The Wild Coast
Headed for the beach this summer? Escape the crowds at these five out-of-the-way places where the coast is always clear.
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THE LONG, LANGUID COASTLINE OF TEXAS takes its own sweet time seducing the senses. It may lack the immediate drama of a first encounter with California’s Big Sur or the dazzling tropical allure of the Florida Keys. But if you let it work on you long enough, the fine line where Texas meets the sea will stir the soul. The Texas coast is the simple essence of the seashore experience: sun, sand, surf, breezes, dunes, wetlands, waterfowl, and vast, tranquil bays, along with its most compelling assets, the thin, elegant islands and peninsulas that barricade the Texas mainland from a stormy sea.
Discovering the Texas coast in its natural state is no easy task, obscured as it is by development, crowds, and trash that washes on the beach from the Gulf of Mexico. The resort destinations, with their swim-up bars, T-shirt shops, and fruity drinks embellished with tiny umbrellas, are bent on diverting our attention from the main reason that we go down to the sea—to engage in that universal experience of basking in the exact spot where sand, sky, and water converge, in search of peace, quiet, and solitude.
Fortunately, finding that wild coast is easier than you think. With a little bit of effort, you can discover hidden places as remote as far west Texas, but tempered by the constant, calming roar of the surf rolling over sandbars in harmony with the squawks of shorebirds, unspoiled by the buzz of Jet Skis and the beat of a boombox. You don’t have to be an athlete or an outdoorsman to get the most out of the adventure. These five easy places-the marshes of Sea Rim State Park, the bird sanctuaries of High Island, Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Area, lower Padre Island National Seashore, and Boca Chica beach-are there for anyone who wants to indulge in the primal urge to be at land’s end, where the wilderness overwhelms the civilized and the coast is always clear.
As Wild as Big Bend
Sea Rim State Park
“PEOPLE WHO’VE LIVED AROUND HERE for years and see it for the first time, they can’t believe it exists,” said Danny Magouirk, looking out over the tall grasses that rise out of the wetlands all the way to the horizon. “You can look for miles and miles and see nothing but marsh. No power lines, no poles, totally natural. It’s as wild as Big Bend.”
Magouirk is the assistant superintendent of Sea Rim State Park, which begins ten miles after the Texas coast emerges from the Louisiana muck at Sabine Pass. The park has five miles of beachfront, but the area of greatest interest is the wide swath of wetlands that incorporates two wildlife refuges, totaling almost 75,000 acres. Magouirk was about to fire up the automobile engine that powers his airboat to take me on a ride through the marsh unit of the park. I put on the earmuffs he’d given me, and we sped into the rich wetlands, winding along watery alleys through the cordgrass. The passages were so tight I felt as if I were in a tunnel. Occasionally the grasses would part and we would find ourselves crossing wide-open flats, placid lakes, or small ponds, and then we would plunge into the dense vegetation again. Less than a minute after departing the Myers Point dock one mile east of the park headquarters, we were being shadowed by an indigo bunting, an iridescent neotropical bird on its way north for the summer. Our boat flushed herons, egrets, and ducks out of the grasses, sent fish jumping, and forced alligators, sunk deep in the mud, to scurry for safety. It occurred to me that Sea Rim is an aquatic version of a drive-through wildlife park.
“Later in the season they get so used to us they don’t even move,” Magouirk said of the park’s residents, as a curious red-tailed hawk circled overhead. “In a canoe or a kayak, you can see a whole lot more—river otter, mink, muskrat, especially at sunup and sundown. It’s really an exceptional estuary. This is a nursery where much of the life on land and in the sea is born and raised.” A mosquito belonging to one of the sixty known species in Jefferson County reminded me that not all of the life is welcome.
This is one of the least-trafficked parts of the coastline, due in no small part to the impassable condition of Texas Highway 87, the storm-battered road that once hugged the beach from Sabine Pass to the Port Bolivar ferry landing on Galveston Bay. The highway was closed in 1989 when hurricanes Chantal and Jerry washed out the roadway. From a few miles east of High Island to a few miles west of Sea Rim, the road no longer exists in many places. Even four-wheel drive won’t help. Nature has reasserted its claim to the land, which is once again beach, low dunes, and tideland.
