PORT ARANSAS, Texas — Sitting on the deck of Grumble’s Seafood Co. overlooking the Port Aransas marina, I sipped a tropical drink and watched as the sky used every purple shade in the celestial crayon box in its final salute to the day.
First came a pale swath of lavender, followed by a wash of soft lilac, and finally a bold streak of violet. A perfect ending to my three days in this tranquil beach town on Mustang Island, a 45-minute drive from Corpus Christi.
With 18 miles of Gulf Coast beach, a population of fewer than 5,000 people, and a reputation as being “the fishing capital of Texas,” it’s a beachcomber’s dream.
I was here for the island’s annual Texas SandFest, and while it may have started 26 years ago with three ladies scooping sand for their fanciful creations, it has evolved into the largest native sand festival in the United States. Did you expect anything less in Texas?
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Over three days every April, sand sculptors pick their spot on a one-mile stretch of the beach and let their imaginations take flight.
These creations, which can weigh as much as 60,000 pounds, are the work of master sculptors from around the country and the world who are invited to participate.
This year’s SandFest saw sculptures ranging from a wicked looking sea serpent and a Medusa-like figure to a giant chessboard and a 7-foot-tall woman’s face.
Albert Lucio Jr., a master sculptor from Austin, is one of SandFest’s coordinators. He explained that the artists — from Gen Zers to an octogenarian — are responsible not only for creating their sculptures, but for dismantling them the day after the festival ends.
“They are given a shovel and a bucket and they have to return every grain of sand to where they got it,” he says.
While the Texas SandFest, one of two premier events on the island (the other is the Whooping Crane Festival in February) is responsible for attracting some 100,000 people annually, Port A, as it’s affectionately known, makes for a great destination year round.
Port A is so laid-back, funky and, yes, weird that it might be Austin’s coastal cousin.
Various island emporiums advertise henna tattoos and hermit crabs. You have to wonder what the connection is between the two, as one is rarely mentioned without the other on billboard signs.
Beach buggies and golf carts are a preferred form of island transport. A Red Dragon pirate ship hosts costumed buccaneers on cruises to spot cavorting dolphins. With enough rum punches, everyone is guaranteed a sighting.
All this isn’t to say that Port A doesn’t have its serious side. As mentioned, this is a major spot for sport fishermen to earn bragging rights, whether angling off Horace Caldwell Pier; bay fishing for trout, redfish, flounder and black drum, or deep sea fishing in the Gulf of Mexico for kingfish, marlin, tarpon and sailfish.
The town hosts 20 fishing tournaments throughout the year – from the annual Deep Sea Roundup (this year from June 29 to July 2) to tournaments geared specifically to women and even children.
Should your interest be more in birds than fish, a visit to Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center is a must. Port Aransas is directly on the flight path for birds heading to Central and South America for the winter, and at this swath of wetland you can watch them on their journey.
Stroll along the 700-foot-long boardwalk above the marsh for a chance to see roseate spoonbills, egrets, herons, grebes, cormorants and black-necked stilts. If you’re lucky, you might also spot Boots, the marsh’s resident alligator.
Port Aransas may not have a hospital for humans (they have to go to Corpus Christi), but it does have one for birds and turtles. The Amos Rehabilitation Keep, part of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, is a rehab facility for species from the common barn owl to the rare hawksbill turtle.
Next door is the UT-operated Patton Center. A $5 million renovation following Hurricane Harvey in 2017 allowed for eight large aquariums and a number of interactive exhibits showcasing local marine life. Ask to take a peek through their state-of-the-art telescope to get a great view of the Lydia Ann, Texas’ last remaining manned lighthouse.
If the lighthouse is a nostalgic nod to the island’s past, so is the iconic Tarpon Inn, long a haven for fishermen, movie stars, millionaires and politicians.
Built in 1862 as barracks for the Union army which had occupied the island, it was converted into a hotel in 1886. Over the years, its guest register has seen the signatures of film star Hedy Lamarr; oil baron and former Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison, and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, an avid sport fisher despite that at the time women who preferred a rod and reel to a broom and mop were frowned upon.
While his disability prevented him from staying here, President Franklin Roosevelt has an association with the hotel. On a Gulf fishing trip, he hooked a 5-foot, 77-pound tarpon. One of the fish scales, signed by FDR, is on display on the lobby wall, one of 7,000 scales signed by other notable guests.
The Tarpon Inn boasts 24 rooms (no two alike); a fine dining restaurant, Roosevelt’s; the intimate 1886 bar, and the longest veranda in Texas lined with rocking chairs — the perfect place to catch a sunrise.
Owner Lee Roy Hoskins says that 25% of his guests come to fish; 25% come for the property’s history (it’s on the National Register of Historic Places) and the rest, he says in his lazy Texas drawl, “come seeking a quiet place to sit and watch the world go by.”