Nov/Dec 2013 Issue
This Enhanced Editorial was paid for by a promotional fee from an advertiser.

Matagorda On My Mind

A visit to the Texas gulf-front region entices with fishing, sailing and refreshing respite.
By Karen Eakins

fishingMatagorda County, an hour-and-a-half southwest of Houston—the nation’s fourth-largest city—is many things, but let me tell you what Matagorda County isn’t: mired in traffic and on the flight path, filled with social events requiring a tux, populated by strangers who won’t give you the time of day, assaulted by a cacophony of noise and, most of all, overloaded with stressful situations that make you want to scream.

Bright lights, big city? Not here, not needed.

Morning on the Bay

Anglers who are lucky enough to visit Matagorda County during a full moon are going to find the fishing’s good—really, really good. On our recent visit, my husband and I bailed out of bed in Bay City before dawn and headed southeast to Sargent to meet Capt. Gene Allen with Living Waters Guide Service. Gene had us packed up and ready to go. We swung by Charlie’s Bait Shop—where we were greeted by Lollipop, a friendly lab mix, and Little Bit, a tiny terrier—for live shrimp bait. Charlie said we were with the right guy if we were looking for lots of fish. Charlie is a smart man.

Gene had us out on East Matagorda Bay as the sun began to make its appearance. It was a spectacular dawn filled with golden sunlight and towering clouds holding the promise of rain. At one point, we were even graced with a rainbow. Only a few other boats could be seen in the area, giving us all plenty of elbow room, and I proceeded to spend the next seven hours perfecting my cast while Gene kept us supplied with bait, provided direction on handling our equipment and unhooked the prizes we hauled in.

fishNot only that, but Gene was there to wrap us in rainproof jackets when that rain did hit, to keep an eye on the radar to be sure we weren’t headed toward any dangerous weather and to regale us with fisherman’s tips. Did you know when you see shrimp jumping from the water you need to throw in a line because they’re being chased by something bigger or that the smell of watermelon in the air is the sign of a trout feeding frenzy? I didn’t.

But the main reason to use a guide is because he (or she) knows where all the good fishing spots are. This was only my third time fishing since I was a child, and it was a barn burner of a morning: Every time the activity slowed, Gene moved us, and consequently, we caught the boat’s limit (20 fish, from redfish and speckled trout to black drum and croaker, which sound exactly like bullfrogs) and threw back many beautiful keepers for another day. We came back to the dock tired and happy.

While we grabbed a bite to eat at Sting Rae’s, a family-friendly eatery overlooking the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway beside the last swinging bridge in Texas, Gene cleaned our fish. By the time I worked my way through a fresh fish wrap doused in a cilantro sauce with a kick, Gene had 21 pounds of fresh fillets ready. Those renting a vacation getaway in Sargent or anywhere else in the county can host their own fish fry and eat well, while those without the facilities can find a willing cook at Sting Rae’s with advance notice.

Dry-land Diversions

Bay City is the natural choice to headquarter for a Matagorda County getaway because of its size and amenities. We checked into the town’s Comfort Suites—an above-average, tastefully decorated accommodation where we found an extra-large room finished with dark woods, brushed-aluminum accent pieces and a huge, comfy bed to call home for the weekend. But there are numerous options in the region, from more well-known chain establishments to bed-and-breakfasts to the aforementioned, plentiful vacation rentals.

shipThere’s no lack of options to fill one’s stomach here either. For those who just can’t live without fast food, there is the usual complement (including a brand-new Whataburger), but diners shouldn’t forgo getting familiar with local eateries, which are plentiful in the region. From barbecue to Mexican to local specialties to seafood (of course), the choices are diverse.

The county has a long history of rice cultivation, and a taste of the versatile grain can be had in a yummy homemade salad at the dressed-down eatery Hinz’s A&A Bar-B-Q. With a variety of smoked meats and such sides as mashed potatoes, real green beans simmered with bacon and a tasty version of black-eyed pea salad (often called Texas Caviar), a meal here leaves no one hungry.

On the other end of town is the newest Mexican restaurant, La Casona. Behind an elaborate 10-foot glass-and-wood door, diners will find a family-friendly casual eatery decorated with such decor as wrought-iron transoms and Jorge Negrete’s Viva la Salsa mural. The menu holds such enticements as Dirty Tostados (the traditional dish topped with chile con carne and chile con queso), Picosos (jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon) and five chicken dishes (Milanea, El Presidente, Mama’s Special, Pollo Asado and Pollo Diablo). The spicy pico de gallo is fresh made; the flan is a fabulous after-dinner indulgence; prices are reasonable for a well-prepared dinner; the staff is friendly and attentive; and margaritas are $2.25 all day Mondays with a meal. Yum.

A little further up the scale is The Fat Grass, situated in a refurbished lumberyard adjacent to the town square. The Fat Grass is a cross breed—a triple-room restaurant offering everything from al fresco dining with a live band to the sports bar/pub section to fine dining. The fine dining section is dimly lit and intimate with full plate-glass windows, exposed brickwork, dark hardwood floors and fresh roses gracing every table. The menu is eclectic, featuring everything from salads and shrimp bisque to organic water-buffalo burgers to Chicken Artichoke, lamb meatballs and rockfish. There are also drink and dinner specials to tempt and a dessert menu that includes old-fashioned peach cobbler topped with Blue Bell ice cream.

museumHistory on the High Seas

Once the basic needs are more than met, visitors may feel the need to move a bit. Shoppers will love strolling around Bay City’s town square, filled with such shops as Mustard Seed, Uptown Kidz, Wild Bill’s Western Wear, Basket Shop & Boutique, and many more. Outdoor enthusiasts will want to slip up to the Matagorda County Birding Nature Center, a nearby haven for garden lovers and birdwatchers—after all, this is smack-dab in the middle of the Central Flyway migration route. There are three miles of trails, too.

