It has been a difficult road back for many communities after Hurricane Harvey’s direct hit on the Texas coast in late August 2017, but three of the towns that were most damaged have made an enormous effort to recover, and they are ready and eager to welcome visitors.
If you are thinking about a beach or coastal vacation, consider going to this part of the Texas Gulf Coast, where your presence and your wallet would certainly do some good and would be VERY much appreciated.
I made a quick road trip from my home near Austin to check the current recovery situation for the Port Aransas and Rockport Fulton beaches and towns. I’m happy to report that the beaches are open and in great shape in Port Aransas and in Rockport and Fulton, which are located close to each other just north of Corpus Christi.
However, although new and former businesses, restaurants, and shops are opening and re-opening every week, lodging options are still somewhat limited. What that means is that you will need to do a bit of legwork to make sure you have a place to stay, but keeping your hotel or house/condo rental money in these communities is absolutely vital to their recovery.
This part of the Texas Tropical Trail region suffered a direct, full-strength hit from Harvey during the most destructive and one of the busiest hurricane seasons on record. At one point, 10 hurricanes formed across 10 weeks of the season; if it seemed as though there was one hurricane after another, it’s because it was that brutal.
It was the Category 4 winds, not storm surge or Houston-levels of flooding, that caused millions of dollars in damage to this section of the Texas Gulf Coast.
I’d visited Port Aransas a few years ago, but I’d never been to nearby Rockport-Fulton, so as someone who teaches digital destination marketing communications for tourism, I wanted to connect with my tourism friends in the area and get a clearer look at the situation before their critical summer rush begins.
There are more photos than usual in this post, because I want you to see what I saw.
It was easy to confirm that the Port Aransas Beach is in great shape, because a big sand sculpture event called Texas Sandfest was going on the day of my visit. There were plenty of people (some vendors said one of the biggest turnouts they’ve seen in any year – hurray!) and lots of creativity.
I didn’t visit the beaches south of Port Aransas at Mustang Island State Park, but they are definitely open, although overnight camping is not yet available while hurricane damage is repaired. Plan on daytime only visits for now, 8 a.m. till sunset.
One of the fences enclosing the Sandfest area had poignant photos showing cleanup efforts after Harvey.
Over 2 million cubic yards of debris – the stacked pile at one point stretched for a mile along one of the local highways – has been hauled out of Aransas County, including remnants of their irreparably-damaged county courthouse.
Although there are still plenty of hotels working to re-open, including the big Port Royal Ocean Resort which plans to be ready by June 1, 2018 – I saw many local houses that were ready for vacation renters and had signs out with the necessary contact information.
Locals that I spoke with were eager to see more visitors, and see them soon, although the Gulf Coast Taxi van that takes people around town would probably like a bit more restraint from some revelers – a sign on their window says, “No Smoking. No Eating. No Barfing. Clean Up Fee $150.”
I stayed at the Beachgate CondoSuites and Resort a few years ago, and the latest update on the Beachgate Facebook Page about what’s open and what is not at their resort serves as a reminder to actually call or email the property that interests you when booking lodging.
Do NOT assume that what is online is always accurate; some property owners are better about updating their online booking systems than others. The Port Aransas tourism website also has a list of Port A accommodations that have re-opened.
I’m a sucker for historic hotel properties, so was happy to learn that the famous local landmark Tarpon Inn re-opened the week before my visit.
The old gal made it!
The Tarpon Inn is your classic beachy hotel with Key West-style nautical touches; it feels very lived-in, nothing really fancy, but an anchor of the community for decades.
Every room is different….the older ones that I’ve seen are pretty small, but stuffed with atmosphere and antiques. I love a hotel with personality.
A unique feature of the Inn which also survived Harvey are the signed tarpon fish scales that cover an entire wall of their lobby. Sport fishing on this part of the Texas coast is very popular.
I learned that the scales regenerate when you return the fish to the water, so that made me feel a little better about seeing bits of them tacked all over the wall.
U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously visited Port Aransas and fished for tarpon.
You can see his signed scale from 1937….
Here is one more shot below of the Port Aransas beach….looks pretty nice, doesn’t it?
To visit the towns of Rockport and Fulton north of Port Aransas, you take the free Port Aransas ferry (operated 24 hours a day by the Texas Department of Transportation) across a narrow ship channel sliver of Aransas Bay.
It’s a very efficient loading/unloading process, and you’ll barely have time to get out of your car for a photo or two before it is time to get back in and drive off.
After rolling off the ferry, the Redfish Bay Causeway takes you across more water and pretty scenery to the town of Aransas Pass, then a right-hand turn and a few more miles brings you first to Rockport, then Fulton.
I drove all the way up to Fulton, because a delicious seafood dinner was waiting at Charlotte Plummer’s SeaFare Restaurant on Fulton Harbor.
Here is the view of Aransas Bay from the restaurant….
Signs of hurricane damage are more prominent here. Even though Fulton and Rockport aren’t directly on the Gulf of Mexico, with Harvey’s size and destructive winds, it did not matter.
You’ll drive along and see rows of houses that look fine, and then suddenly, there’s a house that looks like a bomb went off in it just yesterday. In many cases the owner simply does not have the money to rebuild, so it’s effectively abandoned.
Still, the townsfolk are cheery and persistent in the face of this crisis.
However they can show you that they’re open and ready for your business, they will do it….
Even more here than in Port Aransas, do some digging when you book accommodations. Here is an updated spreadsheet list of places to stay in Rockport-Fulton from the tourism pros at the Chamber – what is open, what is not, when closed properties hope to be open, continuously updated.
