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Enhanced Editorial

A Big Texas High Five
Matagorda County is sure to provide visitors with a vacation to rave about.
By Karen Eakins

The cork disappeared from sight. After an hour of watching it bob on Texas’ shallow East Matagorda Bay as I cast and reeled in with few results, I was lulled and content, only mildly perturbed as my two companions on our fishing excursion continued to haul in redfish, striped trout and catfish one after another.

fishingOur hosts, Capt. Gene and his first mate (and wife), Kate, of Living Waters Guide Service of Sargent, Texas, were hospitable and fun, cheering us on while rebaiting our hooks with live shrimp and instructing us how and where to cast our lines. Kate served snacks—ice-cold bottled water, luscious bing cherries and huge chunks of juicy red watermelon, along with Swiss cheese, crackers and venison sausage—but we were so busy drift-fishing, we barely had a free hand and the time to grab a quick bite.

Then, that cork went down and the battle was on. Not having gone fishing since I was a small child, I was only mildly interested in the excursion, but my husband, Ken, along for the fun, is a big fan of the sport. But when that cork went down and Gene “alerted” me that yes, it really was gone and not just hiding behind a wave, the adrenaline kicked in and I got excited.

Now, I know it doesn’t sound like a little 6.5-pound redfish would take much work to land, but it put up a fight and I moved from the port side to the bow to starboard as it tried to run from me. But I finally prevailed and brought in the catch of the day. And this proud moment was only one of the highlights and part of one great afternoon in my three-day getaway in Matagorda County, a hidden gem filled with Texas hospitality just waiting for visitors.

Bay City and Beyond

Visitors will find Matagorda County easy to access. They can fly (or drive) into Houston, then head south on U.S. Highway 59 and U.S. Highway 60. The route travels past the motel with tepee-shaped units north of Wharton, past the Colorado Bend Energy Center, and past the golden cornfields, lush green cotton plants and spreading live oaks with cattle lying low beneath until it comes to the county’s largest town, Bay City. Yep, roughly two hours south of Houston’s bustling George W. Bush Intercontinental Airport is the hub of a quiet hideaway with all the conveniences and none of the hassle.

With a population of 18,000, Bay City is the governmental county seat, home of a large, new regional medical center and host to events at the Bay City Convention Center. It also boasts the Matagorda County Birding Nature Center—a 34-acre labor of love manned and maintained primarily by volunteers—on its western outskirts.

birdMatagorda County is smack in the middle of the Central Flyway Migration Route, and the 7,000-acre Mad Island Marsh Preserve west of Matagorda (roughly 20 miles south of Bay City) is the site with the nation’s largest Annual Christmas Bird Count, as conducted by the National Audubon Society, for the past eight years running. More than 200 bird species have been spotted here in a single day. As a state preserve maintained by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, though, Mad Island isn’t open to the general public without prior arrangements.

Fortunately, the birds love the Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, too, and have no trouble navigating the short distance to get here. While birders especially love coming here for the spring and fall migration seasons, year-round visitors will find a haven nestled along a Colorado River oxbow filled with gardens—herb, cactus, butterfly, rose, prayer, bamboo, hummingbird—two ponds stocked with catfish and two wildflower fields.

Manager Donna will help guests with admission ($3 per person or $5 per carload), golf-cart rentals ($5 per hour), and directions to three miles of trails, the photo blind and the observation deck over the river. She can also tell them where to find fig trees that attract butterflies (and fig lovers), Muscatine vines whose berries provide a pop of sweetness for visitors as well as wildlife, and prickly ash trees, aka the Toothache Tree—whose leaves provide a natural numbing effect. There are also nighttime Amphibian Watches, educational field trips, stargazing outings and a large celebration each year on Earth Day.

Hunger is sure to issue a call at some point, so diners should head back to town for tempting choices at A & A Bar-B-Que (great smoked beef and barbecue sauce, plus a tasty rice salad created by the owner) and the Thyme & Again cafe on the historic town square. The cozy, intimate Thyme & Again, which also sports a culinary-themed gift shop and a wine bar, is located in a renovated brickfront and features salads, sandwiches and soups.

The steak sandwich is so good, owner Joan said, that when chef Debbie made one to split with her, she “wanted to beat her up and take the other half.” I can recommend the Jane Salad—a mixed greens salad with fresh berries, edamame, avocado, feta cheese and candied walnuts with raspberry vinaigrette—named after Joan’s daughter. Also roundly applauded—and quickly sold out—is the homemade pecan pie.

