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A Texas Coast primer, How to make the most of a visit to the shore

By Pete Szilagyi
Special to the American-Statesman

Don't visualize the Texas Coast as an unbroken ribbon of sandy beaches, bright blue water and seagulls on weathered pilings. The coast has as many personalities and ironies as Texas itself.

Remote stretches of coastline probably still look as they did when La Salle sailed into Matagorda more than 300 years ago, while some bays and seaside communities -- let's be honest here -- are smelly and unpleasant.

Chemical plants and refineries are more common near Houston and Corpus Christi than at other places along the coast, yet the prevailing sea breeze usually blows their stink away from the beaches. And industry does manage to co-exist with tourism and nature, and even provide the occasional photogenic moment -- such as when a flock of exotic shorebirds comes in for a landing with gray, hulking plants as backdrop.

Nature itself can be rough on the coast. Off-the-beaten-path beaches that could be sparkling seaside getaways have been victimized by the damaging winds and currents that constantly gnaw on the coast. Parts of Sargent Beach and the Bolivar Peninsula are being taken back by the sea, yet rich wildlife habitat, prime fishing and serene dunes are not far away.

The coast is a human patchwork, too. Native Texans who played as children in the knee-deep coastal marshes now work alongside Vietnamese Americans and Mexican Americans to bring in the shrimp harvest.

Young couples with loud stereos and yappy dogs, families from Dallas with ice chests and bicycles strapped to their station wagons, unshaven and unshod retirees surf fishing at dawn, yupsters in BMWs and designer swimsuits -- they're all at the coast, and likely having a great time.

Dwelling-wise, you'll find leaning, sun-bleached trailer houses that saw their last occupants a decade ago. Or towers with half-million dollar condos. Or Dave and Doris' motor home with Arkansas plates and the sign: "Retired and spending our kids' money.''

See, you can't generalize. Every beach has its own personality. Every discovery leads to more puzzlements. That's part of the fun.

Now, speaking of puzzles, are there any questions?

Q: How long is the Texas Coast?

A: As the seagull flies -- from Sabine Pass on the north to Boca Chica beach on the south -- the coast is about 375 miles long, with thousands of quiet little bays and estuaries along the way.

Q: How far is the coast from Austin?

A: Galveston is 208 miles by auto, with Port Aransas, in mid-coast, about the same. South Padre Island is 330 miles from Austin. Except for Interstate 37 to Corpus Christi, most routes to the coast from Austin are not access-controlled highways. So the going can be slower than on a freeway, especially for travelers with a weakness for roadside barbecue stands.

Q: Can I fly?

A: Southwest Airlines and Continental Airlines offer service between Austin and Corpus Christi, where auto rentals and shuttles are available to beachside hotels or nearby Port Aransas and Rockport. Harlingen, about 45 miles from South Padre beaches, and Houston Hobby Airport, 40 miles from Galveston, also are served by Southwest. Continental flies between Austin and Houston Intercontinental Airport, north of Houston.

Q: Can I drive on the beach?

A: Some coastal communities have restricted beach driving the past few years, but vast expanses of lonely beach are still open to cars. Some beaches that require 4x4 vehicles are posted with signs. A few are not, and any beach can become soft or rough after a storm or high tide. Local entrepreneurs may specialize in towing stuck tourists out of the sand, but they are not cheap.

Q: Where are the fewest people, with no condos or development?

A: Matagorda Island is the coast's pristine treasure, accessible by ferry from Port O'Connor on Thursdays through Sundays. The state park on the island offers camping and modest facilities. Call (512) 983-2215 for the ferry schedule.

Beautiful and pretty much unspoiled, Padre Island National Seashore is a 70-mile barrier island, undeveloped and open to the public for camping and enjoying. Five miles past the visitors center just south of Corpus Christi, 4x4 vehicles are required. Big Shell Beach, 22 miles down the coast, is especially pretty.

Q: Where are the best seashells found?

A: The beaches with fewest people generally offer the best sea shelling. Those would be, again, Matagorda Island and Padre Island National Seashore.

Q: Where's an affordable, quiet place to rent a beach house for a few days?

A: That depends on the season, of course, but many Austinites head east of Galveston to the Bolivar Peninsula for a relatively inexpensive beach vacation. Rentals are available from Crystal Beach east to beyond the town of High Island. Be advised that parts of the peninsula are subject to severe beach erosion. For information, call the local chamber of commerce, (800) 386-7863, or consult the Web at http://www.crystalbeach.com.

