A Place in the Sun
Bask in the warmth of Texas in relaxed and welcoming Matagorda County.

It’s as if Matagorda County has a secret it wants you to discover. Its southern-bound highways march through rustic Americana—farms and fields beautiful in their own way but not what this Texas county, 90 miles south of Houston, wants to show you. It’s when you encounter homes on stilts 10 feet to 14 feet above the ground (to protect against storm surge), as well as seagulls and pelicans, that Matagorda gives you a wink.

Nature ParkYou’re there!

That is where the county’s visage shifts from one of unassuming agricultural friendliness to that of a tanned and laid-back smile. This is where the waves of the Gulf of Mexico beckon, as do the beaches that line the Gulf and Matagorda Bay, which sits between the sea and the mainland.

And like the sand of other Texas locales along the Gulf, Matagorda’s beaches benefit from the bathtub waters offshore. However, unlike well-known spots such as Galveston, Corpus Christie or South Padre, these beaches are of the undeveloped, less-crowded variety—meaning if you want to relax seaside, this is the place you are looking for.

Calming Waters

Relaxation, however, does not have to be all about doing nothing. In fact, at the Matagorda Bay Nature Park near Matagorda, you would be challenged to find something mellower than climbing aboard one of the park’s kayaks and taking a tour on its trails through marshes and wetlands.

kayakingThe 1,600-acre preserve is operated by the Lower Colorado River Authority, and it benefits from having the Colorado River (not the Grand Canyon carver) meeting the Gulf of Mexico on property, as well as campsites, beach-tent camping, picnic areas, a nature education center and more.

Among “the more” are canoe and kayak rentals, along with guided tours. Putting a kayak in the water is like sneaking into someplace exotic. You are getting a peek into how a unique ecosystem works, from the redfish working the shallows trying to stir up a meal, to great egrets silently stalking fish with the patience of Job, to smelt leaping in panic as your kayak slips anywhere near them.

Stopping your paddling for a minute or two lets the breeze take you where it desires, but it also gives you the chance to imagine how similar the spot must be to when the Spanish came ashore and named it for the dense foliage along the shoreline. (Matagorda means “thick grass.”)

Of course, the region has changed plenty since the time of colonial exploration, and the park’s Natural Science Center does a fine job in explaining the interconnectedness of the watershed and its surroundings. Staff uses wildlife, such as the recent baby alligator addition, to engage visitors and explain the delicate balance between using resources and maintaining them for posterity.

Looking out from the rear deck of the center, you can see how the park attracts its audience. People wade in the Colorado, while others pretend to fish, heads bowed under hats and bodies slumped in lawn chairs. Closer to the Gulf, pickups are parked on the beach, indicators of an appealing aspect of Matagorda—and other Texas counties: For a fee you can drive along Matagorda’s 20-plus miles of beach to find your private paradise.

An Angler’s Heaven

Paradise of a different sort is just northeast up East Matagorda Bay in Sargent. There, you can fish from a public pier and take in the glory of the Gulf from public land, or you can hire a guide such as Gene Allen to get you on the water and on top of some fine fishing spots. Allen knows the bay, and he knows how to pull the preferred redfish from its shallow waters.

fishingEven on less-than-ideal days, he will help you bring in your quota. For instance, if the wind is from the southwest and muddying up the bay—he will take it as a challenge to see if he can get his charges to pull prizes from places others would likely avoid. His drift-fishing acumen is mostly self-taught and gathered from years of experience, and it is impressive. A little patience and attention to Allen’s suggestions will bring in the fish almost as quickly as you desire.

Allen’s Living Waters Guide Service also specializes in lodging rentals, family fishing outings, wade fishing excursions, sunset cruises and birding tours. Birding is huge in Matagorda County, as the Gulf Coast is an important migratory flyway for many bird species. Aboard Allen’s boat, you can be assured of seeing something to which you are unaccustomed—depending on where you call home—such as an American oyster catcher strolling along the sand not far from where a cut meets the onrushing Gulf.

Whiling away an afternoon in Allen’s affable company is time well-spent, even if your goal is simply to catch and release your quarry. The bobbing of the boat, the cooling caress of the wind and warming rays of the sun combine to carry your cares away

Shrimp Is King

Palacios, southwest along the coast from Matagorda, knows a thing or two about carefree days. It lies on Tres Palacios Bay, which opens into Matagorda Bay. It’s all about the water in Palacios, just as it is up and down the Matagorda County seaside, but here it takes on a more robust appearance.

Shrimp boatA protected opening gives vessels a direct route to the recreational riches of the Gulf of Mexico, meaning Palacios’ marinas teem with boats ready to take on the bigger waters. It also means Palacios is home port to the largest shrimping fleet in Texas. Both ships meant to glean shrimp from the bay and take them from the Gulf drop anchor here.

Calling itself the Shrimping Capital of Texas is no mere boast in Palacios. It is in fact easily supported by the 200-plus ships in its turning basins and menu of its eateries. Regarding the latter, the Outrigger is the perfect place to sample locally caught shrimp and continue your come-as-you-are-and-relax vibe.

