Shore ’Nuff

With more than 350 miles of coastline in Texas, choosing the perfect getaway can make you want to bury your head in the sand. Where do you go for a family vacation? (Or to avoid kids at all costs?) Who can teach you to surf? (Or to build a massive sand castle?) Never fear. I’ve found the twenty best beaches in the state, from sophisticated resorts to secluded islands. All you need is your bathing suit—and that “novel” you’ve been dying to read.

1. Spot a Spoonbill

Bolivar Flats When it comes to Bolivar Flats, mankind did something extremely beneficial for the bird world. Of course, it happened unintentionally. When the jetties were completed in 1898, the intent was to stabilize the Houston–Galveston ship channel, not to alter the longshore current so that it would deposit nutrient-rich sediment along the north jetty’s backside and create the flats. The resulting triumvirate of mud, marsh, and Gulf waters harbored the smorgasbord of shrimp, small fish, and polychaete worms that proved so attractive to flocks of waterfowl. Then mankind (specifically the Houston Audubon Society) did something else nice for the birds, this time on purpose: creating the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary. The sanctuary manager, Winnie Burkett, who’s been birding since she was four, says you don’t even need binoculars, especially in the summer, when the flashiest crowds— herons, spoonbills, and reddish egrets—flock here. “And pelicans,” Burkett says. “Pelicans are real watchable.” To get a sense of the phenomenal popularity of this worm-riddled preserve, particularly from July through September, walk out on the north jetty about an hour before sunset. With the evening breezes beginning to stir and the sun at your back, you’ll have the best seat in the house to enjoy the winged extravaganza as some 100,000 birds gather to spend the night on the flats. Bolivar Flats Beach: From the Bolivar ferry terminal, go north on Texas Highway 87 for 3.7 miles to Rettilon Rd., then turn right and look for the parking area on the shore; parking $10 (permits are valid for one year and are available from local merchants). North jetty: accessible via the flats at extremely low tide or, with a lot less slogging, via 17th (North Jetty Rd.), 1.7 miles north of the ferry terminal.

2. Cast Yourself Away

Matagorda Island Primitive, Unspoiled, Raw, Isolated: Matagorda Island attracts a certain family of adjectives as readily as it does sand dollars. (I wasn’t kidding when I wrote in this magazine in March 2004 that I actually grew bored picking up the little disks there.) What it doesn’t attract are hordes of tourists. This isn’t because of the resident alligators, but because, relative to the rest of the Texas coast, this 38-mile-long barrier island is hard to get to. Of course, Captain Bob Hill, one of a handful of local fishing guides out of Port O’Connor who ferry day-trippers and campers to the uninhabited isle, is happy to help; all you have to do is call him. In addition to the challenging access, the lack of drinking water, snack bars, and bungee-jumping concessions—although there are shade shelters, a restored lighthouse, and cold-water showers—also keeps the typical boom-boxing beachgoer at bay. (The Gulf beaches earn extra points for seclusion because they’re at least a mile and a half from the boat landing; thankfully Captain Bob also rents bikes.) But for travelers seeking solitude, starry nights, and perhaps a quiet encounter with an aplomado falcon, these privations are a siren’s call. Captain Bob Hill (361-983-4325 or round-trip boat ride $125 for up to six people depending on gear, reservations recommended; bike rentals $15 a day.

3. Enjoy the Sunrise (Skip the Sunset)

Quintana Beach County Park Yes, I realize Quintana Beach County Park, on an island just below Freeport, has a who’s who of petrochemical plants watching its back, but if you continuously face the surf, as coastal vacation law requires, it doesn’t matter. Especially when you can rent one of the park’s six cabins, four of which feature porches and swings, oriented in the correct direction. (And kick up your notion of “cabins” several notches; these solid-pine cuties come fully loaded, with kitchens, air-conditioning, televisions, picnic tables, and fire rings.) From the cabins, it’s a quick skip down the boardwalk to the five-mile pedestrian beach, complete with palapas and a lighted wooden fishing pier. Or walk (backward, of course) to check out the volleyball and horseshoe courts; the cluster of historic clapboard structures, including the Seaburn House, built in 1854 by one of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists; and the World War II–era gun mounds, where howitzers once stood—yes, pointed out to sea—to protect Dow’s magnesium plant. 330 Fifth (800-872-7578 or Parking $5 per day; four-person cabins start at $85 per night during peak times.

4. Pedal Past History

Galveston Seawall If I didn’t know better, I would swear the Galveston Seawall was built to pacify fervent bicycling lobbyists rather than deflect storm surges. (Irony alert: The seawall protects the island from hurricanes, but it also accelerates beach erosion.) This 54,790-foot-long strip of waterfront sidewalk curves past a hodgepodge of commercial architecture: from the elegant Hotel Galvez, a grande dame with Spanish flair completed in 1911, and the whip-curved, sixties-era Commodore on the Beach motel to the enlisted men’s barracks and officers’ houses of Fort Crockett, deactivated in 1947. Happily tacky beachfront piers, whose forerunners once hosted the International Pageant of Pulchritude in the twenties and the area’s premier gambling joint after World War II, hang out over the Gulf and now traffic in live music, piña coladas, and gimme hats splattered with fake bird poop. But when it comes to variation, the architecture can’t compete with the wide stripe of humanity, from pink-haired skateboarders to blue-haired cruise passengers, that congregates where the pavement meets the sea. EZ Rentals (three locations: 1718 Seawall Blvd., 409-763-0705; 4712 Seawall, 409-765-7574; and 1020 Seawall, 409-766-7000); Goody Bike Rentals (2402 Seawall, 409-621-1062). Rates start at $7 an hour or $20 a day.

5. Comb the Beach

Mustang Island Texas beaches, particularly those running generally north and south, like Mustang Island, are a mecca for all manner of sea-tossed jetsam, courtesy of a convergence of strong gyre and loop currents and prevailing southeasterly winds. Although Tony Amos, who’s been conducting beach debris surveys hereabouts for the past 29 years as a researcher with the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, in Port Aransas, can certainly talk pure rubbish, he has also scored an array

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