It is my civic duty as a blogger to inform the public about an unusual new malady that we recently discovered. Signs that you might be suffering from Beach Withdrawal Syndrome (BWS): You giggle with glee when you realize you have tracked sand all over the inside of the rig. You smile smugly when you look in the mirror and discover weirdly shaped swaths of sunburn that scream, “I am incompetent at sunscreen application.” When you get blisters from wearing Tevas for the first time in over a year, you bandage up your feet and happily strap those same Tevas back on. You are pleased with the humidity that ensures your kitchen towels never really dry after doing dishes. You are enthusiastic about looking for a car wash large enough to accommodate the rig in order to wash off the salt spray when you depart. If any of these of these symptoms last longer than four hours, call your doctor immediately. And if you laugh uproariously when attacked by a swarm of salt marsh mosquitoes, you should be consulting with a psychiatrist, not a random internet writer. But I digress.
It was obvious that we had been suffering from a severe case of BWS, and Padre Island was just what the doctor ordered. Neither of us had spent any time on the Texas Gulf Coast before, yet the familiarity of the place felt like, as John Denver would say, coming home to a place we’d never been before. Everything about Padre Island was so reminiscent of the coastal parts of Florida we enjoy: Pelicans lounging on every post and railing. Traveling across wide shallow lagoons on causeways that seem to skim just inches above the water. Homes and businesses painted in cheerful pastel colors. Working marinas full of small commercial fishing boats and weathered shacks selling bait and/or fresh seafood. Walking barefoot on a wide, sandy beach in the middle of December. Watching dolphins frolicking offshore and agile shorebirds scampering away from incoming waves. It was all incredibly comfortable and comforting, and our excellent camping location set the stage for our enjoyment of the whole area.
Padre Balli County Park
We firmly believe that when visiting a beach destination, it’s important to be as close to the beach as possible. There is nothing better than being able to hear the surf from our rig, and we’ve been lucky to experience several such spots in Florida and on the Pacific Coast. Our campsite at Padre Balli County Park has this audio amenity, and so much more. The park is situated at the southern end of the Padre Island community, with the national seashore starting just south of the county park, so we could walk right from our campsite onto miles of undeveloped beach. The fishing pier in the park provided lovely views of the Gulf, and even had a sports bar/restaurant located on the pier. The restaurant had a completely generic menu full of fried foods, adequate live music in the evenings, terrible service, and a decent selection of beer. But there was seating right along the edge of the pier with wide open views of the Gulf, so needless to say we loved it. The whole park was an outstanding atmosphere for kicking back and getting into beach mode.
The original campground in the park is just a paved lot with very closely adjacent parking spaces, and it is in pretty sorry shape with giant axle-busting potholes and decrepit shade shelters. But the county has invested in a new section of camping sites, and these brand new spots are luxurious full hookups in pristine condition. We selected one that backed up to open grasslands so we had nice views from our panoramic window. There is no foliage between sites to provide privacy, but visiting in the off season meant we never had more than 6 or 7 other campers in the 50+ sites in our section so we had plenty of personal space and no wait for the showers. We might be less thrilled to camp here during the busy summer season, but it was just about perfect in December.
Padre Island National Seashore
Padre Island National Seashore is very proud of its status as the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world, at 70 miles in length. This narrow strip of land has wide sand beaches, low dunes facing the Gulf, inland grass prairies, and tidal flats facing a hypersaline lagoon on the landward side. Texas is one of those wacky states that permits driving on the beach, even in the national seashore, but at Malaquite Beach the national park preserves a five mile stretch as a vehicle-free zone. This was our favorite spot to walk, even though it required driving down from our campsite to the national seashore visitor center. This beach in the national seashore was almost completely deserted; on a six-mile beach walk we saw fewer than a dozen other people, including NPS staff doing maintenance work.
The main way to explore the island south of Malaquite Beach is by driving down the beach itself, which is just wrong. So instead we checked out the grasslands full of bluestem on the Grasslands Nature Trail, and also the boat ramp and windsurfing area on the lagoon. Corpus Christi in general, and particularly the national seashore, is known as a premier birdwatching destination. We are mere dilettantes in the world of birding, but to us it seemed that the volume and variety of birds was just average for a normal barrier island. We saw most of our birds out along the shore — since that’s where we spent most of our time — and they were the usual suspects: pelicans, royal terns, herring gulls, plovers (semi-palmated, maybe?), sandpipers, whimbrels or curlews, great blue herons, and ospreys.
South Texas Botanical Gardens
Speaking of things familiar, the largest collections at the South Texas Botanical Gardens are orchids and bromeliads — AKA the things we had hanging in our trees at the last home we owned in Florida. Winters here in South Texas are apparently a little too harsh for these tropical plants, so at the botanical gardens they live inside conservatories. Maybe we are jaded about these plants that are so familiar, but we thought these collections were just OK, with very few unusual specimens.
