Some spots in Texas were made for taking it slow. They aren’t glitzy or glamorous or jam-packed with famous attractions or rowdy crowds. But unless that’s the type of vacation you’re after, it’s worth pressing life’s pause button to relax and unwind in Rockport. This once-sleepy fishing village has been a longtime favorite among Texans looking for a laid-back Gulf Coast retreat, but in more recent years, Rockport has evolved into a charming seaside destination luring everyone from anglers and artists to nature lovers and bird-watchers. In this quaint coastal enclave surrounded by Copano and Aransas bays, savoring life’s simple pleasures comes easy, which is the main reason my family has returned here in a tradition that spans four generations and almost 70 years.
Wake to a salmon-colored sunrise and stroll along Fulton Beach Road, flanked by rippled Gulf Coast waters on one side and windswept oaks frozen mid-backbend on the other. Take a seat by the ocean and watch as the same sun slips behind the sea, painting a watercolor of pastels streaked with fire across the evening sky. You’ll find plenty of ways to fill in the hours between in this colorful community of 10,000 known as the “Charm of the Texas Coast” — go fishing, boating, shopping or beaching — but whatever you do, remember to take it slow.
Distance from Austin: Roughly 200 miles and a 3.5-hour drive separates Austin from Rockport. We like to take the lesser trafficked route cutting through the tiny Texas towns of Karnes City, Kenedy, Beeville and Sinton — it won’t add more than a few minutes to the trip, and the scenic backdrops of sprawling cotton fields, bobbing oil rigs, grazing cattle and towering white wind turbines spinning against blue skies more than make up for it.
Don’t miss: The multitude of wooden piers, bait shops and fishing boats hugging Rockport’s shores hint at its favorite pastime: fishing. Purchase a fishing license with a saltwater endorsement at tpwd.texas.gov (not needed for those under 17) to reel in a keeper from the pier of your choice. Most Rockport properties have piers guests can access, but there are also lighted public fishing piers that stay open year-round, like the Fulton Fishing Pier, which charges $3 per fishing pole and has extras available for rent if you didn’t bring one, and the Copano Bay State Fishing Pier, a concession-operated 5.9-acre state park.
Avid anglers can hire an expert to find out where the big fish play — Rockport is home to dozens of saltwater fishing guides, like Captain Richard Stroud (anglerguideservice.com), who relies on decades of experience to lead guests on inshore fishing trips for trout, redfish, flounder and black drum; or Captain Filip Spencer (fishmansguideservice.com), who has fished these waters for nearly 40 years and specializes in kayak fishing tours so guests can get a workout while reeling ’em in.
When you’re not fishing, have some fun on the water by renting a kayak or paddleboard or booking a Whooping Crane tour or dolphin-watching cruise with Rockport Birding and Kayak Adventures (whoopingcranetour.com), which also rents golf carts when you’re ready to roll around on solid ground. Living up to its name as one of the country’s “Top 10 Coastal Art Colonies,” Rockport is home to around a dozen art galleries featuring works by local artists, about half of which dot charming South Austin Street — Rockport’s version of a Main Street. Shop until you drop at colorful stores and boutiques like Comforts of Home (facebook.com/OfficialComfortsOfHomeRockport), which brims with home decor, clothing and gifts. Just a half mile up the road, duck into Bay Window (facebook.com/thebaywindowrockport) for everything from unique clothing and jewelry to furniture and wall art.
History buffs can explore the Texas Maritime Museum (texasmaritimemuseum.org), which recounts the state’s rich maritime history, or take a tour back in time at the Fulton Mansion, built in the 1870s. Nature lovers should head to Goose Island State Park (tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/goose-island), which offers camping, fishing, hiking and birding. While there, visit the more-than-1,000-year-old Big Tree that measures over 35 feet in circumference. For more nature, make the drive to one of the oldest wildlife refuges and top birding spots in the country, the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (fws.gov/refuge/Aransas), which serves as the winter home of the Whooping Cranes.
Eat here: No trip to the coast is complete without seafood. Dig into crabcakes made with bay shrimp and lump crab, local fried oysters, coconut breaded fried shrimp — or bring in your own catch to have it prepared how you like it — while soaking in unparalleled bay views at Paradise Key Dockside Bar & Grill (paradisekeydocksidebarandgrill.com). The entire restaurant is surrounded by water, and there’s even a birding station to view the area’s abundant wildlife. For lunch, enjoy a blackened or fried shrimp po’boy served with coleslaw and homemade chips at Old Fulton Seafood Café (oldfultonseafoodcafe.com).
