SOUTH OF CORPUS CHRISTI, far from endless flatlands and rambling cattle ranches, are small waterfront communities important to Texas history, its seafood industry and the preservation of nature's most amazing creations. This quiet little slice is notable for unspoiled landscapes, abundant fishing and seafood epitomizing the word fresh.
Port Mansfield went from obscure camp to popular fishing hub in 1950 when a navigational channel cut through Padre Island to connect the town to the ICW and the Gulf of Mexico. During construction, dredgers slashed the Santa Maria de Yciar, one of three ships bound for Spain that ran aground in 1554.
The legendary vessels were loaded with Aztec riches, and when the hull was gouged, chunks of ship and silver coins scattered onto the banks. Sunken ships have lined the Texas coast since the Spanish fleet began menacing the Gulf in the 1500s, and tales of buried treasure along the Mansfield Cut continue to circulate.
The unpolluted environment and easy access to multiple fishing grounds make Port Mansfield a favorite of anglers. As one of the top ten fishing locations in the country, the area is known for drum, speckled trout and flounder.
Fresh catch dinner is available at several eateries, and one is even open before sunrise. Everything is served on butcher paper at Sweet Gregory P's Smokehouse Grill. They feed fisherman breakfast at dawn, pack lunches for boaters and serve barbecue until it runs out. Try not to miss out on their homemade pie or scratch cobbler.
The 40-acre Laguna Point Recreation Area has a 500-foot fishing pier, picnic areas and a kayak launch. Laguna Madre, stretching from Port Mansfield to South Padre, is the largest remaining seagrass habitat in Texas. Kayakers spot coyote, white-tailed deer and javelina prowling the shoreline, while egret, turkey, and great blue heron wade the shallow water.
Port Mansfield Harbor has transient slips to 40 feet, and fuel is available at Mansfield Marina.
Port Isabel is an historic community with roots dating back to the Coahuiltecan indigenous people. Its location gave it a strategic role in the Mexican War, Civil War and California Gold Rush. History unfolds in its three museums: Treasures of the Gulf Museum, Port Isabel Historic Museum and Point Isabel Lighthouse, the only Texas lighthouse open to the public. From the top, look for the SpaceX launch pad in Boca Chica.
Multiple seafood and Mexican restaurants sit shore-side. For breakfast that lasts through lunch, Isabel's Cafe serves dinner plate size tortillas with your choice of filling that repeatedly win Texas Monthly's best tortilla ratings. If catching dinner sounds good, drop a line at Pirate's Landing Fishing Pier, the longest in Texas. Local restaurants prepare your catch, or if you're not an angler, have a feast of local gulf shrimp. Chef 's creations are available for tasting during November's World Championship Shrimp Cook-Off & Seafood Festival.
Centrally located, Sea Ranch II Marina has 41 wet slips.
South Padre is the best known of southern Texas beach communities. Aside from spring break notoriety, it's a great place for families with a variety of things to do. For those who just want to relax, Padre's 34 miles of uninterrupted beaches earned it Southern Living's "#1 Amazing Island Getaway" designation.
Getting around is easy on the Island Metro. Local boutiques, lively bars and numerous restaurants line Padre Boulevard. Padre Island Brewing Company serves icy craft beer and tasty pub food in a friendly, fun atmosphere. At Ceviche Ceviche, choose shrimp or fish and a variety of add-ons, then watch the staff mix your custom blend.
Padre has a unique eco-system featuring a variety of wildlife. The Island Birding & Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary is a bird-watchers' paradise. Learn about the resurgence of critically endangered Kemp's ridley turtle populations at Sea Turtle Inc. In summer, hatchlings are released at sunrise. Cruising boaters often get a close-up view of gentle bottlenose dolphins.
Sea Ranch 1 Marina on the tip of the island is minutes from the Gulf.
Padre Island National Seashore is inaccessible to private vessels but can be reached through tours from Corpus Christi and is worth a visit. The longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world, it separates the Laguna Madre, one of a few hypersaline lagoons, from the Gulf. The park protects more than 70 miles of majestic coastline, grassy prairies, tidal flats, magnificent dunes and a variety of wildlife. It is a protected nesting ground for the Kemp's ridley sea turtle and a sanctuary for more than 380 bird species.