If pie is too much, ice cream lovers will find the Texas-produced glory of glories—Blue Bell—featured two doors down at I Skream Co. Owner Valerie always keeps four flavors on hand—chocolate, vanilla, strawberry and coffee—plus the kids’ favorite, birthday cake, but other flavors rotate.

surf and sandFully tanked, visitors can now cruise Bay City’s nearby Southside Residential Historic District, jammed with historical homes such as the 1908 fan palm- and crepe myrtle-framed, Queen Anne-style Holman House, or stay on the historic town square with its wide streets (built that way specifically so area ranchers could turn a herd of cattle around in the middle of the street if they chose to “shoot a Uie”). Stores to browse in the surrounding blocks include A Promise and A Kiss Boutique, Amore Memories scrapbooking (complete with shop cat Jasmine), Tett’s Jewelers, Wild Bill’s Western Wear, the Unique Boutique for women’s wear and Mustard Seed books.

The don’t-miss spot here, though, is the Matagorda County Museum. Located in the Classical Revival-style former post office, which operated from 1918 to 1989, the museum incorporates elements of the building’s former life—including old post-office boxes and beautiful, original woodwork and arched glass doorways—with changing displays and permanent exhibits on the region’s history, such as the LeTulle family’s authentic 1800s-era chuck wagon.

There are two treasures within the building: The Children’s Museum in the basement is a volunteer-conceived, -designed, -financed and -built kid magnet. Complete with school, general store, jail, OK Corral, post office, opera house, barber shop, and dress-up and craft rooms, the museum is host to thousands of kids every year who explore, play and use their imaginations. For only $2 admission ($4 for the adult chaperone), a child can get lost on the museum’s purposely creaky floors for an afternoon.

The other treasure is on the main floor: a world-class exhibit on French explorer Robert Cavelier’s, more commonly known as the Sieur de La Salle, 1684 journey to the area, the wreck of his ship LaBelle in Matagorda Bay and the reclamation of what some call the most important shipwreck in North America centuries later in 1995.

One of seven state museums recounting the La Salle Odyssey, the museum is overflowing with authentic pieces salvaged from the ship—including one of the four 800-pound bronze cannons aboard (only three have been recovered)—and displays showcasing such small items as a clay firepot (an ancient Molotov-cocktail-style weapon), wooden “apostles” (12 of these gunpowder holders fit on a bandolier), and trading items such as brass hawk bells, signet rings and handblown glass beads.

There are also eight video programs on every aspect of the event, from La Salle’s history and commissioning by Louis XIV to musket use to clay firepot weaponry. (The hull of the ship itself rests at Texas A&M University in Bryan-College Station, where it is being preserved.) The exhibition is crowned by a museum-quality large-scale photo shot by National Geographic of the cofferdam and excavation site during the ship’s reclamation.

The Pull of Palacios

fishing boatsLa Salle’s history and LaBelle’s rescue are also a major feature of the City by the Sea Museum in Palacios (pronounced Texas-style, pull-AY-shush), west of Bay City. Another labor of love created and maintained primarily by volunteers, the small-town museum spearheaded and coordinated the massive volunteer effort that went into the excavation of LaBelle. Palacios is where La Salle left LaBelle to go ashore and explore—and where it broke free from its moorings to float across the bay and founder on the opposite shore. A half-scale replica of the ship is under construction in an off-site building.

Palacios also claims the story of LaBelle’s only casualty—dubbed Dead Bob—and celebrates his story every July 4 with a reenactment and festival. Those who are put off by Dead Bob’s moniker are graciously allowed to call him Mort Robért, should they choose.

This well-loved little museum located in the renovated, 100-year-old R.J. Hill Building (a Richardsonian Romanesque-style structure listed on the National Historic Register) also celebrates the region and its people with a timeline and artifacts, local personal memorabilia from coins to pitcher collections, and displays on the former Camp Hulen, a World War II National Guard training camp on the outskirts of town.

Palacios’ 1903 Luther Hotel—now renting mostly to anglers looking for inexpensive, basic rooms while they ply the bay’s waters—was once host to Hollywood royalty such as Rita Hayworth, Carole Landis and others who came to town to entertain at the Roundhouse Pavilion across the street. The pavilion, in various incarnations, has endured years of hurricane damage and been razed and reborn several times; it is now the subject of a new fundraising effort to return it to its former glory days. In the meantime, visitors can walk the pier for sunset views, dance on their own across the pavilion’s lighted, open-air weathered floorboards and cast a line to try for the big one.

Just a couple of blocks down is a great place to stop in for the night—the Peaceful Pelican Waterfront Bed & Breakfast. Located in a sunny, turn-of-the-20th-century home, the Peaceful Pelican has the town’s largest and oldest magnolia tree shading its front porch, original woodwork and pocket doors, and a front door and stained-glass panel that actually came from the 1910 Sears-Roebuck catalog available for browsing in the sunroom.

Five renovated bedrooms filled with soothing, muted decor, claw-footed tubs and period-appropriate literature such as Mark Twain and Sherlock Holmes await guests. The Sunrise Room features a view of the bay from the tub, and the third-floor suite features four window seats, sleeps six and has its own widow’s walk atop the house.

