Houston: Mustang Island
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More popular with locals than spring-breakers, Mustang Island and Port Aransas boast one of the most spectacular beaches on the Gulf of Mexico that fronts condos as well as protected lands. Long a waystation for the eccentric and opportunistic, the island has variously served as a pirate redoubt, a station for the Confederate Army, and a game fishing destination. Today, Port Aransas is lively year-round. Stay at the Tarpon Inn, a refurbished and reconstructed Civil War barracks, and spend long days on the beach eating deep-fried fish and drinking Lone Stars by the bucketful. It's a Texas tradition.

More information: The Port Aransas Ferry Systems runs constantly, offering free access to the island via six large boats. Waits can be long during peak hours – weekend mornings and evenings – but it's worth it to bring over a car if you want to explore the island's protected areas.