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 fishportoconnor.com): 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 brazoriacountyparks.com/quintana/index.asp). 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 of novelties from among the heaps of beverage bottles and plastic buckets he’s encountered. Like the crudely carved wooden man, possibly of Caribbean origin, pipe still clenched between his lips. Or an entire set of U.S. Navy courts-martial manuals dating back to the Reagan administration, perfectly preserved in plastic wrap and probably listing the penalties for chucking them overboard. Amos has also stumbled across dozens of messages in bottles; glass floats; miles of hawser (the thick rope used to moor large ships); buoys of every size, shape, and purpose; driftwood churned into Rorschach-worthy shapes; light bulbs; and a nose cone from a spacecraft. (Each year he auctions off many of his top-notch finds at a fundraiser for Animal Rehabilitation Keep, which cares for the sea turtles, shorebirds, and other creatures Amos rescues along the beach.) But it’s the bowling balls, he says, that people find hardest to fathom. Amos, who believes they’re used to clean out pipelines, explains that they get pushed along the ocean floor until they reach the shore. “It’s a reminder that the sea is a powerful place,” he says. Head for the beaches less traveled (and not regularly bulldozed clean by the city, state, or county) between Beach Access Road 1, just south of Port Aransas off Texas Highway 361, and Mustang Island State Park, 14 miles south.
6. Indulge Your Thalassophobia
Lake LBJ Even those without a fear of the sea have their favorite Texas beaches secreted alongside lakes, rivers, and swimming holes. (Yeah, like I’m going to tell you mine.) Considering the state’s drastic floods and droughts, the most consistently inviting inland beaches cozy up to a constant-level lake. As luck would have it, the 21-mile-long Lake LBJ, just southwest of Marble Falls, claims to be the largest such lake in the nation. Since most of its shoreline is privately owned and access is going to cost you anyway, why not splurge on privileged exclusivity at Horseshoe Bay Resort? Once the playground of members only, the resort now shares its goodies with guests of its hotel, which opened in 2004 and is managed by Marriott. Besides golf courses, restaurants, a quartet of pools, and the most hyperactive, phallically landscaped whirlpool I’ve ever seen, the resort also includes a small white-sand beach sprinkled with cabanas, concrete turtles, and teak lounge chairs. And this may be the only beach in the state where, without stirring from your prone position, you’ll be served the likes of seared ahi tuna and cosmopolitans. Horseshoe Bay Resort Marriott (200 Hi Circle North, 866-799-5384 or horseshoebaymarriott.com): Rooms start at $200 (hotel is not on the water).
7. Catch the Wave
South Padre Island Ask globe-trotting surfaholic Gene Gore to name the best surfing spot in the state, and he answers without hesitation: “South Padre. It’s the Hawaii of Texas.” It’s an assessment based not only on his ten years of teaching surfing there but also on his intimate knowledge of the entire Gulf Coast. Three years ago, he and his wife, Rachel, who run the South Padre Surf Company, paddled on surfboards from the mouth of the Rio Grande to the mouth of the Sabine River. Even after nineteen days and 404 miles of such deliberate travel—the likes of which our shores haven’t seen since the Hernando de Soto expedition of 1542—Gore’s allegiance to South Padre surf remains steadfast. He praises Isla Blanca Park, on the south end of the island, for its “Waikiki-style waves” in summer. “Those two-foot waves are your best friend when you’re a beginner,” he says. (I’ll vouch for that; anything bigger and this novice would’ve wiped out immediately.) For more oomph, he recommends heading to the Port Mansfield Channel, approximately a thirty-mile trip in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the north end, where the jetties dependably magnify the waves. Sure, the surf may lack the power of California’s, but Gore says it also lacks the logjam of boards you’ll find in the Golden State: “The only time you’ll see another surfer here is when you bring one with you.” Isla Blanca Park: south of the Queen Isabella Causeway at the southern tip of the island (956-761-5494 or co.cameron.tx.us/park/parks.html); $4 entrance fee per vehicle. Port Mansfield Channel: From Beach Access Road 6, go 30 miles north (accessible only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle). South Padre Surf Company (Isla Blanca Park, 956-772-7272 or southpadresurfcompany.com); lessons start at $40 an hour.
