In Port Aransas, idleness is next to godliness for those on vacation. In this unpretentious village on the northern tip of Mustang Island your most exacting task—picking out the perfect spot on the beach—will also be the most rewarding. Who cares if the sand isn’t pristine (this is Texas, after all), the water doesn’t look as if it’s been poured out of a Brita filter (though thankfully the shores have been spared from the BP disaster so far), and many of the inns are a bit weatherworn (we’ll call them quaint). With each brightly colored beach house and barefoot pedestrian you pass, you can feel the town’s laid-back vibe working its voodoo on you. Spend the week resetting your mental equilibrium as you get lost in leisurely pursuits: fishing in the bays, shelling on a private island, birding in the Central Flyway, browsing quirky boutiques, feasting on fresh seafood—or just being a beach bum. Sitting on the shore and surveying the endless blue horizon as the tumbling surf kisses your toes is, at the end of the day, as relaxing an endeavor as you could ask for.
Where to Stay
Sunset at Cinnamon Shore
If I were a Port A native, I too would probably bemoan the master-planned beachfront communities along Texas Highway 361. But as a harried traveler, renting one of these posh hideaways for a week is a luxury worth springing for. At Cinnamon Shore, a palmy new enclave about ten minutes from “downtown,” you can take a dip in the infinity-edge community pool, kayak in one of the two freshwater lakes, or simply stroll down the dune crossover to a secluded stretch of beach (bicycles, beach chairs, and umbrellas are available to rent) before coming home to barbecue in the backyard and watch a saffron sunset from your porch.
Where to Eat
The grouper at the Pelican Club
In many towns this size (population: 3,370), the most palatable dining option is a Dairy Queen. But here you’ll find staggeringly good restaurants around every corner. At Bundys, a family-owned coffee bar and bistro, fuel up for a day of loafing with a vanilla-spice chai latte and some triple-custard bread pudding, which qualifies as breakfast, since it’s made with cinnamon rolls. Come lunchtime, don’t even attempt to resist Inferno at Liberty Hall’s ahi tuna burger with soy-balsamic pickles and ginger mayo. But try to burn a few calories before dinner so you can give in to the temptation of crabmeat enchiladas at the funky La Playa Mexican Grille or the clementine oil—infused baked flounder at the fancy Venetian Hot Plate (call ahead to reserve a slice of Mom’s blink-and-it’s-gone homemade lasagna, served only on Saturdays). Or better yet, save yourself for the cornmeal-dusted grouper at the classy Pelican Club and dine alfresco on the wraparound patio overlooking the harbor. But leave room for the walnut-studded caramel from Winton‘s Candies.
What To Do
A surfer near Horace Caldwell Pier
Locals with longboards strapped to the tops of their cars are likely en route to Horace Caldwell Pier. The sandbars that run beneath the 1,240-foot structure help create waves that are shapely enough that surf heroes get a thrill but not so big that beginners don’t stand a chance. Spicoli wannabes can call Texas Surf Camps, run by Port A native Morgan Faulkner, to set up a private lesson. By the end of my hour-long session I was catching my own waves, though not before I went diving for pearls a few times. After rinsing off at the outdoor showers, grab a post-wipeout burger at Barnacle Bill’s, the greasy spoon on the pier.
At Woody’s Sports Center—a bait-and-tackle headquarters that sells necessities like fishing licenses and beer—you can charter a private boat or employ a guide who’ll take you out to stalk redfish in the shallows or catch pompano in the surf. If you’ve got grander game fish in your sights, like yellowfin tuna or amberjack, head to Fisherman’s Wharf. This full-service marina is the launch point for the popular Wharf Cat and Scat Cat catamarans, which will take you on an offshore adventure fifty miles out.
Of all the migratory species that swoop into Port Aransas—the white-bellied landlubbers, the squawking spring breakers, the snowy winter Texans—none are welcomed as openly as the avian visitors that roost in the marshes at the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. The boardwalk and 25-foot observation tower are open daily, but show up on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. for a free guided tour. I spotted nearly two dozen species, including roseate spoonbills and a black-crowned night heron, a feat I attributed to beginner’s luck, until I learned that more than a hundred species have been observed here in a single day.
San Jose Island—or St. Jo, as the locals call it—isn’t a well-guarded secret, but no one who takes the $12 ferry ride over to this privately owned gem will want to blab about its charms. I was secretly perturbed when four other passengers arrived at Fisherman’s Wharf at the last minute and loaded the Jetty Boat with me, but by the time we arrived, a swift eight minutes later, I had softened: I guess I could share 21 miles of untouched coastline with four other people. I spent the next hour scanning, stooping, and scooping up exquisite seashells. The only structures I saw on St. Jo were sand castles, so bring more than enough water and snacks in case you “miss” the ferry, like I did, and have to wait another hour or two for the next ride back (the boat makes ten round-trips a day).
What To Bring Back
If you don’t know a wentletrap from an auger, plunk down a few bucks for a pocket-size guide, like Seashells of the World, which I picked up at the Islander, one of Port A’s kitschy souvenir bazaars.
Port Aransas Directory
From Alister, turn onto Beach (on Horace Caldwell Pier);
112 E. White,
5009 Texas Hwy. 361,
Rates start at $250 a night.
Horace Caldwell Pier
From Alister, turn onto Beach;
Inferno at Liberty Hall
106 E. Cotter Ave.,
La Playa Mexican Grille
Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center
At the south end of Ross Ave., behind the trolley stop;
San Jose Island
Purchase tickets at Fisherman’s Wharf, at 900 Tarpon;
Texas Surf Camps
At Horace Caldwell Pier,
Venetian Hot Plate
Woody’s Sports Center
136 W. Cotter Ave.,