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Back to the Beach Resourceful & resilient, Port Aransas is ready for summer visitors

Story by John Lumpkin / Photographs by Kenny Braun

Anticipation grows as you roll down the window and drive onto the Port Aransas ferry to cross the narrow channel to Mustang Island. Salty air invades the senses, and sunrays glint on the shifting waters where dolphins play. As you disembark into the heart of this historic fishing town, brown pelicans skim the water for dinner or perch on weathered piers. Fishing boats rock gently in the harbor, rigged for their work in nearby bays or the open ocean.

For generations, Port Aransas visitors have found comfort in the sights and sounds of this favorite island escape—an occasional getaway for some and an annual pilgrimage for others. And so, as Hurricane Harvey pummeled the Texas coast last August, legions of anxious fans and admirers followed the news from afar. With photo-album memories of fishing expeditions and visions of heaping plates of fried shrimp and oysters, they wondered: What had become of their treasured Port A?

Nine months later, Port Aransas visitors will discover an island on its way to recovery. Thanks to inventive and hard-working locals, most of Port Aransas’ traditional attractions are poised to accommodate this summer’s wave of tourists.

When Harvey struck, sand dunes helped protect the beaches of Port Aransas such as this one at Cinnamon Shore.

“The list of what you can do is longer than the list of what you can’t do,” said Mary Henkel Judson, editor and co-publisher of the weekly Port Aransas South Jetty. But she confided, “Harvey is still with us,” including what she called “Harvey mush-brain,” the despondency caused by months of life amid hurricane wreckage and debris. Thankfully, cleanup workers have removed most of “Mount Trashmore,” a debris pile on State Highway 361 that at one point reached a height of four stories.

The list of what you can do is longer than the list of what you can’t do.

Among familiar venues open to customers are fishing charters like Deep Sea Headquarters and Woody’s Sports Center, the historic Tarpon Inn, Farley Boat Works, the Port Aransas Nature Preserve, favorite open-air restaurants, and of course Shorty’s, the storied bar that reopened within days after Harvey made landfall in its backyard. Perhaps most importantly, Mustang Island’s 17 miles of open beach were spared from significant hurricane damage.

Shorty’s reopened within days after Harvey made landfall

Port Aransas officials and merchants were understandably wary about this year’s spring break, but the beaches—“our biggest asset,” as Chamber of Commerce CEO Jeff Hentz put it—attracted crowds of visitors. “Our numbers were solid and better than expected, even despite poor and cooler weather,” Hentz said. “This bodes well for a promising summer, when we hope to have 60 percent of our lodging inventory open.”

The trauma of Hurricane Harvey won’t be lost on summer visitors, evidenced by vacant lots where entire buildings once stood and structures still under repair. But after a flounder po’ boy and a few hours of idle time on the beach, it’s easy to remember Port A’s appeal. The beaches survived the worst of the storm because Mustang Island’s front line of dunes, protected by vegetation and largely untouched by development, turned back the surge from the Gulf. Ironically, much of the flooding that damaged homes and businesses came from the bay side, as Harvey’s circular rotation pushed water from Corpus Christi Bay over the flat shoreline and into neighborhoods across the island.

“We greatly admire the strength and the perseverance of the population,” said Austin resident Gary Pickle, whose extended family’s Port Aransas vacations began decades ago. The Pickles skipped their fall sojourn last year, but this year is different. “We definitely hope to pick up where we left off, hopefully finding our old haunts intact, and if not, finding new ones,” said Pickle, who with wife, Jan, oversees a gathering of three generations. Indeed, houses they have rented in Sand Point just behind the dunes needed only minor repairs, and their favorite sandals-and-shorts restaurants like Beach & Station Street Grill are open.

On the Water

Fishing is intrinsic to Port Aransas. What would you expect from a town that was once named Tarpon because the fish were so bountiful that even President Franklin D. Roosevelt was drawn to these waters? Over-fishing reduced the tarpon population years ago, but this year’s anglers will find ample opportunities to cast for flounder, kingfish, shark, mangrove snapper, ling, and Spanish mackerel.

Hurricane Harvey destroyed Port Aransas’ three wooden fishing piers, but the popular South Jetty is still accessible to anglers.

