A small barrier island, sandwiched between Padre Island to the south and San José Island to the north, Mustang Island is named after the wild horses which once roamed its shore. No one knows how they got there. One school of thought is that the Spaniards brought them, or that perhaps they swam to it from a shipwreck.[This story was originally posted in our June 2017 issue and was written several months before this area was deviated by Hurricane Harvey. Today, nearly a year later, this beautiful area is well on it’s way to reviving itself and it needs our support more than ever. As far as we know, all attractions mentioned in this story are open for business unless stated otherwise.]
Today, Mustang Island is a beautiful seaside destination, an oasis of abundant flora and fauna and a fisherman’s paradise. The island’s only town, Port Aransas, is the Fishing Capital of Texas. Port A, as it’s colloquially known, is both charming and touristy, a tiny place with a population of under 4,000 and single lane roads navigable via golf cart. On the one hand, you’ll find families relaxing and playing on the beach—an expanse of cinnamon sand 17 miles long—on the other, you’ll find bird watchers wielding guidebooks and binoculars in search of the bizarre Roseate Spoonbill, a wading bird with a fleeting resemblance to a flamingo. Fishermen spend their mornings at sea or even casting a line on the beach; afternoons are spent eating their catch—barbecued at home or prepared for them at one of a dozen local eateries. At night, the town comes alive as families, fishermen and surfers converge with the occasional bachelor and bachelorette party.
For me, it’s my first family vacation with a baby and my first visit to the Texas Coast.
We stay at Cinnamon Shore, a family-friendly beachside community. The development is brand new, but with architecture reminiscent of traditional seaside destinations, I feel like I’ve stepped back in time.
The streets are lined with palm trees and wooden beach homes with wraparound porches painted pale blue, light yellow and a subdued shade of green. Guests are greeted with signs that read “Welcome to the Grant’s Beach House” and “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul.”
A stroll around the property reveals Lake Colby with a quaint fishing pier. Magnificent three-story beach homes cluster at the water’s edge. Not far away, Lake Gavin, is overlooked by an infinity pool called Kiera, whose facilities include a seaside cafe and fitness center.
The Town Center is at the heart of it all—a circular lawn criss-crossed with strings of lights and strewn with wooden deck chairs. This charming spot plays host to outdoor summer concerts, community movie nights and ice cream socials. It’s also home to Lisabella’s, a Mediterranean-style restaurant.
Our beach home, Suits Us, welcomes my family like a warm embrace. The sun is shining, it’s a little after noon, and with nothing to do but relax and keep an eye on Baby Theo, our excited 10-month-old, we grab a cold beer and sit in twin rocking chairs on one of three terraces.
The decor is unashamedly “beach”—wooden and white with accents of blue and green.
There are frames filled with starfish and seashells and a pair of three-foot metallic seahorses. Wooden shelves house ceramic fish, large conch shells and fishing floats. In one bathroom, Lilly Pulitzer prints give advice such as “live every hour like it’s happy hour” and “life is better at the beach”, alongside colorful images of crabs in bikinis and margaritas with too many limes.
With the sound of seagulls and the cool sea breeze calling our names we stroll up and over the sand dunes to the beach via a beautiful wooden boardwalk. Nothing but white peaked waves, sand and the infinite blue greet us. Hand in hand, we dip our toes in the waves; Theo laughs as water splashes up his legs.
We snap family selfies before we jump into our golf cart, our sights set on Port Aransas.
With the ocean on our right and towering sand dunes on our left, we whizz along the beach road, a sand track, admiring seagulls, herons and pelicans. Every 100 meters or so we pass groups of people. There’s an SUV parked next to two freestanding hammocks; a couple lounges in deck chairs, twin lines slung into the ocean. A father and son fly a kite, while his daughter builds a sandcastle, and a lone woman sits cross-legged as she stares into the swell. Another woman practices yoga, her feet digging into the sand as she doubles over into downward facing dog. I’m fascinated by a pink motorcycle, complete with pink hubcaps and splash guards.
