Needing a break from the day-to-day grind, my husband, Kit, and I recently decided to go to the coast for a long weekend. We hopped in the car on a late Thursday afternoon and headed down to Port Aransas, about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Austin. As soon as we were out of the city, the built-up tension began to recede. Ah, vacation.
I was a little skeptical the first time I visited Port Aransas a couple of years ago. I grew up down in the Valley and spent all of my summers at South Padre Island. I was convinced that Port Aransas wouldnt compare. Wrong. I fell in love with the place immediately. The faded wood beach houses, quaint T-shirt shops, and small-town feel reminded me of the old days at South Padre, before the high-rise condos and the thousands of tourists. This trip wasnt any different. We always stay at the historic Tarpon Inn on Cotter. First built in 1886 by Frank Stephenson, a boat pilot and assistant lighthouse keeper, the inn has gone through many hands and incarnations. It has been a landmark for more than a century, and some famous people have stayed there, including FDR, who fished in Port Aransas in 1937 (his signed fish scale is on the wall in the lobby), and baker Duncan Hines. Today the structure houses 24 rooms: no phones, no televisions, no distractions. Each room opens onto the long covered porch, with rocking chairs for reading and chatting.
After an early-morning walk on Saturday, we went to Island Cafe on Cotter for breakfast. This down-home spot serves up good, strong coffee and mainstays like eggs over easy, hashbrowns, bacon, and homemade biscuits. And the price is right. Dont worry about lingering too long, refills abound while patrons read the local paper. Next we decided to hit the sand. We had never been to Malaquite Beach, which is about 25 miles away, and made our way there, passing the few condos on Mustang Island outside of town and the causeway to Corpus. Malaquite Beach is a beautiful area of Padre Island National Seashore that prohibits vehicles on the beach. The visitors center has a good information area in addition to showers and chair rentals. Since we arrived early in the morning and it was March, there werent too many people out and about, but the ranger at the visitors center said that during the summer, Malaquite is definitely happening. We took the opportunity to drive down Padre Islands South Beach (you can go only 5 miles in a vehicle without four-wheel drive, beyond that point, youll need it for the remaining 55 miles along the national seashore until you hit the Mansfield cut).
We decided to head back to Port A to find the ferry to San Jose Island (locals call it St. Jo Island). It didnt take us long to find Woodys Sports Center on Cotter. We purchased our tickets for the ferry ($9.95 a piece) and headed to Destination on South Alister to buy chairs and sunscreen (youd think we would have remembered to pack these items, but we didnt). Then we went back to Woodys and hung out on the dock, watching the fishing boats come in while we waited for the ferry to depart. The trip over didnt take long, about ten or fifteen minutes. We got off at the pier and walked along a concrete wall to the Gulf. I was surprised at all of the trashplastic bottles, shoes, beer cans, you name it. But once we rounded the tip of the island and walked along the shore, the trash cleared. We planted our chairs inside the dunes because it was so windy and began reading. All we could hear were seagulls and the sea breeze whistling. After about an hour, we got up and walked around. One of the other passengers on the ferry had told us that we could walk to the fence, but beyond that was off-limits. The island is owned by the Bass family and they use it for running cattle. The water was cold but felt good under my feet. Soon Kit began to notice shells. All of a sudden there were lots of them, and they were pretty. I immediately told him that I hoped to find a sand dollar because I had never found one. He said he hadnt either. The search was on. It didnt take long for him to find one. Then I did. We reached the fence and turned around. The clouds were beginning to block the sun and the wind had picked up, so we started back. We barely had time to gather our things before the ferry arrived to pick us up.
When we returned to Woodys, we were starved. Virginias on the Bay is right down the street (across from the Tarpon), so we went there to enjoy the view of the harbor. The place was packed and the food was good. The shrimp poorboy sandwich really hit the spot (so did the cold Coors Light). Kit wanted to go jogging, so we went back to the Tarpon and I snuggled into one of the rocking chairs and got in a few more chapters of my book.
After a long nap, it was time to get ready for dinner. We had made reservations at Beulahs, which is behind the Tarpon Inn. The night was perfect; the wind had died down and it was just a tad bit chilly. We had asked for a table outside and were promptly seated at one with a superb view of the courtyard. The ambience couldnt have gotten any better: We were sitting on the lovely porch of building that was constructed in 1904, sipping delicious pinot noir, and talking about our wonderful day at the beach. Our waiter was French, and we asked him how in the world he landed in Port A. He followed a girl, they married, and they settled there. Long live romance. Our entrées of the pecan-crusted amberjack and the duck were superb. We lingered over coffee. Right when we paid the tab and got up to leave, the wind picked up and a cold front blew in. We rushed over to the Other Guys, a nearby restaurant owned by Guy Carnathan, who also owns Beulahs. We had a nightcap and talked to some locals about the real estate market in Port Aransas. We discovered that property prices were going sky-high. So much for Port A staying undiscovered.
Sunday morning we checked out and went to Beemans on Beach Street for coffee. They had enclosed the patio since our last visit, but not much else had changed. I hate to say it, but the coffee at Beemans isnt that great. We come here for the fantastic cinnamon rolls and the atmosphere. Locals ride their bikes, grab some coffee and a roll, and shoot the hay. Beach Street is a funky little street that is home to restaurants, retail shops, the Port Aransas Community Theatre, and brightly painted houses. While Kit read the paper, I snuck into Pat Stones Silver Fox Trading Company next door to see what they had for sale. The jewelry, dresses, and knickknacks caught my eye, but I purchased a pair of flip-flops instead. A real beach buy.
Even though we didnt want to leave, we knew our weekend was coming to an end and drove over to the ferry (the car ferry that travels between Port Aransas and Aransas Pass is free and open 24 hours; it should not to be confused with the ferry to San Jose Island). We took our time getting back to Austin, hoping to make our relaxing weekend last forever. Well be back.