The beach at Sea Rim is practically an afterthought. Its hard-packed sand, made bronze by silt from the Mississippi River, slopes gradually into tepid water. The minimal wave action discourages surfing but is close to ideal for casting for redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and sand sharks and launching sailboards, sailboats, and catamarans. The dunes are lower and flatter than those you find farther down the coast; there isn’t a lot of loose sand for the wind to blow. This beach draws a more sedate crowd than the rowdier bunch that frequents the county’s McFaddin Beach, about two miles to the west.
But at Sea Rim, the other side of the dunes is where the action is. If a boat trip into the marsh sounds too adventurous, take a stroll along the three-quarter-mile Gambusia Trail, an elevated boardwalk that begins just east of the visitors center. Who needs a zoo amid ducks splashing, birds perching, and alligators marinading themselves, all within an arm’s reach, seemingly oblivious to human presence? They were all so close I had to remind myself of the sign that addressed my erroneous impression: “This park is not a zoo. The animals here are wild.” I kept my hands inside the railing. A twelve-foot reptile with a mouthful of teeth was not something I wanted to tempt.
For the Birds
EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK IN GLENDAweena’s, a little shop tucked away on Winnie Street in High Island, you see birds: T-shirts on the wall with warblers and buntings silk-screened on the front, bird maps, bird books about the upper Texas Coast, cassettes of bird calls, bird videos, bird gimme caps, “I Brake for Birds” bumper stickers, and all sorts of avian accessories, from jewelry to binocular straps. It was the perfect nesting spot for a party of four Californians who had just wandered in, sweating, clothing disheveled, heads covered with eccentric hats and caps. Each neck had a pair of binoculars hanging from it.
“This is probably the best in the world,” Pat Fleischer gushed. “Next year we’re coming back. We’re going home and telling L.A. Audubon what we saw.”
“We’ve seen twelve species of warblers,” added Ginny Chin. “This is better than Costa Rica.”
“This is like Christmas,” Fleischer said, showing off her binocular earrings.
High Island is for the birds. The small town of fewer than five hundred residents, named for an unusual coastal hill (which turned out to be an oil-rich salt dome), has become one of the great birdwatching centers of North America. This is largely due to its strategic place in the annual trans-Gulf migration of birds moving north in the spring. When a cold front blows in from the north, birds fall out of the sky into trees. Seven years ago Jon and Glendaweena Llast, two avid birdwatchers from Dallas, opened a one-stop bed and breakfast, birder’s shop, and gateway to Smith Oaks, a sanctuary owned by the Houston Audubon Society. Glendaweena died last year, but Jon continues to lead tours on the weekends and by appointment, while Kenneth Ferguson operates the store and Birder’s Haven B&B in the house across the courtyard.
Testifying to High Island’s world renown was a group from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who occupied the sitting area underneath the spreading shade of thirty-foot oaks, cottonwoods, and fig trees. Feeders hung from the branches, which seemed to be a Grand Central Station of the avian world. Gurgling fountains served as birdbaths. “Last year we went to Arizona and wound up here,” one woman told me. “This year we’d planned a trip to Florida, but here we are.”
Leaving the World Behind
Matagorda Island State Park And Wildlife Area
THE MAINLAND GRADUALLY DISAPPEARED in the humid haze as the ferry headed south on the eleven-mile trip across Espiritu Santo Bay toward Matagorda Island. First the 110-foot cast-iron lighthouse came into view, then several outbuildings on the bay side of the island near the ferry landing, remnants of an abandoned Air Force base. After a trip of almost an hour, we arrived at the 38-mile-long barrier island, which was inaccessible except by private boat until ferry service began four years ago. Today Matagorda remains as close to a wilderness as you can get on the Texas coast—a 58,000-acre park and preserve that is off-limits to private motor vehicles. Only bicycles and park vehicles (including two open-bed shuttle trucks and an old school bus that carry visitors around the island) are allowed on the roads left behind by the Air Force.