We also didn’t particularly love the zoo-like aspects of this garden. The facility houses a reptile collection as well as a group of different parrots who live in small outdoor cages when not being used for programming for kids. The parrots are from a local rescue organization, but their cages were still depressingly small. And their extremely loud squawking didn’t promote the serenity we usually look for when visiting gardens.
What we did enjoy was the boardwalk that overlooked a natural wetland, a walk through a native forest of scrubby coastal trees, the small collection of cactus, yucca, and agave plants in the Arid Garden, and the very extensive and well-designed rose garden. Roses are notoriously hard to grow in hot, humid climates, and someone at this garden has a real gift for keeping the roses happy here.
Regular readers know that we are plant enthusiasts and visit botanical gardens whenever we get the chance. This garden in Corpus Christi wasn’t our favorite, but as usual we had free entry thanks to the reciprocal admissions program of the American Horticultural Society. Given that we invested nothing in an entry fee (other than maintaining our membership with our home garden) it was easy to take a quick tour of this garden and leave without any guilt over a wasted entry fee.
Corpus Christi has long been a Navy town thanks to the Naval Air Station. Today this facility is a training location for shore-based pilots with the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps, but during World War II it was the main training facility for carrier-based Navy pilots and its thousands of trainees included luminaries like George H. W. Bush. In keeping with that history, one of the most popular attractions in Corpus Christi is the USS Lexington, a small aircraft carrier (how’s that for an oxymoron?) that launched in 1942. The ship was in service until 1991, and after being decommissioned it was turned into a giant floating museum located in the bay in front of downtown Corpus Christ.
The museum has created a bunch of routes through the innards of the ship that take visitors though different areas, each starting from and returning to the wide open hangar deck just below the flight deck. The prominent arrows and ropes across wrong turns are very necessary, because the ship is a complete maze. By following the various tour routes, we had the chance to see most areas that were significant to the operation of the ship, including the engine rooms, machine shop, aircraft launch and landing mechanisms (including steam-powered catapults for launch and huge hydraulic pistons attached to cables that caught landing planes), gun turrets, main bridge, navigation, and radar. We also checked out many areas that supported the daily lives of the people who served, including officer and crew quarters, the mess hall, the mini-hospital sick bay, the full service dental office, chapel, and barber’s shop. We were intrigued by the forethought and planning that went into the safety measures on the ship, including vigilant damage control teams, emergency bulkheads, easy-to-use power re-routing stations, firefighting equipment, and lifeboat mechanisms and contents. Every single one of these areas was absolutely packed with explanatory signs as well as displays of artifacts like uniforms of people who served aboard the ship, souvenirs from Japan, and letters sent to and from the Lex at various times in its history (with a censor’s blackened lines in wartime). There were often mannequins showing how people worked in the various spaces, and audio tracks playing with first person stories about the ship, all of which made the experience richer but also more overwhelming.
Is it clear yet why our brains were full after our visit? But wait! There’s more! Not content to just delve into every possible aspect of this ship’s operations and history, the museum organizers have also put together extensive displays on all things naval. So we learned about the history of aircraft carriers and the pros and cons of various sizes (Lex is on the small side), an extensive collection of different carrier-based aircraft past and present on the flight deck, tributes to multiple other carriers (USS Arizona, the five prior ships named USS Lexington, and more), a surprisingly elaborate area devoted to the history of the Lone Star Navy of the Republic of Texas, explanations of different philosophies of camouflage painting on ships, the history of naval mines in warfare, a truly impressive gallery about the Pearl Harbor attack with nuanced discussions of what Japan was trying to accomplish with the surprise attack and how it all unfolded, and much, much, much more.
Like virtually every military / aviation museum we’ve been to, the organizers here seem to think that there is no such thing as too much information. If one tribute to a sister ship is interesting, then five would be even better! After hours of searching for our route through the maze-like interior of the ship, constantly ducking through low passageways (mainly a problem for Ken), climbing steep ladder-steps, and trying to absorb all this information, we were completely exhausted. This is obviously not the sort of place where visitors can even attempt to read all the signs — which is our usual method — and there is a possibility that a real naval history buff would never emerge from the bowels of the ship, swallowed by the sea of displays.
We originally planned to visit Kingsville, located about 40 miles southwest of Corpus Christi, to check out the famous King Ranch. However, being in the beach frame of mind made us less interested in learning more about cattle ranching. And Corpus Christi is the home of Whataburger, the ubiquitous Texas burger chain, yet we failed to visit store #1 to sample the wares. So as usual we’ve left some things for a future visit.
Next: we start working our way along the Gulf Coast toward Florida, beginning with a very short relocation to Goose Island.