AS VACATION DESTINATIONS GO, the rap on Corpus Christi is that it’s the Oakland of Texas: There’s no there there. The heart of the city doesn’t have the rich history or the distinct architecture of Galveston. Downtown is practically a vacant shell since all the best stores packed up and moved south to the malls and shopping centers along South Padre Island Drive. And with the weather so agreeably warm most of the year, you’d have to be crazy to linger in boring old Corpus when the beaches of Port Aransas and Padre Island National Seashore are less than an hour away.
That’s what I used to think, anyway. But while I wasn’t looking, the Sparkling City by the Sea (as Corpus used to be called) reinvented itself into a worthy tourist draw. The bay front overlooking Corpus Christi Bay has been gussied up to showcase one of the state’s grandest promenades. On the southern end of the seawall, the T-head and L-head piers offer a link to the water; on the northern end, a concentration of museums and other attractions has become the Coastal Bend’s cultural hub. The downtown blocks near the waterfront are showing signs of evolving into an entertainment district, with a mix of restaurants, bars, and other diversions reminiscent of Sixth Street in Austin fifteen years ago. And over at Corpus Christi Beach, the spit of land directly opposite the bay front that is connected to downtown by the 235-foot-tall Harbor Bridge, a quasi aqua-amusement area has sprung up, anchored by the Texas State Aquarium and the U.S.S. Lexington, a World War II aircraft carrier. Between the bay front and the beach, you can now have an enjoyable getaway without getting wet or sunburned.
Or at least we did. It was a gloomy midwinter day that I gathered my kids, five-year-old Andy and ten-year-old Jake, plus Jake’s ten-year-old friend Matthew, and made the drive down Interstate 37. We pulled up to the Texas State Aquarium (2710 N. Shoreline, 800-477-4853) just in time for lunch. But rather than dine at the Subway sandwich shop on the ground floor, we opted for Blackbeard’s on the Beach (3117 N. Surfside, 512-884-1030), a comfortable restaurant that is one of the few remnants of North Beach, formerly an enclave of vaguely bohemian seediness. These days, Blackbeard’s turns out fresh seafood and fixings in an unpretentious atmosphere. We dined on grilled drum, fried shrimp, chicken-fried steak, and hamburgers and headed back out stuffed.
Admittedly, my expectations for the aquarium were low. This was the third time the kids had been there since it opened almost six years ago (see “Go Fish,” TM, October 1990); given their attention spans and the small size of the building, I figured we’d make a quick run-through. And, as if it had been scripted, once I’d bought our tickets ($8 for adults, $5.75 for seniors, military personnel, and kids ages 12—16, $4.50 for ages 4—11), the three boys zoomed far ahead of me. But this wasn’t a case of been there, done that. It was past one-thirty—the afternoon session at the Touch of Adventure tank was already in progress. Jake insisted that Matthew and Andy hurry downstairs to the giant glass enclosure where visitors are allowed to stick their hands into the water. By the time I caught up with the boys, they were contentedly scratching rays and good-naturedly arguing over how best to describe a shark’s hide (the consensus: It’s like sandpaper). As the boys kept explor-ing, I wandered back upstairs to see snapper, sharks, and other inhabitants of the massive Islands of Steel oil-rig “reef” tank and to observe the shorebirds and redfish in the artificial estuary near the aquarium’s entrance. There was plenty more I wanted to do, but after an hour or so, Jake and Andy declared their desire to move on by hanging out in the gift shop and pestering me to see what I might buy them.
Two hundred yards away, at rest in the shallows of Corpus Christi Bay, the U.S.S. Lexington (2914 N. Shoreline, 800-523-9539) beckoned. In 1992 the 910-foot aircraft carrier was converted into a museum of naval history, with exhibits that draw on the rich histories of the five naval vessels that have been named Lexington, but the kids preferred to think of it as some kind of carnival ride. While I checked out a mockup of an F-4 U Corsair like the one my father flew off a carrier during World War II, toured the mess hall, and read an intriguing display about Japanese kamikaze pilots, my energetic young companions climbed the tight stairwells (not recommended for the physically impaired), sniped over whose turn it was to sit in the cockpit of an A-4 Blue Angel jet trainer, and—inevitably—played around with the gear in the gift shop. They may have ditched me in the aquarium, but this time I took advantage of the situation and sneaked below deck to take a well-marked self-guided tour of the ship’s innards. I peered into the engine room, which was still redolent of diesel and grease, and the sick bay, which still smelled like a medicine chest. Near a set of models of vintage war planes, I stumbled upon a guide and a visitor—both of whom had actually served on the carrier—sharing vivid memories of the Lex at sea. That part was better than a museum.
I thought about taking the boys on a five-minute helicopter ride off the flight deck (at an additional cost of $25 per person), but the copters were grounded because of high winds, so I bought four $3.50 tickets for the flight simulator on the main deck. It essentially entailed watching a film in a small, darkened theater jacked around by hydraulic lifts. The effect was as close to Top Gun as I care to get, a four-minute thrill so real that it made the boys squeal with delight and brought me to the brink of nausea. Once we got our sea legs back, we hobbled toward dry land.