Indulge in a delicious dinner at the Groove (thegrooverockport.com) — the cozy and colorful restaurant known for its prime steaks and seafood (nothing on the menu is deep-fried), dishes made with vegetables grown in gardens on-site and wood-fired pizza pies made with flour imported from Italy. Cheryl’s Restaurant and Saloon (cherylsbythebay.com), with its funky ambiance, eclectic fare and the most comprehensive wine list of any Rockport restaurant, is a delightful dinner choice — start with the smoked salmon on “Want-Want” crackers with fresh goat cheese before devouring soft-shell crab meuneire or local flounder sauteed in garlic sauce.
Stay here: Rockport’s recent real estate boom has resulted in a multitude of vacation rentals spanning cozy coastal cottages to bayfront villas ideal for large groups wanting to bunk up together. Before our family outgrew the accommodations, we spent the better part of two decades renting out three-bedroom condos at Kontiki Beach Resort (kontikibeach.com), a gated waterfront property featuring well-lit fishing piers, a pool, tennis courts and a boat ramp. For boutique bayside lodging where elegant rooms come with ocean views and a warm breakfast, look up the Lighthouse Inn at Aransas Bay (lighthousetexas.com).
Kids will love: Our kids love the Rockport Beach (rockportbeach-texas.com) — a mile-long stretch of sand dotted with children’s playgrounds and picnic cabanas where the water is calmer, cleaner and shallower than the other beaches that line the Texas Coast. The man-made beach is meticulously maintained, handicap accessible and has public restroom facilities and showers, fishing piers and a water sports area. Follow up a day of swimming and swinging on the shoreline with froyo at Pink Octopus or pile creamy scoops of Blue Bell with your favorite toppings at the Waffle Cone Company.
Famous festival: This small town is big on festivals. This summer, don’t miss the 21st Annual Rockport Festival of Wine & Food (May 27-28), featuring more than 100 varieties; the 2nd Annual TSA Youth Sailing Regatta (June 17-18); and the 48th Annual Rockport Art Festival (July 1-2), showcasing more than 120 artists, live music, food and an air-conditioned party tent.
Not to miss nearby: About 20 miles stand between Rockport and Port Aransas, the quintessential Texas beach town accessed by ferry with broader beaches, bigger waves and a bevy of seafood restaurants and souvenir shops. Take a day trip to Corpus Christi, just 30 minutes away, to hand-feed stingrays at the Texas State Aquarium (texasstateaquarium.org), climb aboard a World War II vintage aircraft carrier turned museum boasting 100,000 square feet and 11 decks of history (usslexington.com), or explore live music, entertainment and museums along the urban SEA District (seadistrictcc.com) spanning 300 acres and several city blocks.
More at rockport-fulton.org.
Free fun in Rockport
Some of the best things in Rockport don’t come with a price tag. These 10 things are always free.
• Tour the Rockport Center for the Arts, which features monthly changing exhibits inside its blue Victorian home on the harbor and has a 10,000-square-foot sculpture garden outside that’s home to works by internationally acclaimed granite sculptor Jesús Moroles. rockportartcenter.com
• Aransas Pathways — an extensive project that aims to bring an array of new attractions spanning birding, history, kayaking and hike/bike trails to the Rockport-Fulton area — presents endless opportunities for free fun. Check out the monthly exhibits found at the History Center for Aransas County, explore birding and nature sites, take an aqua adventure along 16 kayak launch sights and hit the trails; a hike and bike trail system linking the town and city is currently underway. aransaspathways.com
• Like looking at fish more than catching them? Visit the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor, which showcases marine life found in the surrounding waters — of the 22 tanks, only two contain non-native fish. rockportaquarium.com
• Try crabbing. Bait weighted lines with poultry necks and secure them to the pier. When the line is taut, slowly and steadily pull it toward the pier until the crab is close enough to net. Catch enough and enjoy a free dinner of crabcakes or boiled crab.
• Browse local shops lining downtown Rockport’s Austin Street.
• Stroll along the 19-stop, nearly 1-mile walking trail highlighting the area’s birds and plants — it begins at Demo Bird Garden, loops around back to the cemetery and ends at Fulton Beach Road.
• Fish for free off the lighted South Breakwater Pier or Rockport Beach fishing pier.
• Visit the Bay Education Center to learn about the importance of local estuaries through interactive displays and exhibits — it’s also home to the Science on a Sphere System, one of only three in Texas that uses computers and video projectors to display data. utmsi.utexas.edu/visit/public-programs/bay-education-center
• Find food, music and around 100 vendors at Rockport’s Market Days every third Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the Navigation Festival Grounds. rockportmarketdays.com
• Make your own scavenger hunt and snap selfies with iconic Rockport landmarks like the Big Blue Crab, the Windmill in the Tree (that’s been lodged in the tree behind the Fulton Mansion since the hurricane of 1919) and the Big Tree.