NO ONE HAS EVER ACCUSED the city of Port Arthur of being cute or mistaken it for a vacation paradise. It is home to one of the largest oil refinery and petrochemical complexes on earth, a place where rusting inventories of offshore oil rigs are stacked alongside hulking tankers and where tank farms disappear into gumbo swamps. At night the plants look unearthly: a science-fiction writer’s nightmare of a prison colony on the outer moons of Jupiter. This is not a place that beckons to the casual tourist. This is a place that says: Put your head down, flip the air conditioner to “recirc,” and drive on toward something that looks more inviting.
But if you did that, you would be missing something. Port Arthur, in fact, is just a hop, skip, and a couple of dozen petroleum-processing facilities away from one of the most extraordinary natural areas in the state. It is the gateway to some of the loveliest, most pristine land in Texas. Just a few miles south of the refineries is a vast coastal plain that contains prairies, saltwater and freshwater marshes, lakes, horizon-spanning wildlife refuges, a coastal state park, bird sanctuaries, miles of sandy beaches, the greatest concentration of alligators in the state, and few resident human beings. It is one of the best places in the country to see wildlife and draws thousands of foreign visitors. That is because the Texas coast is on something called the Central Flyway, a broad, hourglass-shaped migratory flight path that extends from Alaska to South America. More than three hundred species of birds stop here on their way south or north, and the best months to see them are March and April. We’re talking a whole lotta birds: flocks of hummingbirds so dense they blot out the sun, 80,000 snow geese rising at the same moment from a rice field, a marsh at dawn full of bright pink roseate spoonbills, hundreds of thousands of birds dropping out of the sky at the same time.
This section of coastal plain stretches roughly from Port Bolivar on the east side of Galveston Bay to Big Lake (Calcasieu Lake) in Louisiana, and if you go, you can choose to spend the night in Port Arthur. You can get to this part of Texas by turning south from Interstate 10 when you smell the giant ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont. You can also go another route entirely and do what my wife, my daughter, and I did: Head south from Houston to Galveston and take the free ferry over to the Bolivar Peninsula, where all the fun stuff starts. This route not only avoids the refineries (which you will be seeing soon enough anyway) but also has the added advantage of providing an excuse to spend the night at Galveston’s renovated ninety-year-old grande dame, the Hotel Galvez, and to eat dinner at Gaido’s restaurant on the seawall. You can also, in preparation for the Great Outdoors, eat breakfast at the excellent Dutch Kettle, a high-class dive that immediately tells you that you have crossed into the Koffee Creme Belt. The belt is characterized by restaurants where you can watch a man eat a plate of food containing at least 40,000 calories—washed down with a handful of beers and seasoned with five or six Viceroys—then daintily put several containers of nondairy creamer into his coffee. Half-and-half, you see, is bad for your cardiovascular system. Other than the Koffee Creme, the Dutch Kettle’s food is heinously caloric and very good.
But I digress. Once you have crossed Galveston Bay on the Bolivar ferry—a salty, scenic fifteen-minute ride tailor-made for eight-year-olds during which we saw dozens of dolphins and had to dodge several huge ships—head east on Texas Highway 87, north on Texas Highway 124, and west on FM 1985 to the 34,000-acre Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. This is a flat, strikingly beautiful expanse of coastal plain that looks at first like a giant marshland. It is really a combination of freshwater and saltwater marshes, lakes, meandering bayous, and dry prairie. Unlike national parks, the first objective of national wildlife refuges is conservation. Public access comes second. But Anahuac is exceptionally visitor-friendly, from its helpful rangers to its twelve miles of graveled roads.
Along those roads you will see a spectacular variety of animal life. This place is known mainly as a mecca for birders, who arrive here en masse in the spring to watch the stunning northern migrations. But it is also a wonderful place just to be outdoors among the cordgrass and bulrushes and cane thickets. I would not know a pied-billed grebe if one sat down next to me and whistled “Melancholy Baby,” but I loved taking the two-and-a-half-mile loop (you can drive or walk) around Shoveler Pond, which was just crammed with spoonbills, mottled ducks, egrets, herons, coots, snow geese, shrikes, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, and black-necked stilts as well as the ever-present gators. In all, 279 species of birds pass through Anahuac. Other wildlife-viewing spots include a stand of trees known as the Willows, world-famous in the birding community, and the hackberry woodlands of the East Bay Bayou, located a few miles down the road from the visitors center. At its western end the refuge borders Galveston Bay and offers some of the best wade-fishing in Texas. There is also a boat ramp. Abundant fish include speckled trout, southern flounder, and redfish. (You will want to bring insect repellent with you on most days, even in winter. That sound you hear outside your door at night is not the Beaumont Symphony Orchestra tuning up; it is the hum produced by millions of Oldsmobile-size mosquitoes.)
From Anahuac, we doubled back to the coast to visit another birding paradise with excellent walks, an elevated cluster of wooded uplands in the otherwise pancake-flat marsh known as High Island. High Island isn’t an island at all; it is actually a tiny town on a raised part of the marsh. High Island boasts four bird sanctuaries, all owned by the Houston Audubon Society,