Monday, May 27, 2024 May 27, 2024
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The Texas Coast


Perhaps not as high in profile as other American coastlines – say New England or southern California – the Texas Gulf Coast has taken advantage of that relative refuge from the spotlight to do its own thing. Over the last couple of decades the sandy shores of the Gulf of Mexico have gradually evolved into a remarkably diverse landscape blending both glitzy sophistication and quiet splendor.

Once characterized by a procession of sleepy seaside communities whose streets and beaches slumbered in silence until summer weekends rolled around, the Texas Coast has awakened to a new day. Seekers of solitude will still find deserted stretches of shoreland, but punctuating those majestic beaches are condominium towers jutting toward the heavens, entire oceanside cities nestled among the dunes, glittering new hotels boasting top-of-the-line luxuries, services and epicurean cuisines, gala events from Galveston’s topsy-turvy Mardi Gras to the festive weekend train jaunts from Corpus Christi to Laredo and back, and cosmopolitan shops like Buccellati, Tiffany and Pratesi.

So, come along as we travel the coast, mapping the hot spots on the Texas Riviera. Our first stop-Galveston.

Nowhere is the coastal heyday more obvious than in Galveston, the grand old matriarch of the Gulf, a port city that has been bewitching visitors since the late 1800s with its resplendent architecture, its aura of a romantic past and, today, the hustle and bustle of a renaissance in the making. Once the commercial, cultural and financial center of the state, Galveston has survived hurricanes and neglect to emerge once again as a special place in time basking in oceanside glory.

The city’s proud history is reflected in much of its architecture. The Strand National Historic District is considered by many to be the finest concentration of Victorian commercial buildings in the nation. Today these handsomely restored edifices are occupied by restaurants, art galleries, shops, pubs and fashionable apartments. Too, the Grand Opera House restored by the Galveston County Cultural Arts Council provides the city’s showplace for the performing arts. A number of festivals during the year turn the Strand into a gala public stage. Mardi Gras rolls around in February, when a raucous nighttime parade winds through downtown with fantasy floats, marching bands and costumed revelers. In December Dickens on the Strand brings townspeople dressed in English period finery, entertainment on six open air stages, the sounds of bagpipes and street vendors offering cider and wassail.

For those who seek other architectural clues to Galveston’s beginnings, the East End Historical District has mapped out a riding and walking tour of residences listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Too, the Galveston Historical Foundation sponsors an annual tour of historic homes in May. This year, on May 7-8 and again on May 14-15, seven residences built between 1853 and 1913 will open their doors to visitors. The Opera House will also be on the tour, with special performances planned.

Two other annual events pull in still more visitors to Galveston. The Island Jazz Festival, which debuted last November, promises stellar performers (Dizzy Gillespie was last year’s headliner) in a variety of locations. The Regatta Festival in May satisfies sailors and landlubbers alike by featuring boat races of varying lengths, including one 520-mile contest ending at Tuxpan, Mexico.

Other sights for Galveston visitors – aside from fishing excursions and beach adventures – include tours of a pair of nineteenth century architectural marvels, the 1886 Bishop’s Palace and the 1859 Ashton Villa and Sea-Arama, a theme park exploring the wonders of the marine world with a 200,000 gallon oceanarium, performing dolphins and sea lions and other playful sea creatures.

A diverse number of new or refurbished hotels await the city’s guests. Heading the list, the Tremont House is a 120-room, sumptous new hotel located in an 1879 landmark Neo-Renaissance building restored for $12 million to recreate the atmosphere of the 19th century hotel that flourished under the same name. The same owners have ripped the coin by opening an equally ambitious, 15-story San Luis Hotel, a slick and contemporary beachfront hostelry.

Having weathered hurricanes and a procession of ownerships, the handsomely restored Marriott Hotel Galvez continues in its prime oceanside location. Built in 1911 as one of the state’s first grand resorts and later used by FDR as an occasional summer White House, the Galvez now claims 228 rooms and suites, meeting rooms, indoor and outdoor pools and landscaped grounds.

Seafood takes center stage at a number of Galveston restaurants, supplying the city with yet another drawing card. Probably the best-known of the bunch, Gaido’s was founded in 1911 and still flourishes on Seawall Boulevard. Other favorites include Benno’s on the Beach, with Cajun-style seafood, and the elegantly low-key Clary’s on the west end. For a change, the Wendletrap on the Strand lures its patrons with a combination of skillfully prepared continental delicacies and grandly historic surroundings.

Discovered by a Spanish explorer in 1519, Corpus Christi is a land of palm trees, beaches and the ever-present sun. With a population of about 260,000, Corpus offers such big city cultural fare as symphony concerts and the Art Museum of South Texas, designed by architect Philip Johnson. But it also supplies the comfortable casualness of a small town where hospitality is key.

The downtown marina is the place to go to sign up for sightseeing excursion boats or four-hour fishing trips out into the Gulf, to charter a sailboat or hop a water taxi, to rent jet skis, sail boards, paddle boats, roller skates or even a pedal-powered, fringe-topped surrey to cruise the two miles of the seawall. If visitors need a break from the active life, a respite is only a short walk away at one of 14 hotels or restaurants like the Wayward Lady riverboat restaurant, the Lighthouse Bar & Grill, the C.C. Dockside floating barge restaurant or the Water Street Oyster Bar.