The restaurant has a welcoming beach-shack look, and it is close to one of the Palacios marinas. The faded-board façade opens into a rough-hewn interior that suggests a place with hard-won knowledge that has no need to distract you with shiny decor. It knows what it is doing, and if you will just sit down, it will gladly show you.

Grilled shrimp, plump and slightly sweet, will as the cliche says, “melt in your mouth.” Accompanied by a baked potato and a salad, the meal is bayside comfort food that will have you calling out for seconds and a hammock.

A snooze in the Gulf air would undoubtedly be enjoyable, but you would be cheating yourself out of taking in a different view of Palacios along its sea wall. The walkway stretches for three miles—two of which are lighted—making it a popular place to enjoy a leisurely stroll with views that last to the horizon.

Centuries ago, those views may have caught sight of La Belle, a ship that was part of an ill-fated expedition by Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, who ambitiously wanted to expand French presence in North America. The French monarchy shared his vision and he was given the rank of nobility with lands in the New World. He also was authorized to explore the Mississippi River and build forts.

Bronze CannonAfter mishaps and aborted missions, La Salle finally made the journey down the river to its mouth—the first European to ever do so. After completing the historic journey, La Salle claimed the entire Mississippi River Valley for France in 1682 and named it Louisiana. The following year, he built a fort in north central Illinois and founded a colony among the local Indians.

Still, La Salle had even grander designs, such as building forts around the Mississippi River’s mouth and attacking Spanish provinces in Mexico. In 1684, La Salle led a four-ship flotilla from France en route to Louisiana. On the way, pirates in the Caribbean Sea captured one ship. Then, a navigation error precipitated the flotilla’s landing at Matagorda Bay—missing the Mississippi’s mouth by 500 miles. The mistake was a foreshadowing of an imminent failure: A ship, carrying many supplies, sank; another ship returned to France; repeated attempts to find the Mississippi were futile; the last of La Salle’s ships, the La Belle, ran aground and also sank. Meanwhile, Fort St. Louis, which La Salle founded after landfall near present-day Victoria, was overrun by Indians; and La Salle was murdered by his own men while leading an emergency overland trip back to Illinois in 1687.

The La Belle shipwreck lay undiscovered in Matagorda Bay until 1997, when it was found and artifacts were salvaged. In addition, an archaeological dig was conducted at the site of La Salle’s fort. The La Salle Odyssey grew from the archaeological efforts, allowing seven small-town museums in the region to display various exhibits related to the excavations.

One of those museums is the Palacios Area Museum, which recounts the role locals played in the La Belle excavation. The museum has grand plans for a new exhibit that will enhance how it showcases its portion of the La Salle story.

Big City Lights

The other Matagorda museum to host La Salle-related artifacts is the Matagorda County Museum in downtown Bay City. The museum is housed in the former post office, and it chronicles the development of the area. The La Salle exhibit, which includes one of the three bronze cannons recovered from La Salle’s sunken ship, abuts a display about the Karankawa.

Natural Sciences CenterThe Karankawa were the America Indian tribe who inhabited the area, and they were the attackers who destroyed the remnants of La Salle’s expedition at Fort St. Louis. The Indians were described as tall, fierce, fond of tattoos and piercings, and prone to walking about undressed. They also tended to lather themselves in alligator fat to ward off mosquitoes, a tactic that also made them incredibly smelly.

Other displays in the museum recount a prominent family, settlement and ranching. In the basement, a hands-on children’s museum lets imaginations run wild in a re-created jail, opera house, general store, school and more.

Outside the Matagorda County Museum is Bay City’s downtown square, which surrounds the courthouse. Quaint eateries and shops line the streets, while highway traffic buzzes. Bay City is home to about half of the county’s approximately 40,000 residents, making it the setting for urban attractions; the county’s only chain hotels, restaurants and stores are in Bay City.

Still, Bay City retains the slow-down theme of the county, offering parks in which you can relax and a Gary Player-designed golf on which you can test your mettle. One site that will make you take it easy as it takes your breath away is the Matagorda Birding Nature Center, on the southern edge of town.

The center’s 34 acres are situated on a former farm that abutted the Colorado River. You can kayak from the center, as well as host gatherings at its pavilion. Mostly, though, it is a place to walk among nature, looking to see something special, such as a yellow crowned night heron lurking in the trees, a resident alligator lounging in the sun or a fawn testing its legs in the underbrush.

The possibility of such diverse sightings is owed to the fact that much of the center’s land has been planted in different gardens and dotted with ponds to create differing habitat. The landscaping provides attractive habitat and food for a range of species, whether they are terrestrial, aquatic or avian.

Even if you didn’t see anything, though, the stay would be like a pastoral escape from everyday intrusions. That’s the central part of Matagorda’s secret—it will make you lose track of time, like any good country getaway should. It just so happens that this one throws in the ocean for good measure.

For more information about a Matagorda County vacation, visit www.visitmatagordacounty.com. For trip-planning assistance, contact your local AAA Travel office or AAA.com/travel.

Sep/Oct 2011 Issue

This Enhanced Editorial was paid for by a promotional fee from an advertiser.

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