“People call this place pristine,” Ronny Gallagher, the park superintendent, told me shortly after we got into his pickup for a tour of the park, which is surrounded by a much larger national wildlife refuge. “This is nowhere close to pristine. Cattle ranching went on here for more than one hundred and fifty years, and the Air Force tried to bomb it back into the ocean. But take off over there”—he nodded toward the bluestem and sharp-edged saw grass flourishing in the interior of island—“and see if it’s wild. Just don’t step on a water moccasin doing it. The snakes, the mosquitoes, the deerflies, the stickers, they’ll stop you real quick.”
Gallagher suddenly stopped the truck. “Horny toad!” he shouted. It was a sight I hadn’t seen since I was a boy. I picked it up and a childhood memory told me to turn it over on its back and tickle its belly. Sure enough, its eyes closed. A few hundred yards up the road we stopped at an elevated observation platform that provided a view of a marsh, where red-wing blackbirds chittered and chattered and a couple of black-headed coots loitered in the tall grass. An eastern meadowlark and two cedar waxwings glided by, and a whistling tree duck emerged from the water. Gallagher pointed to a shallow channel of water marking one of the trenches that were dug across the island during the Civil War. This one provided protection for Union soldiers from a Confederate garrison at Fort Esperanza, which the outnumbered rebels eventually abandoned. For such an isolated spot, Matagorda has a rich history. La Salle, Cabeza de Vaca, and Jean Lafitte passed this way. The antebellum lighthouse, now shuttered and lightless but majestic nonetheless, was originally located two and a half miles northeast of its present site, then moved in 1878. It marks the entrance to Matagorda Bay at Cavallo Pass.
Gallagher zipped past the old airbase runway, where the cracks between the slabs of concrete were filling in with native grasses, Mexican hat in bloom, and prickly pear. The runway has become a nesting area for the endangered least tern, just as the poles that once carried electricity to the island have been claimed by great blue herons. Mother Nature is slowly taking back the island. “See that post?” he said. “The military used to tether a jeep there and let it run in circles, then strafe it from the air.”
We got out of the truck again at the beach, which was wide, white, and pockmarked with trash. Gallagher examined a dug-up area around ghost crab holes, which he blamed on feral hogs. “They root the devil out of everything,” he snarled. The hogs are the scourge of the island, an invader whose presence threatens the balance of a fragile ecosystem that shelters 325 species of birds, 19 of them protected or endangered species, including whooping cranes and peregrine falcons, and a herd of around nine hundred white-tailed deer.
Currents bring the trash here—most of it dumped from ships and offshore platforms—and little can be done about it. The twice-a-year cleanups organized by the General Land Office keep the situation somewhat under control. “We don’t rake the beach or clean it,” Gallagher said. “Leaving it alone protects the salt cap on the sand, prevents wind erosion, and lets the beach grow.” But he still tries to do his part. “You know about the message in the bottle?” he asked me. “When I find one of them, I write a letter back to say, ‘You’re polluting my beach.’”
The Longest Drive
Padre Island National Seashore
THE ROAD FROM CORPUS CHRISTI TO PADRE Island National Seashore foretold what lay ahead: First the convenience stores disappeared from the roadside landscape, followed by subdivisions, motels, shell shops, and condos, leaving only telephone poles to mar the view. Then even the poles and the shoulders of the pavement vanished, leaving only a narrow ribbon of asphalt to split the dunes and tidal flats on the longest barrier island in the world. And we hadn’t even gotten to the park visitors center yet. It was the perfect introduction to driving to the Mansfield Cut, a 120-mile round trip on the longest undeveloped stretch of coastline in the U.S.
I had rented a Jeep Cherokee, summoned my buddy Red, and risen with the sun. The chalkboard at the entry gate to the park warned that beach driving conditions were poor. But the other statistics that are important to the down-island traveler—wind, weather, water temperature, beach debris, and presence of jellyfish—were agreeable for a full day’s adventure. A mile after the visitors center, the pavement veered straight for the beach. By a few minutes after eight we were rolling along the firm sand. Perhaps fifty vans and pickups were parked along the first five miles, most of them rigged for overnight camping. The next milepost warned that motor traffic for the next 55 miles was restricted to vehicles with four-wheel drive. Another sign raised the speed limit from 15 miles per hour to 25.