History buffs will find a treasure trove of regional history in the Matagorda County Museum. Here, in the 1918 former, beautifully preserved Classical-Revival-style post office, visitors will find displays on the area’s fierce Karankawa Indian predecessors, an authentic early-day ranch wagon, Spanish and Mexican artifacts and, in the basement, one of the best children’s museums I’ve ever seen. But the crown jewel is the first-class exhibit on the 1684 visit of French explorer Robert Cavelier, aka the Sieur de La Salle (commissioned by France’s Louis XIV, he had claimed the Mississippi Basin and named it Louisiana on his first voyage); the wreck of his ship La Belle in Matagorda Bay; and the excavation of the ship in 1995. There are artifacts to peruse, videos to watch and an 800-pound reclaimed bronze cannon (one of only three ever recovered) to marvel over.

While there are seven museums statewide involved in a program called the La Salle Odyssey, which takes explorers on a fascinating historical journey while detailing the facts, the newest representation of the event is about to open in Palacios, a short trek southwest on state Highway 35. After 15 months of work and 2,000-plus volunteer hours, a 30-foot-by-10-foot half-scale La Belle replica—La Petite Belle—will open at South Bay Marina by year’s end, project supervisor Barney Gulley told us at the ship’s current home, the Texas State Marine Education Center.

Originally conceived in 2002, funded by the Palacios Area Fund and promoted vigorously by the late Roberta Ripke, a Palacios native, the project has commanded the time of two full-time and three to five part-time volunteer workers with a heart for the project. They have created historically accurate fittings, riggings and a hull made out of fiberglass then texturized to look exactly like wood. The finished product will be chestnut-colored with black and gold accents, and its masts will tower 30 feet over the deck.

While it won’t be coast-guard worthy and available for rides, it will give visitors a look at history and serve as a visual representation of life aboard the La Belle.Others may forget Palacios was where La Belle was moored before it came loose and foundered on the opposite coastline and that the town mounted the massive effort to reclaim it, so Barney and his team are working to remind everyone. According to Barney, “We’re not Rockport, but we’re a little more than what we are.” It’s just the first piece in a waterfront development project that will include building a new pavilion to replace the once-famous, big-band-era Roundhouse Pavilion that perched over Tres Palacios Bay.

cannonAfter lunch at laid-back local hangout The Outrigger, Barney gave us a taste of the seafaring life with a quick sail around Tres Palacios Bay aboard his personal sailboat, Vaya Con Dios. It was just enough for me to know that a day on the bay, with nothing but the wind in my hair and the sound of canvas sails slapping would be a truly peaceful way to spend an afternoon. Those who share my hankering can purchase a ride aboard the Papillon, a Heritage 37 sailboat owned by Nick and Kathy Nichols, innkeepers of Palacio’s Main Inn Bed & Breakfast. It shares marina space alongside Vaya Con Dios and other private sailboats bearing monikers such as Mind Time, Angel Fish, Sea Trek II and Trip Toy.

By the Beautiful Sea

Back in Bay City, we decided to make a quick jaunt down state Highway 60 to tiny Matagorda, the county’s namesake. It’s home to a boatload of history dating to the earliest days of the state’s founding, the 1838 Mother Church for Texas Episcopalians and an 1830 cemetery holding contemporaries of Stephen F. Austin, the Father of Texas, but the burg also has a modern slant.

Its regionally popular Spoonbills gourmet restaurant, the upscale Lodge at Karankawa Village boutique hotel and Cattails, a combination gift shop/wine bar/home decor store, were recently joined by Poco Playa Restaurant, Bar and Village. Poco Playa sports three bars (Boat, Island and Safari), a family-friendly restaurant, indoor and outdoor game areas, a “beach” featuring umbrella tables, two huge outdoor palapa awnings and an artisan village. The attached village holds 14 shops populated at select times by local and regional artisans selling original goods—all joined by a boardwalk and fronting onto a large courtyard floored with materials unearthed during the property’s development.

parkShooting south from here, we crossed the bridge over the mouth of the Colorado River/Gulf Intracoastal Waterway confluence and drove through the 1,600-acre Matagorda Bay Nature Park leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Sitting at the park’s base is the Natural Science Center, where visitors can learn about the area’s ecosystem through hands-on displays on such subjects as topography, conservation and dune analysis. Also available are picnic areas, an RV park, ranger-led kayaking excursions up the river and through the salt marsh, and 21 miles of drivable sand where visitors can find a really secluded place to hang out.

It made me think of the Houston couple we’d met at breakfast that morning. After just returning home from an extended nine-state vacation trip, they’d come here this weekend simply to get away to someplace peaceful and do a little shelling. My husband and I spent our last bit of time nearly alone on the long pier stretched over the gulf, watching the anglers searching for a good catch and the surfers catching the waves on a rainy, windy morning. Matagorda County continued to serve it up quiet and relaxed.

Bright lights, big city? Not here, not needed.

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

Planning Your Trip

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


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