Q: How expensive is it?
A: Thousands of rental units in all price ranges are available. Some examples: A two bedroom, two bath beach house with an ocean view rents for about $150 nightly in Port Aransas during the busy season. A 2-2 luxury condo with equipped kitchen and living room in a South Padre Island high rise costs about $300 nightly. A motel room on Galveston's Seawall Boulevard might be $95 with a minimum two-night stay. Tent camping on the beach at Padre Island National Seashore is free.

Q: Where are the fishing hot spots?

A: Shore and jetty fishing is usually worthwhile all along the coast, but serious fishermen frequent the waters around Port O'Connor on the north coast, Rockport on the middle coast and the Laguna Madre, a shallow bay between Corpus Christi and Port Isabel to the south. Port Mansfield, a remote town along the Laguna Madre, also is a common fishing destination. Day and half-day offshore fishing charters to snapper reefs are available in many coastal communities.

Be sure to first check the Texas Parks & Wildlife's weekly coastal fishing report: http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/fish/recreat/recreat.htm

Q: What can I expect to catch?

A: For beach, bay and jetty fishing, the game fish of choice is the redfish, also known as the red drum. Redfish are tasty and fun to catch, and especially plentiful this year. Speckled sea trout, flounder and black drum (uglier than redfish but mighty tasty) also are highly desirable.

Q: Do I need a fishing license?

A: Yes. The cost for Texas residents is $6 to $19, depending how long the license is valid. Licenses can be charged to a credit card by calling the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department's license hotline, (800) 895-4248. Licenses are available at bait shops and fishing supply stores, as well.

Q: What about birding?
A: Bird watchers from all over the country flock to the Texas Coast, which offers an extraordinary variety of sea, marsh and land species. Whooping cranes winter at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where trails, boardwalks and towers help visitors catch a glimpse of the cranes and other birds. Coastal hot spots also include High Island Sanctuary and Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, both east of Galveston. The Rockport area (800) 242-0071 has an annual bird and hummingbird festival (Sept. 11-14 this year) that draws thousands.

The state parks department offers an informative free pamphlet on the coastal birding trail. Send a postcard to Great Texas Birding Trail, TP&WD, 4200 Smith School Road, Austin 78744.

Q: What are the beaches like?
A: Texas beaches range from awful to sublime. Some have been badly eroded and the sand is muddy, but beaches in areas frequented by tourists are generally white or grayish sand and quite acceptable. Magnificent, remote beaches made of billions of tiny sea shells are accessible along Padre Island National Seashore. Like many Florida resort cities, South Padre Island has deep white sand beaches.

Q: Are the beaches clean?

A: Litter from commercial boat traffic is a problem where currents take it ashore. However, most communities and the State of Texas conduct regular trash clean-ups and tourist beaches are usually kept fairly clean. Another problem is the oily tar that washes onto beaches from oil rigs and tankers. Beach-side businesses sell a solvent to remove the tar from bathers' feet, but the tar can permanently stain clothing and upholstery.

Q: Is the water clean?

A: Yes, along the open Gulf, water can be quite clean and clear, but coastal wind and weather affect water murkiness on a day-to-day basis, and heavy rain inland can muddy the bays where rivers empty. Gulf water along the south coast is generally more clear and blue than the north because the impact from development is less. It's prudent to avoid swimming in Lavaca Bay and Galveston Bay, where chemical contamination has affected wildlife.

Q: Is it warm?

A: Water temperatures along the upper coast -- Galveston, for example -- can dip into the low 60s in mid-winter. A hot summer can make the Gulf of Mexico feel like a bathtub, with temperatures of 90 degrees or higher. Typical summer water temperatures are in the 80s. Water along the mid-to lower coast is a bit warmer in all seasons than the upper coast and much more comfortable than the chilly Pacific at California and Mexico beaches.

Q: What kind of weather can I expect?

A: The south coast has warmer, more tropical winters but sometimes gets sharp, cold winds. At Point Isabel, near South Padre Island beaches, the average July high temperature is 93 degrees, the average January low is 51.

Freezing is uncommon, even along the upper coast, but fog and low cloudiness are more likely to obscure the sun in winter.

Summer temperatures all along the coast are often milder than inland, with a refreshing sea breeze. Humidity is normally very high. Every day at the coast is a bad hair day.

