Time seems to stop when you get 4 days on the beach
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
PORT ARANSAS — There’s something very therapeutic about getting in the car Monday morning as you head back to work and see sandy footprints remaining on your floor mats. It’s a reminder that while your trip to the beach may be over, it is still with you in many ways.
My wife, Elizabeth, and I had grand plans for our short May escape, first talking about hiking Palo Duro Canyon in the Panhandle, then considering a five-stop tour of Central Texas state parks.
The problem was, while we love to hike, we also enjoy the chance sometimes to just escape everything. This, we decided, was one of those times, and for us, the best escape on short notice without too much fanfare is Port Aransas.
We generally only go in the offseason, actually spending a week between Christmas and New Year’s Day there one year, so we can avoid the crowds and call the beach our own. We always pack a lot into the trip and this four-day version was no exception, highlighted by great food, some familiar places and lots of time simply watching the waves roll in.
Every trip to Port Aransas begins with the ceremonial beginning of the coastal experience. Unless you reach the city from the south, which means driving first to Corpus Christi, getting to the island requires a ferry ride. The line can be long on weekends but moves fairly quickly with as many as four boats working at a time. The ride is free, and lasts about two minutes, but it is in that two minutes crossing the channel that you realize you are entering another world, where your watch is expendable and your schedule is suddenly lost.
The four-hour drive from Central Texas to Port Aransas is also much more enjoyable as you make your way south on US 183 through Lockhart, Gonzales, Goliad and Cuero, rather than the long, honestly boring, drive from San Antonio down US 281 and IH 69.
Our favorite destination during each trip is San Jose Island. The uninhabited, private island sits just north of Port Aransas across the channel and stretches 23 miles along the coast. It is open for visitors but can only be reached by boat. The boat ride is $12 for adults and $6 for children and leaves Port Aransas every hour or two throughout the day, offering trips to and from the island.
There are no bathrooms, there is no food and there is no shade that you don’t bring with you. But what it offers in return is the most easily accessible undisturbed coastline in Texas. San Jose Island is famous for shell collecting, and having grown up going to Galveston, I found the chance to pick up starfish, sand dollars and good-sized, whole shells to be almost unbelievable.
The island is a great place to catch the sunrise if you can make the first boat at 6:30 a.m., and enjoy a beach with fewer than a dozen other people. We rent a cart and load up our cooler, chairs and an umbrella and trek up and down the beach for hours until we decide it is time to come back. On this trip we logged just over six miles total walking on the beach, occasionally stopping to sit back and enjoy the peace and quiet.
There are plenty of other opportunities to enjoy the beach and nature along the coast, all within a short drive of Port Aransas, but the small town jam-packed with golf carts for rent also offers all the trappings of beach tourism if you want them. At least a dozen souvenir shops filled with toys, T-shirts, shells and gifts can be found in the town jammed on to the northern tip of the island, along with every kind of lodging option, and dining that ranges from fast food to fine dining.
This trip we stayed at Shark Reef Resort, which offered a great offseason bargain at $80 per night. It’s a great base for families traveling, with a nice pool, hot tub, hammocks, grills and a playscape at the center of an old-fashioned roadside motel set up. It is not the closest to the beach, but nothing in town is more than a three-minute drive from the sand.
The beaches in Port Aransas are clean and convenient, and allow two things many beaches don’t – driving and camp fires. With a $12 beach permit, which you must have to park or drive on the beach, you can make your way up and down the beach in search of the perfect spot and park feet from where you finally decide to drop the cooler, chairs, toys and whatever else you convinced yourself you might need.
In the evening, many beachgoers dig a big pit and build a fire to sit around with a beverage of choice and relax in the breeze under the stars. Bring firewood and patience when you decide to build that fire because no matter how prepared you are with wood, or a source to get it burning bright, keeping a lighter or match lit long enough to get the job done is the challenge in the windy conditions.
When it came time to eat, we mixed a favorite in with some new choices this trip.
We tried three other spots that we hadn’t visited before, including MacDaddy’s Family Kitchen – which specializes in barbecue and beer. Before the summer rush, many places close by 8 p.m. and I was looking for seafood, but their options were limited, so we settled on barbecue nachos. They were tasty, but my seafood craving went unmet.