That was a joke. There was no way to maintain that speed, given the changing tides, the debris on the beach, and the shifting sands, which could range from hard-packed to powdery in a matter of a few feet. If we stayed on the harder, wetter sand at water’s edge, we had to worry about the incoming tide or a hard-to-see trench carved out of the sand by a receding wave. Above the swash, the highest point where water rose on the beach, the sand could become soft and deep in an instant. Trash was a constant hazard—huge ballast buoys, plastic milk crates, trash can lids, bottles and more bottles, telephone poles, a refrigerator, a dead dog, a card table emblazoned with a green spade. A wayward hippie staggered by, seemingly aimless of purpose. Where had he come from? Where was he going? Not a vehicle was in sight.
Around twenty miles into the four-wheel-drive zone, we passed what would be the last of the vehicles parked on the beach. We were alone except for the occasional all-terrain vehicle driven by a ranger or a volunteer looking out for the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtles, whose nesting season had just begun. Driving anywhere on this beach required nimble steering, quick reflexes, and constant vigilance—exactly what makes this one of the great driving experiences in Texas. If we got stuck, I reminded myself, we were supposed to find a couple of buckets among the debris and pour water around the tires to harden the sand.
I was beginning to wonder if I was seeing things. Someone had painted eyes and a smile on a buoy that had washed ashore. If enough artists could be rounded up to paint other large objects on the beach, Padre would be the world’s biggest and longest art park. That piece of driftwood could be a pelican, that glove a human hand.
At mile 27.6, we saw a white pickup doing a 180-degree turn. It was one of the turtle patrol vehicles, whose driver had spotted a giant Kemp’s ridley on the beach. We braked and followed him as he got out of his truck. The ridley was dead, the flesh around its neck partially eaten away. Its four-foot shell was covered with moss. “This one could have been chomped by a shark,” said Josh Mackey, a biological technician at the Seashore. “In most cases, though, man is the culprit.” Turtles get hung up and drown in nets used to haul shrimp, Mackey explained. He set about taking photographs of the dead ridley from every angle.
Mackey told us to look for another dead turtle, a leatherback, at mile marker 37, beyond an area of crushed seashells known as Big Shell. By the time we reached the mile marker, a volunteer had dragged the huge carcass into the dunes. The longer the drive went on, the more mesmerizing became the repeating rhythm: swerve, brake, accelerate, swerve, brake. It was hard to stay alert for boards with exposed nails or lightbulbs, which were sometimes hidden in the sea grape. At mile 50 we passed the last landmark, an exposed metal boiler in the surf beyond the second sandbar that marked the wreck of the Nicaragua, a large merchant steamship that sunk offshore in 1912. Shortly after noon, more than four hours after we had passed the visitors center, we reached the cut, which is kept open by two jetties jutting into the wind-whipped Gulf. There was no sign of life other than two fishermen in a johnboat moored at the jetty across the channel. But evidence of humanity was everywhere—almost every space between rocks on the jetty was crammed with some piece of plastic, Styrofoam, or metal.
The drive back was more challenging. The character of the beach had totally changed; what had been hard sand on the way down had become soft and spongy, grabbing the wheels unexpectedly. Worse, we unwisely had used the air conditioner and the four-wheel drive all the way down, and the gas gauge showed less than half a tank left. Now I shifted to two-wheel drive to conserve gas, and twice we almost bogged down before I could get the four-wheel drive engaged. At mile marker 20, the low-fuel light flashed on. It was still at least ten miles past the park to the nearest gasoline pump. Then the red needle descended below E. When we reached the visitors center, we decided to enjoy a swim and worry about the gas gauge later. We rinsed off in the freshwater showers, but we felt even better when we spotted a gas station at the turnoff to Port Aransas.
