Happy Trails

For a great escape, head to Corpus Christi, the city on the bay that sparkles.
A butterfly at Butterfly Paradise.
Photograph by Kit McConnico

AFTER DRIVING THROUGH A fierce thunderstorm, we arrived in Corpus Christi just before sundown. Rays of light broke through the clouds as we neared the downtown skyline. An indicator of good fortune to come? Quite possibly. Traffic was nonexistent, so we made it to our hotel, across from the boardwalk and overlooking Corpus Christi Bay, in no time. My husband, Kit, and I checked in, disposed of our bags, and made our way to the city streets to get our bearings and see just what this place had to offer.

We quickly discovered that despite the tall buildings, this city of about 300,000 is really more like a small town. There was absolutely no traffic downtown other than folks cruising Shoreline Drive, which is the road that runs along the boardwalk. And bank buildings seem to be on every street corner. After a beer and some nachos at City Diner, a fifties-style restaurant, we headed to the boardwalk. Our first stop was the Selena Memorial, a bronze life-size statute of the Tejano singer who was tragically shot and killed some seven years ago. There were many other onlookers, taking photos and reading the inscriptions on the bricks that made up the ground surface.

We walked down one of the T-Heads, a marina basically, and looked at all of the sailboats that were resting peacefully in their slips. As we meandered, I thought about what this area must have looked like in the late 1890's and early 1900's, when it was a bustling center of entertainment. During that time, there were hotels with opera houses, a pavilion with a Ferris wheel and an ice cream stand, a natatorium that featured 198 separate bathing rooms, and electric lights that outlined the pier. All that changed on August 18, 1916, when a hurricane made landfall near Corpus and wiped out the bay front. Shortly thereafter, the city council passed an ordinance that prohibited over-the-water commercial structures along the bay front. The waterfront was redesigned in 1939 and 1940 to its current incarnation of a marina and public-use parks on the L- and T-Heads. I couldn't help thinking, though, how I would have enjoyed an ice cream cone as I walked around.

Instead, we made our way two blocks inland to Water Street, a seafood restaurant packed with patrons. Our dinner was fine, but our Key lime pie proved divine. We were glad we had a short walk back to the hotel so that we could stretch our legs after our repast. The sun was shining when we woke up, and after a muffin and a cup of coffee at the hotel, we went to the Art Museum of South Texas, a modern white building designed by Philip Johnson that sits right on the water. In addition to its permanent collection, we saw "Frida Kahlo Unmasked," an exhibit of some sixty photographs of the artist by Guillermo Kahlo, Imogene Cunningham, Diego Rivera, Manual Alvarez Bravo, and others. Upstairs, the 2002 Biennial Foundation Show Competition and Exhibition showcased works by regional artists.

Despite the breeze—Corpus is known for its wind, which is why it is such a big sailing and windsurfing spot—it was definitely getting hot, so we hurried over to the U.S.S. Lexington before it was too unbearable to be outdoors. This huge aircraft carrier, which was a training vessel for 49 years, proved the highlight of our trip. We toured the bridge and the deck, where we saw a very old-looking Blue Angels jet among other aircraft. The captain's quarters, off to the side of the bridge, looked quite cramped to me but fascinating nevertheless. After climbing stairs and walking narrow passageways, I began to get a feel for what it must have been like to live on this ship—well, sort of. Obviously, we weren't moving and there wasn't a crew around.

We decided to head back to land and thought about going to the Texas State Aquarium, but we'd already been there before and wanted to experience something new. Butterfly Paradise fit the bill—this place had a sign out front that said "Grand Opening." A pamphlet claimed that we would "walk among clouds of tropical butterflies," but that didn't really happen. Sure, we saw a lot fluttering about when we first walked into the butterfly house—which is like walking into a sauna—but not clouds. We were disappointed, no doubt. We recognized monarchs, but had no idea what the other three types of butterflies that we saw were—and there was no literature in the store that provided any information on butterfly species.

After trudging back to the car, we drove around this quaint area next to Padre Island Beach—a stretch of sand where a few hotels and motels are located, although, technically, the body of water is Corpus Christi Bay—before going back to downtown. Once there, we stopped at the flagship Whataburger on Shoreline for a milkshake, just beating the lunch crowd. We were looking for the Corpus Christi Sailing Center but couldn't find it, so we continued on Shoreline, which eventually turned into Ocean Drive. Along this stretch of road we passed Cole Park, a lush green space right on the water. We didn't see any windsurfers, but Oleander Point at South Cole Park is home to the U.S. Open Windsurfing Regatta, which takes place in May.

We kept going south, passing beautiful mansions along Ocean Drive. We could have continued on to the naval base, but I was hungry so we went to Port Aransas for lunch. (Because of all the rain, we had heard that there was some water on the JFK Causeway, but we didn't encounter any when we crossed.) A delicious cheeseburger and a shrimp poorboy at the Other Guys, one of Guy Carnathan's restaurants, did us right. Surprisingly, a lot of new homes had cropped up since our last visit to Mustang Island; even so, Port A still has an old beach town feel to it. Back in Corpus, we made one last ditch effort to find

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