My favorite in town is Irie’s Island Food, a tiny restaurant that serves up some of the best tacos and rice bowls you can imagine. It’s not fancy, but the prices are good and the fish tacos are incredible. Most of Irie’s fare is part Mexican favorites, part island dishes, and spice to spare. Anything with dragon sauce is a winner.
Friday night we decided to try Seafood and Spaghetti Works and our only regret was taking too-much advantage of the salad bar included with the meal. When we decided to share the seafood feast, we miscalculated about just how hungry we were and I forced myself to eat all of the seafood in spite of having filled up way too early. The seafood was outstanding, with a great mix of grilled Amberjack, fried, grilled and boiled shrimp, a crab cake and fried sole. I kept eating, I really had no choice, but it took a long walk on the beach after to recover.
On a trip back to the mainland Thursday morning, we stopped in at the 89-year-old Bakery Cafe in Aransas Pass. When you walk in you realize it lives up to its old-style diner reputation, and is packed with locals that know the secret – the daily specials are the answer. I’ll admit, we gambled and went late, hoping they sold breakfast all day, and we lost. Breakfast isn’t served once lunch begins, so we “settled” and Elizabeth had the lunch special crab patties – she always selects better than I do – and I had a burger and onion rings. It was all outstanding, but the crab patties were possibly the best I’ve ever had. We skipped dessert, but they had eight pie options on the chalk board along with banana pudding.
The reason we left the island that morning was to pay a visit to a place near and dear to Elizabeth’s heart, The Big Tree at Goose Island State Park. The name might not be all that original, but until 2003 it was the Texas State Champion Coastal Live Oak, and remains to this day as one of the largest and oldest oaks in the nation. When you begin to contemplate the size and age of such a tree, you are humbled by its perseverance. This tree saw the first European explorers try and fail to live along the coast, and it has survived many disasters over time, including hurricane Harvey last year, which claimed many of the trees around it, but failed to conquer this one.
The circumference of the trunk is 35 feet, and at the end of the centuries-old limbs snaking upward, the span across the crown is 89 feet. It is believed this tree was only a sapling when the first native Americans traveled through the area. It is off the beaten path, just north of Rockport, but it is worth the 20-minute drive up the highway to experience.
Harvey took its toll on the entire stretch of coast from Rockport to Corpus, and the evidence remains today. Many roofs remain covered in plastic, some buildings caved in or boarded up, but much of the area has rebounded and is excited to welcome guests again.
One treasure in Port Aransas was not so lucky. The Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center is essentially closed due to damage to the boardwalk and piers that allowed visitors to see the immense variety of bird species, and other wildlife – including alligators if you are lucky, or not depending on your own fears. With any luck, within a year or two, much of the area will be ready to enjoy again, but the heavy tree cover once in place will take decades to regrow.
On our final day, we decided to head south on the island along Hwy 361, which takes you to Mustang Island State Park and North Padre Island. It is about a 20-minute drive, with regular access roads to the public beach. But our destination was already determined, as we had not had our fix of German sweets so far and we were running out of time.
In an odd-shaped blue building, marked with little fanfare on north Padre Island is JB’s German Bakery and Cafe. I lived in Germany for four years, and when you bite into the strudel, bread or pastries at JB’s you might believe you are sitting at a cafe in Frankfurt.
We enjoyed two types of strudel – one with chocolate and cream, the other the Cowboy strudel with sausage, bacon, beans and cheese – with a fantastic cup of coffee. In many trips to the bakery, we have tried probably a dozen different offerings, each one as good as the last.
As usual, the need to walk after the feast took over, and Padre Island National Seashore was just down the road, so we headed to the beach for one last quick afternoon.
The park admission is $10 per vehicle and it offers fishing and boasts some of the best windsurfing conditions in the nation, but it is best known for being the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world.
If you time your visit right – which we’d done once on a past trip – you can also see the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings released in to the sea. Volunteers and spectators spend the early morning watching the tiny newly-hatched turtles find their way across the sand to the water, while working to help by keeping the birds at bay. The park website has a hotline to keep track of when the hatchlings will be released.
Our visit Saturday was to walk in the water a bit longer and soak in some more sun – which we did – before the clock on life began ticking again in earnest late in the afternoon and we headed home.