All the lodging’s guests are invited to use the widow’s walk once per year for 30 minutes—on July 4 to watch the city fireworks display shot from the pier across the street. (The city inspector said it was safe as long as there were “no more than eight people and no dancing,” according to owner Edie.) This room is so popular it’s already booked for July 4, 2011—as are most of the other rooms.

Edie’s specialty breakfast is stuffed French toast, which is preceded by yummy granola, yogurt and fresh-fruit parfaits, and she said guests have been known to spend as much as two hours visiting around the massive dining table on a Sunday morning because, no matter your walk of life, everyone is on an even playing field here.

And there’s a special bonus on Sundays—a local gentleman performs his morning constitutional on the mile-and-a-half seawall that runs the length of the city’s bayfront. The gentleman stops at the two piers stretching into Tres Palacios Bay in front of Peaceful Pelican to do his push-ups. The joke is that guests who see “push-up man” get a pass on their own exercise for the day because he’s doing theirs.

Those who want to get out on the bay themselves can stay at the Main Inn Bed & Breakfast, where an extra $100 will get them a ride on the owners’ sailboat. Because the Port of Palacios is the largest shrimp-boat port in Texas (more than 300 boats moor here), culinary-gifted visitors can cruise by boats with monikers such as Mariah Lynn, Capt. Bubba and Lisa Ann as they go to buy the freshest shrimp imaginable. Those who prefer to let someone else man the stove are advised to head for the Palacios Mexican Restaurant, locally recommended for the best fried shrimp in town.

Those looking for down-home cooking for lunch can’t go wrong with a stop at the historical Blessing Hotel in nearby Blessing. The town’s founder, cattleman Jonathan E. Pierce, wanted to name the settlement Thank God (in praise of the railroad coming to town), but the post office nixed it—hence the name Blessing. The hotel, like many a historical site, and despite its National Historic Register listing, has seen its fortunes rise and fall, but the old-fashioned dining room has been serving meals since 1907.

This country-style eatery is popular with locals and area farmers though, so diners shouldn’t dawdle or they’ll only get the tail end of the daily 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. buffet, where $8.95 will get them all they can eat. Each day holds a couple of main courses, from choices such as meatloaf, fried chicken, liver and onions, and chicken fried steak. This repast should hold appetites while travelers head southeast a few miles to Matagorda.

Meander Down to Matagorda

Matagorda holds more keys to the vault of the region’s history, which dates back to the state’s struggle for freedom from Mexico, which wrestled it from France, which took it from Spain. The tiny burg’s (500 permanent residents) 1829-founded city cemetery holds colonists and contemporaries of Stephen F. Austin—aka the Father of Texas.

diningThe town’s 1838-established, Italianate- and Gothic Revival-style Christ Episcopal Church, Texas’ Mother Church, still sports its original, separate family pew boxes, where parishioners leave toys, lap blankets and personal items to be used week after week. A chart near the door details where the town’s founders sat, territory that some descendants clearly still lay claim to.

Rik and Peggy, owners of the Stanley-Fisher House B&B, a gracious local inn, can give visitors a guided drive-by tour of the town’s 1800s homes and history, as well as the scoop on the town’s Colorado River Locks system at the junction of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway located a few blocks away.

Those who spend the night at Stanley-Fisher can also learn the details of this 1832 home built by shipwrights. The home’s original owner—Samuel Rhodes Fisher—was a friend of Austin’s, one of the original 300 colonists and a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. Fisher hired a contractor to build the house and went back to Philadelphia to get his family. Upon their return two years later, they found no house, no contractor and their money long gone. Already a big fishing region, local shipwrights built the gorgeous tongue-and-groove home to exacting standards.

Rik and Peggy rescued it from extinction years later and poured their hearts—and her 401K and his SEP IRA—into the home’s restoration. Guests will find three bedroom suites—including one with a “champagne-jetted” tub where the lodger can drink a bottle of bubbly while getting bubbly.

Those looking for more modern accommodations will find them at the nearby upscale Lodge at Karankawa Village. Named for the Karankawa (pronounced ka-RON-ka-wa)—American Indians (7 feet tall and fierce) who originally settled the area—the property features a full-size tepee at its entry and an earth-lodge-style exterior on The Lodge, which also showcases a huge outdoor living room complete with fireplaces and comfy chairs on each of the two levels.

The tastefully decorated rooms feature dark woods and cool earth-colored walls and stone floors in keeping with the natural harmony of the area, as well as flat-screen TVs and cushy lie-down-and-get-lost beds with feather pillows and bamboo linens. And this is not a b-and-b, but rather a “b-and-c,” a bed-and-cookies, as owner Sue leaves fresh, home-baked, decadent cookies in guests’ rooms every day.

