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Mention the word "Texas," and lots of images come to mind: cowboys, wide-open spaces, the Houston skyline, and cattle are some. But the rest of the nation tends to forget that there’s a third coast to these United States. As it happens, all 624 miles that make up the southeastern border of Texas is coastline, the end of the line for the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. From Houston to Brownsville, Texans in this region enjoy swimming, surfing, windsurfing, and boating on practically a daily basis. Why not? With temperatures that hardly ever dip below the 30s, the Gulf Coast is a year-round outdoor paradise.
While winter is little more than a minor inconvenience, the other three seasons are characterized by sunny days with mild tropical breezes. Even the vegetation in the Gulf Coast takes on an otherworldly air as the lush evergreens of the Piney Woods and the chaparral of the South Plains give way to towering date and palm trees, banana trees, and citrus. The region’s climate has beckoned thousands of "Winter Texans," people from the northern reaches of the U.S. who travel to their second homes in the Gulf Coast to escape from the snowstorms by playing rounds of golf or engaging in friendly tennis matches.
People aren’t the only creatures flocking to the warmth of the Third Coast. Tucked away all up and down the coast are delicate ecosystems that depend on the cyclical nature of the seasons and of the sea: tidal pools, sand dunes, and shallow saltwater marshes that support an array of plants and animals. This is the nesting ground to a number of endangered animals, including the giant Ridley sea turtles, black skimmers, and whooping cranes.
Except for occasional high-rise condominiums, the coastline maintains its pristine state. Looking at the coast from a boat, it’s easy to imagine how beautiful the shore must have looked to the explorers and pirates. Galveston Island was where Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca and his crew wound up shipwrecked in 1528. The island was later a favorite hiding place for the pirate Jean Laffite. The area now known as Corpus Christi was a popular stop for buccaneers who routinely sailed the Gulf, preying on unsuspecting travelers.
Corpus Christi is one of three major cities on the Texas Coast. Its gusty winds have become so legendary that Corpus Christi Bay now enjoys a national reputation as a premier venue for windsurfing. North of Corpus Christi and along the coastline is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, the wintering grounds of the endangered whooping crane. Though birdwatchers from around the country come to view these elegant avians, the refuge also shelters more than 300 other species of birds.
Nearby are the tiny waterfront hamlets of Fulton and Rockport. Goose Island State Park is the site of a huge ancient live oak that, according to legend, was a council tree for the native Karankawa Indians. Within a 30-minute drive of Rockport is Port Aransas, a community so well known for its sportfishing that presidents and dignitaries, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, have come here to try to catch the big one. Mustang Island State Park entices anglers, swimmers, and beachcombers with lots of clean white beaches. Farther up the coast lies Southern Brazoria County, notable for both history (it was the landing place for Stephen Austin’s colonists in 1821) and recreation. Well inland is the mighty King Ranch, the largest ranch in the world. Begun by former riverboat captain Richard King in the 1850s, the ranch near Kingsville is still an economic force in the area. Corpus Christi is also the northern point of Padre Island, a barrier reef that continues all the way down to Port Isabel, a sleepy little town that once a year, during spring break, swells in population as college students seek solace from studies in the surf and sun.
Just inland from Port Isabel is the region’s second-largest city, Brownsville. Ideally situated at the southern tip of the coastal region, Brownsville enjoys dual popularity: not only is it less than 30 minutes from the beach, it’s also a three-minute walk from Matamoros, Mexico. Slightly north of Brownsville is the community of Harlingen, another popular destination for northerners looking for a respite from the cold.
The third city in the region is one of the biggest in the country. Houston sprawls along the northern end of the Gulf Coast, supporting the nation’s third-largest port for exporting and importing. Houston depends heavily on commerce generated from the port, particularly oil and its by-products. Although oil remains important, Houston has worked to diversify its economy with great success. Today, its industrial base focuses on health care, banking, high tech, imports and exports, and manufacturing, as well as petroleum products.
Speaking of oil, by following the crescent of the coast above Houston, one finds the Golden Triangle, an industry-laden area created by the three small anchor cities of Orange, Beaumont, and Port Arthur. Oil and gas have practically built these cities. Beaumont became the home of dozens of millionaires when the first well came in at Spindletop in 1901. Orange, named for the wild oranges that grew along the banks of the Sabine River, also got a boost from oil. Today it owes much of its healthy economy to its large inland port, which ships oil and its products around the globe. The third point of the triangle, Port Arthur, is ideally located on both the Neches and Sabine rivers. Today, other than its claim as the home of singer Janis Joplin, it enjoys a reputation as a great destination for water sports enthusiasts.
Galveston, one community on the Gulf Coast, has a special Victorian charm. The architecture and even its streets--especially the historic Strand--transport visitors to a much simpler era. One look at the immaculately preserved Bishop’s Palace, designed by architect Nicholas Clayton, is proof enough that residents of this community care about what came before. Perhaps one reason is that Galveston almost ceased to exist in 1900, when a powerful hurricane whipped across the island, killing at least 6,000 people and demolishing a great number of buildings.
There’s also a strong Victorian presence in aptly named Victoria, which lies inland midway between Corpus Christi and Houston. Originally a Spanish settlement, Victoria entices visitors with more than 100 entries in the National Register of Historic Places.