Having grown up in Austin, there are many things I love about my hometown. One thing I never appreciated until I moved away, however, was that we really only have three seasons: Bearable, Hot and $*()$*#@ Hot. Unfortunately, we are now in the Hot season and quickly approaching $*()$*#@ Hot.
When you are single, or even married sans kids, you have the option of rushing from your air conditioned abode to your air conditioned car to your air conditioned workplace to happy hour, where you can have a margarita.
Once you have children, this routine is no longer practical.
The idea of a family smiling inside of a shark’s mouth is a wee bit ridiculous, but trust me, kids love this stuff, and don’t mind repeating the same photo year after year.
Granted, we have a myriad of options for swimming in this town — from pools to swimming holes to splash pads to waterparks. That said, our family makes it a priority to get to Port Aransas once a year. There is nothing quite like spending a few days with the sand between your toes, salt water on your lips and the lightness that comes with a change of scenery and escaping from never-ending piles of laundry and dishes.
The first step in having a memorable Texas beach vacation is to suspend all your preconceived notions about how our beaches compare to beaches elsewhere. Because...guess what? Your kids are a blank slate and haven’t seen all the drool-worthy photos your friends are posting on Facebook of their trips to exotic locales.
Once you are in the right frame of mind, you can plan your drive down to the coast. Although the trip down takes about four hours, with kids you might need to plan a few pit stops along the way.
There is plenty of good barbeque along the way, from Kreutz’s, Black’s and Smitty’s in Lockhart to City Market in Luling (where utensils are only issued upon request). You can also grab a watermelon in Luling or pick up a driving tour map of the oil pumpjack art.
If you want to add in a bit of history on your trip, you can stretch your legs exploring the mission at the Goliad State Park. You’ll be so grateful to finally board the ferry to head to Port Aransas, but don't forget to scan the waters for the dolphins that usually like to play nearby.
Of course, the main attraction in Port A is the beach. The nice thing about a road trip is that you can bring all of the beach “necessities” — umbrellas if you aren’t staying at a place that provides them, plenty of beach toys, towels, snacks, drinks and plenty of sunscreen. Don’t skimp on the buckets and shovels, since these are the most critical tools for building a memorable sand castle (or home for Lego minifigures, or fire station or whatever creation your kids might come up with).
You might also consider bringing a kite (particularly for those of you who gave up in Kite Festival traffic) or bringing some kids’ fishing gear to try your luck at catching your own dinner at one of the city’s four public piers.
It won’t be news to you to hear that the Texas sun is relentless, so although you’ll appreciate the steady breeze, you’ll need some other diversions planned to avoid coming home with sunburned, miserable children.
If you have early risers or need to burn off some post-dinner steam, you can take them to Robert’s Point Park. The place is huge, with several sports fields, plenty of playground equipment and an observation tower to try again at spotting some dolphins, if you didn’t see any on the ferry. If you have nature lovers, you can take them to check out Paradise Pond and see what feathery friends they can spot.
Summer is a time to relax the rules a little, so you can indulge their (and your) sweet tooth at Winton’s Candy Shop. Now in a new, larger location, but still in the thick of things on Alister Street, Winton’s provides white paper bags for customers to fill with an eye-popping array of sweet treats. Oh, and don’t forget to check out the resident rattlesnake (just don’t feed him any candy).
Vacations aren’t complete without funny family photos, and Port A doesn’t disappoint for photo opps. Driving around town, you will see dozens of gift shops with larger-than-life-sized sharks in front (our favorite happens to be almost across the street from Winton’s). The idea of a family smiling inside of a shark’s mouth is a wee bit ridiculous, but trust me, kids love this stuff, and don’t mind repeating the same photo year after year. The shops themselves aren’t the highest-class joints around, but provide all the basic beach gear in case you forgot something at home or lost something during the trip.
Try to have at least one meal by the water on Cotter. Our favorite restaurant is Finn’s, but the waterfront restaurants all have decent food. There is a lot for kids to take in, from the boats bobbing in the water to the haul from deep sea fishing boats to any animals you might be able to spot from the pier.
If you are feeling adventurous, you have a few more options to explore in Corpus. One is the Texas State Aquarium, which is about a half-hour drive from Port A. The Aquarium is a scaled-back (in size and cost) version of Sea World, and just fine for the 10-and-under crowd. Shows run every half hour, and you can “pet” and feed stingrays (for free — you just need to arrive in line early, as food is limited), touch hermit crabs and see a surprising number of sea horses (including miniature ones). The ocean breeze makes the Aquarium tolerable, even during the summer, and there is a fair amount of shade in the afternoon and the Splash Pad if you need to take a break from the exhibits.
A short walk from the Aquarium is the USS Lexington aircraft carrier, built in 1943 and decommissioned in 1991. Outside of the Lexington are several displays that kids can climb on and which can provide you with some more prized photo opps.
From June through August, baby sea turtles are released at Padre Island National Seashore, which is about an hour away from Port A. If you want to check that out, you can call the Hatchling Hotline at (361) 949-7163. Be forewarned, even for those of you with early birds, you may need to arrive shockingly early.
Every year, our trip to Port Aransas brings new discoveries and adds to our running list of great vacation memories. This year, we found live sand dollars in the ocean, raced hermit crabs on the beach and spotted dolphins on our ferry ride heading home. I’m already looking forward to our trip next year.