The Tip of Texas
EASTER WEEKEND AT SOUTH PADRE: no-vacancy signs, long lines in the restaurants and stores, long lines on the road, the beach packed with people. Easter weekend on Boca Chica, a peninsula just across Brazos Santiago Pass from the towers of South Padre: around 75 cars cruising up and down the beach, with perhaps ten more vehicles clustered at the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Boca Chica is a narrow finger of land between the Rio Grande and South Bay, the bottom of the Laguna Madre. When it reaches the sea, the peninsula makes a sharp left turn to form an eight-mile-long beach. Behind it is a harsh landscape that, compared with the marshes of Sea Rim, is almost a desert—a desolate, yucca-spiked prairie studded with tall grasses, mangrove, mesquite, and big thickets of prickly pear. The drive out is a boulevard of broken dreams: a roadside marker commemorating the last battle of the Civil War, a scattering of homes in a failed subdivision (Kopernik Shores, marketed to Polish immigrants from Chicago), the crumbling gates of another development that never got under way, and the most recent failure, Playa Del Rio, envisioned as a mega-resort of hotels and golf courses when it was announced in 1986. Now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns most of Boca Chica, as part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
In contrast to South Padre, the beach at Boca Chica is practically untamed. There are no shelters, no services, nothing but beach and sea and a few cars. I took my two sons there on a day trip from South Padre. It’s only a few hundred yards as the crow flies, but to get there you have to drive eighteen miles back to Brownsville, then toward Boca Chica on a shoulderless road. We turned right at the beach and followed it three miles to an impassable point where a lighthouse was positioned across an inlet. The lighthouse marked Playa Bagdad, the beach of Matamoros. The small inlet was the once-mighty Rio Grande, now less than 75 yards wide, a gentle stream running clear and cool enough to attract swimmers from both sides. The Spanish name Boca Chica was perfect; it means “little mouth.”
“That’s it?” the older boy asked incredulously. He’d expected a division more pronounced.
We found a spot at least a quarter of a mile from the nearest car. The beach was almost a hundred yards wide and bordered by a continuous row of dunes. The older boy went straight in with a Boogie Board in hand, while the younger boy squawked and hollered with pure joy, splashing around in the surf. I showed him how to bodysurf, diving with a breaking wave, arms extended forward, legs kicking. He picked it up right away.
For me, the respite from the crowds offered a chance to reconnect. I watched the younger one’s fascination with a dead man-of-war that had washed up on the beach and observed the older one studying the waves intently, waiting for just the rights sets and perhaps the perfect swell in the hope of making the most of what is, at best, a three-second thrill. After drying off, I wandered back into the dunes, hoping to scale one of the hills that looked taller and sturdier than those on South Padre. I was immediately besieged by a swarm of hungry deerflies, an experience that gave me a better understanding of the Karankawas, the fierce coastal tribe that smeared stinky alligator grease and dirt on their bodies to cultivate a foul and offensive body odor. Now I knew why.
Meanwhile, the older one had retreated to the water’s edge. “He’s not a kid anymore,” I thought to myself, as he busied himself in the sand, constructing a moat for a handful of tiny coquinas he’d dug out of the mud—only to have an errant wave sneak up and wash the whole thing away. I recognized his cry of disappointment as a mock one. He knew as well as I did that the ocean always takes back what it has given. At the beach you’re never too old to play in the sand.
The Scoop: Sea Rim
Getting there From Houston, take Interstate 10 east to Winnie, then Texas Highway 73 east to Port Arthur. Follow the signs to Sabine Pass and Texas Highway 87. From Galveston, take the Bolivar ferry to Highway 87, turn left at High Island on Texas Highway 124 to Winnie and follow directions above. The distance to Sea Rim on both routes is around one hundred miles.
Park info Entry fee: $2 per person. Beach lifeguard: No. Amenities The park headquarters (409-971-2559), raised on stilts on the beach, has restrooms, showers, and picnic tables; ice and bug spray for sale; and beach chairs and umbrellas for rent, as well as a small interpretive display.
