By Travel & Leisure
May 06, 2014
Shelling in Port Aransas, Texas
Credit: Courtesy of Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce

Most Texans think of Port Aransas as an easy getaway with wide beaches and plenty of sunshine. It’s also a great jumping-off point to explore the Lone Star State’s wild coastline, which is home to hundreds of bird species, marine life, and wetlands. You can even visit an uninhabited island—St. Jo’s—to fish or snorkel around a sunken tanker.

St. Jo's Beach

This 21-mile-long barrier atoll has miles of beautiful empty shoreline. Fishermen can drop a line for trout or redfish near the S.S. John Worthington shipwreck, a World War II tanker that was sunk in the Lydia Ann Channel between Port Aransas and St. Jo’s in an effort to create an artificial reef. Or bring binoculars to spot brown pelicans and long-billed curlews. The beach is easily accessible from Port Aransas via a five-minute ride on a jetty boat that runs from the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf. Jetty boat tickets: $12 for adults and $6 for children.

Tarpon Inn

This historic inn, a wood-paneled building with white plantation shutters and long, lazy porches, has nautical-themed rooms with charming seashell patterned bedspreads. The beach is a few blocks away, and you can take a dip in the garden swimming pool.

The University of Texas Marine Science Institute

Head to the visitors center at this academic branch to see seven aquaria with different coastal habitats and marine species. Travelers can also through a 3.5-acre salt marsh; free guided tours are available Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center

A raised boardwalk juts out into a protected bay where native and migrating birds are known to flock. If you forgot your binoculars, check out the free scope along the pathway. Also keep an eye out for the center’s resident alligators, Boots and Bags, who often take sun on the edge of the water.

South Padre National Seashore

This 70-mile stretch is the longest expanse of undeveloped barrier island in the world, home to endangered crabs, sea turtles (nesting season is from late April to mid-July), and 149 species of fish. Even the first four miles of the park—the only section that’s accessible without four-wheel drive—feels vast and overwhelming: acres of dunes tumble along 50-yard beaches, large pieces of driftwood stick out of ocean waters, and more than 380 species of birds nest here.