Until around 1910, the sweet and salty coastal town of Port Aransas went by the name Tarpon, because of the abundance of the big, torpedo-
shaped fish that once attracted droves of anglers to Mustang Island. Although tarpon mostly disappeared from these waters decades ago—these days you’re more likely to catch redfish, red snapper, or trout—you can still find signs of the mighty Megalops atlanticus here.
At the historic Tarpon Inn, silver-dollar-size scales from trophies caught locally (including one that President Franklin D. Roosevelt reeled in during a trip to Texas in 1937) cover an entire wall in the lobby. The nearby Port Aransas Museum devotes an exhibit to the tarpon heyday, which lasted from the 1880s to the 1950s. You can sit in the back half of the Manny, the twin sister of the boat from which Roosevelt caught his prize.
These kinds of connections to its past give Port A a nostalgic charm even as it continues to rebound from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey five years ago and develops into a more modern resort destination.
Dine + Drink
Start at Coffee Waves for a latte and a muffin, but come back later to sample some of the eighteen flavors of house-made gelato. After a day of fishing, head to stalwart Fins Grill & Icehouse, where you can watch boats in the harbor while someone else cooks up the whopper you reeled in. If it wasn’t your lucky day, just order from the extensive menu. Dive into Italian fare ranging from classic pastas to seafood specials at Venetian Hot Plate, opened by Italian transplants Linda and Maurice Halioua in 1995. Or pick up a gourmet pie at Dylan’s Coal Oven Pizzeria, at Cinnamon Shore.
See + Do
Grab a beach bike from Island Surf Rentals ($15–$25 for the day) and then hop on the Jetty Boat ($18 round trip for adults, $9 ages six to twelve) for a ten-minute ride to uninhabited San José Island, ideal for solitary cycling. At sunrise, zip over to the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center and stroll the boardwalk to observe the feathery locals. Keep an eye out for Boots, the resident alligator. (Bird lovers should also consider the two-hour drive to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the winter habitat for endangered whooping cranes.) A $5 million renovation of the Patton Marine Science Education Center, featuring eight aquariums filled with native marine life, is set to be unveiled in October.
It’s tradition to take a photo as you step through the gaping jaws of the giant shark to enter Mirage, where you’ll find the usual souvenir shop array of swimsuits, shells, and T-shirts. Remember your trip with a painting from the Port Aransas Art Center, which also has a gift shop offering pottery, wind chimes, and more artwork.
I slept like I’d sunk down to Davy Jones’s Locker (in a good way, of course) in one of the 24 rooms at the Tarpon Inn, which started as a military barrack used by Union forces during the Civil War, then sat empty until reopening as a hotel in 1886. Just south of town, newer and more upscale accommodations include the luxury rentals at the ever-expanding Cinnamon Shore community, a pastel paradise by the sea.
This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Retro Lure of Port Aransas.” Subscribe today.