If you have to be outside during the summertime (and, increasingly, even the early fall) in Texas, it’s preferable—necessary, even—to be by a body of water. In July, I escaped the brutal heat of San Antonio to a beach town that is quintessentially Texan, a place that offers the perfect balance of beauty, charm, and art, situated about thirty miles from Corpus Christi. No, I am not talking about Port Aransas. My trip was to Rockport, the artsy, underrated, just-developed-enough, feet-up/stress-down paradise of piers connected to the mainland by the Copano Bay Causeway.
Often named on lists of the best places to retire, Rockport has about 11,000 residents who enjoy a mild climate, relatively low cost of living, and laid-back beach culture. The town’s partially sheltered location on a peninsula usually protects it from the worst of the Gulf’s winds. Known for its many events throughout the year, Rockport doesn’t miss a chance to celebrate, and for good reason. Twice, Mother Nature has come close to wiping the town right off the map. In 1919, a hurricane pummeled the area, leaving 357 people dead. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey took aim directly on Rockport and neighboring Fulton, leaving the region without power for weeks. A year later, some residents were still displaced. Each time, the town was rebuilt, its residents growing in resilience with every brick laid and building reconstructed.
That community spirit is especially evident during the annual Rockport Arts Festival. Since its founding in 1969, the celebration of artisans and their craft has drawn creators and collectors from across the state and even the world. Handmade pottery, jewelry, and photography are among the myriad high-quality items for sale. The winner of this year’s coveted “Master Artist” title was Kent Ullberg, who hails from Sweden and creates intricate wildlife sculptures in bronze and stainless steel. During the festival’s first weekend in July, I enjoyed strolling the tents while a harbor breeze kept the humidity from packing too harsh a punch. The entertainment tent served drinks and food, and a local band played country music, making for a relaxing pit stop between tents. This is a happy event. Serious shoppers can spring for a $15 two-day VIP pass, which allows you to enter an hour early and beat the crowds.
Every September, nature lovers gather for the HummerBird Celebration, which marks its thirty-fifth year this September 14 to 17 at the Rockport Center for the Arts. Hop on a bus, boat, or hayride tour to see hummers and other migrating birds, join a nature photography class, or browse bedazzled jewelry and artworks celebrating Texas’s tiniest feathered friends.
A little later this fall is the fan-favorite Rockport-Fulton Seafair, a family-friendly event complete with a carnival, a parade, live entertainment, and plenty of food. Located at the harbor, the Seafair will celebrate its forty-eighth year this October 6 to 8. Admission is $20 for a three-day pass. Foodies might prefer to visit in March, when Rockport hosts the popular Taste of Rockport-Fulton, featuring seasonal dishes from local restaurants alongside beer, wine, and live and silent auctions.
Sunsets here are legendary, and there’s no better way to enjoy them than on a patio facing the water with a breeze and a cocktail. My cocktail and patio combination was perfect at the Laguna Reef condos, which sit across from a private pier (my favorite fishing base) and a small sandy shoreline. It’s not great for swimming, but it was still nice to stroll. Rates start at around $88 a night.
For a more refined stay, consider the boutique Lighthouse Inn, where each of the 78 rooms boasts a private balcony with unabashedly beautiful views of the bay. Or if you’re looking to stay within the walkable downtown, the Angel Rose Bed and Breakfast, a lemon-yellow Victorian confection of a house built in 1881, gives off a romantic turn-of-the-century vibe for $230 a night.
RV parks are popular in Rockport, and Copano Bay is a top choice. Featuring cabins and campsites as well as RV spots, the resort boasts spacious, manicured grounds, direct bay access for fishing and kayaking, and a pool. Rates start at $69 a night. Another choice is the hip, new Reel-Chill RV Resort, which travelers have praised for its ample amenities, such as a dog park, resort-style pool, and clubhouse. Rates start at $70 a night.
A highlight of any trip I take is browsing the local shops, and there are a few gems in Rockport. I spent an entire afternoon strolling through the funky downtown, watching the fishing boats pull in and out of the harbor. At the Sea Shell Shoppe, the oldest-running gift shop in Rockport, my daughter negotiated the purchase of several shiny treasures before settling on two she was particularly drawn to. We ate a lunch of fried shrimp at the Poor Man’s Country Club before doing some early Christmas shopping at the charming Coast & Cottage, where big, farmhouse-style tables display coastal knickknacks and handmade soaps. I made sure to stop at the incomparably fun Rowdy Maui, where I bought a tea towel proclaiming me the “World’s Okay-est Mom” (I believe the shell purchase proved otherwise, but still). Buildings damaged by Harvey have been beautifully restored, so much so that it was hard to imagine the destruction that took place here six years ago. Clearly, this place has heart.