Next to The Lodge is Cattails, a combination coffee house, cigar bar, home decor store, clothing boutique, gift shop, and wine and artisan shop. The shop sells its own boutique wine label—Chateau Bubba—in honor of a late friend, and the range of artisan products includes jewelry, high-glaze free-form pottery and metalwork that reflects the region’s beaches.

Cattails also features family recipes such as stuffed pork chops, macaroni-and-cheese and Kickin’ Chicken on Casserole Thursdays—take-out meals for locals and vacationers staying at the 70-site Matagorda Bay RV Park or one of the myriad vacation rental properties nearby.

SpoonbillsThose looking for meals more upscale than casseroles will find it at the trendy Spoonbills restaurant a few blocks away. Headed by Jimmy Buffet fanatic and trained chef Edie, the bright-colored, silver-ceilinged, white-shuttered, beach house-style Spoonbills features regional delights and fresh seafood fixed in contemporary ways.

A don’t-miss item is the Fried Green Tomato Tower—two incredibly light slices with shrimp and crab between, served with house-made remoulade. Edie won’t serve fish if the boats didn’t bring it in fresh that day, but the shrimp is always plentiful and tasty. Fresh vegetables and luscious desserts such as key lime pie in individual chocolate-cookie crusts are temptations as well.

Following that indulgence, visitors would be well-advised to head south a short hop to 1,600-acre Matagorda Bay Nature Park and 22 miles of beach, where visitors can drive their cars right out onto the flat, hard-packed sand to go swimming, surf fishing or shelling. Or they can stay at the park’s Jetty Park, where the Colorado River meets the Gulf of Mexico, and picnic, stroll the pedestrian beach or fish from the pier. Some explorers drive along the shore to find a secluded place to tent camp.

Also a big draw in the park is the family-friendly, outdoor-focused delight sitting at the mouth of the Colorado known as the Natural Science Center, also maintained by the Lower Colorado River Authority. The center believes “people learn best in the outdoors through direct experience with the natural world that surrounds them.” Toward that end, the center provides hands-on displays that teach about topography, conservation, estuary and dune analysis, and animals that live in this preserved and protected salt marsh and beachfront area.

The center also hosts educational and inexpensive ranger-guided beach walks and shelling excursions, in addition to kayak trips. At $40 per person, ranger-guided kayak trips provide some history on the region, plus an extended chance to explore the river or the wetland area. Tailored to the wishes of the group (a maximum of 15 per tour, 14 years old the minimum age allowed without an adult companion), tours can take off up the Colorado River or stay in the estuary of Matagorda Bay, where the loop travels two-and-a-half miles and varies time-wise with the group’s makeup.

Those who bring kayaks are free to slip in anywhere around the estuary they wish—it’s only about 3 feet at its deepest point and most of it is barely a foot. Because this is a salt marsh just over the dunes from the Gulf of Mexico, there are no large water predators for the birds, i.e., alligators, but bobcats make a home here. Mullets are plentiful and on our early morning excursion, flip-flopped so near to the kayaks, it seemed we could almost catch the shimmering silver fish by hand. It was secluded, unbelievably quiet and peaceful—a magical respite in a crazy, busy world just a stone’s throw away.

Y’all Come Back Now, Y’Hear

Matagorda County is one of those out-of-the-way places that provides such a tantalizing mixture of warm Southern hospitality, good food, great accommodations, outdoor opportunities, and terrific museums and shops for those change-of-pace days, that going back is a no-brainer.

My adventure-filled trip was so jammed with relaxing moments as well that I spent my final evening, kicked back on the deck of Sting Rae’s Waterfront Bar and Grill in Sargent, with no small amount of regret that the trip had already come to an end.

Sargent, site of the state’s last swinging bridge and an abundance of vacation rental properties along Caney Creek and the Gulf of Mexico, is also home to fishing-guide services and charters galore, as well as Sting Rae’s dock-front digs. Sting Rae’s features live music, great appetizers (water-thin, lightly breaded and fried dill-pickle chips called Phyllis Dillers are an unexpected treat) and fresh seafood fixed a variety of ways. It’s all served in a screened-in dining room or al fresco on a fiesta-themed deck overlooking the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

It’s the picture-perfect spot to throw back a cold one after a long day wrangling fish. I’m heading back someday to celebrate after snagging my redfish’s big brother—y’all come too.

KAREN EAKINS is features/copy editor of Home & Away.

Planning Your Trip

For more information on Matagorda County, contact (877) 878-5386 or www.visitmatagordacounty.com. For maps, Triptik routings, reservations and trip-planning assistance, contact a local AAA Travel agent or AAA.com/travel.

Jul/Aug 2010 Issue

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

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