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Port Aransas: What to See, Sip & Savor in the Vibrant Island Town

Plan a visit full of sun, sand and sites worth seeing in Port A

If traveling in 2020 taught us anything in Texas, it’s that there are plenty of places waiting to be discovered right in our own backyard. Sure, the pandemic prohibited most of us from international jaunts to Jamaican shores, but the restrictions of last year also gave the road trip a welcome renaissance for the modern era.

Growing up in Texas, I’ve visited Port Aransas more times than I can count. I know the route almost by heart at this point, thanks in part to my obsession with Texas history. I love that first feeling of freedom as you fly down State Highway 130 toward Lockhart, where the smell of barbecue wafts off the main square like a siren beckoning for a quick pit stop. Lockhart leads to Luling, with its watermelon-painted water tower, and then to Gonzales, where the fight for Texas Independence began. Country roads weave through Texas farmland to Goliad, another battle site in the Texas Revolution. Before you know it, palm trees pop up along the highway and salt breezes carry you over the John F. Kennedy Causeway onto Mustang Island.

On my most recent trip, we stayed in a weekend rental at Cinnamon Shore, a welcoming beach community with a wide variety of upscale properties to rent or buy. The quickly expanding island realty group just announced phase five of its development on Memorial Day weekend, releasing 18 new home sites (with both Gulf and lake views), plus 60 new sites in Cinnamon Shore South.

Along with pools, pet areas, family-friendly activities and countless other amenities, the community has enough dining options to warrant staying on the premises for the whole weekend if desired. Our best meal of the trip was our first, a seafood lover’s feast at Lisabella’s Bar and Bistro. We started with the mermaid soup, a curry concoction of lobster coconut broth, shrimp and “secrets,” according to the menu. Other highlights included the red snapper belle meunière and wild jumbo Gulf shrimp, but the mermaid soup was so good we were tempted to go back every night of our stay.

The beautiful interiors at Lisabella’s.

After dinner, we took a sunset stroll over the boardwalk to the beach. Cinnamon Shore has a private strip, and its distance from the main tourist spots makes for a more intimate experience than most island rentals. In addition to beach equipment (everything from beach chairs, umbrellas and fishing poles), guest services can also arrange for evening bonfire nights beneath the stars—s’mores and all.

In the morning, we rolled over to Coffee Waves, a mini-outpost of the local Corpus Christi coffee chain, conveniently tucked right next to the market. Espresso drink in hand, we picked up a golf cart near the guest reception for all our island exploring needs. While the Port A newcomer might be understandably tempted to forgo the additional transportation expense, a golf cart is truly the best way to enjoy those Gulf breezes between brunch and the beach. Plus, nothing beats the thrill of that first glorious ascent up the boardwalk, rattling over the dunes and looking out over the bright blue sea.

After a relaxing beach morning, we scooted along the shore and into town for lunch at Trout Street Bar & Grill. This is a good spot if your goal is to eat as much fresh fish straight from the Gulf as possible. Since that’s always my aim, we sampled the seafood gumbo, followed by the blackened-fish and shrimp tacos. We washed everything down with a prickly pear margarita and a South Texas lemonade, perfect for a hot summer day.

After lunch, we took the cart for a spin around town. Port Aransas has plenty of fun shops and galleries, such as Potters on Cotter, a working pottery studio and gallery. The art lover will also appreciate Chapel on the Dunes, the oldest consecrated church on the island. Built between 1937 and 1938, the chapel is the brainchild of Aline B. Carter, who would later become a Texas poet laureate. Carter commissioned San Antonio artisan Ethel Wilson Harris to construct the intimate space overlooking the Gulf, originally used as her private meditation space. Perched on a hill and accessible by a cactus-lined trail, the chapel evokes a scene from Santa Fe with its simple architecture, rustic setting and painted interiors—though the latter were added after Carter’s death. Today, island visitors can arrange tours through the Port Aransas Museum, which is also a great stop on a rare rainy day or when you need a break from the beach.

A peek inside the Chapel on the Dunes.

In the summer, afternoon activities abound on the island. From parasailing to dolphin watching, there’s something for everyone along the spectrum, from the extreme outdoors lover to the more meditative bird-watcher. We opted for somewhere in the middle, splashing on the beach with my pup before heading to dinner at Roosevelt’s. Nestled behind the Tarpon Inn, the restaurant is named for one of the historic hotel’s most famous visitors, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who came to Port A for tarpon fishing in 1937. Starting with the delicious bread and crabcakes, we savored the red snapper and shrimp ravioli in the restaurant’s romantic setting.

Waking a bit earlier on the third day, we took a local tip to catch the jetty to San Jose Island, keeping our eyes out for sea turtles and dolphins en route. San Jose is a privately owned island that used to be a working cattle ranch (if you’re lucky, you can still spot a cow or two wandering the dunes). We met the ferry at Fisherman’s Wharf for a quick ride to the island’s quieter beach, spending the day searching for shells and basking in the sun and sea air. If you go, be prepared with all food, drinks and supplies you might need, since there are no facilities on the island. More importantly, be sure to check the jetty schedule and plan ahead for your return trip: The ferry moves from hourly trips to every two hours in the afternoon, and you don’t want to miss the chance to catch a dolphin tour on the Scarlet Lady, which depart from Captain Kelly’s Deep Sea Headquarters next to the ferry landing.

Phillips’ dog, Lucy, surveys the secluded beach at San Jose Island.

Before boarding the sunset tour, we sought out one of my favorite drinks on the island for happy hour. The Alotta Colada at Castaways Seafood and Grill lives up to its name: Served in a fresh pineapple shell and topped with Myer’s rum, it’s the epitome of an after-beach drink—frivolous, yes, but that’s what vacation is for.

Sunset is the perfect time for a dolphin excursion, which cruises the Lydia Ann Channel all the way to the iconic lighthouse of the same name. We loved looking out for dorsal fins swimming together in pods, skimming the surface of the twilit water or catching a ride on the crests of waves from large tankers in the channel. Back on land, we took a break from seafood at Venetian Hot Plate for a hearty slice of lasagna courtesy of Linda and Maurice Halioua, who moved to the island from Venice, Italy, in 1995.

One final goodbye to the dunes at Cinnamon Shore. Photo by Hannah J. Phillips.

On our last morning, we took one more joy ride down to the beach, hoping that a few hours in the sun and surf might ward off our return to reality. When we did tear ourselves away, we made a detour through Corpus Christi for sightseeing at the historic Harbor Bridge (currently the second tallest in Texas, though sadly slated for demolition in the very near future to make way for its even taller successor), snapped a few photos at the famous Selena statue and slurped our last few Gulf oysters at Water Street before making the trek back down the Texas Independence Trail and home to Austin.