Camping Twenty spaces are available for RVs in a paved campground east of the headquarters with electricity, running water, and a dump station, $10 per night; ten tent sites are located in an adjacent area with running water, grills, picnic tables, and a rinse shower, $7. Weekend reservations should be made at least three weeks in advance. Primitive camping is available on four raised wooden platforms in the marsh, accessible only by boat, with attached privy, $5 per night. Beach camping is allowed.
Activities Airboat tours Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., departing from Myers Point. Tours last about an hour. $13.50 adults, $8.50 for children ages 6 to 11. Reservations recommended. Canoe rentals: $15 full day, $10 half day. The visitors center and Gambusia Trail are wheelchair accessible.
Food and lodging None in the park. Sabine Pass, ten miles east, has a convenience store and the Channel Inn, an old-style seafood eatery featuring barbecued crab. The Olde Tyme Diner serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The chain motels in Port Arthur, a 23-mile drive from Sea Rim, include a Holiday Inn and a Ramada Inn.
Side trip Sabine Pass Battleground State Historical Park. Confederate troops led by Lieutenant Dick Dowling won a decisive victory here in 1863. The strategic importance of the pass, now surrounded by oil platforms and heavy industries, is underscored by the presence of concrete bunkers built during World War II. The Civil War battle is reenacted every September.
The Scoop: High Island
Getting there From Houston take I-10 east to Winnie, then turn right on Texas Highway 124; it’s eighteen miles to High Island. From Galveston take the Bolivar ferry to Texas Highway 87, then continue 28 miles to High Island.
Activities Birdwatching: The birds are not hard to find. There are two primary in-town sanctuaries, including Smith Oaks, around one hundred acres next to Birder’s Haven (admission $5 a day or $20 a year). Other popular spots are the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, near the Bolivar ferry landing, each less than half an hour away. Beachcombing: Possible but not desirable. Speeding vehicles are a hazard on the hard-packed sand, as are the many beer drinkers.
Food and lodging Dinner choices on the Bolivar Peninsula include De Coux’s and the Stingaree in Crystal Beach and the Bolivar Landing in Gilchrist. Inland, it’s Al T’s in Winnie. If you want something more than standard fare, you have to go to Galveston or Beaumont. Birder’s Haven Bed and Breakfast, at 2081 Winnie Street, sleeps eight (four beds), with full kitchen, large bath, and continental breakfast ($65 for two, $85 for three or more). Another house that sleeps up to eight is available on Seventh Street. For reservations and information, call 409-286-5362; at night 286-5321. The Gulfway motel is an alternative; its restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch during spring season only.
Side trips George E. Kahla’s Fresh Junk (pronounced KAY-luh), on the west side of Highway 124 in High Island. This is my choice for the most imaginative junk shop on the Texas Coast. At George’s urging, I bought a fake arm. The free ferry from Bolivar to Galveston provides a twenty-minute ride across Galveston Bay to Galveston. The ferry runs every twenty minutes. You can park and walk on or drive, but if you do the latter, remember that the lines can be long at peak hours.
The Scoop: Matagorda
Getting there The Texas Parks and Wildlife ferry departs from Port O’Connor. From the south, take Texas Highway 35 to Green Lake, then turn right onto Texas Highway 185 to Seadrift and continue to Port O’Connor. From the north or west, pick up Highway 185 in Victoria and proceed as before. Port O’Connor is approximately fifty miles from Victoria.
Park info Ferry service is once daily on Thursday and Friday, departing Port O’Connor at 9 a.m. and leaving Matagorda at 4 p.m., and twice daily on weekends, departing Port O’Connor at 8 and 10 a.m., leaving Matagorda at 2 and 4 p.m. No service Monday through Wednesday. The ferry carries a maximum of 47 passengers and reservations are strongly recommended. Call 512-983-2215. Fee for passage: $10, $5 under 12. Drinks, snacks, and microwave sandwiches are available for purchase. What to bring: Drinking water, food, provisions, and flashlight if staying overnight. Surfboards and bicycles are allowed on the ferry. Pets allowed on six-foot leashes. No boomboxes.
