If you're in San Antonio, you're only 2 1/2 hours from the ocean and some of the best stretches of Texas coastline. The communities around Corpus Christi and Copano Bays have a lot going for them. In the summer, you can do some kayaking, windsurfing, fishing, and other watersports. And, with Texas's mild weather, you can do most these activities in other seasons as well. In spring and autumn, birders flock to this area for the migrations, when birds rest up before and after hopping the Gulf of Mexico. Another attraction in the region is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the winter home of the whooping crane, the largest bird in North America, and the rarest, too. For a more detailed view of this region, search "Gulf Coast Texas" at frommers.com.
Corpus Christi is a major deepwater seaport, with a population of just under 300,000, but it has the feel of a much smaller place. The downtown is easy to enjoy, and everything is pretty close together. The two biggest attractions are the State Aquarium and the USS Lexington aircraft carrier, which are right next to each other on the bay just north of downtown, across Harbor Bridge.
Take I-37 straight to Corpus Christi. If you're headed for Rockport, from I-37, take Hwy. 181 over the Bay Causeway, then continue on Tex. 35. To get to the beach town of Port Aransas, follow the signs for Aransas Pass, and from there take the causeway that leads to the Port Aransas ferry. Another nice beach is on Mustang Island. As you approach central Corpus Christi on I-37, look for signs reading Tex. 358 or "S.P.I.D." (South Padre Island Dr.).
What to Do
Corpus Christi's top two attractions are on the east side of the tall bridge that spans the Nueces River: The Texas State Aquarium (tel. 800/477-4853; www.texasstateaquarium.org), at 2710 N. Shoreline Blvd., and the USS Lexington (tel. 800/523-9539; www.usslexington.com), an old aircraft carrier docked at 2914 N. Shoreline Blvd.
Admission to the Texas State Aquarium is $16 adults, $15 seniors, and $11 for children ages 3 to 12. It has several large tanks displaying different saltwater and freshwater habitats. You can see and participate in dolphin training, and chat with some of the staff. Each day there's a schedule of presentations. Check it when you first arrive. To see the USS Lexington costs a little less: $13 adults, $11 seniors, and $8 for children 4 to 12. Touring the boat requires a good bit of stair climbing. This aircraft carrier saw service in the Pacific during World War II. It shows its age, which conveys to a great degree the difficulty and risk of being a crewman or a pilot back in those days. Part of the hangar deck has been converted into a large-format film theater, which offers shows, not necessarily about the ship. Both the aquarium and the USS Lexington are open daily, with slightly longer hours during the summer season.
If you're in Corpus Christi during baseball season, you might want to check out the local minor league baseball team, called the Corpus Christi Hooks (tel. 361/866-TEAM [866-8326]; www.cchooks.com). They are a AA farm club for the Houston Astros and play in the Texas League. Their ballpark, Whataburger Field, is the most attractive farm-club ballpark you'll ever see. It's at the water's edge, at the foot of the tall bridge, but on the south side (the same side as central Corpus Christi). Tickets run from $5 to $12. (Whataburger is a chain of fast-food restaurants, which began in Corpus and still keeps its corporate offices here.)
Just north of downtown is the city's striking convention center. Nearby are a visitor center at 1823 N. Chaparral St. and a handful of small museums, including the Art Museum of South Texas, the Asian Cultures Museum, and the Museum of Science and History. Before going to any of these, first step into the visitor center to see if any coupons are available. Visiting these museums, which are small to medium size, is a nice way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Adding to Corpus Christi's small-town amusements is a minor-league baseball team in the Texas league called the Corpus Christi Hooks (tel. 361/561-4665; www.cchooks.com). Home games are played at Whataburger Field, which is a beautiful ballpark at the water's edge near the foot of the tall bridge that spans the Nueces River. (Whataburger is a successful chain of burger joints with restaurants all across the South and Southwest. It began in Corpus in 1950. During your stay here, you'll see lots of these restaurants with their trademark orange-and-white roofs.)
Texas's Most Deserted Beach -- Heading down the coast toward Corpus Christi, you come to Matagorda Bay, one of the least developed areas of the coast, with lots of small fishing towns and farming communities. This region has its charm, and life here is really laid-back. Protecting the coast is Matagorda Island, a 38-mile-long strip of land covering almost 44,000 acres. It's mostly federal and state land set aside as a wildlife refuge. Aside from a small state park with camping areas and a historic lighthouse, there is little development. But there are plenty of beaches, pristine and deserted, on which you will see no motorized vehicles; they are prohibited. You can swim, hike, ride a bike (if you brought one), do some bird-watching (more than 300 species of birds have been spotted here, including the whooping crane), or look for shells. Fishing is also popular. Many locals fish in the surf here.
