It was a tradition in our family growing up: Every summer, we loaded up the Suburban in the heat of July and made the two-and-a-half-hour trek to Port Aransas for our in-state summer vacay. Thirty years later, though sans the Suburban, things haven’t changed all that much. My family and I try to visit Port A at least twice a summer—sometimes just as a trio, sometimes with friends, sometimes with parents.
For those who have never visited, I’ll be honest with you: Port Aransas isn’t known for its crystal blue water or white sand beaches. (If you’re looking for that, you’ll have to go a lot farther south!) But it is a cute coastal town with delicious food, fun fishing opportunities, and miles and miles of beaches that are perfect for making amazing summer memories with your family. (Kids don’t care about the color of the water, anyway!) Plus, it’s only about 160 miles from San Antonio, and let’s face it: Being able to drive anywhere “different” in under three hours in the great state of Texas is worth celebrating!
WHERE TO STAY
So, the question is: Where is the best place to stay in Port A? That depends on many factors, primarily the size of both your group and your budget, as well as what you have in mind. Would you prefer the convenience of a high-rise condo or the square footage of a house? How much time do you plan to spend on the beach vs. in the pool? Are you planning on bringing the family pet along, or will you be vacationing without your fur babies? These are important criteria to consider when planning on where to stay.
If your family is on the smaller side, staying at one of Port Aransas’ many condominiums might be the best option. Most condo complexes in Port A offer community pools, private board walks to the beach, and spectacular beach views. However, the majority of high-rise condos don’t allow pets, so if you’re planning on bringing Rover along, a rental house might be more ideal.
Port Royal is a favorite among many Port A frequenters. The beautiful, 210-condo resort is located about 10 miles from the center of town and offers one-, two-, and three-bedroom floor plans. However, by far its biggest selling point is the recently renovated pool area. Port Royal boasts four tropical swimming pools, complete with swim-up bars and a pool slide—a landscape unmatched in Port Aransas—so if your family loves spending time poolside, this is a great option. It is on the higher end, though, with peak season rental rates starting at $350/night for one-bedroom, $475/night for two-bedroom condos, and a required three-night minimum, so be sure to take that into consideration. Also, I should note that because each condo is individually owned, the quality of the furnishings can drastically differ. Your best bet is to visit Port Royal’s Web site and view the individual condos available on your selected trip dates. That way, you can know what you’re paying for ahead of time.
The Mayan Princess is my family’s choice when traveling to Port A as a trio. The one-bedroom condos offer a perfect floor plan for a family of four or fewer, with the master bedroom in the back and double bunk beds built directly into the living room wall. Situated on the first floor, the Mayan’s one-bedroom condos may be a bit lacking in ocean views, but they make up for it in convenience, as you can merely open your back patio door and head directly to the pool or beach. This is especially handy when your kids insist on bringing a barrage of pool toys, inner tubes, and beach equipment. The Mayan houses three lagoon-style swimming pools, as well as beach access via a private boardwalk. It is also the farthest resort from town—about 12 miles down 361—which is both an advantage and disadvantage. Because of its proximity to town center, the Mayan is usually “quieter” than many other condos, but it can be less convenient for families who plan to make frequent trips back and forth to town. Like Port Royal, all condos at the Mayan are individually owned, so it helps to consult the Web site ahead of time to view the units available for your travel dates. Peak season rates range from $255–$505/night at the Mayan Princess, with a required two-night minimum.
For more budget-friendly condo rentals, the Island Retreat II is hard to beat. The original Island Retreat I complex was built in the 1960s, but developers constructed a row of new townhome condos a few decades later, dubbed the Island Retreat II. Comfortable and close to the beach, the Island Retreat II includes a small community pool, on-site BBQ grills, and a children’s playground. One-, two-, and three-bedroom floor plans are available, typically with at least one or more “bunk rooms” that are perfect for kids. To view individual units available on your selected travel dates, check out the Web site. Rates at the Island Retreat II range from $152–$315/night during peak season, with a minimum stay of two nights.
(The above are simply my personal picks, but there are many condos available in Port A. For additional options, check out the twin-tower Sandpiper and/or Seagull, the Aransas Princess, the Dunes, and on the marina side of the island, Cline’s Landing.)
Those traveling in larger groups or hoping to bring the family pet(s) along may want to consider a vacation home rental instead of a condo for the best value. Port Aransas has literally hundreds of amazing beach home rentals that suit almost every budget. Stumped on how to find one? Check out vrbo.com or HomeAway.com, where you can search vacation home rentals listed by the owners themselves. Better yet, you can narrow your search results by neighborhood to find the best fit for your clan.
