Beaches Be Trippin': Five Texas Coast Spots Worth the Drive

Not a bad view in Port A - Photo by Callie Enlow
Photo by Callie Enlow
Not a bad view in Port A

Let’s face it, most of us Lone Stars view the Texas coast as a poor man’s Waikiki. Hell, maybe just a poor man’s Panama Beach — only to be used when there are no other viable options. Scarred by a jellyfish- and seaweed-infested early childhood visit to Galveston, I vowed never again to hit the brown, bubbly bathtub water, a resolve which only strengthened with subsequent years swimming and sunbathing on other major coasts. Even upon returning to Texas, media and friends’ reports of stingray attacks, trashy (in both senses of the word) beaches, and tar balls did not inspire me to head for the sand.
And then I did. Late last summer, friends lured me to a get-together in Port Aransas (aka Port A) and I realized the error of my assumptive ways. The sand was free of litter, the water was clear, and the beachgoers were not beer-bonging like it was rush week. In short, it covered the beach basics, and when you can’t afford a plane ticket, our little slice of Gulf Coast really hits the spot.
Go ahead, keep perpetuating the myth of the grossest coast (the better to keep our beaches asshole-free) but don’t get suckered into it like me. Test the waters with our five suggestions, and then return to find your own secret sea spot. Summer in South Texas will never be the same.

Port Aransas: The Chill Beach

One of the easiest beaches to reach for us Saytowners, Port Aransas has a laid-back vibe, but also provides most all the creature comforts that city folk expect. Port A’s public beach is uncommonly clean thanks to city efforts. For a $12 annual pass, you can park on the beach, or search for free parking between the jetties and Horace Caldwell pier and between markers 52-58. You can also rent a golf cart to putter around on and off the sand. Port A doesn’t attract the hordes like South Padre or Galveston, so don’t stress about jockeying for beach position. If you’re one of those nice people that doesn’t pee in the water, take comfort in the fact that Port A’s beach cleanliness extends to its free porta potties as well. Note that these niceties don’t necessarily apply to nearby Mustang Island State Park.
While this spot is best for maxin’ and relaxin,’ the agro vacation Nazis among you can find fun in surfing, fishing, sea kayaking, birding, and visiting the free University of Texas’ Marine Science Institute aquarium.
The resort town has a host of affordable homes for rent, via share sites like VRBO, Flipkey, and Airbnb, making this an appealing destination for family and friend groups.  

Sleep: Not into house rentals? Port A doesn’t have any five-star hotels, so lower your expectations and check into überfunky O’Neill Ford-designed Belles by the Sea. Not a lot of bell(e)s and whistles, but it has a pool, allows dogs, and some of the rooms offer kitchenettes.

Food: Wake up to blueberry pancakes at the breezy Beach and Station Street Grill and visit Shell’s for a more upscale lunch or dinner. Truthfully, the island dining can be pretty hit-or-miss, so utilize your kitchen if you have one. Try Port A Seafood Co. to pick up fresh fish to cook yourself, or their steamed to-go options. On the way home, hit up Snoopy’s Pier in Corpus Christi for fried fish and ice cream.

Nightlife: Catch live music on the water Thursday-Saturday at the Back Porch Bar, in town with the locals at the Tarpon Ice House, or hop the channel to Corpus Christi for a more urban option at House of Rock.

Rockport: The Romantic Beach

The drive to Rockport from SA clocks in at a shade over two-and-a-half hours, which is just long enough not to get into an epic fight with your beloved. Just kidding, I’m sure you two crazy kids are gonna make it, whoever you are. Five bucks will get your love bug into the calm, clean Rockport Beach Park, where you can snuggle under a cute palapa-style umbrella. Downtown Rockport has a cluster of more than 60 indie shops and several art galleries for purchasing tokens of affection. You can indulge Downton Abbey-on-the-Gulf fantasies with a tour of Fulton Mansion, constructed in the 1870s by George W. Fulton with a fortune largely made off his wife Harriet’s land inheritance, which he turned into a cattle tallow and hide empire. How romantic! Cap your evenings with strolls along the 1,500-foot lighted jetty pier at the end of Rockport Harbor.

Sleep: Check out comfy, cozy Lighthouse Inn on the waterfront, where each of the 78 rooms offers a private balcony or patio with rocking chairs to relax and watch the sunset. Ballers can look into the ritzy romance package, complete with fresh flowers, wine, and a stay in the Captain’s Suite. Couples on a budget can still aspire to royalty at Hunt’s Castle, which keeps guests entertained with live music three nights a week, plus kayak and fishing pole rentals.

Food: Hands down the best place for a romantic dinner is Glow, which makes excellent use of fresh, local seafood and produce, complemented by house-made bread and craft cocktails in its charming boathouse location. If you’re in town mid-week, inquire about the restaurant’s Wine Wednesdays class, which informs a small group about the wine of the week as well as offering tastings and canapés. A deal at $35 per person.

Nightlife: The late-night scene in Rockport isn’t what you’d call upscale, with mainly dive and sports bars. For slightly more fancy environs, head to Mermaids, just a few blocks off the beach and decked out in exotic woods, for a curated selection of wine, beer, and cigars. Burgers and coffee are also available.