8. Herd Turtles Malaquite Beach
Padre Island National Seashore Just because you don’t want to sit on the sand all day courting skin cancer and reading crappy fiction doesn’t mean you should avoid the shore—particularly when the park rangers at the Malaquite Visitor Center have cooked up a regimen of interpretive programs that’ll focus your attention like a double dose of Ritalin. The daily beach walks and deck talks will keep your gray matter buzzing with boggling notions, like how the barrier island is constantly moving and, depending on the waves, currents, winds, and rising sea levels, may someday cease to exist. And throughout the year, the park hosts star parties, seasonal birding tours, and junior ranger programs. But Malaquite’s most precious diversion, by far, is its sea turtles. Thanks to a recovery program for endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles that began in 1978, dozens of females now lumber ashore from April through mid-July (a record 102 last year). Rangers collect the eggs and protect them until they hatch. Then, at impromptu times in the summer—you can’t tell a turtle egg what to do and when to do it—spectators gather to watch the release of the silver-dollar-size hatchlings and cheer as they toddle out to sea. From Corpus Christi, go east on Texas Highway 358, which becomes Park Road 22, and continue south for 10 miles to park entrance (361-949-8068 or nps.gov/pais/); $10 entrance fee per vehicle is valid for seven days. Notify a park ranger if you find nesting turtles or call 361-949-8173, ext. 226; hatchling release hotline 361-949-7163.
9. Play House
Bolivar Peninsula In the strictest sense of the word, this particular spit of sand is the homiest place on our coast for vacationers, with more than seven hundred rental houses available, from wind-whipped shacks as welcoming as a crooked smile to rambling abodes that date back to the twenties. In the broadest sense of the word, Bolivar still fits the definition of “homey,” with its low-key pursuits (think swimming, fishing, birding, and roasting weenies on the beach) and provincial businesses (think family seafood joints and bait shops). What you will not find are acres of cookie-cutter condominiums sporting swimming pools with fake waterfalls or towering hotels with parasailers flying by the balconies. Two of the oldest and largest real estate agencies that handle vacation home rentals are Swede’s (800-624-0071 or swedesrealestate.com) and Cobb (800-880-2622 or cobbrealestate.com); more listings are available from the Bolivar Chamber of Commerce (800-386-7863 or bolivarchamber.org). Rates range from $500 to $3,500 a week.
10. Contain Yourself
Rockport Beach Park This compact park, on a hook-shaped peninsula between Little and Aransas bays, manages to squeeze a surfeit of perks into a mere 33-acre plot, including a mile of beach with jaunty thatched umbrellas sprouting from golden sand, two fishing jetties, volleyball courts, boat ramps, an exercise loop, and two dapper beach pavilions with restrooms and showers. The two-foot-and-under set will appreciate the gentle surf of Aransas Bay, the pint-size palms, the sticker-free lawn, and the playscapes. Birders will take to the observation deck that overlooks the Connie Hagar Wildlife Sanctuary, where they need merely pivot in place to spot squadrons of pelicans on maneuvers over Aransas Bay and cranes nesting on the rookery islands in Little Bay. On Navigation Circle adjacent to Rockport Harbor (877-929-7977 or cityofrockport.com); $4 entrance fee per vehicle per day or $10 for an annual pass.
11. Cool Your Heels
Matagorda Bay Nature Park The man told me it was his youngster’s first trip to the beach and, despite the fact that this youngster was a four-month-old Jack Russell terrier, his was the face of universal, seaside-induced joy. Of course, not all kids can have endless fun leaping in the air and nipping at blowing sand. No worries. This recently developed park at the mouth of the Colorado River, covering 1,600 acres of coastland and estuaries, has activities galore. Take guided kayaking trips through the wetlands or raft the river. Fish from the pier that extends more than 1,500 feet into the Gulf or from one of the park’s three riverside piers. Enroll in a coastal education program, in which you’ll plot the movement of dunes, test water samples, and seine and release tiny sea critters. Starting in late summer, enjoy nature exhibits in the visitors center (solid enough to withstand a category 4 hurricane). Or just keep it simple and patrol the half-mile pedestrian beach, which on the gusty March day I visited was littered with scads of shells and so surprisingly free of garbage that I wanted to find a fiddler crab so it could pinch me. From Matagorda, go south on FM 2031 for 6.5 miles (979-863-2603 or lcra.org/parks/developed_parks/matagorda.html); kayaking trips $50 per person (equipment included) or $25 if you have your own; programs range from $3 to $30 per person.
