NO ONE HAS EVER ACCUSED the city of Port Arthur of being cute or mistaken it for a vacation paradise. It is home to one of the largest oil refinery and petrochemical complexes on earth, a place where rusting inventories of offshore oil rigs are stacked alongside hulking tankers and where tank farms disappear into gumbo swamps. At night the plants look unearthly: a science-fiction writer’s nightmare of a prison colony on the outer moons of Jupiter. This is not a place that beckons to the casual tourist. This is a place that says: Put your head down, flip the air conditioner to “recirc,” and drive on toward something that looks more inviting.
But if you did that, you would be missing something. Port Arthur, in fact, is just a hop, skip, and a couple of dozen petroleum-processing facilities away from one of the most extraordinary natural areas in the state. It is the gateway to some of the loveliest, most pristine land in Texas. Just a few miles south of the refineries is a vast coastal plain that contains prairies, saltwater and freshwater marshes, lakes, horizon-spanning wildlife refuges, a coastal state park, bird sanctuaries, miles of sandy beaches, the greatest concentration of alligators in the state, and few resident human beings. It is one of the best places in the country to see wildlife and draws thousands of foreign visitors. That is because the Texas coast is on something called the Central Flyway, a broad, hourglass-shaped migratory flight path that extends from Alaska to South America. More than three hundred species of birds stop here on their way south or north, and the best months to see them are March and April. We’re talking a whole lotta birds: flocks of hummingbirds so dense they blot out the sun, 80,000 snow geese rising at the same moment from a rice field, a marsh at dawn full of bright pink roseate spoonbills, hundreds of thousands of birds dropping out of the sky at the same time.
This section of coastal plain stretches roughly from Port Bolivar on the east side of Galveston Bay to Big Lake (Calcasieu Lake) in Louisiana, and if you go, you can choose to spend the night in Port Arthur. You can get to this part of Texas by turning south from Interstate 10 when you smell the giant ExxonMobil refinery in Beaumont. You can also go another route entirely and do what my wife, my daughter, and I did: Head south from Houston to Galveston and take the free ferry over to the Bolivar Peninsula, where all the fun stuff starts. This route not only avoids the refineries (which you will be seeing soon enough anyway) but also has the added advantage of providing an excuse to spend the night at Galveston’s renovated ninety-year-old grande dame, the Hotel Galvez, and to eat dinner at Gaido’s restaurant on the seawall. You can also, in preparation for the Great Outdoors, eat breakfast at the excellent Dutch Kettle, a high-class dive that immediately tells you that you have crossed into the Koffee Creme Belt. The belt is characterized by restaurants where you can watch a man eat a plate of food containing at least 40,000 calories—washed down with a handful of beers and seasoned with five or six Viceroys—then daintily put several containers of nondairy creamer into his coffee. Half-and-half, you see, is bad for your cardiovascular system. Other than the Koffee Creme, the Dutch Kettle’s food is heinously caloric and very good.
But I digress. Once you have crossed Galveston Bay on the Bolivar ferry—a salty, scenic fifteen-minute ride tailor-made for eight-year-olds during which we saw dozens of dolphins and had to dodge several huge ships—head east on Texas Highway 87, north on Texas Highway 124, and west on FM 1985 to the 34,000-acre Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. This is a flat, strikingly beautiful expanse of coastal plain that looks at first like a giant marshland. It is really a combination of freshwater and saltwater marshes, lakes, meandering bayous, and dry prairie. Unlike national parks, the first objective of national wildlife refuges is conservation. Public access comes second. But Anahuac is exceptionally visitor-friendly, from its helpful rangers to its twelve miles of graveled roads.
Along those roads you will see a spectacular variety of animal life. This place is known mainly as a mecca for birders, who arrive here en masse in the spring to watch the stunning northern migrations. But it is also a wonderful place just to be outdoors among the cordgrass and bulrushes and cane thickets. I would not know a pied-billed grebe if one sat down next to me and whistled “Melancholy Baby,” but I loved taking the two-and-a-half-mile loop (you can drive or walk) around Shoveler Pond, which was just crammed with spoonbills, mottled ducks, egrets, herons, coots, snow geese, shrikes, meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, and black-necked stilts as well as the ever-present gators. In all, 279 species of birds pass through Anahuac. Other wildlife-viewing spots include a stand of trees known as the Willows, world-famous in the birding community, and the hackberry woodlands of the East Bay Bayou, located a few miles down the road from the visitors center. At its western end the refuge borders Galveston Bay and offers some of the best wade-fishing in Texas. There is also a boat ramp. Abundant fish include speckled trout, southern flounder, and redfish. (You will want to bring insect repellent with you on most days, even in winter. That sound you hear outside your door at night is not the Beaumont Symphony Orchestra tuning up; it is the hum produced by millions of Oldsmobile-size mosquitoes.)
