NORTH PADRE ISLAND -- Ray Maddox twists in his saddle, sizing up the posse that followed him out of the compound, over the sand dunes and onto the beach.
As a trail guide for Horses on the Beach, an outfit that offers horseback rides along the water, Maddox knows these horses' preferences.
McCloud, the white thoroughbred, prefers to be ridden by men. Cupid, a paint horse, likes the ladies. Gus, a quarter horse, is good with kids.
It's Maddox's job to match horse with rider. And on this sunny Saturday morning, his pairings appear to be perfect. I'm in a position to judge, seated on Captain Morgan, a sorrel quarter horse that is tolerating my limited riding skills.
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"The majority of people who come here have never been on a horse, so safety is a large part of our day," says Maddox.
Since we're sharing the space with surfers, fishermen and vehicles, Maddox and our other guide, Delano Steinacker, are busy keeping us out of harm's way. Meanwhile, Captain Morgan is munching on clumps of the brown seaweed that lines the beach.
"I'm as tall as Shaquille O'Neal!" my 8-year-old son screams, and it's almost true. You get a different view of the world from a horse's back. And with the waves lapping below and blue sky stretched overhead, it's a great feeling.
On the way back, Maddox, 31, spots a longhorn calf that has wandered out of its compound and onto the beach. He gallops off to take care of it, returning in time to tell us to lean forward in our saddles as we climb back up and over the dunes. Our horses are trotting now, eager to get home.
Horses on the Beach offers rides seven days a week, weather permitting.
Water and sky
Later that day, we head north of Corpus Christi's downtown to the Texas State Aquarium, a vast indoor/outdoor space ensconced on the bay.
The jellyfish room is a standout, a dark space filled with spooky flute music and graceful invertebrates, including lagoon jellyfish, which resemble Queen Anne's lace, and upside-down jellyfish that like to hang out on their backs. Spookier still are the glowing moon jellies bathed in purple light.
Outdoors, we get lucky and catch two shows: dolphins doing synchronized flips and tricks, and a spectacular bird presentation.
Although the Wild Flight Show also features a tamandua (a small anteater) and an African serval (a wildcat with charmingly large ears), the birds are the stars, swooping low over the audience to land at perches onstage and off. Cleo is the closer, a Swainson's hawk admitted to the aquarium's rehabilitation facility in 1994. She cannot fly. Parked on a trainer's arm after the show, Cleo shows her clipped wing to a sympathetic crowd.
Parents should pack a swimsuit for kids -- a splash park attached to the aquarium is included in the price of admission.
Master sand sculptor
The next morning, it's off to Port Aransas to meet master sand sculptor Mark Landrum, a former accountant who traded numbers for pastry knives, diddle picks and dental tools.
"It's just like wood carving," Landrum says, kneeling before his current creation. "You make a big block of sand and carve it away."
Landrum gives lessons to families and groups in Port Aransas, Mustang Island and North Padre Island, and he leads team-building exercises for corporations.
It's a great way to finish a quick trip to the Texas coast, where sand and water meet.