Port Aransas



This very popular fishing community 130 mi/210 km southeast of San Antonio attracts anglers who want to try their luck off public piers or on a charter boat in the Gulf (the crabbing's good, too). The annual Deep Sea Round-Up, the oldest fishing tourney on the Gulf Coast, takes place on the weekend following the Fourth of July.

Fishing aside, we're of two minds about Port Aransas. We like the down-to-earth feel of the place: This certainly isn't a hoity-toity resort area. On the other hand, it's not going to win any awards for its beauty, either. In fact, the odd assortment of time-share condos and resort hotels along the coast seems like a museum of bad architecture. Nonetheless, they're affordable and most are comfortable, and they're within easy reach of Padre Island National Seashore.

There's a beach near the town at Nueces County Park and better ones to the south (between Port Aransas and Corpus Christi), where Mustang Island State Park preserves a stretch of shoreline. Like many along the Gulf, these beaches are often cluttered with washed-up seaweed, but they draw a lively crowd. The bird-watching is particularly good at the state park, both for shorebirds and migratory flocks.

It's fun to stand along Port Aransas' ship channel to watch the big boats come in, or you can take your own excursion into the Gulf on a local vessel—inquire at the marina. The cheapest way to take a brief trip across the water is on the free, 24-hour ferry from Harbor Island. If you take it, look for dolphins: They often swim right up by the boat. If you have time, stop by the visitors center at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, a research facility with interesting exhibits about coastal ecosystems. While you're in town, try one of the funky seafood restaurants—some of them are very good.

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is definitely worth a visit. This sanctuary on the southern Gulf Coast attracts bird-watchers looking for the near-extinct whooping crane. The magnificent birds winter there November-March and can be seen from observation towers or on boat tours leaving from Corpus Christi, Port Aransas and Rockport. Get a map at the interpretive center, then start the self-guided driving tour, stopping to walk the trails around some of the ponds.

Be aware that you may see alligators—up close and personal—and there is no fence between them and you. Keep a cautious distance. Other wildlife to watch for include deer, javelina and armadillos, as well as sandhill cranes, egrets, herons and 400 other species of birds. The mosquitoes are some of the worst we've encountered in the lower 48 states, so don't forget the insect repellent. You can see the area in a day; the best viewing is in early morning or near sunset.

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