From Anahuac, we doubled back to the coast to visit another birding paradise with excellent walks, an elevated cluster of wooded uplands in the otherwise pancake-flat marsh known as High Island. High Island isn’t an island at all; it is actually a tiny town on a raised part of the marsh. High Island boasts four bird sanctuaries, all owned by the Houston Audubon Society, where you can witness one of the more unusual natural phenomena in the area, called a “fallout.” This happens from mid-March to mid-May, when millions of birds are making the six-hundred-mile, eighteen-hour crossing of the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatán. If the weather is not good, or if the winds are adverse, the exhausted birds literally “fall out” of the sky as soon as they reach land. Tens of thousands of perching birds are likely to end up in the trees around High Island. (Dry, wooded sites in this area, such as the Sabine Woods sanctuary near Sabine Pass and the Willows at Anahuac, are usually good places to view a fallout.)
If you want to get out into the marsh, the best place to go is Sea Rim State Park, about 22 miles south of Port Arthur. This is one of the most pleasant places on this stretch of coast. There is an immaculate section of beach where four-wheel-drive vehicles are prohibited, the campsites are clean and grassy, and a nifty marsh walk takes you on a twenty-minute stroll through marsh grasses and bayous. But the real attraction here for the casual tourist is the boating. From March through November, you can take a heart-stopping, 35-mile-per-hour airboat ride deep into the heart of the coastal wilderness where, miles away from anything, you can watch ibis and great white egrets fishing and three-foot-long redfish thrashing in the shallows. You can also rent a canoe and head into the marsh yourself. If you do, there is the added thrill of knowing that occasionally tourists are dragged shrieking to their death from such canoes by the park’s hungry alligators. Okay, I made that up. But there is a real, visceral charge in seeing a seven-foot gator at close range on the bank of a marsh.
If you decide you like the coastal plains, you can cross over into the Louisiana outback, where the huge Sabine National Wildlife Refuge spreads over 124,511 acres and offers a 1.5-mile marsh walk. There is also a 26-mile-long chain of beaches that runs along the south side of Louisiana Highway 82—the so-called Coonass Riviera (“coonass” refers to the Cajun residents). Of these, Holly Beach is the most famous, mostly as a place where local young people go in their pickup trucks to consume vast quantities of beer. Be forewarned, too, that there is an extremely low cuteness quotient here. Though there are few oil-related industries in southwestern Louisiana, you would still not confuse this stretch of coast with Cape Cod. Nor do the locals want to make it look like Cape Cod, the theory being that if they gussied it up, then they’d get a lot of plush-bottomed personal-injury lawyers from Houston driving late model Teutonic sedans and pushing land prices up and installing Starbucks and Jamba Juices and, presto, no more Coonasses. And who wants that? But the beaches are wide and long and empty, with good fishing, shelling, and swimming.
I recommend staying in Port Arthur, partly because there is nowhere down on the coastal marsh to stay (unless you camp at Sea Rim) and partly because it is a friendly, eager-to-please sort of place with a bunch of comfortable, newish hotels. There is another reason too. The city is just a few miles from a different kind of wetland: a cypress swamp of the sort that pervades much of East Texas. The Blue Elbow Swamp, as it is known, is a wild area of the Sabine River Basin on the north side of Sabine Lake. We took a tour out of Orange with a colorful guide named Eli Tate who runs an outfit called Adventures 2000+. Tate is a biologist, and he is also a clever man. He painted his boats white to distinguish them from the boats on the swamp that are likely to be hunting alligators so the creatures would not disappear as soon as he came around the bend. It worked. The alligators now recognize the boats and can be bribed with marshmallows (also white, in keeping with the theme) to come right up to their gunwales. After two days of hanging out in close proximity to gators, this was the closest we got.
The final reason to visit this part of the country—and this has nothing to do with being outdoors—is the barbecued crabs, which become more plentiful with the warmer weather. As far as I know, this is a regional cuisine whose range extends no more than 75 miles from Port Arthur. You can get them at three good Cajun restaurants: Esther’s in Port Arthur, Al-T’s in Winnie, and the Shrimp Dock in Sabine Pass. They are not really barbecued: They are cleaned, gilled, loaded up with spices, and then deep-fried. Like the rest of this oddball part of Texas, they are like nothing else I have ever experienced.
Parks and refuges:
Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, 409-267-3337; friendsofanahuacnwr.org.
High Island, 713-932-1639; houstonaudubon.org.
Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, 337-762-3816;creolenaturetrail.org.
Sea Rim State Park, 409-971-2559 (park office) or 512-389-8900 (camping); www.tpwd.state.tx.us.Accommodations: Holiday Inn Park Central, Port Arthur, 409-724-5000.
Hotel Galvez, Galveston, 281-480-2640. Restaurants: Al-T’s, Winnie, 409-296-9818.
Dutch Kettle, Galveston, 409-765-6761.
Esther’s Cajun Seafood and Oyster Bar, Port Arthur, 409-962-6268.
Gaido’s, Galveston, 409-762-9625.
Shrimp Dock, Sabine Pass, 409-971-0014. Swamp Tours: Adventures 2000+, Orange, 409-988-9342.