The Texas Gulf Coast Bend from Palacios to Port Aransas abounds with balmy sea breezes, boat-to-plate seafood, a temperate climate and a simpler lifestyle. Coastal cruisers should allow plenty of time to tour these small towns offering big opportunities for exploration.
Palacios (pronounced Puh-LASH-uhs) is nestled along the Tres Palacios Bay, midway between Galveston and Corpus Christi. Its deep historical roots go back to the 1685 arrival of the French explorer LaSalle. In the mid-1990s, a ship lost in that expedition was discovered in Matagorda Bay. Recovery of the shipwrecked La Belle is considered one of the greatest archaeological efforts of the latter half of the 20th century. Palacios's City by the Sea Museum (361-972-1148, citybythebaymuseum.org) has a special display about the voyage. Every Fourth of July, residents in full costume re-enact LaSalle's landing.
The port is home to the largest fishing fleet on the Texas coast. Recreational boaters share the harbor with about 200 shrimp trawlers, one of the largest fleets in the United States --- it's no surprise that the port of Palacios is known as the Shrimp Capital of Texas. Downtown, the Outrigger Grill (515 Commerce St., 361-972-1479) serves up local shrimp a half-dozen different ways. As its T-shirt proudly boasts, Shrimp Happens!
Matagorda County Navigation District No. 1's newest recreational facility, South Bay Marina (361-972-3348, portofpalacios.com), is located several blocks east of the port, at the end of the two-mile seawall, and has a total of 41 boat slips --- 17 open and 24 coveredwith electric lifts. The marina is a gated facility with a harbor-side fuel depot.
Southwest along the coast to San Antonio Bay is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, which comprises 115,000 acres of abundant wildlife including American alligators, javelinas, roseate spoonbills, white-tailed deer, armadillos, raccoons, and spectacular wildflowers. More than 61,000 visitors annually visit the refuge, renowned as the winter home of the world's largest wild flock of endangered whooping cranes. The magnificent bird's story is one of survival --- the wild flock numbered only 18 in 1938, but successful conservation efforts have helped increase their number to nearly 300. Visitors' hearts are captured by the stately elegance and distinctive vocalizations of the crane, which grows to about five feet tall and has a seven-foot wingspan. Tour boats from Rockport cruise past the tidal flats and salt marshes to get a bird's-eye view. The most rewarding viewing occurs from November to March. Interestingly, in addition to North America's largest bird, the region is also home to one of the smallest: the hummingbird. Every September, Rockport celebrates the magnificent fall migration of the ruby-throated hummingbird.
The towns of Rockport and Fulton (known jointly as Rockport-Fulton) sit on a peninsula between Copano Bay and Aransas Bay, sheltered from the gulf by St. Joseph's Island. Steeped in colorful cultures and lush with ancient oaks, the area possesses a unique charm that, along with its famously clean beaches, helped earn it the No. 2 spot on AOL Travel's 2010 Best Beach Towns list. The region's unique beauty has lured many prominent artists, creating one of the largest per-capita concentrations of artists of any community in the country. As a result, there is a wealth of excellent galleries. The Rockport Center for the Arts' (361-729-5519, rockportartcenter.com) annual Art Festival, set on Aransas Bay, showcases high-quality artists, live music, a kids' activities tent, and more. This year's celebration takes place July 2-3.
Many of Rockport's eclectic restaurants display an artistic flair as well. At Latitude 28°02' (105 N. Austin St., 361-727-9009), an extensive art collection provides the perfect backdrop for elegant, casual dining. The Latitude oysters --- six freshly shucked oysters topped with margarita-jalapeño sorbetare a specialty. Glow (1815 Broadway, 361-727-2644) is a tiny, rustic seaside bistro. The former sailboat shop is now outfitted with mustard banquettes and an illuminated ship wheel and serves dishes such as fried quail legs and pan-seared gulf snapper.
Yachtsmen are welcome at the highly rated Key Allegro Marina (361-729-8264, keyallegromarina.com). The facility has open and covered deep-berth wet slips in a range of sizes up to 70 feet and is located just off the Intracoastal Waterway at MM521. Docks have been recently updated for water, electricity and lighting. On the marina dock is a new restaurant, Chart Room, which serves fresh seasonal items.
Boaters traveling the ICW on the way to Aransas Pass will see bottlenose dolphins, the most common dolphins in the gulf. Billing itself as Saltwater Heaven, Aransas Pass is a little-known fisherman's paradise where a wide variety of fish are always biting. The shrimping industry is central to the local economy.
Widely regarded as the largest shrimp festival in Texas, the Aransas Pass Shrimporee (aransaspass.org) has featured gulf shrimp prepared just about every way imaginable for more than half a century. Get your shrimp on this year June 8-10.
A huge focus currently in Aransas Pass is the development of the Conn Brown Harbor, the largest underdeveloped harbor in Texas with direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. Phase 1 of the waterside project is complete. Redfish Bay Boat House & Marina (361-758-9000, redfishbayboathouse.com) has a 277-space dry-stack building and an excellent onsite eatery, RedfishWillie's Waterfront Grill. By this spring, the marina will have dockage for four 100-foot yachts, 10 50-foot yachts, and 10 40-foot yachts, plus an additional 220 feet on a new T-dock. The area's deep water --- 24 feet in the harbor and 14 feet at the seawall --- make it an incredible new haven for large cruising yachts. Several major manufacturers are planning fishing tournaments and an owners' rendezvous at the new facility.
Accessed via causeway and a 24-hour free ferry service from Aransas Pass, Port Aransas is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Gulf Coast. It occupies almost half of 18-mile-long Mustang Island, the longest barrier island in the world. From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, catch the Port Aransas Shuttle to restaurants, boutiques and art galleries brimming with unique coastal treasures.
Two very popular festivals draw participants and spectators from all over the globe.Master sand sculptors from across North America gather to compete in Texas SandFest (texassandfest.com), one of the largest sand-sculpture competitions in the country. This year's event happens April 20-22. Amateurs are welcome, too. In October, Lakewood Yacht Club hosts the Annual Harvest Moon Regatta (harvestmoonregatta.com), the largest port-to-port event in North America. More than 200 participants sail the course, which goes approximately 150 miles along the coast from Galveston to Port Aransas and takes about 20 to 25 hours to complete. The always-lively awards party, at the finish line in Port Aransas, is sponsored by Bacardi Rum.
Leisurely cruisers will need much longer than the regatta's 25-hour finish time to explore that same route. Slow down to really experience and savor the beauty, bounty and serene lifestyle of the Bend.