By Rob McCorkle
Travel time from:
- Austin - 3.5 hours /
- Brownsville - 3.5 hours /
- Dallas - 6.5 hours /
- Houston - 3.5 hours /
- San Antonio - 3 hours /
- Lubbock - 9.5 hours
Along the coastal bend, you’ll find birds aplenty, towering trees, funky art, rich history and tons of easygoing charm.
“Osprey at 10 o’clock,” Tommy Moore calls out over the public address system to binocular-wielding passengers lining the port side of The Skimmer’s upper deck. Heads swivel mechanically, as if on cue, glasses focused on the raptor soaring above the saltwater flats, clutching its writhing, silver-scaled prey in its sharp talons.
It’s still a couple of hours until sunset for more than a dozen birdwatchers who have paid $35 each to go on the Saturday afternoon Whooping Crane Tour led by Moore. The 40-foot, shallow-draft vessel makes two trips a day during the busy whooping crane season that begins around Christmas time and concludes when the last of the endangered feathered giants head north by mid-April. Moore has set anchor in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway just offshore from the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, home to a large contingent of wintering whoopers. Though only late October, some of the early-arriving migrants already have staked out their territory in the refuge’s wetlands.
Known as the Lobstick Family because they hail from the Lobstick River region of upstate New York, the two adults and a juvenile can be seen strutting through the shallows, heads disappearing from time to time to snag blue crabs. The juvenile, we learn, survived a venomous snakebite the previous spring. As viewed through my binoculars, however, junior and his parents appear to be in good shape. For several of the tour participants, including my companion, this is their first sighting of the amazing cranes that can stand 5 feet tall and have a 7-foot wingspan. Each year, about 200, or roughly half of North America’s surviving whoopers, spend the winter at Aransas NWR. The whooping crane is just one of the 30 to 60 different bird species typically seen on The Skimmer birding tours.
Coming and going from the cranes’ nesting ground, Moore points out dozens of avian species, as well as notable landmarks along this part of the Texas coast, such as the Copano Bridge that joins Live Oak Peninsula to the Lamar Peninsula. The area’s history is a rich one. Copano Bay, according to our pilot, was the site of the first seaport in Texas, El Copano. “There are still shellcrete roads of that settlement that we point out on our history trip that we do in conjunction with the Maritime Museum,” says Moore, a personable skipper and credible birder who seems perfectly suited to his vocation.
History, birding and dolphin tours are just a few of the many compelling reasons to visit Rockport-Fulton, the twin bayside communities 35 miles up the coast from Corpus Christi that depend on tourism for economic survival. Fishing for redfish, drum and other saltwater trophies, gallery hopping, museum browsing and kayaking prove major draws as well.
In fact, it was the latter — bay kayaking — that was at the top of our to-do list during our most recent visit to this seaside town, which is blessed by abundant sunshine, sparkling waters and dense forests of wind-sculpted live oaks. Moore, who in 2003 traded his former corporate life in Houston for a boating charter in Fulton, was more than happy to oblige my companion and me with a morning kayak adventure during our first full day in the area.
The day before, we had made it from central Texas to the coast with just enough daylight to marvel at The Big Tree, a massive live oak tree on Lamar Peninsula estimated to be more than 2,000 years old. The charter member of the Live Oak Society of America boasts a 35-foot circumference and crown spread of 89 feet.
That evening, with a plethora of fine restaurants to choose from, we opt for Charlotte Plummer’s Seafare Restau-rant, overlooking Fulton Harbor. A mainstay in the area since 1970, the seafood restaurant provided our first fix of the fresh seafood for which Rockport-Fulton is known. A shrimp cocktail, crab cakes and cup of shrimp gumbo set the stage for our entrees of shrimp kabobs and pico-de-crab amberjack, an exotic take on grilled fish featuring a crab meat topping and fresh pico de gallo.
After a restful night at Pelican Bay Resort, we board The Skimmer for the 30-minute ride across the bay to St. Joseph Island. We slip into our Heritage Marquesa kayaks and head for the nearest inlet leading to a watery maze of canals and miniature lakes populated by blue herons, brown pelicans and other waterfowl.
The quiet, shallow-drafting kayaks allow us to get within 20 yards of some assorted avifauna, such as the pink-hued roseate spoonbill that we later learn gets its rosy hue from the seafood they eat. After almost two hours of leisurely paddling (it was my companion’s first time in a kayak), we beach the vessels on the island to take a closer look at a noisy heron rookery. But it’s the ample population of hermit crabs scuttling across the sands that keeps us entertained until The Skimmer arrives at 1 p.m. to take us back to the mainland.
While my companion opts for an afternoon siesta at our cottage, I decide to head just up Highway 35 into Rockport to tour the Texas Maritime Museum. The museum, which is “dedicated to preserving and interpreting the rich maritime heritage of Texas,” is located in Rockport Harbor. I recommend starting on the top floor, which affords an excellent view of docked shrimp boats and Aransas Bay, and working your way downstairs.
The third-floor observation deck features a detailed map of the Texas Coastal Bend and the area’s 20,000 acres of landlocked bays, as well as exhibits detailing Rockport’s history and location on a spit of land between Copano and Aransas bays. I learn from the exhibit that in Rockport’s early years, it served as a key shipping point for cattle and cattle products carried by large ships that docked on Water Street to load their cargo. The port’s importance declined with the coming of the railroads after the Civil War. The Rockport seawall, breakwater and new harbor developed in 1940 led to a boom in the city’s commercial fishing and shrimping industries.