But if you decide to visit the island, you'll have to bring your own water and food; none can be purchased on the island. Primitive campsites at the state park cost $6 per night (up to four people). An outdoor cold-water rinse is available near the boat docks. The state used to operate a passenger ferry (tel. 361/983-2215) to the island from the town of Port O'Connor, but for the past couple of years, it's been inoperative. Call to see if it's running again. Another option is to hire a boat at Port O'Connor. For more information, contact Matagorda Island State Park and Wildlife Management Area (tel. 979/244-6804; www.tpwd.state.tx.us/park/matagisl/matagisl.htm).
Birding Along the Texas Coast -- The coastal plains of Texas are a haven for birds. The area is rich in resident species and is the winter home to many more. It offers a variety of habitats -- freshwater and saltwater marshes, tidal zones, prairies, and woodlands -- and abundant food sources. It's also smack in the middle of the great flyway for birds migrating from the northern parts of the U.S. and Canada to Central and South America. On their southward journey this is the last chance for R & R before they have to hop the Gulf of Mexico, and on the return it's the first landfall.
All of this is why the Texas Gulf Coast attracts lots of birders and sponsors several birding events. The reader can take for granted that there are plenty of birding opportunities, even when none is specifically mentioned. The best times to visit are during the migration seasons and in winter. Most of the annual events are held in the Brazosport and the Corpus Christi areas. Here are a few highlights: The towns of Lake Jackson and Rockport hold festivals for viewing hummingbirds (lots of them) when they pass through here in September. Also in late September or early October, local birders in Corpus hold the annual hawk count at Hazel Bazemore County Park, where tens of thousands of raptors of various species fly through here following the Nueces River. And in April, Brazosport holds its annual Migration Celebration, when local birders serve as guides on birding walks. For specific information, contact local visitor centers. The state publishes three helpful maps called "The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail," one for each section of the Texas coast. These list 300 viewing sites and give driving directions and descriptions for each. Call tel. 888/900-2577 or check out the maps at the following website: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/wild/wildlife_trails/coastal.
Whooping Cranes: Back from the Brink of Extinction -- By and large, there are two kinds of tourists who come to the Rockport area in winter: winter Texans fleeing the harsh cold of their northern homes and nature enthusiasts who come to visit another sort of winter Texan, the magnificent whooping cranes. The largest birds in America, these cranes fly in from northwest Canada in October/November and leave again in the spring. An adult male stands 5 feet high and can have a wingspan of 8 feet. They are elegant, too: Elongated legs and throat give them dramatic lines, and the plumage has a classic appeal that never goes out of fashion -- solid white with black wing tips, black eyeliner, and just a touch of red accent on the top of the head. It would be a tremendous blow to lose these creatures to oblivion, but that is almost what happened -- and their comeback story is probably the most famous of all the cases of wildlife conservation.
Before the arrival of the Europeans, these birds inhabited the Gulf and Atlantic shores in winter and northern Midwest and Canada in summer. But hunting and loss of habitat dwindled the population until, by 1941, only 15 birds survived. All were members of the flock that winters here on the central Texas coast. A concerted effort requiring the contributions of many dedicated biologists and fieldworkers was launched to save them. The team first pushed for laws preserving the summer and winter nesting grounds and all the major stopover points along the 2,400 miles of the migration route. The cranes were slow to come back, but through protection and public education, their mortality rates decreased and the population began to grow. This was difficult and took time because these cranes are slow to mature and don't reproduce until their fourth year. And even then the female lays only two eggs and raises only one chick. Worried that with only one flock the species was vulnerable, biologists began stealing the second eggs and hatching them elsewhere. They have established a nonmigrating population in south central Florida and another population that they've been "teaching" to migrate between Wisconsin and western Florida. So far it's working, but the Aransas flock is still the largest and only natural population of "whoopers" in the world. In 2010 their numbers hit an all-time high of 224.
The best way to view the birds is from the deck of a boat. Several boats specialize in birding and whooping crane tours. They skirt along the coast of the refuge, which is the favorite feeding grounds for the cranes.
Visit Mustang Island State Park -- This 3,954-acre state park is home to about 5 miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico in Nueces County, just south of Port Aransas. Mustang Island is a coastal barrier island with a unique and complex ecosystem, dependent upon its numerous sand dunes, some of which reach as much as 35 feet in height (15*20 ft. is average). Activities here include swimming, fishing, kayaking, camping, hiking, mountain biking, bird-watching, and sunbathing. From downtown Port Aransas, take Alister Street/Hwy. 361 south to Mustang Island State Park (tel. 361/749-4573; www.tpwd.state.tx.us).
Most visitors come to this area either for some relaxing beach time or for one of the many activities offered here, or both.
