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Texas With the Top Down

Houston, we have a problem: it looks like rain.

It was my first day behind the wheel of a shiny silver Volkswagen New Beetle Convertible. But as my wife, Jowa, and I left Houston for the short drive to Galveston, the weather looked decidedly non-convertible. Our mission over the next three days was to soak up the beach life on the Texas Gulf Coast from Galveston to South Padre Island, while puttingthis reincarnation of one of the original fair-weather fun cars through its paces. Hence my preoccupation with sunshine.

I was also a bit worried about the car. Don't get me wrong: with its cut-off curves, the New Beetle is cute as a button, gets 30 miles to the gallon, and has plenty of zip—enough to erase memories of its predecessor's performance shortcomings. But Texas is truck country, a land where F-150's are considered subtle engineering and where the freedom to guzzle gas is a birthright. Would anyone deep in the heart of oil country appreciate the Beetle's less muscular charms?

I needn't have worried. When we pulled up to the Mosquito Café in Galveston, an entire family literally sprinted out to engulf the car, beaming with joy. "Oh, the new convertible!" said the mother. "We love the commercials, but it's so exciting to see it for real!"

Buoyed by the kudos (and by the promising appearance of the sun), I decided to put the top down and start cruising. Like the original, this Beetle has a ragtop that sits concertina-fashion on the shoulders of the back seat. But peeling it back is no longer an arduous, hand-operated affair. All that's required is a quick release of the roof lock and the push of a button.

The sun warming our faces, we glided past the old iron-and-brick warehouse buildings of the historic Strand district before turning back onto Broadway, whose Gothic mansions bear testimony to Galveston's 19th-century glory as a cotton-trading capital. The city was wiped out by the Great Storm of 1900, a hurricane that claimed 6,000 lives and enabled Houston to displace it as south Texas's most important city. As we drove down Galveston Island, the huge oil wells that floated out at sea—their orange flares like naked-flame lighthouses—served as a reminder of where Houston got its wealth.

Today, the northern Gulf Coast is a petro-industry hub. Brazosport, the name given to a 27-mile coastal stretch encompassing nine towns, might have some of the best bird-watching in the country, but to the average motorist it's little more than a dour testament to Dow Chemical. Still, 110 miles south of Galveston we stumbled upon a diamond in the rough. Palacios, one of those blink-and-miss-it towns, has a single main street but is blessed with tranquil Tres Palacios Bay, which stretches what seems like miles to the sea, and with a palm-lined promenade. A lone fisherman, wading up to his waist some 50 yards out, seemed to have the bay all to himself.

By the time we approached Rockport, it was obvious we'd entered serious fishing country. At the Copano Bay bridge, a few dozen locals were gathered for some early evening angling. We parked the Bug next to a posse of pickups, all equipped with rod racks, and went out on the pier to watch a deep-orange sun set behind the bay. Walking back, I saw one of the fishermen with a newly purchased plastic bag of succulent-looking shrimp. "So," I said nonchalantly, "I see you can buy fresh catch here as well." He looked at me as if I'd just asked which side won at the Alamo. "No," he replied, "this is bait. Edible shrimp can't be more than twenty-four hours old." When he saw us hop into the Beetle, he understood: What self-respecting fisherman would drive a car shorter than his own fishing rod?


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