Galveston: The City Beach

If you’re trying to accommodate your brood’s varying opinions on what constitutes a fun vacay, Galveston might be the place for you. The city boasts more than 30 miles of beaches (still covered in seaweed and jellyfish, I hear), though few are free, unless you hoof it instead of paying for parking. Your best cheap-o bet is to head to the Seawall, an attraction in itself with the longest continuous sidewalk (10.3 miles, lined with shops and restaurants and good for biking as well as walking) in the world on top of it. If you can’t hack the less-than-pristine water and sand, the shore offers a plethora of distractions from Victorian castles Bishop’s Palace and Moody Mansion to the 1877 Tall Ship Elissa to family-friendly amusement areas like Pleasure Pier (an old-timey park on the pier complete with Ferris Wheel), Schlitterbahn Galveston, and Moody Gardens (no, the pyramids on the beach aren’t left over from a Lost set, they house the park’s aquarium and rainforest habitat).

Sleep: Galveston is awash in mega-resorts, and if that’s your tip go for San Luis Resort, mainly for its insane “tropical” pool with a 45-foot waterslide and a waterfall. On the other hand, Galveston also offers many charming Victorian B&Bs. The clear winner in this category is Coastal Dreams, which isn’t right on the beach, but makes up for it with delightful personal service, a pool oasis, and a killer breakfast.

Food: Get a twofer by dining at the Spot on the Seawall for burgers and seafood and then ambling over to one of four nearby bars on the same complex for after-dinner drinks. For more than your average beachside fare, head toward town from the Strand to Rudy and Paco’s pan-Latin steakhouse con seafood. For breakfast or a more low-key meal, locals favor Sunflower Bakery and Cafe.

Nightlife: Even if you’re not a fan of the featured entertainment, it’s worth it to go to The Grand 1894 Opera House; think the Majestic, but even more over-the-top, and family-friendly to boot. For adults, partying on the beach, or next to it, is incredibly easy. There’s a couple of dedicated gay bars including Robert’s Lafitte on Avenue Q, which produces a locally legendary drag revue Saturday and Sunday evenings.

South Padre Island: The Party Beach

Aside from the debaucherous Spring Break crowd, South Padre delivers hedonistic good times no matter the season and you won’t need beer goggles to find
the soft, sandy beaches attractive. However, you might need to be sauced to ignore the trash in more crowded spots. There’s an incredibly helpful Google map online titled South Padre Island Beach Access Map or you can pony up $5 to drive into Isla Blanca Park. Isla Blanca has some of the best surfing in Texas, and many visitors are lucky enough to glimpse dolphins. Others can’t get past grungy facilities and lackadaisical park employees, preferring to spend their dough at a hotel with beach access. More than 50 bars populate less than 30 square miles, making it easy to get your swerve on before, during, and after surf sets. Like most other Texas Coast spots, SPI lacks for refined lodging (for instance, Holiday Inn Express is the No. 1 ranked hotel on Trip Advisor’s webpage for the island), and visitors should expect to pay River Walk prices for economy motel rooms (last we checked, HIE’s rooms were more than $200 for a one-night summer weekend stay).

Sleep: A better deal than paying through the nose for an Econo Lodge might be renting a condo. One complex that’s both affordable and highly recommended is Gulfview 1 and 2, which has public beach access and is within walking distance of Isla Blanca. There’s also a pool, hot tubs, and tennis courts. Look for their units on the VRBO website.

Food: The 35-year-old Blackbeard’s has staying power for a reason. Go big with the seafood supreme platter, which includes fish, bivalves, and crustaceans galore, broiled or fried. Kill your hangover with a breakfast quesadilla and enjoy the island’s best cup of coffee at Yummies Coffee Shack.

Nightlife: You can’t go a half-mile on the beach without running into some type of drinking establishment, but if you’re hoping to winnow the options: Clayton’s Beach Bar is a giant wooden shack on the gulf side of the island that sets off fireworks every Saturday night; Wanna Wanna is another famous bar on the beach, as noted by party aficionados Playboy and MTV, serving up strong cocktails and nightly live music. Padre Island Brewing Company, a grandfather of the Texas indie brewing scene, prices their rotating brewed-onsite beer at a remarkably low rate ($2.75 for a 10-ounce pilsner) and will let you leave with a growler (half-gallon jug) of your favorite for $16, which you can refill during happy hour for $8.

Boca Chica: The Survivalist Beach

Maybe you take the “getting away from it all” aspect of vacations literally, and you just want to get away, from. it. all. Check Boca Chica State Park, a secret spot Brownsville has been keeping for years, only recently blown up by a Texas Monthly cover and the announcement that SpaceX has been buying up lots just a quarter-mile away for a potential launch site.
Despite being a state park, there’s zero infrastructure (not even porta potties), though you can camp, fish, and swim. The water is clear and you can drive on the beach, or take a four-wheeler, the preferred transportation method of locals. Some people even take metal detectors to search for buried treasure leftover from pirate days. The nearby mouth of the Rio Grande provides some of the world’s best bird-watching at the World Birding Center, as well as excellent fishing and paddling opportunities. If the Survivor shtick gets old, Brownsville is just 20-40 minutes away. The Brownsville natives I interviewed all mentioned that upon leaving Boca Chica, you’ll pass through a border patrol checkpoint, and you know what that means.

Sleep: Camping is the only option on Boca Chica. Again, it’s worth repeating that things like lights, showers, toilets, and pavilions aren’t available. Call the Brownsville CVB, (800) 626-2639, for details.

Food: If you tire of spit-roasting your fresh-caught fish Hunger Games-style, make the trek to Brownsville and check out the wonderfully named Toddle Inn (1740 Central) for breakfast tacos or downtown’s teeny-tiny Rutledge Hamburgers (1126 E Washington) later in the day.

Nightlife: Naked dance party by the campfire, anyone?