I used to live for the ferry ride to Port Aransas.
That’s when I was a child, and we’d arrive at night, tired from the long drive. There seemed always to be a full moon. We’d leap from the car and look for dolphins. It was, as a certain teenage boy said to me some years later on the very same ferry, “desperately romantic.” And that’s how I still think of Port Aransas, a burgeoning, sea-faring hamlet on Mustang Island, poised on miles of beach and wedged into plant-mottled, windswept dunes. It lies just a ferry ride from the mainland.
Port Aransas conjures romance in that nostalgic, soulful, no-nonsense way that is the opposite of acrimonious politics and blaring reality television. With the ability to bring out the kid in most adults, Port A doesn’t need bells and whistles to amuse. It has the sea and a Texas temperament, big as the sky.
Port Aransas’ plucky refusal to become a homogeneous tourist trap is evident throughout the village. In fact, “It is what it is” might be the fishing haven’s unofficial motto — an attitude that embraces its distinct unpretentious airs. Brimming with old school fun, from fishing to surfing to birdwatching, Port A lets nature take the lead. As autumn approaches, this beach town just gets better. Here’s a few of our favorite ways to enjoy it.
You’ll school all the fish in the sea when you cast a line in Port A. The town has options for both hardcore and novice casters and features lighted piers, jetties and myriad surrounding waterways. Private boats can depart from several public marinas, and fishing outfitters with generations-old secrets can ensure you hook a whopper. Bay fishing buffs can find redfish, trout, black drum and more along Mustang Island’s fringes. Come in the summer to compete in the island’s plentiful fishing tournaments. Themes vary from kid’s competitions to redfish death matches. On Sept. 10, check out the 2nd Annual 2016 Rigs & Reef Spearfishing Tournament. portaransas.org
You’ll feel like part of the family at Taqueria San Juan, a lively Mexican restaurant near the ferry. Resplendent with menu items made from Grandma’s recipes, the cafe, open all day, does Tex-Mex breakfast right. Start your day with migas, huevos rancheros or stacks of perfectly flipped pancakes (sanjuanrestaurant.net). For lunch, make it seafood at Mustang Island Food Company, which takes an epicurean approach. Offering an extensive takeout menu, the outpost invites you in for table service midday (mustangislandfoodco.com). At nightfall, toast a day well lived at diminutive Shells, poised on a corner near the beach. Arguably Port Aransas’ best bet for gastronomic cuisine, the tiny, family-helmed restaurant presents a slew of irresistible chalkboard specials, as well as a reliable daily menu. Dig into creative dishes such as blue crab cakes with key lime aioli. Pair your choice with a Texas wine (Shells’ wine offerings are among the best in Port A) or locally brewed beer (eatatshells.com).
Birds of a feather
You don’t have to own a pair of binoculars to discover your latent passion for birding. In Port Aransas, feathered friends abound year-round but flock here en masse during fall and winter. The town showcases them via several easy-to-access vantage points including the Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, which offers a birding tour at 9 a.m. every Wednesday. For the ultimate birding coup, spy a rare, endangered whooping crane — North America’s tallest bird — which is on every birder’s bucket list. Whooping crane boat tours depart from Fisherman’s Wharf most days to search for these rare creatures (whoopingcranetours.com).
Unravel the knots
For some people, it’s not a vacation without a spa. Luckily, Island Nails & Spa, an intimate retreat near the ferry, has your back — as well as the expertise to unravel those stress-induced knots. Offering some of the best pedicures in this hemisphere as well as manicures, facials, hot stone massages and waxing, this little, affordable shop rises to the standards of most luxury hotel spas. Immaculate and convivial, the haven provides a tranquil alternative to beach play. Ask for Vivian — she’ll take care of you. islandnailsspa.com.
Explore the beach in a dune buggy — or, if you prefer, a jiggered-up golf cart. Fun for the whole family, available at various outposts, the slow-moving vehicles can be driven on the streets or the sand. Pack a picnic and take one out for the whole day. Try Port A Beach Buggies, portabeachbuggies.com.
Comb the beach
Some locals refer to it as San Jose — others call it St. Joe. By any name, this 21-mile-long undeveloped island awakens your inner castaway. A 15-minute boat ride whisks you to unspoiled St. Joe’s, where you can search for sand dollars and sea glass, spot rare birds, cast a line from the beach or spin a Frisbee between friends. Don’t forget to pack a lunch, as no food is available for purchase on the isle. Scheduled ferries depart from Fisherman’s Wharf several times a day. sanjoseislandtexas.org.
Not everybody knows you can surf in Texas, but Texas Surf Camps is changing that. Camps and classes meld instruction with the aloha spirit and are available for various levels and both groups and individuals. They also teach stand-up paddleboarding and certify lifeguards. Prefer to let the dolphins do the surfing? Enjoy a dolphin watch tour with the able guides from Woody’s Sports Center. The tours, which elicit squeals from kids and adults alike, never get old. texassurfcamps.com, woodys-pa.com.
Tee off at one of the South’s canniest golf courses. Edged by windswept dunes, Palmilla Beach was designed by Arnold Palmer to boggle your mind. Less about having a powerful swing and more about having the patience of a saint and the predilection to outsmart your fellow players, this par-71 course subtly transforms with the elements. Every day is a new golfing adventure. Whatever your score, celebrate after with a local beer at the club’s Black Marlin Grill. palmillabeach.com.