ROCKPORT - Life slows down when you paddle a kayak into the sunset at Copano Bay near Rockport.
I’ve come to the Texas coast not to fish or bake myself on the beach like a rotisserie chicken, although those are certainly popular pastimes here, but to explore the natural side of the region.
My guide for the evening, Ryan Ford, is doing all the paddling work. I’m just wielding my camera, and the birds are cooperating nicely, lining up on wooden posts and wading through lime-green grass. The sky looks pretty amazing, too, tugging on a cloak of orange and gold and purple as the minutes tick away.
It takes less than four hours to drive from Austin to the neighboring communities of Rockport and Fulton. While everybody seems to know about nearby Port Aransas, I like the less touristy, more genuine attitude of this area. I also like the windswept population of oak trees, which lean like a herd of rowdy tourists in the New Orleans French Quarter.
In August 2017, Rockport took a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey, which rolled ashore as a Category 4 storm, blowing out windows, ripping apart homes and shops and damaging the high school.
Today, city officials want you to know it’s back in business.
Nearly 80 percent of hotels have reopened, and 93 percent of businesses are up and running, according to Diane Probst, president of the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s just a great little comeback for a community,” Probst says. “Come to a place that really needs your support and at the same time enjoy the heck out of outdoor recreation.”
I left Austin right after breakfast and checked into the spanking-new Fairfield Inn & Suites in Rockport before noon.
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My first stop? Rockport Beach, where swimsuit-clad bathers relaxed under palapas or tossed balls in the sand. I waded into the surf to shake off the buzz of the drive. After doing my 30-minute interpretation of an inflatable pool toy, I sloshed back to shore, grabbed my camera and wandered across the paved road to photograph a field swirling with noisy seagulls.
Lunch beckoned, though, and before long I was bellied up to a wooden table on the back deck of Moondog Seaside Eatery, 100 N. Casterline Drive, tucking into an oyster po'boy and a slice of Key lime pie as boats glided past.
From there, I had time for a quick stroll down a four-block stretch of Austin Street, the main drag in Rockport, which is lined with quaint shops and galleries. I wanted more nature, though, so I climbed back in the car for the 30-minute detour to Goose Island State Park to see the Big Tree.
Experts say the old oak, now surrounded by a fence to protect it from trampling, sprouted from an acorn more than 1,000 years ago. That’s 500 years before Christopher Columbus set sail and 800 years before the Alamo fell. Today the tree stands 44 feet tall, its trunk measures 35 feet in circumference and its crown spreads almost 90 feet. It’s billed as one of the oldest oaks in Texas.
I spent an hour admiring the plant, then aimed for the Boiling Pot, 201 Fulton Beach Road, where a server tied a bib around my neck, then dumped out a potful of shrimp, blue crab, red potatoes, crawfish and sausage. Let the record show I left nothing but a pile of shells and corncobs in my wake.
Then I set out for Copano Bay, one of 14 kayak launch sites in Aransas County, snapping pictures from my seat in the front of a two-person kayak. We put in at Howard Murph Memorial Park, just behind the Aransas County Airport.
After a few hours, a dark velvet blanket dropped on the bay, and I returned to the hotel for the night, with plans to get up early and do it all again, on the other side of town. Which is how I ended up at Cove Harbor at sunrise, paddling out with Ford again. We didn't wander far from shore because we didn't need to. Birds — blue herons, egrets and pelicans — were out in force, stalking prey and, I suppose, sipping their morning coffee.
By 10 a.m., I was on to the next adventure, a trip into Aransas Bay aboard a much larger motorized boat, the Skimmer, with captain Tommy Moore, who was taking a load of kids out as part of the Rockport Adventure Camp.
The weeklong day camp, which is open to locals as well as out-of-towners, features an array of outdoor activities, from bird-watching and swimming to fishing and visiting an animal rehabilitation facility. That day the kids learned all about Atlantic bottlenose dolphins from aboard the Skimmer, which puttered just behind a shrimp boat out on its morning rounds. About a dozen dolphins — including one youngster — charged through the water alongside the boat, and the kids went wild.
You don’t have to be a summer camper to enjoy the show. Moore offers hour-and-a-half dolphin watching tours each morning and evening for anyone who cares to tag along. (For more information, go to whoopingcranetour.com.)
“It really gives you a taste of the coast,” Moore said. “You get to see how they catch shrimp, which is a huge industry, and get to see dolphins and learn a little history.”
Moore followed the shrimp boat when it returned to the dock, and the kids gathered around as shrimper Ngoc Hoamg sorted his catch.
Other suggestions for what to do in Rockport?
Grab a pack of chicken from the nearest grocery and head to the water when the sun goes down to hunt for blue crab. Many local restaurants will boil your catch for you.
Tour the 29-room Fulton Mansion, the 1870s-era home of cattleman George W. Fulton. The home was considered modern and innovative in its day because it had indoor plumbing, central lighting and heating. The blade of an old windmill is lodged in a tree out back, delivered there by a hurricane in 1919. (For more information, go to visitfultonmansion.com.)
Visit the nearby Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where huge whooping cranes roost from November to March. For more information go to fws.gov/refuge/aransas.
Rockport’s dance card is filled all year long. Drop by the Art Center Market, 106 Austin St. in Rockport, the second Saturday of each month to check out locally made paintings, jewelry, pottery and more. Rockport-Fulton Market Days, with live music, more than 100 vendors and food trucks, take place every third weekend at Rockport Harbor. There’s Oysterfest in Fulton and the Whooping Cane Strut (a running race) in Rockport each March, a kite festival in Rockport in April, and a hummingbird celebration complete with workshops, banding and lectures by experts in September (rockporthummingbird.com). Crab races, a gumbo cookoff, a boat show and music highlight the Seafair Festival in October (rockportseafair.com), and a film festival takes place in November. This year, hometown musician Guy Clark, who died in 2016, will be honored at the Tribute to Guy Clark concert Aug. 1-2 at La Palma Event Center.