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Texas With the Top Down

Saturday was destined to be a good day. It wasn't just the blazing sun and the fantastic huevos rancheros con chorizo we'd enjoyed at a Mexican dive in Rockport. It was more poetic than that. We'd pulled up in front of Fulton Mansion, a stately Second Empire-style house built in the 1870's overlooking the water. As I converted the convertible for the day, we heard a huge splash in the water next to us. No more than 30 feet away, two dolphins were trawling the shallows as a school of small fish jumped desperately out of their way. Then, in tandem, they broke the surface before diving below once again.

Rockport, probably the prettiest town on the Texas Gulf Coast, has a charming harbor, an interesting maritime museum, and a strip of simple seafood restaurants that bring out the crowds on weekends. We took a quick tour and started the 20-mile journey to the Port Aransas ferry, which would take us to Mustang Island, one of the five main barrier islands hugging the coast. After 10 minutes of severe buffeting, I had to stop the car and put up the wind guard—a handy mesh panel that sits behind the front seat and dramatically reduces both wind and noise. It worked, but took up most of the back seat. For all its merits, this convertible was definitely not designed with more than two passengers in mind.

The ferry was fast—just five minutes—and on arrival, we skipped town and let the warm sun, the straight road, and an eighties radio station set the mood for our drive down to Padre Island. I worked my way through the VW's beefy gearbox before opening the engine up in fifth. Thirty minutes later we'd crossed over onto Padre, the largest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the United States. Before it became a national park in 1968, cattle grazing and oil exploration had seriously eroded its dunes and grasslands. Today, it's famous as a nesting ground for sea turtles and for the 350 species of birds that call it home at different times of the year. (We ourselves were introducing a rare new species to the island, a fact not lost on the other tourists. "Oh look, isn't that darling!" exclaimed one woman as we pulled up to the visitors' center.)

Only the first nine miles of the 70-mile island are paved; after that, you have to drive on the sand. Frankly, the whole idea of taking a car onto the beach (in a national park, no less) felt strange. But Texans seem to have an umbilical relationship with their automobiles, so we went down to the water for a spin. The beach was wide and flat, and we sped past rows of RV's that had set up camp there. After a couple of miles, we were stopped by a sign restricting the next 40 miles of deserted sand to four-wheel drives. Trucks have all the fun in this state.

Sunday started slowly in Corpus Christi. For one thing, we were loath to leave our bed at the George Blucher House, a welcoming, tastefully renovated B&B. And the sun was nowhere to be seen. But this was our last day, and nothing would stop us from cruising with the top down. We did a quick circuit of the harbor, pausing at the waterfront memorial to Selena, the murdered Tejana singer who grew up in Corpus. Then we hit the road. Over breakfast I'd asked innkeeper Tracey Smith, a native Gulf Coast Texan, what the highlights of our drive down to South Padre Island would be. "Well," she said, "there's King Ranch. And there's an impressive new rest stop just south of Sarita."

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