For my wife’s birthday this past March, we both wanted to enjoy one last pre-baby getaway somewhere. With late March the peak of my busy season, we needed to keep it reasonably close. I’d long heard good things about Port Aransas, a beach town on Mustang Island along the Texas Coastal Bend. It’s about a 7 hour drive from Dallas, so we decided to check it out over a long weekend.
Port A, as the locals call it, is sort of a poor man’s Key West. It’s a place that’s less party town and more a laid-back outpost that gives you the closest approximation of “Island Time” this side of the Caribbean. Small independent motels and inns dominate, as opposed to chain hotels. Enter the Tarpon Inn, our home away from home for two nights on Mustang Island.
The Tarpon Inn Port Aransas, Texas
- 200 East Cotter Avenue, Port Aransas, TX
- Features: free WiFi, two restaurants, pet friendly, no TVs or phones except in suites
Location: Port Aransas lies approximately 40 miles from Corpus Christi, the closest city with commercial air service. It also sits approximately 175 miles south of San Antonio, 200 miles southwest of Houston, and 400 miles south of Dallas. The most direct route to Port Aransas entails taking the free ferry from Aransas Pass, via State Highway 35 and then State Highway 361. The ferry crossing is pretty cool, but can involve a long wait during Spring Break and summer weekends. If you want to skip the ferry, you can take the long way around via Corpus Christi. Take State Highway 358 (Padre Island Drive) across the John F. Kennedy Memorial Causeway to North Padre Island, then turn left at State Highway 361 to Port Aransas.
If coming via the ferry, the exit from the ferry terminal is Cotter Avenue. At the traffic light, go straight. You’ll find the inn approximately 1/2 mile on the right. If coming from Corpus Christi, Highway 361 enters town as Alister Street. Do not turn left at the signs for the Ferry Landing; continue straight on Alister Street. At Cotter Avenue, turn right, and the hotel is immediately on your right. Park in front of the hotel on the street, or behind the hotel in the small parking lot.
The Tarpon Inn enjoys a long, storied history. Originally built in 1886 to house workers constructing a nearby jetty, the owners converted it to a hotel shortly thereafter. A fire destroyed the building in 1900, and then a hurricane in 1919. The hotel’s current configuration dates to the post-hurricane rebuild. The structure’s construction – with concrete pilings that extend from below ground level all the way up through the attic, which you can make out in the photos of the exterior – supposedly make the building hurricane proof, and also contribute to the deep porches that wrap all the way around the building.
Given Port A’s reputation for excellent deep sea fishing in the Gulf, especially for the hotel’s namesake, the tarpon, the hotel’s guest register features many famous Americans. In fact, the lobby is decorated with more than 7,000 autographed tarpon scales from guests who have stayed at the inn, some famous, some not. Anyway, the journey just to get to Port A makes up half the fun. After taking the ferry route, we arrived a little after 7 pm. The inn looks pretty low-key from the outside as you drive up.
The clerk checked us in quickly and gave us the keys to Room 39, a “premium Queen” room. When booking a room online, with only 29 rooms on the premises, you may select the specific room you want. We decided to select Number 39. I’ll start off the bat by saying that parking is something an issue here. The lot behind the lobby can hold maybe 6-8 cars. Once that’s full, you may park either on the street in front of the hotel, in the lot behind Roosevelt’s, the upscale restaurant (more on that later), or wherever you can find a spot on the street in the vicinity. The good news is, as a small town, Port A’s parking restrictions aren’t exactly stringent.
The first thing you’ll notice: the massive porches with rocking chairs at regular intervals. Yes, they really do wrap all the way around the building. The inn claims to have the longest porch in Texas, and I wouldn’t doubt it.
As for our room, it’s advertised as a larger room, though it’s not large in absolute terms. All rooms feature hardwood floors (supposedly the originals from the 1919 reconstruction) and antique furniture. As you can see, the rooms are sparsely furnished, though that’s by design. The Tarpon Inn isn’t intended as a luxury hotel. Instead, it’s meant to give travelers an idea of how it would have felt to visit Port Aransas in a bygone era. From that perspective, I think it succeeds. Aside from the air conditioner on the back wall, you do feel like you’ve stepped back in time to the 1930s in here.
Prepare for a tight squeeze in the bathrom. A tub/shower, toilet, and clothes closet all squeeze into a pretty tiny space. The closet in particular is TINY, and I don’t particularly care for the location inside the bathroom. Incidentally, I didn’t take a photo, but the tub needed resurfacing. The corrosive salt air does a number on the porcelain finish.
In the corner closest to the door, you’ll find a rocking chair and small desk. I found the chair a great spot to sit and catch up on IG and the news in the evening after dinner. If you prefer to soak in the sea breeze, the porch outside features several rocking chairs.
What I found most interesting, or perhaps ironic: for an inn that proudly advertises the fact that it eschews modern technology by not providing TVs or phones in the rooms, power outlets are found literally EVERYWHERE. One is found in front of the rocking chair, and I counted at least 2 others on the other side of the bed. Speaking of which, the inn provides fee WiFi. Though my iPhone occasionally lost track of the signal, the connection rated pretty good overall. If you really need to work, you ought to think twice about coming to Port A in the first place. But the WiFi is quick enough to get stuff done if needed.
