- By Kristin Finan American-Statesman Staff
The intricately crafted sculptures come in all shapes and sizes, from a mermaid to a storybook castle to a cowboy and his horse.
And they’re made entirely out of sand and set against the idyllic backdrop of the Texas coast.
When Texas SandFest returns to the 3,000-person beach town of Port Aransas on April 24-26, expect to see crowds lining the shore, marveling at the work of sand sculptors from around the world, and eager kids getting into the action with their own buckets and shovels.
It’s an excellent time to experience the flavor of one of my favorite beach towns. But even if you can’t make it to SandFest, Port Aransas, located about a half-hour from Corpus Christi and about 3 1/2 hours from Austin, is worth a visit any time of year. Here’s a guide to a fun-filled weekend.
There are several ways to get to Port Aransas, but we always make sure to take a route that includes the Port Aransas Ferry. Even if you experience a slight wait, when the cool breeze brushes your cheeks and gulls start to circle in the sky, you can’t help but feel like you’re instantly on island time.
5 p.m.: Family Center IGA
Once you’ve dropped off your stuff at your condo or vacation rental, head to the Family Center IGA, a classic small-town grocery store where you can find just about anything you could possibly be looking for, from fishing supplies to beach pails to fresh baked goods. Maybe my favorite thing at the store is the wide selection of sunglasses — it’s become a tradition for my mom and daughters and me to pause for a photo in neon-colored frames every time we set foot inside the store. Stock up here on everything you need for your room, then head out to see the town.
418 S. Alister St.; 361-749-6665; familycenteriga.com
7 p.m.: Virginia’s on the Bay
We always have our first dinner in Port Aransas at Virginia’s on the Bay, a capable, if not slightly overpriced, bar and grill with can’t-beat waterfront views. Favorite menu items include fresh oysters on the half-shell, jalapeno mesquite-smoked yellowfin tuna dip, crab cakes, and the fried shrimp, fish and oyster seafood platter. Couples will appreciate lingering over a daiquiri or two while the sun sets; families will enjoy watching ships of various sizes and shapes coast by.
815 Trout St.; 361-749-4088; virginiasportaransas.com
8 a.m.: Keepers at Horace Caldwell Pier
Once the intense summer heat starts to set in, early morning is a wonderful time to take in the beach at Port Aransas. Go for a run on the packed sand, try your hand at surfing or create your own private SandFest. We always pick a spot on the beach near Keepers at Horace Caldwell Pier, which stretches 1,230 feet out into the Gulf and is an ideal spot to try to catch some tarpon, king fish, red fish or black drum. The record fish for the pier? A 13-foot, 7-inch tiger shark. A $2 fee is required for pier access, and fishing pole rentals are available, as is food, including burgers, wings and hot dogs.
Horace Caldwell Pier; 361-749-5333; keepersportaransasfishingpier.com
12:30 p.m.: Lunch at Shell’s
This is another place we have to visit every time we go to Port Aransas thanks to expertly cooked seafood and pasta dishes such as farfalle with shrimp, smoked bacon, tomatoes and a poblano cream sauce; open-face sirloin steak with chimichurri sauce and Caesar salad; and capellini with mixed seafood, mushrooms, lemongrass and cilantro in a Thai curry coconut broth. The restaurant is small and it can get crowded, but it’s worth the wait if there is one.
522 Avenue G; 361-749-7621; eatatshells.com
2 p.m.: Shop till you drop
For a town as small as Port Aransas, you may be surprised by the excellent shops you’ll find. In fact, my favorite piece of furniture — a gorgeous white/gray bench with a distinct beach-town vibe — came from a store in Port Aransas called Cita Resort Interiors (129 N. Alister St.; 361-749-2711; cierrainteriors.com) that happens to be affiliated with Austin’s Cierra Interiors. I’m also a big fan of Stephanie’s Stuff (910 S. Alister St.; 361-749-4422), which has an impressive selection of women’s clothing, jewelry, trinkets and toys. Bonus: Should you get hungry or want a glass of wine, the boutique is conveniently located inside Seafood and Spaghetti Works. Wrap up your shopping excursion at Winton’s Candy Co. (601 Alister St.; 361-749-4772; wintonscandies.com), where treats in every color of the rainbow will get you in a sweet state of mind.
6 p.m.: Pizza at the Gaff
There are so many reasons I love this bar. First, it’s pirate-themed. Second, it’s a total dive. Third, it has a sprawling outside patio that includes brightly painted picnic tables, a stage and a miniature pirate ship perfect for entertaining young buccaneers. The bar also hosts belt-sander races every Saturday at 3 p.m. Don’t know what that involves? Even more reason to stop by.
323 Beach St.; 361-749-5970; gotothegaff.com
9 a.m.: Ferry to St. Jo Island
Some of my fondest memories of Port Aransas came from trips to St. Jo, a 28-mile-long uninhabited island that can only be reached by the Jetty Boat. The ride over to the island is a great place for dolphin watching, and the island itself offers wonderful fishing, shelling and sand-dollar searching. The ferry leaves for St. Jo several times a day, and the same company that operates the Jetty Boat also hosts regular deep-sea fishing trips. Check website for details.
900 N. Tarpon; 800-605-5448; wharfcat.com
Noon: Lunch at Liberty Hall Inferno
Before heading home, do yourself a favor and grab a meal at Liberty Hall Inferno. The best meal I’ve ever had in Port Aransas came here during my most recent visit in February, when we ducked in for lunch. I’m still thinking about my bowl of shrimp and grits — a handful of just-tender-enough shrimp bathed in a creamy sauce with a good amount of kick served over a block of pan-fried grits that added a delightful textural layer to this dish. We also enjoyed the fried chicken plate and the lobster roll, which was stuffed with sweet meat.
106 E. Cotter; 361-749-1660