The town’s cultural hub, the Rockport Center for the Arts, has educational workshops for kids and adults, a Free Family Saturday event with crafts, and a sculpture garden featuring works from acclaimed sculptors Kent Ullberg, Sandy Scott, and Jesús Moroles. More of their work, and that of other Gulf Coast artists, can be found at several other studios, including WindWay Studio-Gallery and Moon Over Water Gallery.
Dine + Drink
Unsurprisingly, Rockport has no shortage of seafood restaurants. But for a down-home breakfast, including the most delicious homemade biscuits I’ve tasted, get a seat at the Bakery Cafe on Texas Highway 35. Our waitress, who moved to the area from Denton a year ago, served us coffee in kitschy mugs from locales around the globe. She reminded me of a coastal Carrie Underwood, bright and cheery. We got the standard pancakes and bacon and eggs, all of which were tasty, and on our way out, a sign on the wall reminded us to “work hard and be nice.”
For lunch, follow the crowds of locals who frequent the Apple Dumpling Deli. Tucked in an unassuming brick building near the harbor, the deli sells freshly baked cookies and a killer Reuben sandwich. It’s usually crowded, so be ready to wait. The sandwiches are worth it, though, for $10–20.
My favorite dinner in Rockport can be found at Latitude 28° 02′, which doubles as an art gallery. For twenty years, Craig and Ramona Day have run the place, although the hurricane almost closed Latitude’s door for good. Thankfully, we can still enjoy a crab chalupa, blueberry mojitos, and some crispy shrimp rolls.
For seafood with a view, the lively Paradise Key Dockside Bar and Grill is a popular choice. The food is ordinary enough, but it’s hard to mess up fried shrimp. The coconut shrimp is particularly popular. Come for the location and dog-friendly policy; my border collie loved lounging at our feet while we ate.
If you aren’t in the mood for seafood, a modest little joint called Los Camales, located off West Market Street on Highway 35, serves up delicious fajitas and cold margaritas, which are practically a requirement for a positive review in South Texas, so plentiful is our delicious Mexican food. Try this place out for sure.
For swimming or playing with kids, you’d be mistaken to miss Rockport Beach, named the state’s first “Blue Wave Beach.” That designation celebrates the fact that it’s very clean, accessible to those with disabilities, and has gentle, swimmable water. There are also cabanas, several playground areas, and great birding opportunities. There are restricted nesting sites nearby for not only gulls and terns, but for black skimmers as well, so keep your binoculars handy. All this plus the gentle waves and easy, affordable parking ($10 a day, and $40 for a year-long pass), make Rockport Beach one of the best beaches in the state.
But perhaps the most quintessentially Rockport-Fulton activity is fishing. Warm Gulf waters and the estuaries of Aransas Bay make it a good environment for a variety of species, such as redfish, black drum, and speckled trout. Make a trip to nearby Goose Island State Park, home to one of the largest live oaks in the United States, and check out the Fulton Fishing Pier, often praised as one of the best fishing piers in the state. Camping is popular at Goose Island, and with 126 sites, you are likely to find a spot. But the shoreline has concrete bulkheads and oyster shells, which are not friendly on your feet; don’t make this your swimming spot.
If you happen to visit Rockport during a rainy weekend, as I did last March, there’s still plenty to do. A tour of the Fulton Mansion State Historic Site, an architectural wonder built in 1874 by George Ware Fulton on Aransas Bay, took me back in time. A designated state historical landmark, the four-story Second Empire building was a modern feat when it was constructed, complete with indoor plumbing and central heat. Today, the mansion is a popular venue for weddings and events, since it offers 360-degree views of the water.
Before undertaking the three-hour drive back to San Antonio, we stopped by the Texas Maritime Museum, appropriately located on Navigation Circle. Full of angling artifacts, exhibits, and books on pirates and maritime exploration, the modestly sized museum entertained our kids for about an hour, but not much more. It’s still fun, though.
On the drive home from Rockport, our car’s air conditioner stopped working, and our family of four (plus border collie) spent the next three hours with the windows rolled down, conversation an impossibility. I got to thinking that this state is trying to slowly kill me with its long summers of never-ending heat and air as heavy as a wet blanket. But there is proof that Texas loves us in laid-back, welcoming places like Rockport, where no one seems to try too hard. This is coastal living as it should be. I think that towns like Rockport make Texas life worth living.