(Remember, what is shown online for this area often does not reflect lodging reality. For example, Kayak or Trivago or Expedia might show you a listing for a Fairfield Inn & Suites in Rockport-Fulton, with pretty pictures, but that property is damaged and not currently open.)
One of the must-see attractions here is the stunning 1877 Fulton Mansion State Historic Site, which is located right on the Bay and has now survived (count ’em!) eight hurricanes.
They’d recently finished a multi-million dollar restoration project, but Harvey roared in and peeled the roof off of the house, knocked over chimneys, and then poured gallons of rain into the mansion’s interior.
The irony is that museum staff had carried historic and antique items upstairs in anticipation of storm surge into the lower floors of the mansion, as happened in a 1919 hurricane when six feet of water came into the first floor and a boat crashed into the front porch.
Staff members did not anticipate the mansion’s roof tearing off and rain coming in on top of the items they’d tried to protect.
The row of distinctive palm trees that used to be in front of the house are now gone, too, but there is one hardy survivor left, and the garden in back looks just fine. You can take free guided “hard hat tours” inside (no actual hard hats required) and the mansion’s nearby Education and History Center is open, with little damage.
While in Rockport-Fulton, I was a guest of the Inn at Fulton Harbor, which as its name implies, is located right across the street from Fulton Harbor.
It’s a lovely property and feels brand-new, which to some extent it is, since Harvey yanked its roof off, too, letting rain in and trashing the interior. You’d never know it today.
I went out in the morning and took advantage of sitting in my room’s Adirondack chair, listening to seagulls and watching the sun climb into the sky.
My room was simply furnished, very comfortable, and included a full kitchen.
There is a story behind the bench in the photo below, and the chairs out on the deck.
Bill Manning, a hotel employee who handles numerous maintenance items around the property, works at the Inn along with his wife, who handles the front desk.
When you check in, you’ll see slabs of wood artfully decorating one wall of the lobby. Bill made them and put them up there, plus he made the benches in the rooms, all from trees that fell during the hurricane.
He also made the Adirondack chairs that sit outside the doors to every room, including the one I’d been relaxing in that very morning.
You don’t get that kind of local, handcrafted touch in your average hotel. I was honored to meet Bill and hear his story of “making lemons from lemonade” and helping to bring back the hotel for many more generations to enjoy.
A stroll around the Fulton Harbor is part of the experience here – it is a working harbor and the place to see shrimpers, oyster boats, and sport fishing boats.
It is also where you’ll start dolphin-watching and birding tours with Rockport Adventures. This part of the world is a top birding destination – loons, grebes, bitterns, egrets, herons, spoonbills, cormorants, rails, gallinules, coots, hawks, and more – especially in winter when whooping cranes stop here.
I’m not really into fishing, but many visitors enjoy it here, and it’s still very much available after the hurricane. Fishing guides and charters would love your business.
I waved Hello to a gentleman from San Antonio a few doors down from me at the Inn who was cleaning out and sorting his coolers to prepare for a day out on the water. He was….please forgive me….happy as a clam to be out on a boat, reeling ’em in.
I can appreciate all of the different sorts of bait when they’re on a colorful sign like this one….
The town of Rockport, Texas, a few miles south of Fulton, has always been a hub for the arts and for creative people.
It is determined to remain so, despite the state of its renowned arts center right on the harbor, which was a sad shell of its former self post-Harvey….
Now there is a new, small-but-mighty Center for the Arts building, and you’ll also find exhibits and activities happening in other galleries around town.
The Rebuild Texas Fund (a collaborative project of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and the OneStar Foundation) recently awarded the Rockport Center for the Arts a US$500,000 grant to help bring back the full Rockport arts-related infrastructure.
I stuck my head in for a quick look at the current exhibit….
Rockport also has Texas’ first certified “Blue Wave” beach, which means that it meets certain cleanliness and usage standards.
I’ve never thought of Rockport as a beach town, so I was rather skeptical about the beach hoopla I kept hearing, but a visit completely changed my mind.
This is a beautifully cared-for stretch of sand, and my friends at the Chamber of Commerce told me that families with young children like it because the Bay-protected waters are shallow, with gentle waves that little ones can handle.
Obviously it’s not going to be too crowded on an April weekday like when I was there, but the photo below shows that there is plenty of room for everyone at this mile-long beach (plus a fishing pier at the north end, and a smaller “salt water lagoon.”)
Would you like to visit this part of the Texas Gulf Coast and also help with the recovery effort?
The Aransas County Volunteer Reception Center still has plenty of debris-clearing, sheetrock-hanging, and other work that needs volunteers to make it happen.
Learn more from this two-minute local news media video from KRISTV out of Corpus Christi, including a sobering shot of the yellow stickie notes on a board that each describe some project that someone locally needs help to accomplish to get back on their feet….
Yes, something as seemingly frivolous as picking a beach vacation destination is an opportunity to make a real difference to people who depend upon visitors for their livelihood.
Travel is a powerful, multi-billion dollar/euro industry. It is still fatal to narrow-mindedness. It helps us relax, learn new things, indulge in our hobbies, and it also supports hardworking people and their families.
Use this opportunity to get the very most out of your next coastal travel experience; I know that I will be going back to Port Aransas, Rockport, and Fulton as soon as possible.
Logistics: Flying into Corpus Christi and renting a car is the easiest way to reach Port Aransas and Rockport-Fulton. They are also about a three hour drive south from San Antonio. Do not forget to make phone calls to ensure that the lodging you’ve picked out is actually open and can accommodate your preferred dates. I know it’s handy to do everything online and not have to talk to humans (I prefer that myself) but for now, a little extra work to stay in town and support it with your wallet is worth the effort.
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