Port Aransas has mostly recovered after the worst hurricane season in U.S. history. I was down on the island recently and did a little scouting. Based on that visit, it’s time to put out an update with five ways to do Port Aransas right… a year after Hurricane Harvey.
Sadly, some beloved spaces are only sweet memories. Yet other hangouts seem comfortably the same with just a little evidence of storm-related upgrades. Like when your grandma changes her lipstick color. And the Key West of Texas vibe is still strong.
Five ways to do Port Aransas right
1. Getting there
While the Port A ferry is quick fun, if you’re arriving after 4p on a Friday afternoon, the ferry can also be a drag. But there is an alternative route that gives you an equally beautiful overview of what I think is the most beautiful coastline in Texas.
This past trip, I had just turned left in Aransas Pass onto the Redfish Bay Causeway (TX-361 S) and crested that first high bridge when I got the bad news. The ferry update sign said 45-minute wait to make the five-minute crossing. My personal limit is thirty minutes. You can sometimes check wait time online.
I turned around and took TX-35 S to US-181 and Corpus Christi, a pleasant drive once you get past the industrial section. In a lucky accident, I missed the TX-286 S turn and had to take Ocean Drive. While I hit some stoplights, I also drove through neighborhoods and parks that reminded me of Laguna Niguel in California.
I took Ocean Drive all the way to Ennis Joslin Road past the Suter Wildlife Refuge. A giant HEB close to the intersection of that road and TX-358 E was a convenient place to stock up on provisions. Once in Port A, you can shop the smaller IGA for anything you forget.
While this route adds forty-five minutes to an hour, it can be worth it. Especially when you figure that otherwise, you would sitting in a ferry line, breathing exhaust fumes. And this route carries you across Corpus Christi Bay.
For the last twenty minutes of this drive, you’ll take TX-361 N, paralleling the hidden beach. But you still have plenty to see as you drive north on Mustang Island. Grazing cattle and abandoned stock pens are scattered among the condos and RV parks.
2. Where to stay
Laughing Horse, the cinder block cabins that stretched along Avenue G to the beach survived the storm but couldn’t outrun the value of the land they sit on. This lovable old tourist court along with the ancient Rock Cabins are gone. The only thing left of the Laughing Horse is the pink and turquoise wooden fence. Rumor has it the Marriott Corporation has bought up the area.
But don’t despair. We found a worthy replacement for the Laughing Horse in Dancing Dunes. I’d driven past these cabins for decades. The Dunes got hit pretty hard too, but they are back in business. I Laughing Horse fans will love them.
Becky, the manager, called their look shabby chic and beachy keen. These structures used to be the Buccaneer Cabins, built sometime in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s.
Dancing Dunes is exceptionally dog-friendly. Port A artist Sarah Seawright painted Dancing Dunes’ large outside murals with beach scenes featuring local pups. The cabins are also close to Shells (our favorite restaurant) and walking distance to the beach. Add in an outdoor kitchen and brightly-colored covered porch area, and you have your new/old Port A home away from home.
We also got local recommendations on the following for people who want their lodging as funky as Port A:
3. Where to shop
My herd cannot visit Port A without stopping to see what quirky things Sally has for sale at Gratitudes. Outside a bubble machine spews out iridescent globes. Inside, this bedroom-sized space is filled with all things joyful.
Sally and her dog welcome everyone like neighbors. Dressed for fun with hot pink hair and John Lennon glasses, Sally never pushes. She just lets you take it all in. This time we left with a Flamingo wine glass and a refrigerator magnet that said: “If someone says you look familiar, tell them you’re in porn!”
Roam is a new favorite must-shop. While the inspiration is outdoors and camping, don’t shy away even if this isn’t your vibe. You’ll be denying yourself something sensational that is waiting for you inside Roam. You just might have to move the shop owners dog to get to it! This trip, I forgot my earrings and found some feather-weight silver hoops with a pearl. I’ve worn them every day since I got back home.
4. Where to drink
You notice we put drinking first. It’s a Port A thing. And most of our favorite bars came through battered but operating. While Shorty’s opened up almost immediately after the storm to serve shell-shocked residents and the workers who would rebuild the town, others took a little longer. Like the Salty Dog which is opening this fall. Plenty of time to perfect your karaoke
The Gaff spruced up a little and repaired their belt sander race track. I’m relieved because that is always our Saturday afternoon stop. The Gaff is still the friendly pirate bar you’ve always loved. While at the bar, we got to talking to David Zuefeldt who revealed that he is something of a Port A legend.
David’s alter-ego is Turbo Trout, a champion belt sander racer coming out of retirement. David, who handles some rentals on the island, gave us a crash course on the mystique of Belt Sander Races.
He got involved in belt sander racing under the tutelage of Ted the Canadian. Winter Texans, many of them retired craftsman and engineers, take this sport and their equipment seriously. Some build from scratch with all kinds of secret systems. And some buy a belt sander for under $80 from a place like Harbor Freight.
Turbo Trout’s success is due to the gear ratio, whatever that means. This is serious stuff. The Gaff’s owner, Kip, keeps the crowd cheering on the PA while line judges and starting lights keep the contestants honest. Turbo Trout didn’t disappoint. David took his share of the money pie (as much as $60) and got his medal.
When we went to dinner later that night and mentioned to some Port A locals that we had visited with Turbo Trout, they were suitably impressed. David has found friends and island fame with Turbo Trout. Don’t you love a place like that?
Weekend evenings are best spent at the Back Porch, with live music in a laid-back outdoor venue. As with most places in Port A, they are dog-friendly until 8p. You’re as likely to straddle a barstool next to a dog, often a yellow lab named Shark Bait, as a person. But remember, all dogs must be leashed as should some humans
5. Where to eat
Full disclosure – we didn’t do much eating out this weekend. Our local friends had caught snapper and grilled snapper on Friday. But here are favorites that are open and ready to see you.
Shell’s – A tiny place with a massive blackboard menu. When we visited Shell’s less than a week after Harvey hit, the manager was living inside the restaurant hurriedly making repairs. It’s open and well worth the wait for lunch or dinner.
Port A. Pizzeria – This place was packed as usual due to its great buffet. We picked up pizza for a house party. A roar went up when we walked in carrying Port A Pizza boxes. Locals love it that much.
Moby Dick is also open again. Oysters, grilled seafood, steaks and more served in a vast dining room with whimsical, nautical decor. We’ve always gone there for breakfast but one of our Port A friend recommends it for other meals too. Funny thing is that Moby Dick’s is a love it or hate it place as far as Yelp is concerned. For me, that is a good sign. It usually means there is some funk afoot in the right way.
Don’t limit yourself
We are usually only in Port A for a weekend, so we tend to go to the same familiar and comfortable places. But don’t let us stop you. These are our five ways to do Port Aransas right. Venture out and discover your favorites. Then please, please, please share. We can never get too much of Port Aransas.
For a look at Port Aransas before Harvey and it’s intriguing history, click here.
For a look at Port Aransas and the damage a week after Harvey hit, click here.
For a little town, there are lots of interesting stories! Visit soon.