The northern shores of Padre Island beckon only 20 minutes by car from downtown Corpus Christi. The vastness of the beach gives the beachgoer the chance to find a secluded spot away from the crowds or to join the activity at one of the newly-developed hotels or condo projects. Heading down south on Padre, the visitor will find some 80 miles in the middle of this long, slender barrier island sheltered from the intervention of man because of its designation as a national seashore.

Annual festivals play a part in Corpus Christi’s lifestyle the year around. The 54th annual Buccaneer Days April 21 to May 1 will celebrate the area’s sixteenth century origins with parades, fireworks, carnivals, a sailboat regatta and many sporting tournaments and music competitions. The Texas Jazz Festival will fill the air with the sounds of music July 8-10, and Bayfest on September 16-18 will feature family events such as music and food, parades and fireworks and ocean races.

With more than 6,500 hotel rooms available in Corpus, there’s literally something for everyone in every price range. The newest of the pack is the 20-story Hershey, where you get a candy bar upon checking in to remind you that the hotel and the chocolate company have the same owners. Recently named by Mobil as its only four-star hotel in the city, the Hershey claims 474 guest rooms and suites with ocean views and either decks or balconies, a concierge floor with upgraded service, a day-long children’s program, a health club and pool and a rooftop restaurant.

Nearby are the 346-room Marriott, the refurbished Sheraton Marina and representatives of most of the other standard lodging chains. Condominium accommodations come in many forms, including Villa Del Sol, with 411 one-bedroom units; Port Royal, with 210 units ranging from one to three bedrooms equipped with fireplaces and Jacuzzis on nearby Mustang Island, and Beach Place, a 39-unit complex with a heated pool and one and two-bedroom apartments

One of Corpus’ newest crowd pleasers, the Tex-Mex Express speeds along with round-trip passenger service between Corpus and Laredo on the Mexico border. The weekend trips take party-goers, nostalgia lovers and shoppers along for the ride through the long stretch of South Texas ranch country, where many a traveler has wished in the past to leave the driving to someone else. As added enticement, the Hershey in Corpus and La Posado in Laredo have banded together to offer an appealing two-night hotel and train trip package.

Heading north up the coast, the visitor will first encounter Port Aransas, where fishing reigns supreme in a once-unpretentious community that has exploded in the last decade with a massive infusion of new condo developments, fishermen and sun worshippers. The Deep Sea Round-Up on July 2-8 will be the city’s biggest fishing tournament, fun for both spectators as well as fishermen as hundreds of pounds of kingfish, sail-fish, marlin, redfish and shark are weighed in daily at the dock.

Next in line, Rockport nestles among windswept live oak trees as a more laid-back setting for the kind of visitor who wants to avoid the growing commercialism of some of the larger cities in favor of a quieter beach community. The city has an annual art festival in July, and nearby Fulton celebrates Oysterfest in March with arts and crafts and oyster eating and shucking contests. Key Allegro, a self-contained community on a 260-acre island midway between Rockport and Fulton, encourages casual living while providing condos for lease and sale and single-family homes for sale.

A perennial favorite since the first days of college students spring-breaking at a frantic pace, South Padre now boasts more than endless stretches of white sand. New condominium towers attract a constant stream of human activity with pools, Jacuzzis and saunas, fitness rooms, private yacht slips and of course, luxurious accommodations.

But enjoying South Padre doesn’t require a penthouse view. Visitors and residents appreciate the gamut of beach and water pleasures, from the simple beauty of an isolated shoreline to such ever-in demand attractions as the Ocean Safari theme park, the Confederate Air Force, nearby museums, the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville and day trips across the Rio Grande to Matamoros for the flavor of Mexico.

The incorporated portion of South Padre is a four-and-one-half mile stretch anchored by two parks – Isla Blanca (where no cars are permitted) on the south and Andy Bowie (a grand choice for sand-locked explorations) on the north. In between the two are dozens of lodging choices, from cushy condos for rent to lodges, bay clubs and motels.

In Port Isabel the newest hostelry is the 12-story, $28 million Sheraton South Padre Island Beach Resort with 200 rooms, including a concierge level, 52 suites and a commanding ocean view. The South Padre Hilton, the island’s oldest, was updated in 1983 to provide 270 rooms and suites, multiple restaurants and bars and tennis courts and pools. Bahia Mar Resort’s contemporary architecture supplies a beach landmark, while its 200 guest units include rooms and suites with as many as three bedrooms. Holiday Inn’s 230 rooms and suites have private balconies, and its twin pools are heated for winter enjoyment.

Fishermen eagerly await South Padre’s International Fishing Tournament, set this year for August 3-7. Any time of the year, experienced guides and charter boats await anglers heading for either Laguna Madre Bay or the Gulf. Other sports men will find numerous opportunities for sailing and windsurfing.