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North Hills Monthly

Port Arthur, TX Perfect Place to Explore Gulf Coast Heritage

Jan 31, 2020 11:04AM ● By Vanessa Orr

A replica of Janis Joplin's hand-painted 1965 Porsche 356 Cabroilet.

There’s got to be something in the water. I don’t know what it is, but it’s hard to believe the level of talent that has come out of Southeast Texas. Not to name-drop, but let’s talk about Janis Joplin. J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. George Jones. Jimmy Johnson. Mark Chesnutt. Tex Ritter. Percy Sledge. Johnny and Edgar Winter. Clarence Gatemouth Brown. Tracy Byrd. Babe Zaharias. Bubba Smith. Artist Robert Rauschenberg. And the list goes on.

The best thing to do if you want to learn more about these superstars all under one roof is to visit the Museum of the Gulf Coast, located in Port Arthur, TX, about 90 miles east of Houston. The museum shares the history of the area and the stories of the people who lived here, or as they advertise, “from Jurassic to Joplin.”  

Dedicated to preserving Gulf Coast heritage, this 39,000 sq. ft. museum is a wonder. Wandering through the first floor, you can trace the growth of the region from its pioneer settlements to its role as a premier oil port, home to the largest oil refinery in the U.S. You can learn more about the derring-do of Pirate Jean Lafitte, the French pirate who sailed the Gulf of Mexico and hid out in the inlets of nearby Lake Sabine, and even learn to make grog. Or you can get blown away by the sheer number of celebrities who once called this area home in an area dedicated to celebrating those who made their mark on popular culture.

Janis Joplin fans make the pilgrimage to the museum to see a section dedicated specially to the 1960s songstress that includes a replica of her hand-painted 1965 Porsche 356 Cabriolet that contains psychedelic images of Janis and her band. While not the Mercedes Benz that she asked the Lord to bring her in her 1970 hit, the car is still a sight to see; especially since it’s doubtful that visitors will ever get close to the original that sold at auction for $1.5 million.

I spent hours in this massive museum, and that’s saying a lot, considering that during the time I was visiting, the Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas was going on outside. While that event has moved up to Beaumont this year, the good news is that you can visit this area of Texas and see it all—because the cities are so close, it’s just a short drive to get your beads before heading down to the slower-paced, laid-back vibe of Port Arthur.

Speaking of relaxing, one of the best ways to do this is to spend a day at Sea Rim State Park, where you can try your luck catching everything from catfish to red drum to spotted sea trout, southern flounder, Spanish mackerel, snook, sheepshead and more. Or you can just go shell-hunting on the beach; I’m a big fan of this pastime, and I had to stop myself from collecting too many in order to make sure that my luggage still made airline weight limits.

One of the more unique things about Port Arthur is how you can be in the center of an oil city, and within a short distance be walking among the dunes and dipping your toes into the Gulf. In fact, to get to Sea Rim, you drive through the oil refinery of Port Neches, and when I say through, I really mean it: my drive took me directly under the oil pipelines and through huge sections of industrial machinery. Having never been that close to a working oil refinery before, I found it fascinating; just like the Texas Longhorn steer that I saw minutes later along the same route.

The beach is quite a surprise and makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, despite being only 32 minutes from Port Arthur. It was the first time that I actually drove a car onto a beach, though numerous tracks in the sand told me that I certainly wasn’t the first to visit that day. There were birds everywhere, as the park is often a rest stop for migratory birds traveling the Central and Mississippi Flyways; unfortunately, I had a little trouble convincing them to stay still for a photo.

Birding is huge in Port Arthur, and there are numerous opportunities to see warblers, vireos, grosbeaks, flycatchers, thrushes, tanagers and more. The one thing to keep in mind while walking along or paddling through marsh trails, however, is that you need to be aware of alligator etiquette. Seriously, it’s a thing. According to warning signs, you should not assume that alligators are slow-moving, and you should not annoy them. And if they want a fish that’s on your line…let them have it.

Of course, all of this outdoor activity builds up an appetite, and Southeast Texas never fails in this regard. A stop into the Rodair Roadhouse gives you a plethora of incredible choices from catfish to fried oysters to green chili mashed potatoes and chicken and sausage gumbo gravy. And the number of ways to eat crawfish is endless. You have choices from the Gulf and the bayou, and yes, there’s also dessert.

To learn more about Port Arthur, TX, check out https://visitportarthurtx.com.