If you have a relatively open budget, stay at Cinnamon Shore, one of Port A’s newer luxury communities. These gorgeous homes are decked out in Pottery Barn furnishings and are just a minute’s walk from the beach. A bonus: Cinnamon Shore is its own small private community, with a restaurant, entertainment stage, and “Screen on the Green,” where family oriented movies are shown on select dates. Merely blocks away from town, Banyan Beach is another premier beachfront community of stunning rental homes—many with their own private swimming pools—that are perfect for larger groups, as most houses can easily accommodate 10+ or more. Located off 11th St., Sand Point is another neighborhood option for those looking for high-end home rentals, and it has the perk of being within walking distance of The Beach Lodge, Port Aransas’ only on-the-beach “restaurant.” (While the Beach Lodge is more of a dive bar in the evenings, kids are welcome during the daytime, and it’s a great spot to stop for a burger on your way back from the beach.) Rental rates at the above communities vary from house to house, but generally start at $450/night and up and include a minimum of three to five nights, depending on the property. All of those mentioned above include their own community pool and private board walks to the beach.
Mustang Royale and Royal Sands are a few other great neighborhood choices and a bit more affordably priced; and while there are many multi-bedroom options for larger parties, you can also easily find smaller houses perfectly suitable for smaller groups as well. Mustang Royale and Royal Sands are located side by side directly next to Port Aransas’ Palmilla Golf Club (formerly Newport Dunes Golf Club), so if you have a golfer in your family, either of these communities is a great fit. Both neighborhoods include shared pools and beach access via a private boardwalk. Rates start around $300 during peak season, and most include a three-night minimum.
For those looking for more budget-friendly home rental options, Lost Colony is a neighborhood of brightly colored, beach-front, stilted houses about 10 miles down Mustang Island. While it’s an older community, updates and improvements have been made to keep these units in great condition—and they are closer to the beach than any other properties in Port A. Another low-cost home rental option is 9th St. Townhomes. Located off of 9th St. in town, these affordable one-, two-, and three-bedroom townhomes are quiet, comfortable, and perfect for smaller groups. The only drawback is that they are not within reasonable walking distance to the shoreline, so you’ll need to pack up the car for day trips to the beach. But then, with as many sand toys as kids require, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! Both communities include a community pool, although it is on the smaller side, so take this into consideration if poolside fun is imperative to you and your family. Peak season rates at Lost Colony start around $225/night and $185/night at 9th St. Townhomes.[hr]
WHERE TO EAT
Located off of Cotter Ave. just before the ferry boats, Fins Grill & Icehouse is a family friendly spot with great food and a spectacular view. Kids will love searching for dolphins in the channel and watching the fishermen bring in their catch. The seafood is fresh and delicious (without question, some of the best Gulf shrimp I’ve ever tasted!) but primarily fried, so it may not be the best choice if grilled fare is more your thing.
Castaways has been a Port Aransas staple for decades. Situated along the main “drag” of Alister St., this seafood restaurant has a bottomless salad bar and some of the most delicious grilled dishes in town, as well as both a seafood and non-seafood kid’s menu to keep the little ones satisfied. If you’re not afraid of a little spice, try the Jay’s Special: blackened Mahi-Mahi with a creamy Cajun crab sauce. It’s heavenly!
On the corner of Alister St. & Cotter Ave. by the marina, Virginia’s on the Bay is another Port A hotspot with an awesome atmosphere, fresh fish and char-broiled burgers, plus an amazing brunch menu if you’re looking to catch an early bite before heading to the beach.
There really isn’t anything too “upscale” in Port Aransas, but Trout Street Bar & Grill, at the corner of Cotter Ave. and Alister St. next to Virginia’s on the Bay, is about as close to fine seafood dining as you can get. (In other words, the tables here actually have tablecloths.) Try the Shrimp Larisha or the Cajun Catch of the Day with the Trout Street embrochette or stuffed crab for the perfect seafood dinner, and let the kids enjoy the fantastic view of the marina from your table.
Moby Dick’s, across from the Islander gift shop on Alister St., is another family favorite Port A restaurant with wonderful fish, shrimp, and burger entrees, as well as plenty of nautical decor and aquariums to keep kids occupied during your meal. It also has a good-sized breakfast menu—that includes breakfast tacos!—so it fits the bill for brunch or dinner. Plus, a gift shop sits adjacent to the restaurant, so if your children start getting antsy, you have the added bonus of a nearby place to browse for seashells and other “coastal treasures.”