Q: Can I camp on the beach?

A: Much of the coast is open for camping, but individual cities and counties that control sections of the beach may have ordinances prohibiting camping. Signs listing prohibited activities may be posted at beach access points. State parks along the coast offer tent camping spots and RV hookups. The best primitive tent camping is on Matagorda Island and the Padre Island National Seashore.

Q: What's surfing like?

A: The waves can't match California or Hawaii, but Texas beaches draw thousands of surfers who know how to read the weather for the best surf. Beaches from mid-coast to South Padre Island offer the best waves, but the mecca of Texas surfing is probably J.P. Luby Park on the Padre Island near Corpus Christi. A comprehensive Texas Surfing Web site is at http://www.iwl.net/customers/shend/guide.htm

Q: Sharks?

A: Several species of sharks are indigenous to coastal waters but contact with bathers is extremely rare. Experts suggest that menstruating women stay out of the water. Sharks may be attracted to waters around surf fishermen, near sport fishermen in boats chumming near shore, and navigation channels where fishing boats regularly throw unwanted fish overboard.

Q: Other unpleasant or dangerous wildlife?

A: Inexplicably, large numbers of Portuguese man-of-war, a jellyfish-like creature, sometimes wash up on beaches. Their tentacles can inflict a nasty sting, but the creatures are generally easy to avoid. Cabbagehead jellyfish, another occasional beach hazard, should also be avoided. Sand fleas and mosquitoes are periodically encountered on all Gulf of Mexico beaches.

Q: Where can I see dolphins?

A: Dolphins live along the entire Texas Coast, with prime viewing spots from the ferries that run between Port Bolivar and Galveston and between Aransas Pass and Port Aransas. Both the dolphins and the ferries are delights.

Q: Where can I take my children to see big ships?
A: Hundreds of ocean-going ships a year pass next to the Galveston east jetty at the east end of Seawall Boulevard, where a clear view is possible. The north jetties at Port Aransas offer a view of ships entering and leaving Corpus Christi Bay. A few Galveston and Corpus Christi wharves, where ships load and unload, are also fairly accessible for viewing. Shrimp boats are so common that they're hard to miss.

Q: Can I take my dog?
A: Beaches in urban areas typically don't allow dogs or they require that dogs be leashed, but you probably won't have to go too far to find an open beach with no prohibition. If you plan to stay at a motel, check ahead to make sure pets are allowed. Few motel operators welcome wet, sandy dogs.

Q: Where are the best places to take children?
A: Several beaches in urban areas have lifeguards and play areas for children. Check with the city parks department at your intended destination.

Corpus Christi and Galveston have especially nice museums and other diversions for children if the beach gets boring or stormy. Day trips from South Padre Island include the historic Port Isabel lighthouse, the Brownsville Zoo and Matamoros, Mexico.

Q: Where's a good windsurfing spot?

A: Rentals and windsurfing lessons, not to mention hundreds of square miles of open bay and reliable winds, are available along the Kennedy Causeway south of Corpus Christi. The causeway, an extension of Padre Island Boulevard, is a popular place for all water sports, including boating and bay fishing.

Q: What about skinny dipping?

A: Prudence and common sense, not to mention the law, should cause you to keep your trunks or swimsuit on in public areas. However, specific beaches on South Padre Island and the Bolivar Peninsula have clothing optional areas. It's best to check with local law enforcement about the status of the beaches. A discreet and informative Web site describing the nude beaches is at http://www.sss.org/texnude/texpublic.html.

Q: Can I buy fresh seafood off fishing boats?

A: Yes, more or less. Wharves where the boats unload are usually off-limits to tourists, but towns with fishing, crabbing, shrimping and oystering boats typically have small retail and wholesale fish houses that are happy to sell fresh-caught seafood. Some typically don't deal with retail customers, so they may not have traditional display areas and signs. Just walk in and ask.

It's common along coastal highways to see people selling shrimp from ice chests. Quite often the shrimp is fresh and priced right, but exercise the same caution you would anywhere seafood is sold. In other words, just because the coast is nearby is no guarantee that the shrimp is still fresh.

Q: What is the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway?

A: It's a dredged shipping channel that runs along the Texas Coast behind the shore marshes and barrier islands to provide protection for waves and storms. Don't be surprised if you're sunning at the beach, squinting across the Gulf water trying to see Cancun, and hear a freighter or tugboat pushing barges behind you, on the land side.

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