Port Aransas, Texas, Is a Classic Family Vacation Spot

Discover the small coastal town with plenty of outdoor fun.

"But suddenly with a mighty roar, Harvey's knocking on the door," read a poem in the October 26, 2017, issue of the Port Aransas South Jetty, the Texas Town's local newspaper, just two months after a hurricane struck Mustang Island's 18-mile coastline. "What sticks and stones I don't blow down, I'll make sure all else will drown."

Hurricane Harvey made landfall around 10 p.m. on August 25, 2017, and brought destruction unseen on Texas' Gulf Coast since Carla hit in 1961. Harvey hit harder. A mild tropical depression moseying off the coast turned into a Category 4 hurricane within two days. While locals on Mustang Island (the flat, narrow barrier island where the town of Port Aransas teeters) instantly bore the brunt of searing loss, the rest of the state watched from afar and worried. This sleepy fishing village has long been a nostalgic vacation spot for generations of Texas families.

Shorty's in Port Aransas, TX
Local patrons at Shorty’s. Cedric Angeles

For the people who actually live here year-round, the following days looked nothing like what you'd expect of a beach town during the precious last swigs of summer. Fishermen weren't off-loading their daily catches at the marina to be carried to the many nearby seafood restaurants. Tourists weren't flip-flopping to the beach, shovels in hand and stocked coolers rolling behind them. Shorty's—Port Aransas' "oldest and friendliest" bar, which has been around since 1946—wasn't slinging drinks. (Amazingly, the watering hole reopened just a week later.)

Despite having a population of only 4,143, Port Aransas quickly rallied to rebuild, and soon after, Texans from afar showed up to support the town. Now, on the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, Port Aransas is back, too, happy to welcome regulars and new faces alike.

Gone Fishing

Before Port Aransas existed, this place was known as Tarpon. Named for the spectacularly large fish that flocked to the Gulf of Mexico, the village was a popular destination for sportsmen who were looking for world-class angling, as well as a home for those who made their livelihoods off the surrounding aquatic abundance. Then in 1911, the town was officially renamed Port Aransas—called "Port A" for short.

The tarpon legacy lives on through heritage businesses like Farley Boat Works, which was originally opened by Fred Farley in 1914. A year later, it launched its first tarpon-fishing boat, which revolutionized the industry. Now, it's a living museum that still houses a functional boatbuilding shop and offers lessons to novices.

Today, getting out on the water remains a thriving business, and Capt. Kelly Owens of Deep Sea Headquarters and his wife, Beth, honor the tradition. "We love to sit at the back of the dock and watch people of all ages get off our boats with smiles on their faces," says Beth. The two have lived in Port A for decades and together run seven businesses in town. "I came to Port Aransas for spring break in 1987, met a cute boat captain, and have been here pretty much ever since," says Beth.

After Hurricane Harvey damaged the homes and businesses of their family, friends, and other locals, there was no question about how they would respond. "My husband wanted to start rebuilding immediately to show people that everything was going to be okay and the storm wasn't going to take our town's heart and soul," says Beth. "Every nail in our new building was hammered by us and our employees. To us, that's what 'Port A Strong' really stands for."

Fishing charters remain a draw for tourists on the Texas coast. Closer to the shore and in the bay, the daily catch could include redfish, flounder, black drum, and trout. Farther out in the Gulf waters, offshore trophies such as tuna, kingfish, sailfish, marlin, and others prove bountiful game.

Restaurants like Virginia's on the Bay and Fins Grill and Icehouse are just steps from the boat slips in the town marina and allow patrons to bring their fresh catches on ice to be grilled or blackened for dinner. For more recreational boating, The Scarlet Lady Dolphin Adventure and Dolphin Docks Deep Sea Fishing run scenic cruises that showcase the area's friendly seafaring mammals, which can be seen swimming all around the island.

On the Mend

"That's Barnacle Billie," explains Alicia Walker, program coordinator at the Amos Rehabilitation Keep (which is called the ARK for short). The huge loggerhead sea turtle is floating at the bottom of an outdoor pool. Almost 200 pounds—bigger than a truck tire—and missing her front flippers, Barnacle Billie has lived at the ARK in Port Aransas since 1997 and is its oldest resident.

Tony Amos, the founder and namesake of the nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates injured turtles and coastal birds, was one of Port Aransas' most legendary characters, known for both his gregarious personality and his love for the area's wildlife. The English-born, white-maned oceanographer established the ARK in 1982 and continued to scout the shoreline for wounded or embattled creatures until his passing at age 80, just 10 days after Hurricane Harvey hit.

"I was calling him on the day of the hurricane, asking him what to do," recalls Walker. "He had stayed with the animals during a storm before, but Harvey was a Category 4. I'm glad he didn't have to see what it did to his favorite place." All of the animals survived, and weeks later, town residents met up at Tony Amos City Beach for a celebration of Amos' life organized by his wife, Lynn, and family. His ashes were sent out to the ocean on the shell of a recovered green sea turtle.

The ARK serves as a vital resource for the loggerhead and green sea turtles that frequent the area annually, as well as the Kemp's ridley, the world's rarest and most endangered sea turtle. This species comes to Port A for its mating season each year from April through July.

About 20 minutes down the road, Mustang Island State Park provides a secluded home for the region's diverse species and can be explored via car or bicycle on the beach or on a kayak along its extensive paddling trails. Nearby, book a nighttime GlowRow tour, which sets out after dark and offers a unique view of sea life through clear kayaks lined with neon LED lights.

Cinnamon Shore in Port Aransas, TX
The scenic boardwalks of the Cinnamon Shore community are wide enough to allow golf carts to enter the beach. Cedric Angeles

From the Sand Up

Building sandcastles is a risky business, always at the mercy of wind gusts or unexpected waves, but Mark Landrum is a pro. In fact, he's known around town by the nickname "Sandcastle Guy." Able to sculpt his masterpieces out of millions of minuscule grains, he's earned the niche title after honing his craft on Port Aransas' beaches since 1999, participating in the annual Texas SandFest competitions, and giving private lessons as well as completing commissioned sand artwork for marriage proposals, birthdays, and parties.

He even teaches free group lessons to guests staying at Cinnamon Shore, a luxury vacation community that offers rental stays just 10 minutes from Port A's bustling area of restaurants and shops. With amenities like paddleboard yoga in the pool and evening bonfires on the beach, Cinnamon Shore is a playground for those who want everything in one place. Lisabella's, the fine-dining seafood restaurant in Cinnamon Shore's idyllic main square, is one of the best dinner spots on the island, and its Mermaid Soup (with lobster, shrimp, and curry) is not to be missed, as anyone who has ever been there will tell you. The adjacent green space hosts live music and movie nights each week during high season. After Hurricane Harvey, Sea Oats Group, which owns Cinnamon Shore, worked alongside the Chamber of Commerce Foundation to create the New Day Port A Fund, which distributed nearly $2.5 million to residents, small businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

For those who are hitting the sand, public beach access is the norm. The main entrance is located near popular haunts like Tortuga's Saltwater Grill and Irie's Island Food, both of which are accessible by golf cart and welcoming of flip-flop wearers.

Looking Ahead

The thing about hurricanes is that they never stop coming. To live on the Southern coast is to accept that vulnerability, to know what it's like to hear sirens ring out in the night—to wake up and find your hometown flooded and to be crazy enough to stay anyway. But beach dwellers don't give up on each other or on their personal stretches of paradise easily. On the days following that fateful August night, the streets weren't lonely, and they certainly aren't lonely now. Texans don't abandon their own.

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