Content Produced in Partnership with Visit Port Arthur
A coast gulf city on the border of Texas and Louisiana, Port Arthur is a patchwork place that’s evolved (quite bizarrely) over time. Founded in the late 1800s by Arthur Stilwell because voices in his head told him this was the ideal location to build a waterfront resort town, Port Arthur optimistically began as a central stop along the Kansas City Southern railroad. The plan sounded great and excursion trains were organized to bring Northerners down to vacation along the coast.
His dreams were soon thwarted, however, when oil (and lots of it) was discovered in the area. Now home to the largest refinery in the U.S., it’s hard to be a resort destination with a petroleum plant in your backyard as an eyesore. The weather didn’t help their cause either. One of the five rainiest places in the country, being in the heart of Hurricane Alley makes it hard to enjoy a sunny beach getaway. A metal wall was built around the city to stop the flooding, but it didn’t exactly add to the visual appeal of the locale.
Despite all that, Port Arthur owns their quirks. Gator County, gorgeous stretches of sand, uniquely designed stilted houses, and delectable Cajun cuisine welcome passerby’s, eager to show off what they do have to tourists. The area is still a big draw for various subsets of the population and is a natural haven for anyone who likes birding and fishing. Guys geek out watching tankers being pulled by tugboats and architecture lovers are intrigued by various design oddities of the region.
Port Arthur is a bit of a misunderstood place, but if you’re passing through it’s worth a pause.
For the History Buffs
There’s plenty of Texas pride in these parts, and there’s nowhere to get a better foundation or understanding of the region than at the Museum of the Gulf Coast. A multi-level museum, the mezzanine offers a glimpse into the history of the area, while the upstairs is dedicated to famous folks from Port Arthur like musical legend Janis Joplin, mixed media artist Robert Rauschenberg, and many professional athletes (it’s basically a breeding ground for NFL legends).
Keep an eye out for exhibits on celestial navigation that provide insight into how the early explorers stumbled upon the area and the various eco-habitats from estuaries and bayous. There’s info on the Texas revolution and local industries including a robust look at the oil boom. You’ll also want to snap a photo of one of the largest indoor murals in the southwest.
For the Architecture Lovers
Down the street from the museum (and owned by it), the pink Pompeii Villa looks like it was magically transported across the pond and bizarrely plopped in Port Arthur. Built by James Hopkins to be a hunting and fishing lodge, he designed what he thought a Roman house should look like despite never actually having made it to Italy. In reality, the interior is more Victorian, and what was once a waterfront property now has a retaining wall and a highway separating the Gulf of Mexico.
For a more robust architectural tour, drive The Faith Trail, which has gorgeous religious edifices of all denominations sprinkled around the area. The Buu Mon Buddhist Temple is home to a giant gilded Buddha and a four-tiered pagoda surrounded by lush landscaped gardens. The shrine outside Our Lady of Guadalupe was sculpted to represent our collective dreams, while the Queen of Peace Shrine has a giant Virgin Mary statue surrounded by Oriental Gardens. In the neighboring town of Beaumont, St. Anthony Cathedral Basilica is one of only four minor basilicas in Texas with a stunning barrel vaulted dome and stained glass interior.
For the Nature Enthusiasts
Thanks to its location smack dab in the middle of two migratory bird flyways, Port Arthur and Beaumont are bucket list destinations for birders. Walk the Gambusia Nature Trail at Sea Rim State Park where the salt water meets the sea. You’ll hear pips and squeaks unlike anywhere else on the planet and hundreds of birds call the area home so keep your eyes and ears peeled. If you want to workup a sweat, you can also kayak through the marshland. Up the road, the McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge (famous for its spring and fall migrations) and Paradise Island, (think the name is what inspired Disney?) an 18.5-mile island along the Intercostal Canal, are more great spots to observe seabirds and our feathered friends or cast a line and get wistfully lost in your thoughts.
The Cattail Marsh Wetlands in Tyrrell Park is another treasure trove for Audubon enthusiasts. 240 of the 596 bird species native to Texas can be spotted here on a regular basis. If you need help classifying, the Audubon app can help ID them with a series of questions like location and identifying features.
For the Foodies
This is Cajun / Creole country so restaurants in Port Arthur are guaranteed to satisfy and you know you’re going to eat well because everything in the bayou is either deep fried or doused in butter. There are to-go seafood shacks like Bruce’s where salt and pepper shrimp, fried oysters, fried shrimp, and crawfish tails are popular bites and dozens of hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese joints. Another local delicacy to seek out is boudin balls, a mix of pork liver and rice sausage breaded and deep fried. Generally served as an appetizer with some form of dipping sauce, everyone’s variation is a little bit different so it’s totally acceptable to try them all. You’ll also want to make sure you eat as much gumbo as possible because when in Rome.
With a motto of “If it swims we have it,” The Schooner offers virtually every form of seafood and is one of the old reliable staples (seriously, it’s been around forever). I ordered a bowl of jumbo lump crab meat swimming in butter for the sheer gluttony factor. They also playfully promote a drink called the Category 5 Hurricane made with five alcohols because it’s the strongest, obviously.
Rodair Roadhouse is an authentic Texas Roadhouse and oil guy hang out and while they claim to offer more soul food than eye candy, there’s plenty of testosterone flowing. Beyond that, the crawfish gumbo is all kinds of yes, but it’s really the fried green tomatoes they’re known for. Save room for dessert because this is Paula Deen country and the bread pudding is a sweet, sugary mess. They also have live music on weekends if you want to pack your dancing shoes.
Reel Cajun is a kitschy seafood sit-down, but it takes just one bite for the food to sell itself. If you’re traveling with a crew, the Seafood Delight is a feast for four and a sampler of all their best bites from spicy boiled shrimp to crab legs and a variety of broiled oysters. You must order the Cajun egg rolls, which are boudin balls with the addition of cheese, a flaky shell, and spicy mustard. It’s the place to be during crawfish and Mardi Gras season, but there’s nothing wrong with getting in the spirit all year-round. As they say in these parts, “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”
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