Sick of seafood? Try the Venetian Hot Plate off of Beach Ave., known for its amazing service, spot-on wine pairings, and delicious authentic Italian cuisine. If you’re craving Mexican food, head to Taqueria San Juan on Cut-Off Rd. for a tasty blend of Tex-Mex and authentic Mexican seafood dishes that the whole family will enjoy. Or, if a day at the beach has left you exhausted and you just can’t conjure the energy to get dressed for dinner, take the opportunity to order in from the Port A Pizzeria, which has incredible salads, pizza pies, and pepperoni rolls.[hr]
WHAT TO DO
I think it goes without saying that people visit Port Aransas primarily to spend their days oceanside, but the fun certainly doesn’t have to end there. If your brood gets bored with the beach after a few days, here are a few off-the-beaten path ideas to keep the family entertained:
Merely 41 miles from Port Aransas in Corpus Christi, the Texas State Aquarium is an amazing educational spot that the whole family can enjoy. With hundreds of aquariums showcasing various species of colorful saltwater fish, as well as exhibits featuring otters, sea turtles, sting rays, and more, the Texas State Aquarium is dedicated to the preservation and conservation of wildlife in the Gulf and is almost like visiting a miniature SeaWorld. Check out a presentation featuring a variety of trained birds at the Hawn Wild Flight Theater, stick around for an up-close encounter with the dolphins at Dolphin Bay, or let the kids run loose at the HEB Splash Park, a huge waterscape playground with slides, cannons, and more. The Texas State Aquarium is open during the summer from 9:00 A.M.–6:00 P.M. daily. Tickets are $19.45 for adults, $14.45 for kids ages 3–12, and free for children two and under.
If your family enjoys a day on the links, head over to Palmilla Beach Resort & Golf Club. Situated along 361 about five miles from town center, this 71-par, Arnold Palmer Signature golf course, managed by Troon Golf, was named “one of the top 10 courses you can play in Texas” by Golfweek Magazine in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Daily rates vary depending on the season and tee time but range from $59–$89 and include green fees, ½ cart fee, and use of practice facilities. Check out the Web site for more information.
Treasure Island Golf & Games features two 18-hole miniature golf courses and closely resembles Embassy Mini-Golf here in San Antonio. Waterfalls, large animal displays, and caves liven up the scenery to make this a fun activity for the whole family. Located about 15 miles away from Port A’s town center at the intersection of 361 & 358, Treasure Island is open daily year round.
Summon your inner-fisherman (er, fisherwoman?!) and take a fishing trip! Five-, eight-, or 12-hour deep-sea fishing excursions are available by visiting Fisherman’s Wharf off of Cotter Ave. near the ferry boats. Fishing voyages aboard the Scat Cat or Wharf Cat vary depending on the length of time you wish to go, but they range from $30–$50 for children and $75–$135 for adults. Visit the Web site for schedules and more information.
However, if you’re like me and don’t particularly handle rough waters well (see also: vomiting over the side of the deck) but don’t want to deny your enthusiastic offspring the opportunity to ride on a real boat, consider embarking on a Sunset Cruise at Fisherman’s Wharf. A great option for those with smaller children who aren’t old enough to handle a fishing trip, this 90-minute scenic boat ride is perfect for dolphin-watching and sight-seeing. And the great news? The boat literally never stops moving, so you never have a chance to get seasick. Sunset Cruises aboard the Scat Cat take place nightly, from 7:30–9:00 P.M. Tickets cost $20/adult and $15/child.
But perhaps the best activities of all in Port Aransas are the simple ones. Let your kids select a handful of seashells to take home at the Islander on Alister St. Enjoy the best snowcone you’ll ever have at the Hawaiian Shave Ice stand next door. Browse the shops along Alister St. for sand toys and cute beachwear. Visit Destination Beach & Surf Store and take the most cliché Port A picture of all time inside the giant shark mouth. Buy a kite at the IGA and let your children fly it on the beach. Feed the seagulls…and try to avoid getting pooped on. Rent a cheap fishing pole, buy a can of worms, and let your kids fish off of the South Jetty; it will be a blast, even if you don’t catch anything. Ride the Ferry boat back and forth across the channel, just for fun. As is usually the case, what you’re doing isn’t nearly as important as the time you spend doing it together.
Have a great summer, everyone![hr]
What are some of your favorite Port Aransas restaurants? Where do you usually stay when you visit Port A?