“Our goal was always to reopen,” said Beth Owens, co-owner of Deep Sea Headquarters, a fishing charter acquired by her husband, Kelly Owens, in 1996. The Owens’ operations survived Harvey because they moved their boats to South Padre Island and Corpus Christi the day before the storm struck. Though Harvey shuttered Deep Sea’s dockside building and knocked out its phones, loyal clients promised via Facebook to keep their fishing reservations if Deep Sea could reopen. Within three weeks, the company started operating from an open-air headquarters under a palapa.

OUR GOAL WAS ALWAYS TO REOPEN

The Owens also own Red Dragon Pirate Cruises, a 70-foot ship that launches daily for themed outings, including a fireworks cruise planned for July 4. Since its return to service in December, the Red Dragon has welcomed families aboard for entertaining duels and fusillades in the spirit of 17th-century naval battles. On a recent outing, parents, grandparents, and children ranging from toddlers to teenagers bounded aboard after a tutorial by dreadlocked Quartermaster Ezekiel, who shouted in baritone, “Ahoy, scalawags!” The cruises include photos with the captain, sword fights, and cannon firings.

Woody’s Sports Center, a Port Aransas mainstay for half a century, is also back in business after significant damage to its retail store, headquarters, and docks. Owner Glenn Martin’s complex is ready for customers with its outdoor Back Porch Bar and lessee Patty Wilson’s window-service Harbour Lights Grill, which will cook your catch. As Martin explained with a grin, “They can buy my fuel, live bait, and ice and go fishing. After that, they can pay me to clean the fish while they have a cocktail.”

Though the city’s three long fishing piers suffered “catastrophic” damage and will be closed for the foreseeable future, City Manager David Parsons noted shoreline anglers can use the reinforced banks of Roberts Point Park next to the ferry landing or the rocky South Jetty.

Hang your Hat

While many attractions are open, Port Aransas’ lodging inventory has not fully rebounded since the storm. Standbys like Cline’s Landing, the condominium tower near downtown Port Aransas, will take two years to renovate, and others vulnerable to Harvey’s Category 4 winds are in a limbo of insurance adjustments, homeowners’ associations, and infrastructure repair.

Townhomes, lodges, and single-family vacation cottages fared better than high-rises, especially those built to current hurricane-resistant codes, including the popular Cinnamon Shore beach community. They form the basis for rental pools this summer, along with economy and mid-tier low-rise hotels.

We had a lot of things we had to work on anyway.

Among visitors’ choices will be The Tarpon Inn, which has endured a series of calamities since its opening in 1886, including a 1900 fire and several hurricanes. During Harvey, an 8-foot surge of water nearly flooded the inn’s bottom floor, but the building remained intact thanks to its telephone pole pier-and-beam construction. The storm spared the inn’s famous lobby walls, which are decorated with the scales of trophy tarpons caught over the decades. Each scale is marked with dates and names, including one signed by President Roosevelt in 1937.

Trophy scales at the Tarpon Inn

As workers made repairs this spring, The Tarpon Inn’s signature red wooden rockers already occupied their customary stations on the verandas. Vintage furnishings, like four-poster beds and claw-foot tubs, survived. “We had a lot of things we needed to work on anyway,” said Lee Roy Hoskins, the inn’s owner—a bittersweet refrain familiar among Port Aransas storm veterans.

Favorite Haunts

A stone’s throw from The Tarpon Inn, Shorty’s—the town’s oldest bar—served customers their first post-Harvey beverages a week after the storm’s blast. Contractor Chris Jordan helped replace the roof and remove knee-deep debris; then he played bass guitar in a band for an impromptu reopening party made possible by a hot-wired portable generator.

“Everybody was in muddy boots and everybody was happy to see one another,” his girlfriend, Andrea Shaw, recalled. “The rest of the town was dark.”

In the months following the hurricane, Jordan and Shaw were among a handful of local businesspeople who moved into a seven-bedroom vacation rental because Harvey rendered their homes uninhabitable. The occupants of their so-called “Commune”—including Greg Villasana, owner of La Playa Mexican Grille; Linda Halioua, owner of Venetian Hot Plate; and Tiana Worsham and Vanessa Brundrett, owners of The Phoenix—sweated out their comebacks by day and prepared group dinners for one another in the evening. “If you were hanging out here, you were not going to go hungry,” Jordan said.

