Tell someone you’re vacationing on the Texas coast, and you’ll probably get a sympathetic smile. This is a fair reaction in a state with more than 350 miles of coastline, and, no offense to God’s country, a lot of underwhelming beaches. The trick is in knowing where to go. With a little looking, you can find your way to coastal spots that will impress even the most seasoned beach dwellers, people like Gene Gore, who worked as beach lifeguard and semi-pro surfer in Hawaii and now owns the South Padre Surf Company with his wife, Rachel. “Texas has one of the most beautiful and uninhabited coastlines in the world,” he says. “You can surf good waves and avoid the massive crowds found in Hawaii, California and on the East Coast.” Not a surfer? There’s still plenty to do, from sipping margaritas, to spotting great egrets, to plucking souvenir shells straight from the sand. Below, four beaches that you shouldn’t miss this summer, including the shimmering shores of Surfside and the secret stretches of the Padre Island National Seashore.
Burgers and Banana Jannas in Surfside
Surfside is a cute and convenient getaway, just an hour south of Houston. Drive past the pastel houses to the wide beaches lined with restaurants and nautical-themed inns. Beachcombers can fill up at Pirates Alley Café (100 Francis Cove, 979-239-2233, piratesalleytx.com), a kitschy, colorful space with rows of painted outdoor tables and menu items that might make you rethink your teeny-weeny yellow bikini. Or wind down at the Tikki-inspired Oar House, which names its drinks, like the Banana Janna, a piña colada blended with a banana pur ée, after town locals. For those looking to overnight, the neighboring Ocean Village Hotel (310 Ocean Village Drive, 979-239-1213, oceanvillagehotel.com, rooms from $119) has 15 unfussy rooms with bright accent walls, 42-inch plasma TVs and private decks overlooking the water.
Four Wheelers and Open Waters in Matagorda
Beaches in Texas can catch travelers by surprise. Cruise east on F.M. 2031, an unassuming two-lane thoroughfare flanked by plots of farmland, and you’ll dead-end into unexpected miles of waves. At the end of this country road, blue-gray waters crash onto empty, bronzed beaches, and tall dunes with green grasses and vines roll across the landscape. The sight might make you forget you were in Texas if it weren’t for the occasional extended-cab truck — doors wide open, country music blasting — dotting the coastline. Pack a picnic before you go, or stop by two side-to-side food trailers — Norby’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q and 3D’s Tasty Treats (1516 Fisher Street, 713-562-5849) — for breakfast tacos and a refreshing raspa.
Shell Pickin’ and Bird Watching on St. Jo’s
San Jose, also known as St. Jo’s, is a 21-mile-long barrier atoll that is secluded, well protected and has miles of beautiful empty shorelines. It’s easily accessible from Port Aransas via a five-minute ride on a jetty boat that runs from the pier at Fisherman’s Warf (900 N. Tarpon Street, 800-605-5448, wharfcat.com; $12 for adults and $6 for children). Starting at 6:30 a.m.. groups of about 20 people land every hour, armed with floral-printed beach bags, fold-up chairs and fishing poles. Fishermen can sail a few miles from the pier to the S.S. John Worthington shipwreck, a World War II tanker that was sunk in the Lydia Ann Channel between Port Aransas and St. Jo’s in an effort to create an artificial reef, and cast out for trout and red fish. Or bring binoculars to sight the brown pelicans and long-billed curlews on your species-spotting list. For those looking for an early morning stroll before oceanfront temperatures top out at over 100, the island has a fantastic selection of small shells and sand dollars scattered along its dark, glistening shores.
White Sands and Blue Waters on Padre Island
Perhaps you’ve heard of South Padre, home to an annual bacchanal that draws more than 40,000 spring breakers from all over Texas, and beyond, to drink and party. Thankfully, South Padre has a laid-back cousin, the Padre Island National Seashore , whose off-the-grid beaches are some of the state’s most important — and least explored — natural treasures. This 70-mile stretch is the longest expanse of undeveloped barrier island in the world, home to endangered sea turtles (nesting season is from late April to mid-July), crabs, frogs and 149 species of fish. Even the first four miles of the park — the only section that’s accessible without four-wheel drive or a boat — feels vast and overwhelming: acres of dunes tumble along 50-yard beaches, large pieces of driftwood stick out of ocean waters, and more than 380 species of migratory and resident birds nest here. Families crowd around Malaquite Beach, where swimmers have access to bathrooms and showers, while more adventurous visitors drive beyond the paved roads and ease their trucks toward the first mile of shoreline. Venture past four-wheel drive row where there are few tread marks and little foot traffic for 55 miles, and you’ll smile sympathetically for the people who opted out of your Texas beach vacation.