by Terry Conway
It is the winter home of the only natural colony of the endangered whooping cranes in the world. A most elegant creature, they land among wind-bent trees that dot the sand-dune covered beaches of Rockport and Fulton, Texas.
The largest bird in North America, an adult male stands five feet high and can have a wingspan of eight feet. Elongated legs and throat showcase their dramatic lines. A whooping crane’s plumage has a classic appeal– solid white with black wing tips, black eyeliner, and just a touch of red accent on the top of the head. Local artist Kent Ullberg’s twelve-foot high bronze “Rites of Spring,” pays homage to their mating dance.
Thirty minutes northeast of bustling Corpus Christi, Rockport (pop. 6,000) is part of a string of small fishing villages along miles of preserved Texas shoreline known as the Coastal Bend. Set on a peninsula separating Copano and Aransas Bays, at the harbor at Rockport Beach you’ll find a cluster of fisherman quietly minding their bobbing lures off the wooden pier.
Rockport boasts the friendliness of small-town life where cowpokes rub elbows with shrimpers, artists and travelers. In summer, vacationing families migrate to the seaside village to enjoy the beach, but it doesn’t compare to the swarms that hit the beaches of Mustang Island and Corpus Christi. Windswept ancient oaks, palm trees, oleanders and bougainvilleas cloak the seaside town, where herons, egrets and pelicans outnumber the human folks.
The Karankawa Indians were the Coastal Bend’s earliest inhabitants. In 1746 the Spanish built their first fort– Aranzazu– near what today is the Copano Causeway. Farming was the first way of life, then cattle ranching and meatpacking until the late 1800s when fishing became the backbone of Rockport-Fulton’s commerce.
The bays and Gulf are famed for their premium fishing spots, some deep and some very shallow. Anglers will find red fish on the edge of the flats. Further out are speckled trout, flounder, black drum and sheepshead. Bring your waders and stalk the flats near Mud Island. Due northeast of Rockport, Mud Island’s bottom is mostly sand and grass and what little mud there is hard and walkable.
Back on land visitors explore downtown’s Austin Street with its brightly colored shops, galleries and restaurants. There is a mix of accommodations including a string of charming Victorian homes and inns as well as old-style motel courts, still a lodging option here.
Built in the 1890’s, the historic Hoopes’ House has been meticulously renovated and restored to its original splendor. Commanding a panoramic view of Rockport Harbor, the sunny yellow inn boasts time-worn hardwood floors, 12-foot ceilings, intricately carved fireplaces and crown molding. Fine art and antiques recall another era. The grounds feature a pool, hot tub and gazebo.
Home to several hundred artists and scads of galleries, the 40-year-old Rockport Center for the Arts is a community hub offers classes, exhibitions, a sculpture garden, and this year marks the 44th Rockport Art Festival (July 6-7).
Adjacent to the harbor is the Texas Maritime Museum where visitors will find exhibits on everything from the early days of Spanish and French exploration to the modern search for offshore oil and gas. There are also displays of local paddle-wheelers and a dazzling array of fishing lures; there are huge illustrations of the sailing designs that helped create the Texas seafood industry and a history of the Texas Navy warships in action off the Yucatan coast.
Good eating is another favorite pastime here. You’ll find many of the eateries feature a relaxing pub atmosphere with a few serving up live music. Stop by Fulton landmark Charlotte Plummer’s with its cozy upstairs deck that overlooks the harbor. Scan its blackboard menu of grilled, blackened or seafood served with Vera Cruz or crabmeat sauce. Capt. Billy’s Wife’s Place offers fresh local seafood, oysters (in season) and homemade desserts. BYOB and enjoy their cozy patio area.
Located on Fulton Beach Road close to the Bay, Hammerhead’s is the epitome of an island bar and grill. It’s usually filled with a good mix of locals and tourists who enjoy the laid back atmosphere serving up gourmet hamburgers, home-style chicken fried steaks, plump crab cakes, hand battered deep fried fish and shrimp baskets, as well as stuffed flounder, redfish, and mahi mahi,
The region summons bird watchers from all over the world to visit the famed 60,000-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Pelicans, herons, egrets, roseate spoonbills, ducks, geese and those majestic whooping cranes dine in brackish waters and salt marshes teeming with fishes, blue crabs, and clams. On shore, javelinas, bobcats and deer wander oak woodlands. Alligators peer from still waters of ponds and sloughs. A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through the refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.
With its quirky towns, gorgeous beaches, top-flight salt-water fishing and world-class birding, Texas’ Coastal Bend area is a wonderful place to decompress. Just don’t pass it on.