12. Build a Masterpiece
South Padre Island I normally don’t like to attract attention, but shortly after beginning my sand-castle-building lesson on the most populated stretch of beach on South Padre Island, smack-dab in the middle of the hotel zone, I turned into the Jeff Koons of artistic exhibitionism. Never mind that I’m a lifetime member of the Ten Thumbs Club. Thanks to instructor Lucinda Wierenga’s shared knowledge, gathered over 25 years of sand sculpting, and the world-class stature of South Padre sand, which Wierenga rates a nine out of ten for its fineness and silt content (which make it stick), I managed to whip out a castle with winding stairways, an arched bridge, and respectable turrets that had passersby rubbernecking and snapping pictures. But is admiration enough? Perhaps if I enrolled in Wierenga’s new Sandcastle Academy, the first on the Texas coast and maybe the nation, my kitschy creations, despite their transience, could someday command Koonsian prices. Lucinda Wierenga (956-761-6222 or sandyfeet.com): Individual lessons start at $75 an hour; customized academy courses start at $250 and include lodging at the Sand Box, a condo with castle-building materials on the deck and in the courtyard.
13. Boogie Down
Port Aransas Beach It’s easy to put all lifeguards on a pedestal—if for no other reason than they’re already up in those towers—but I’m extra- reverential when it comes to the ones at Port Aransas Beach. My soft spot formed a few years ago, during my initial fling with boogie boarding. Everyone around me, from toddlers to centenarians, seemed to be catching waves on their foam boards and squealing (quite tauntingly, I would say) all the way to shore. Not me. As I was trudging out of the water in abject failure, I heard a voice from above: “Don’t give up.” The half-dressed fellow with the whistle proceeded to clue me in on the finer points of boogying: As soon as you see the wave you want, start paddling; you don’t catch the wave, the wave catches you. I marched back into the surf and rode in on the first little curl I claimed. And this sunny helpfulness was no anomaly. Mike Lauer, a supervisor of the Port Aransas Beach lifeguards, says dishing out advice on boogie boarding—and surfing and not being too stupid—is all in a summer day’s work. Case in point: He couldn’t help offering additional tips, like “size matters” (the bigger and thicker the board, the more easily you glide) and “flippers will increase your stamina.” At the end of Beach Street, south of the Horace Caldwell Pier. $12 annual parking permit is required and available from local merchants. The beach has three manned towers in the swim area and at least one guard on patrol along the beach from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
14. Hook the Big One
Riviera Beach Thank the worms for the trophy trout you can snag in Baffin Bay. Not the ones on the end of your hook (you ought to be using a slow-sinking Corky with a chartreuse sparkle body anyway, judging from the claims of the record holders), but ancient serpulid worms, which began constructing the bay’s famous rock reefs out of calcareous tubes about three thousand years ago, finally wrapping up the project about three centuries ago. These submerged rocks, found nowhere else on the Texas coast, make ideal hideouts for trout and other fish. Although you can freely access the bay from the county parks and pier in the community of Riviera Beach, the poshest—and possibly safest—spot to wade in is at Baffin on the Rocks, where four crisply kept cabins sit on a manicured lawn mere steps from the water’s edge. But even if you fail to reel in one for the frying pan, you can always cheat and eat at nearby Baffin Bay Cafe, where the catch of the day comes straight out of its namesake waters. Plus, you can pick up obscure fishing tips here. My waiter insisted that the so-fresh-it-was-still-flopping black drum I ate one night had been caught using a piece of wooden dowel as bait. Riviera Beach: From Riviera, go 10 miles east on FM 771. Baffin on the Rocks: From Riviera Beach, go half a mile north (361-592-3474 or baffinontherocks.com); two-bedroom cabin with kitchen starts at $185. Baffin Bay Cafe: at the end of FM 771 (361-297-5354). Texas saltwater fishing license required (800-895-4248 or tpwd.state.tx.us/publications/annual/fish/licenses/).