Clockwise from left: seafood at Virginia’s on the Bay; photo opportunities at Destination Beach & Surf; family diners at La Playa Mexican Grille.

By spring, the Commune’s residents had all found new dwellings, and one by one they reopened their restaurants, starting with La Playa in December. Harvey inflicted substantial damage on Venetian Hot Plate’s building, including a caved-in roof and interior destruction. Frustrated by delays with insurance and other problems, Halioua challenged herself: “I’ll show you. I’m going to do it even if it kills me.” Fortunately, it didn’t, and the restaurant retains Chef Mark Pulich’s menu of Northern Italian cuisine with coastal influences.

Six months after Harvey, The Phoenix moved to a new location and welcomed a festive crowd for mussels in Champagne and creole mustard broth, U-10 scallops, and red snapper topped with encrusted avocado. “We had no choice but to rebuild,” said Brundrett, a fifth-generation Port Aransas resident. “After all, our name is The Phoenix.”

Natural Resilience

For evidence of rebirth, a pair of endangered whooping cranes arrived in January in Charlie’s Pasture, the centerpiece of the Port Aransas Nature Preserve. The city closed the Port Street access to the 1,217 acres of tidal flats and marshy grasslands in Harvey’s aftermath to rebuild boardwalks and repair roads, though visitors can still access a 1-mile trail at Community Park. The young feathered couple may have settled in Port Aransas because their traditional protected winter habitat at the nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge has gotten crowded as the flock grows.

Rebuilding continues at the Leona Turnbull Birding Center.

The preserve’s Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center has reopened part of its boardwalk, though its elevated observation tower is inaccessible. From the walkway, a 7-foot alligator was clearly visible on a recent visit, sunning among the reeds during a warm afternoon.

Less fortunate was the inundated campus of The University of Texas Marine Science Institute, which is currently under reconstruction. One silver lining is that its onsite nonprofit, Amos Rehabilitation Keep (ARK), required minor repairs. By January, ARK was moving sea turtles and birds that it rescued before the storm back into the shelter. The institute has plans for limited public tours of its outdoor trails, including the ARK, in late fall.

Visitors Welcome

In post-Harvey Port Aransas, familiar landmarks serve as barometers of recovery. IGA, the island’s bustling full-service grocery, is back to business as usual. On Alister Street, the massive open-jawed shark sculpture, a popular photo opportunity, escaped the storm’s wrath, though Destination Beach & Surf—the spacious shop that it promotes—was forced to rebuild, opening during spring break.

The new home of The Phoenix Restaurant and Bar.

Port Aransas Police Chief Scott Burroughs, who is running his office out of a portable building, was among the initial wave of law enforcement officials to return after Harvey’s landfall. He encountered a daunting scene, but he said, “I knew it was going to be OK from the get-go—from day one—because of the nature of the people who live here.”

Harbour Lights Grill at Woody’s; the Port A restaurateurs of the makeshift “Commune;” Woody’s Sports Center.

Burroughs, who writes a weekly column for the South Jetty, makes a summer 2018 prediction: “This is a town of 3,500 people, but there are millions of people in the state of Texas and around the country that consider Port Aransas their place. I think they are chomping at the bit to come back.”

I KNEW IT WAS GOING TO BE OK FROM THE GET- GO— BECAUSE OF THE NATURE OF THE PEOPLE WHO LIVE HERE.

Richardson-based writer John Lumpkin joined a family reunion at Port Aransas weeks before Harvey struck and returned twice for extended visits to chronicle its recovery. Kenny Braun’s new book of landscape photography, As Far As You Can See, chronicles the best of his decades of exploring the Texas outdoors.

PORT ARANSAS TOURISM INFORMATION

Port Aransas/Mustang Island Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau

361-749-5919

portaransas.org

Port Aransas Visitor Center

403 W. Cotter Ave.

Open Mon-Fri 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

The chamber updates its website frequently as businesses affected by the hurricane reopen.

The Port Aransas South Jetty newspaper also produces a quarterly visitor guide with the latest news on local tourism attractions.

visitorsguide.portasouthjetty.com

Credits:

Kenny Braun

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