spurred the Houston Audubon Society and other conservation organizations to buy and protect habitat as fast as they can afford to.
But as with every “undiscovered” destination, the whiff of übercivilization is in the air (i.e., a modest water park and a small strip mall). Despite the portent of recent hurricanes like Katrina and Rita, luxury developments with names like Avocet and Biscayne are beginning to spring from the sand. In other words, hurry. Because while you can do nothing anywhere, for the time being, you can do nothing better on Bolivar.
Several real estate agencies handle vacation home rentals on Bolivar. Two of the oldest and largest are Swede’s (409-684-3345 or 800-624-0071, swedesrealestate.com) and Cobb (409-684-3790 or 800-880-2622, cobbrealestate.com). More listings available from the Bolivar Chamber of Commerce, 409-684-5940 or 800-386-7863, bolivarchamber.org.
Stingaree Marina Restaurant, 1295 Stingaree Road, Crystal Beach, 409-684-2731. Gulf Coast Market, 2385 Texas Highway 87, 409-684-2400.