On a summer day, there’s nothing better than the ocean. Unless you’re sharing it with a teeming throng of thonged humanity. So this hot season, skip the South Padre scene (unless you’re into that kind of thing) and head for the charming coastal enclave of Rockport. Flanked by Copano and Aransas bays, the fifteen-square-mile town is as cozy as the rooms at the waterfront Lighthouse Inn and the historic Hoopes House. Rockport offers exactly what you’re looking for when you feel the first stirrings of a beach vacation coming on: it’s pedestrian-friendly (multiple shops and restaurants line South Austin Street, the main shopping strip), and the holy trinity of any trip to the coast—clean sand, cool water, and crispy fried seafood—is in full effect. But I recommend organizing a trip to Rockport around another trio of pleasures: nature, art, and history.
Hundreds of whooping cranes migrate to the peninsula every fall, attracting a flock of binoculared ornithophiles for some of the nation’s best birding. Come summer, the knowledgeable Captain Tommy Moore turns his Serious Birders’ Tour Boat into a dolphin charter, bringing you within feet of Atlantic bottlenoses as they tail local shrimping boats, trying to get an easy meal. Bring a rod to try catching your own free meal off Copano Bay Fishing Pier. And if majestic dolphins and fishing fail to put life in perspective, take stock at the millennium-old Big Tree, at Goose Island State Park, or the grove of windswept live oaks—nature’s comb-over—on South Fulton Beach Road.
The Rockport Center for the Arts, in a renovated Victorian, was founded in the 1890’s as a collective for like-minded artists. That sense of community remains: the center not only has contemporary-exhibition rooms but also two front galleries dedicated to works by members. Eclectic pieces fill the several small galleries dotting South Austin Street, like the Estelle Stair Gallery, housed in a restored old brick building. But the finest example of kitschy coastal art in Texas isn’t in a gallery but at the entrance to Rockport Beach Park, where the hermaphroditic Big Blue Crab, a 25-by-27-foot fiberglass sculpture of a male crab with female claws, stands guard.
When U.S. Army commander Zachary Taylor’s ship ran aground in Rockport, in 1845, his troops slept under what is now called the Zachary Taylor Oak. But the shadow of nineteenth-century cattleman George W. Fulton looms larger. His home, the Fulton Mansion, is a stunning example of French Second Empire architecture and one of the first houses in the area to have indoor plumbing and central heat. Fulton also brought international commerce to the town, a history that’s explored in depth at the Texas Maritime Museum, which details the creation of the still-integral Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Texas Navy.