Soak in some South Texas history—without hanging your wallet out to dry—in Victoria and Port Lavaca.
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For someone who grew up on the Gulf Coast, I haven’t explored very much of it—staying mostly in my familiar territory of South Padre Island. A few years ago, I branched out and went to Port Aransas for the first time. I was pleasantly surprised. With two Gulf Coast destinations under my belt (and a few others near Port A), I decided to “discover” a new spot, somewhere not too far from Austin that I knew basically nothing about. Bingo! Port Lavaca.
My husband, Kit, and I arrived late in the afternoon, about three o’clock. We checked into a brand new Best Western, asked the reception clerk what we should do and where we should eat dinner, dropped off our bags, and began our adventure. We started at the historic Halfmoon Reef Lighthouse, which was built in 1598. Originally, the six-sided building, made mostly of cypress wood, was attached to iron piles that had been screwed into the shallow bottom of Matagorda Bay. The bright red light from the tower was visible for eleven miles and guided ships through the area. In 1942 a hurricane washed away the entire porch and left the structure lopsided. The owners of a local dredging company purchased the lighthouse and moved it to Point Comfort. In 1979 it was donated to the Calhoun County Historical Commission, and after a renovation, the lighthouse was recorded as a Texas Historical Landmark in 1985.
The Formosa Wetlands Walkway and Alcoa Bird Tower.
Next, we drove around town a bit to get our bearings. There’s not really a historic downtown area, so we gravitated toward the water. We stumbled across some seafood restaurants (we made sure to note their locations) and seafood packaging plants before stopping at the Lighthouse Beach and Bird Sanctuary. We decided this would be a great spot for a run (or walk in my case) so we dashed back to the hotel to change before forking over the $2 fee to get in the park, which is owned and operated by the city. (This was the only expense on our whole trip aside from money for the hotel, food, and gas.) There were half a dozen RVs parked at the waterfront camping sites. Kit took off jogging, and I was left to enjoy the peace and quiet. There was a nice breeze blowing as the sky began to turn pink and orange while the sun made its descent. I slowly made my first pass on the Formosa Wetlands Walkway (made from recycled plastic) and watched the waves roll in. I saw some snowy egrets in the water off to my left as the wind picked up. I must have made the loop about four times—passing couples on leisurely strolls—while I waited for Kit to finish jogging. On our way back to the car, we passed a woman reading a book in a lounge chair and some women trying to teach a little boy how to swim. We went back to the hotel to clean up.
Aside from the usual chains that have popped up in almost every town in the state, Mexican food and seafood seem to rule in Port Lavaca. We tried Captain Joe’s Seafood and Grill, and learned from our server that the chef from Clark’s, in nearby Port O’Connor, had just taken the helm. While Port Lavaca isn’t really on the Gulf—it sits on the west coast of Lavaca Bay, which is off Matagorda Bay and the Intracoastal Waterway—there is that salt-air smell and breeze that made for a nice dinner outside on the balcony. Our meal was good and inexpensive. We ended the night early because we had a big plans for the morning.
We got directions at the front desk when we checked out and made our way to the popular “beaches” just outside the city. Naturally, it started pouring but cleared by the time we hit the first one: Magnolia Beach. Honestly, we weren’t too impressed, so we kept driving. It looks like quite a distance on the map but took us only five minutes or so to get to Indianola Beach, where we found the La Salle Monument. Explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was born in Rouen, France, in 1643. He discovered the Ohio River and wanted to establish a chain of trading posts along the Mississippi. La Salle missed the mouth of the Mississippi and instead landed his colonists at Matagorda Bay on February 20, 1685. Although his mission ended in failure, it was because of La Salle that the United States was able to register a claim to Texas as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The wreckage of one of La Salle’s smaller ships, La Belle, was discovered in Matagorda Bay in 1995.
The Victoria County Courthouse.
Photograph by Patricia McConnico
Our coastal excursion was over; we made our way inland to Victoria, which is about thirty miles northwest of Port Lavaca. Established in 1824 by Martín De León, the town was named Guadalupe Victoria after the first president of the Republic of Mexico. Within ten years, there were three hundred people living in Guadalupe Victoria, which was governed by the Council of Ten Friends from 1824 to 1828 and by four alcaldes from 1828 to 1836. Victoria was incorporated under the Republic of Texas in 1839, making it the second oldest city in the state. Ranching was one of the area’s first major industries, and the Continental Meat Company, established in 1833, utilized innovative advances in the industry including using the first refrigerator cars.
In the 1880’s huge brick and stone homes replaced those built of cypress trees. Kit and I followed the “Historical Tour” signs, taking in the beautiful architecture of these residences that had been painstakingly renovated. We passed house after house, most painted white. We meandered to the center of downtown, called DeLeon Plaza. Across from the plaza, which has been dedicated for use only as a park, is the Victoria County Courthouse, which was built in 1892. The Romanesque-style structure is made of Texas granite and Indiana limestone. The old clock supposedly still strikes on the hour, but we didn’t get the opportunity to hear it.
The Rose Garden at Riverside Park in Victoria.
Photograph by Kit McConnico
After a bite to eat at the Rosebud Fountain and Grill on Main Street, we went to Riverside Park, which is comprised of 562 picturesque acres along the Guadalupe River. In addition to the Texas Zoo (only native Texas animals can be found at this spot), a golf course, baseball fields, playgrounds, and an exercise trail, the park is home to the Rose Garden, which showcases more than one thousand roses. We walked around the garden, occasionally stooping over a rose to get a whiff of its delicious fragrance. Thunder boomed and a light drizzle came down. Kit and I returned to the car and took in the sights as we drove along the winding road. We eventually found our way back to the highway—and to Austin.