In about 20 minutes we find ourselves on the outskirts of town and we head inland in search of lunch. We attempt to use Google Maps but get lost, one, two, three times. Eventually, we chow down at a taco stand, Hog Island, famous for their slow-roasted pork. [We were unable to confirm that Hog Island is still open.] We later find the local supermarket, confusingly named Family Services, and stock up on essentials.
The next day, my dad and my husband head to Palmilla Beach, just one of a handful of golf courses found on the Texas Coast. Built by Arnold Palmer in 2008, the course is as beautiful as it is challenging.
The boys return with mixed opinions.
“The views on the back nine are breathtaking,” my dad says.
“It’s as hard as they come,” Philip adds. From their twin grins it’s clear they had a great time nonetheless.
My mother and I spend a lazy day at the beach and relaxing by the Dune Pool at Cinnamon Shore. Theo enjoys pushing his stroller in the sand and throwing rocks into the pool.
For dinner, we head to La Playa, a Mexican restaurant whose specialty is seafood. Sipping on giant margaritas, we order the Tres Mariscos Enchiladas, the Blackened Tuna Tacos and the special—grilled pork shank. We’re surrounded by mismatched Mexican memorabilia; a lone Día de los Muertos skeleton hangs from the ceiling, and a byorful metal gecko clings to the wall alongside a worn sombrero. It’s not classy, but it is a treat—the pork falls off the bone. The tacos and enchiladas are so good there’s a tug-o-war over the last bite.
Early the next morning we leave Theo with his grandparents and set off on a fishing adventure with Tejas Guide Service. We meet Captain Josh Garcia at Fisherman’s Warf, which looks exactly like a scene from a JAWS movie. It’s probably a coincidence, but Port A was once home to a huge shark fishing industry.
Fishing is a big deal in Port Aransas. You can go bay fishing, deep sea fishing and wade fishing. There’s even flounder gigging. At Cinnamon Shore you can rent a pole and cast a line into one of their two ponds.
We come to a stop in the flats. The water is crystal clear, three feet deep and perfectly still. Patches of oysters poke above the water’s surface. “We don’t fish those. There’s only a 50/50 shot they’re alive because half the time they’re out of the water,” Josh says as he drops anchor, grabs fishing poles and casts two lines before we’ve even stood up. We’re using live bait—four-inch shrimp—and are hoping to catch redfish.
“That’s a duck blind,” Josh says pointing to a floating pile of debris; a stack of pallets covered in palm fronds. “People look forward to coming out and decorating their duck blind,” he adds. There are two short duck hunting seasons in Port Aransas, and combining fishing and duck hunting into one trip, “casting and blasting,” is very popular.
The lines have been out just 10 minutes and a fish has already taken our bait. Philip reels him in—a small redfish about 13 inches long. We snap a pic and toss him back.
Before we’ve even had chance to post it on Instagram we feel a tug on the line. Another redfish, this time 24 inches long, 6 pounds and our dinner.
Before we head home, we catch a handful of smaller fish and spot herons, pelicans and dolphins. We cruise by the local lighthouse. We drink beer.
Back on dry land, we head straight to a local bar recommended by Josh. The Back Porch Bar sits on the water’s edge surrounded by fishing vessels. We order cocktails and food from Harbour Grill Lights, a literal hole-in-the-wall next door. The Gulf Shrimp Po’Boy is hands down the best I’ve ever eaten.
On Saturday night we taxi back to the harbor for a night out. We start off at Shorty’s, a wooden shack with hundreds of caps hanging from the ceiling and a wall filled with pigs of all shapes and sizes. We enjoy $1 beers and listen to live music before we move on to the Back Porch Bar for margaritas. We end the night at Bernie’s Beach House, the local nightclub, where Capt. Josh is the DJ.
On our final day, we head over to Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center. A beautiful wooden boardwalk stretches out into the cattails, and the observation tower offers panoramic views of the surrounding flats. Great-tailed grackles perch along the boardwalk, a group of neotropic cormorants are hanging out at the observation tower, and a white-tailed hawk flies overhead. We’re excited to spot an American alligator sunning himself in the shallows.
As our action-packed weekend comes to an end we take a final moment to relax in the rocking chairs on the porch. Chilled beers in hand, we toast to returning very soon.