15. Get Off the Road
Padre Island National Seashore The massive gas drilling rig within sight of the entrance station at Padre Island National Seashore may cause you to question the park’s claim as the longest stretch of primitive, undeveloped beach in the nation. And the motor homes parked head to toe like obedient pachyderms along the first five miles of oceanfront will probably do little to quell your doubts. But I’ll bet by the time you reach Big Shell Beach, twenty miles into four-wheel-drive territory, you’ll be a believer, converted by the shifting dunes on your right, the roaring sea on your left, and forty miles of the same unfolding before you. When my husband and I attempted this trek, we pitched our tent down from Big Shell, near a bend named Devil’s Elbow, where many a ship wrecked as a result of converging currents and nefarious practices by scavenging pirates. But I’ve got another name for it: the Mind-warping Wind Elbow. We hightailed it out of there after one night spent in the constant blow. That’s great for windsurfers (no wonder the park’s Bird Island Basin is world renowned for the sport). Not so great if you’re trying to get a forkful of scrambled eggs into your mouth. But if driving the length of the park is your sole mission, you can motor the entire sixty miles to the Port Mansfield Channel and back again in eight hours. From Corpus Christi, go east on Texas Highway 358 to Park Road 22, turn right, and continue south for 10 miles to park entrance (361-949-8068 or nps.gov/pais/; for driving conditions, 361-949-8175); $10 entrance fee per vehicle is valid for seven days.
16. Live It Up Stewart Beach
Galveston You’re not high maintenance. You just have a keenly developed appreciation for beach enhancements, like rental umbrellas and chairs, an inflatable waterslide, a miniature bungee-jumping rig, and regular volleyball tournaments. And did I mention shopping? At Ocean Oso’s, where you can also grab a grilled chicken sandwich or a basket of fried shrimp, you don’t even have to brush the sand from your feet to snag bathing suits, sun hats, and beach toys. “Kids’ buckets and shovels,” says Brian Ethridge, the vice president of operations. “We sell hundreds, thousands, over the summer.” If you consider safety a worthy amenity as well, you’ll thrill to the lifeguards and security staff watching over this beach. Sixth and Seawall Blvd. (409-765-5023 or galveston.com/stewartbeach). Open Mon–Fri 8–6, Sat & Sun 8–7; parking $8 per day ($16 for oversized vehicles).
17. Shell, Shell, Shell
San Jose Island Texas shell seekers are such a tight-lipped bunch that a professional oyster shucker couldn’t pry the locations of their prime hunting grounds out of them. They will drop hints about when you should hunt for shells: during low tide, especially when you can reach offshore sandbars. But as to where to hunt? They can be as evasive as a White House press secretary. So here’s the inside dope: Head to San Jose Island. Although privately owned, its 21 miles of Gulf Coast beaches are open to the public yet closed to vehicles. All this makes for primo shelling that’s only a ferry ride away from Port Aransas. Of course, the perfect excursion takes a bit of planning. First, rent a fat-tired beach bike at Nautical Wheelers, ride over to Cotter Street Coffee House to load up on atypical beach snacks like quiche florentine and iced French vanilla lattes (there are no amenities on San Jose, not even a Starbucks), then dash over to Fisherman’s Wharf and roll aboard the Jetty Boat, which departs ten times a day for the eight-minute jaunt to San Jose. When you disembark, pedal like Lance to leave any foot traffic in your dust. Then start searching for lightning whelks, olive shells, and wentletraps. And so what if you don’t discover museum- worthy specimens? Not to get too chicken-soupy on you, but isn’t the design and execution of each and every shell, even the common cockle, a marvel? (Required legal disclaimer: You must have a license to collect live mollusks, which you don’t want anyway, for both ecological and olfactory reasons.) Cotter Street Coffee House (162 W. Cotter, 361-244-5014 or cotterstreetcoffee.com). Fisherman’s Wharf (900 Tarpon, 800-605-5448 or wharfcat.com). Round-trip ferry ride $10 adults, $5 children under 12. Nautical Wheelers (428 S. Alister, 361-749-3003 or nauticalwheelers.net); bikes start at $10 for four hours.
