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?
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."
It didn't sound promising, but she was right. The rest stop was a simple brick pavilion with curled metal roof supports that mimicked the low, windswept oaks that cover this part of Texas brush country. The branding-iron medallions on the exterior were a nod to the area's ranching pedigree. King Ranch stretches from Corpus down to South Padre and is one of the largest working ranches in the country, about the size of Rhode Island.
At Raymondville, we left the main road and headed once again toward the coast. On the back roads, the pace of life slowed considerably—even the one-armed oil pumps seem to work at their own speed. Apart from a couple hugging the soft shoulder in an El Camino and an old man in a cowboy hat puttering along in a pickup, we had the road to ourselves.
Our sleepy meandering ended the minute we hit Port Isabel. We headed onto the Queen Isabella Causeway, the high-rise playground of South Padre Island appearing out of the mist. But as the light began to fade in this cheesy resort town, we wanted one last ride along the shore. Five miles north of the main drag, we pulled off the road and walked over the dunes to the water. A convoy of trucks and SUV's plowed down the beach, kicking up sand, until one Durango got caught in a dune. We sat and watched the frustrated driver spin his wheels into an even deeper rut, and my appreciation of the Bug grew. Sometimes the perfect beach car doesn't have to drive on the beach.
ITINERARY: HOUSTON TO S. PADRE ISLAND
Day 1: 245 miles. From Houston, take I-45 to Galveston. For the drive down the island, follow Seawall Boulevard as it becomes Route 3005. At Freeport, take 36 northwest to 35. Head south on 35 through Palacios, ending up in Rockport. Day 2: 35 miles. Continue south on 35 to Aransas Pass, then take 361 to the Port Aransas ferry. Continue down Mustang Island on 361 and cross the bridge to Padre Island. After visiting the national park, head to Corpus Christi on 22 (past the JFK Causeway, it becomes 358, or Padre Island Drive). Day 3: 150 miles. Leave Corpus by Chapman Ranch Road (286), turn right onto 70 and pick up 77 at Bishop. At Raymondville, head east on 186 to San Perlita, then take 1420 south to Rio Hondo. Continue south to Los Fresnos on 1847, then pick up 100 to Port Isabel and South Padre Island.
WHERE TO STAY
Hoopes' House Bed & Breakfast A restored Queen Anne house with eight guest rooms and a pool. DOUBLES FROM $120 417 N. BROADWAY, ROCKPORT; 800/924-1008 www.hoopeshouse.com
George Blucher House The six-bedroom Victorian sits on a bluff overlooking downtown. DOUBLES FROM $100, INCLUDING BREAKFAST 211 N. CARRIZO ST., CORPUS CHRISTI; 866/884-4884 www.georgeblucherhouse.com
Brown Pelican Inn Each of the eight rooms here has a porch; ask for one overlooking the bay. DOUBLES FROM $110 2711 W. ARIES ST., S. PADRE ISLAND; 956/761-2722 www.brownpelican.com
WHERE TO EAT
Mosquito Café A sophisticated boho café with huge sandwiches and good coffee. LUNCH FOR TWO $20 628 14TH ST., GALVESTON 409/763-1010
Taqueria Atotonilco No-nonsense Tex-Mex with great refried beans. The breakfast destination in town. Don't miss the huevos rancheros con chorizo. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $10 1102 WHARF ST., ROCKPORT 361/790-9000
Papa Leo's Texas Bar-B-Q Right on Fulton Beach. Try the pork spareribs or the Texas-sized half-pound BBQ beef sandwich. LUNCH FOR TWO $12 100 N. CASTERLINE DR., ROCKPORT; 361/729-8533
Padre Island Brewing Co. Home-brewed beers and pub food. DINNER FOR TWO $25 3400 PADRE BLVD., S. PADRE ISLAND; 956/761-9585