Did you know that shrimping didn’t catch on until after the turn of the 20th century because fishermen considered the crustacean an expendable by-product from the catch of the day? That’s just one interesting tidbit I learn perusing the exhibits celebrating all things nautical displayed on two floors. Don’t miss the second-floor display of vintage rods, reels, outboard motors and navigational instruments on loan from Fort Worth oil magnate Perry Bass. No doubt anglers will be fascinated with the museum’s collection of wooden lures, carved in the 1930s by a local legend — E.W. “Shorty” Townsend.
Dominating the museum’s ground floor is the La Belle Odyssey. The Maritime Museum is one of a handful of coastal museums exhibiting excavated items from French explorer La Salle’s flagship, La Belle, which ran aground and sank in Matagorda Bay in 1684. “A Day in the Life” uses recovered artifacts, such as textiles, woodblock rope, a harpoon and nails, and interpretive panels to inform visitors about the deplorable living conditions aboard the four French ships that accidentally ended up in Texas and tried to establish a Gulf Coast colony.
After a long day of being a tourist, hunger pangs are setting in again. The tasty Texas Hill Country-meets-Gulf Coast cuisine of former Austin chef Jay Moore is calling. It’s only a five-minute drive from our cottage to One Oak Plaza, a nondescript strip shopping center that houses AransaZu Restaurant. Moore, who moved to Fulton five years ago, describes his fare as a “layering of flavors” with New Orleans influences. Local art, white tablecloths and an intimate setting add to the appeal of AransaZu.
Gorgeous, sunny weather greets us on our last morning on the coast. White wooden rocking chairs on the front porch of each of the 20 pastel-colored cottages beckon guests to savor a cup of coffee and admire the conservation-minded planning that went into developing Pelican Bay Resort’s five acres.
The resort features a three-bedroom lodge, garden mini-suites with a view of the pool and rainbow-colored cottages tucked into a tropical landscape amid a picturesque oak forest. Co-owner Laura Denham describes the resort’s look — featuring sky blues, pale yellows and pinks — as “coastal New England.” One of the resort’s biggest bonuses is a guests-only, lighted fishing pier a short stroll away.
Our last day is reserved for checking out the area’s celebrated wildlife habitat and birding opportunities, and exploring the shops and art galleries in Rockport’s Heritage District.
Breakfast tacos from the Rockport Bakery, which specializes in cakes, cookies and pastries of all kinds, gets us off to a quick start. The first stop just down the highway is the Demonstration Garden & Wetlands Pond Area Nature Trail, a 1991 community project that inspired the state’s Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. It features a wetlands pond, woodland boardwalk and 19 interpretive stops detailing the Coastal Bend’s abundant flora and fauna, and historical tidbits about Aransas County. Please do heed the signs that advise visitors to bring mosquito repellent.
Lunch is our last chance for seafood, so we heed Moore’s advice and ensconce ourselves at “the best patio” in town at bayside Moon Dog’s Seaside Eatery. Boiled shrimp cocktail, a shrimp po-boy and an above-average coleslaw live up to the eatery’s reputation and send us on our way.
Even on a Sunday afternoon, many of the shops and galleries downtown are open. Cities four times Rockport’s size would be fortunate to have an exhibit space like The Gallery of Rockport. Owner Derek Hurst has renovated one of the downtown’s oldest structures, a 115-year-old seafood restaurant known for 30 years as Corky’s, and turned it into an airy showplace for some of the coast’s and Texas’ outstanding sculpture, paintings and original works. It features the works of 60 artists, who offer their paintings, drawings, posters, photography, metal and glass works in a variety of price ranges. The gallery prides itself on exhibiting the talents of such noted Texas outdoor artists as Herb Booth, Larry Felder, Al Barnes, Michael Gilbert and Wade Butler. Butler, a former fisheries biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, designed the current saltwater fishing stamp.
“The success of art in Rockport,” Hurst explains, “is owing to the fact that people come here to buy art to take home that reminds them of the experience they had on the coast. Most artists live here because of the exceptional wildlife and the area’s natural beauty that drew them here. They capture that beauty in their art.”
Funky and provocative works greet us at St. Charles Art Gallery across the street. The gallery is a fun place to browse among the eclectic collection of jewelry, sculpture, drawings and paintings by contemporary and traditional local artists.
As I point my car north, I recall gallery owner Hurst’s observation that Rockport enjoys its reputation as a thriving artist colony to visitors who want to take a piece of their coastal experience home with them. I hope I have succeeded in doing just that, visualizing the photo I took from the bow of The Skimmer: a lipstick sunset smeared with the dark streaks of migrating waterfowl soaring above Aransas Bay. And I smile as I remember that ice chest in the backseat, sstuffed full of stuffed crabs and fresh shrimp from P.J. Shrimp Co. that will offer one last transitory and gustatory moment of my fond coastal memories when we get home.
- Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, (800) 826-6441, <www.rockport-fulton.org>
- Whooping Crane Tours & Coastal Birding (The Skimmer), (877) TX-BIRDS, <www.rockportadventures.com>
- Pelican Bay Resort, (866) 729-7177, <www.pelicanbayresort.com>
- Charlotte Plummer’s Seafare Restaurant, (361) 729-1185
- Texas Maritime Museum, (866) 729-AHOY, <www.texasmaritimemuseum.org>
- AransaZu Restaurant, (361) 727-1105
- Rockport Bakery, (361) 729-5044
- Moon Dog’s Seaside Eatery, (361) 729-6868
- The Gallery of Rockport, (361) 729-2900, <www.thegalleryofrockport.com>
- St. Charles Art Gallery, (361) 790-5313
- P.J. Shrimp Co., (361) 729-0711