Dolphin and Whooping Crane Cruises -- These tours are done in large shallow-draft boats that go out for 3 to 4 hours. Tours to see the whooping cranes run from November through March. Boats depart from the Fulton Harbor, which is in the Rockport area. Fulton is a township next to Rockport and it's difficult to tell where one town ends and the other begins. There are a number of small outfits, and they usually charge about $40 per person. The best thing to do is go down to the piers and inquire about which company might have a boat departing imminently.
Fishing -- Most visitors wanting to fishing go to Port Aransas. There are several outfits and many guides. Try Woody's Sports Center (tel. 361/749-5271; www.gulfcoastfishing.com) at 136 W. Cotter, on the main pier of Port Aransas.
Sea Kayaking -- There are several good places to explore by kayak in the bays surrounding Corpus Christi, and most are in the vicinity of Rockport. You might want to try Rockport Adventures (tel. 877/892-4737; www.rockportadventures.com). It offers rentals and tours. Tours require a minimum of four people, but you might be able to hook up with another group or do a self-guided tour on your own with a map provided by the store. The staff can haul you and your kayaks to a drop-off spot and pick you up later.
Windsurfing -- The best place to learn windsurfing or hone your skills is in the sheltered water of the Laguna Madre, on North Padre Island, which is south of Mustang Island. Inside the Padre Island National Seashore, you'll find a small but well-known concessionaire called Worldwinds Windsurfing (tel. 361/949-7472; www.worldwinds.net), which sells and rents windsurfing equipment and wet suits, and in summer, offers windsurfing lessons.
Where to Stay
If you're staying in Corpus Christi and want a hotel with a view, inquire about a room in the Bayfront Tower of the Omni Corpus Christi Hotel (tel. 800/843-6664; www.omnihotels.com) at 900 N. Shoreline Blvd. Rates run from $160 to $220 for a double, depending on the season and the day of the week.
Corpus Christi has a lovely bed-and-breakfast called the George Blucher House (tel. 866/884-4884; www.georgeblucherhouse.com), at 211 N. Carrizo, in an old residential area close by the city's downtown. The location is good, and the rooms and the house in general have lots of character. Rates run from $120 to $190.
If you're looking for an inexpensive motel, there is a concentration of them in the vicinity of the Texas State Aquarium and USS Lexington. This is not a bad location for visitors. One inexpensive independent motel among the chain properties is the Sea Shell Inn (tel. 361/888-5291) at 202 Kleberg Place, with rates for a double from $50 to $125.
In Rockport, the nicest full-service hotel is the Lighthouse Inn (tel. 866/790-8439; www.lighthousetexas.com) at 200 S. Fulton Beach Rd. Rates run from $140 to $220, depending upon the season. A good bed-and-breakfast is Hoope's House (tel. 800/924-1008; www.hoopeshouse.com), at 417 N. Broadway, where rates are $160 for a double.
In Port Aransas and all the barrier islands in this area, the predominant form of lodging is condo towers. These almost always rent by the week and advertise heavily on the Internet. One agency that represents many condos is Starkey Properties (tel. 888/951-6381; www.starkeyproperties.com). If you want hotel lodging, there's a great old hotel called the Tarpon Inn (tel. 361/749-5555; www.thetarponinn.com) in Port Aransas at 200 E. Cotter. As this is an old place, the double rooms are awfully small but economical, at $69 to $99. The premium rooms are a substantial upgrade ($110-$130) and worth the extra money, but the suites ($145-$250), especially the FDR suite, have the style and size to warrant the extra money and are one of a kind.
For roomy, inexpensive lodging, try the Balinese Flats (tel. 888/951-6381; www.balineseflats.com), at 121 Cut-off Rd., in Port Aransas. It offers 2-bedroom apartments for $75 in winter, $95 in spring and fall, and $155 in summer.
Where to Dine
In downtown Corpus Christi, you can't go wrong with Water Street Seafood Company (tel. 361/882-8683) at 309 N. Water St. It's easy to find and is very popular, but it's big enough that you usually don't have to wait long for a table. Good and cheap Tex-Mex can be had at La Playa (tel. 361/853-4282), at 4201 S.P.I.D., which isn't as easy to find but is worth the extra trouble.
For Tex-Mex in Rockport, try Los Comales (tel. 361/729-3952) at 431 Hwy. 35. It offers several kinds of enchiladas, which are all good. It also offers a few dishes from central Mexico, which is a bit surprising for being a small-town restaurant on the Texas coast. Latitude 28°02[pr] (tel. 361/727-9009) serves locally caught seafood; there's no shortage of appealing dishes on the menu in addition to the nightly chef's specials.
Port Aransas has plenty of good restaurants, and a favorite is La Playa Mexican Grille (tel. 361/749-0022), at 222 Beach St., which has no connection with La Playa Restaurant in Corpus Christi. For something of a surprise for Port Aransas, there's Venetian Hot Plate (tel. 361/749-7617), just down the way at 232 Beach St. The Italian owners care about food and care about wine. The menu has some wonderful northern Italian dishes.