18. Promenade With Your Partner
Palacios Seawall As you stroll along this one-and-a-half-mile sidewalk hugging the edge of a stubby peninsula that just barely manages to jut into Tres Palacios Bay, you might be tempted to pin down the source of its gentle appeal. Maybe it’s the hundreds of shrimp boats harbored at one end. Maybe it’s the historic buildings scattered along its path, from pristine bungalows ringed with flowering oleander to the clapboard Luther Hotel, moved in three pieces to this spot in 1905 and still kicking. It could be the open-air pavilion perched to one side of the pier, flags flapping in the wind, a bare-bones reminder of earlier, more-elaborate pavilions—one with a second-story cafe, another that showcased the likes of Artie Shaw and Tex Beneke, and all eventually clobbered by hurricanes. Maybe it’s the patches of carpetlike lawn dotted with picnic tables and swing sets and the peekaboo beaches tucked between seawall and sea. Or it could be the absence of high-rise time-shares or petroleum plants along the entire sweep of the horizon. But does it really matter? If it does, perhaps you need to walk the walk again—only slower this time. From Corpus Christi, head 100 miles northeast on Texas Highway 35 (palacioschamber.com/tourist.htm).
19. Act Like a Pirate
Port Mansfield Channel Since the Spanish fleet first began to prowl the Gulf in the 1500’s, hundreds of ships have sunk along the Texas coast, and if rumors are to be believed, all of them were filled to the scuppers with jewels, silver, and gold. The most legendary of these have to be the three treasure ships en route to Spain and loaded with Aztec swag that went aground at Padre Island in 1554. (You don’t want to know what happened to the passengers and crew.) Steve Hathcock, co-owner of Padre Island Traders and the Beachcomber’s Museum of Local and Natural History, relates a tale of how, during construction of the Port Mansfield Channel in the fifties, dredgers sliced right through one of those ships, the Santa Maria de Yicar, spraying the banks with chunks of ship and silver coins. Tales of buried treasure along the channel—known by locals and assorted freebooters as the Mansfield Cut—are likewise sensational. Pirate Jean Lafitte’s plundered fortune is said to be stashed somewhere under the dunes on Padre, beneath a marker reading “Dig deeper!” And scuttlebutt has it that when the Singer family, who shipwrecked on Padre Island in 1847 and then decided to settle there, fled during the Civil War, they stuffed $62,000 in silver coins and an emerald necklace in a stone jar and buried it, never to be found. But lest you figure on getting rich, matey, remember: Whatever pre-1900 booty you find should be left where it lies and then reported to the Texas Historical Commission. “Argh,” you say? Yes, thanks to the 1969 passage of the Texas Antiquities Code, one of the toughest in the country, any historic artifact found on public property belongs to the state. Violators face up to a $1,000 fine, thirty days in jail, and keelhauling. And although Steve Hoyt, the state marine archeologist, isn’t aware of anyone who has been prosecuted for picking up coins or other artifacts on the beach, he warns, “We are always on the alert for such activity.” Shiver me timbers. Port Mansfield Channel: From Beach Access Road 6, go 30 miles north (accessible only with a four-wheel-drive vehicle or square-rigger). Beachcomber’s Museum of Local and Natural History (104 West Pompano, 956-761-5231 or islandtraders.biz); free admission.
20. Nosh in Flip-flops
South Padre Island The easy access to South Padre via the Queen Isabella Causeway can muddle the destination’s island status a bit, but once you’re firmly planted on the beach, the isle aura reasserts itself. The whitest sand and the bluest water in the state certainly contribute to the Caribbean allure, but I think it’s a trio of beachside eateries that caps off the carefree picture. Make a day of munching and sipping between Beach Access 7 and 19, beginning with a breakfast of, say, eggs Benedict and a mimosa at newcomer Café on the Beach, the most upscale of the lot (shoes required, but they have flip-flops you can borrow). In the afternoon, stroll north to Wanna Wanna Beach Bar and Grill, pausing to play in the surf long enough to work up an appetite for one of its famed fried-shrimp baskets and a can o’ suds. Here, imbibing patrons and live bongo jazz spill out of the thatch-roofed bar right onto the sand. Wind up the day by sauntering back south to Boomerang Billy’s. Spike a few on the volleyball court, then quench your thirst with a pre-burger aperitif on the sunny deck, where the who-cares decor runs to prayer flags promoting Captain Morgan rum. Café on the Beach (3616 Gulf Blvd., Beach Access Road 11; 956-761-1316 or palmsresortcafe.com). Wanna Wanna Beach Bar and Grill (5100 Gulf, Beach Access Road 19; 956-761-7677. Boomerang Billy’s (2612 Gulf, Beach Access Road 7; 956-761-2420).