Out back, you find a large, open courtyard with views of the main hotel building, Roosevelt’s restaurant, and the building housing the “Tarpon Flat Suites”. If you just can’t live without TV, the suites feature them, along with other amenities like microwaves and refrigerators.
The Tarpon Inn contains two restaurants, Roosevelt’s for fine dining (dinner only 7 days a week), and the Tarpon Bar & Grill as a more casual option (lunch and dinner, closed Wednesday and Thursday). We decided to try both while we were in town. We headed over to the Bar & Grill, located next door to the hotel, our first night. There’s definitely a classic beach town feel inside. You can also sit on the balcony upstairs if you enjoy like a breeze with your meal.
The Tarpon Bar & Grill advertises a mojito as its signature drink. Though not a typical Texan cocktail, it was nicely done, with just enough mint to add some tartness without being overpowering.
I ordered fried oysters with onion rings and hush puppies, and Prita ordered fried shrimp with fries and hush puppies.
Fried oysters with onion rings and hush puppies
Fried shrimp with fries and hush puppies
Aside from the rice on my plate, which felt dry and tasteless, the food itself was pretty good. A fresh catch, generous portions, and crisp, golden brown shrimp and oysters made a tasty meal. The hush puppies were especially delicious, nice and crisp on the outside and soft and sweet on the inside.
So what went wrong? The service. It was, simply put, dreadfully SLOOOOOOOOW. I don’t know if it was short staffing or what, and our server was very kind and apologetic, but every part of the service took FOREVER. My wife and I couldn’t care less – it was already dark, and we had nowhere to go anyway – but this isn’t the type of place you expect dinner to take an hour and a half from start to finish. We actually wanted to try one of the desserts, which looked yummy, but also didn’t really want to wait around another half hour for them to bring it and the check.
The next night, we made reservations at Roosevelt’s for dinner. Yes, “Roosevelt”, as in former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but FDR never actually stayed at the inn or ate here. Rather, it’s just a tribute to the fact that he frequently visisted Port Aransas to enjoy deep sea fishing with his political benefactors and other high profile state politicos of the era. Anyway, this is a cozy restaurant. The interior hearkens to the elegance of 1930s Texas, with its wood paneling and floors throughout, and diners enjoy a nice view of the hotel grounds if sitting by one of the windows.
We ordered the jumbo lump crab cakes to start with. I then ordered the ribeye for the main course, and my wife ordered the surf ‘n turf. We finished off with a white chocolate bread pudding.
Jumbo lump crab cakes
Ribeye with potatoes and asparagus
Surf & turf
White chocolate bread pudding
The meal was a mixed bag. The crab cakes were good, with a nice sear on the outside, and the chipotle remoulade gave everything a light kick welcome in an otherwise heavy dish. The steak, however, missed the mark. The beef was unfortunately overcooked, suffering from excessive searing on the outside, and hammered way beyond the medium that I’d ordered. The potatoes were also quite dry and not particularly flavorful.
The bread pudding, though, was quite good, as you would expect in this part of the world. It was well-set but still tender. Unlike the whiskey you typically see in bread pudding recipies in the state, this version was soaked in custard, which actually worked quite nicely. In addition, the raspberry finish helped to cut down the sweetness. Roosevelt’s also features a nice wine list, and I enjoyed a malbec that accompanied the steak perfectly. Overall, though, I must rate the meal as unsuccessful for the price (we ran up a bill of $163 for the two of us), given the badly overcooked meat.
Service here was much more polished and efficient than at the bar next door, with one exception. I stopped by to make reservations on the way to dinner the evening before. The hostess informed me that the only opening was at 5:30. Ok, earlier than we’d like, but fine, it’s easy enough to plan the day’s sightseeing accordingly. So imagine my irritation when I found the restaurant no more than half full the entire course of our dinner…
Oddly enough, breakfast isn’t provided at the inn, even at an additional charge. Guests must go elsewhere, though fortunately there are several restaurants within a block or two of the hotel. EATS Port A, across the street behind the hotel, serves decent coffee and reasonably priced food.
As for what to do in Port A, it’s a sleepy little town. If it’s excitement you’re after, you’ll need to head down the road to the bright lights of Corpus. But really, who needs big city excitement when you can enjoy a walk with the birds on the beach? Or a sunset at the city’s nature preserve just down the road?
Like Port Aransas itself, I find the Tarpon Inn an interesting place. But I can’t really say interesting in an entirely satisfying way. The problem isn’t the room itself. Yes, it was spartan, but the entire vibe of Port Aransas is a place to escape life for awhile, and the inn is successful in that regard. But the inn also seems to have an identity crisis of sorts. The general layout, just 29 rooms in period furnishings in a historic building, suggests that the hotel is bed & breakfast. But service-wise, it’s more like a run-of-the-mill roadside motel, with no breakfast on offer, and though the desk staff are friendly, you miss the personalized service of a B&B. In short, it seems that the Tarpon Inn is missing out on an opportunity to offer more than it does, given its unique location.