Camping Two campgrounds—Army Hole near the boat dock and the Beach Campground two miles away. The latter has two covered picnic tables. Fees: None. Reservations: Not needed. Fires: Permitted only in designated fire rings or in the tidal zone of the beach where there is no vegetation. Use of driftwood is permitted.
Activities Hiking, biking, fishing, and birdwatching are the main activities here. The park has eighty miles of roads, sand paths, designated trails, and beachfront. Do not attempt to go cross-country. More bird species have been recorded here than anywhere else in Texas. The visitors center display includes three aquarium tanks with silversides, hermit crabs, sand minnows, and Atlantic drills, and a collection of flotsam and jetsam that washed onto the beach, including driftwood from Brazil and a whale vertebra the size of a truck tire.
Food and lodging No food at the park, not even a vending machine; the nearest restaurant is Clark’s on the Intracoastal Canal in Port O’Connor. Two bunkhouses at the Air Force base have beds for rent. One has four rooms with four beds in each room. the other sleeps twelve in one room. You can rent a bed for $12. The bunkhouses have window AC units but otherwise are spartan accommodations. If you want privacy, you have to buy all four beds in a room ($48). Port O’Connor has the Sand Dollar and Port motels. In Seadrift the ten-room white clapboard Hotel Lafitte (512-785-2319) has been lovingly restored by innkeepers Frances and Weyman Harding. Staying there is like being a guest in someone’s home. Upstairs and downstairs porches have comfortable white rockers and sitting chairs with wonderful views of San Antonio Bay. No children under twelve allowed; a tolerance for teddy bears and lace required. A single room with shared bath rents for $60 a night, including a sumptuous breakfast and complimentary cake and cookies and wine on arrival.
Side trip The ruins of Indianola—one of Texas’ major nineteenth-century ports, wiped out by two hurricanes. From Seadrift, go north on Texas Highway 238 toward Port Lavaca, then east on Texas Highway 316 to Indianola.
The Scoop: Padre Island
Getting there Padre Island National Seashore is 30 miles from downtown Corpus Christi via Texas Highway 358 and Park Road 22 and 36 miles from Port Aransas via Texas Highway 361 to the park road.
Park info Admission: A seven-day pass is $10 per auto or $5 per individual hiker or bicyclist. Seniors may obtain a lifetime pass for $10. Disabled visitors are admitted free. Metal detectors, fireworks, loaded firearms, and nudity are not allowed. Pets are prohibited at Malaquite Beach but allowed elsewhere if leashed.
Camping Malaquite Beach has 47 sites for tent and RV camping, first come, first served. Primitive camping is permitted on the beach and at two locations on the Laguna Madre: Bird Island Basin, just east of the entrance gate, and Yarborough Pass, at milepost 15. All campers are limited to fourteen consecutive days.
Activities Malaquite Beach is Texas’ best. Umbrellas and Boogie Boards are for rent. Park rangers offer beachwalks and other evening programs; for information, call 512-949-8068. The Grasslands Nature Trail is a three-quarter-mile self-guided walk through dunes and grasses. The trailhead is just south of the entrance gate to the park. Bird Island Basin is a popular site for windsurfing. Launch fee: $5. No rentals. The visitors center has exhibits on the geology, wildlife, and history of Padre Island.
Food and lodging Rival seafood houses Frenchy’s and Snoopy’s are under the JFK causeway in Flour Bluff. A wider variety awaits in Corpus Christi. The only hotel on North Padre is a Holiday Inn. Condos are available on Padre and Mustang islands to the north; phone 800-678-6232 for availability. Many motels are located on South Padre Island Drive in Corpus Christi.
The Scoop: Boca Chica
Getting there Boca Chica beach is 22 miles east of Brownsville on Texas Highway 4.
Park info No entry fee. No lifeguard. No showers, no phone, no restrooms or privies. No straying behind the beach.
Activities The beach is one of the best in the state, as nice as South Padre except for more trash.
Food and lodging A van with “Hector’s Elotes” on the side was selling roasted corn, soft drinks, and frozen treats. Lodging is in Brownsville or South Padre.
Side trip Boca Chica is a side trip.