On the southern edge of Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico, there’s a town that defies the typical “Texas” stereotypes. And while South Padre Island may have a reputation as a party town, in truth it’s a laid-back island paradise, a place where you can escape the world—without ever leaving the Lone Star State.
8:30 a.m. With the waters of the Laguna Madre below, I crossed the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge from mainland Texas to the island and immediately felt the salty breeze, making me hungry for seafood. Yes, even for breakfast. So I went to Pier 19 Restaurant and Bar for an omelet stuffed with blackened shrimp and sliced avocado. One bite and I knew it was going to be a great day.
9:30 a.m. I was ready to hit the beach, so I met up with the South Padre Surf Company for a lesson on riding the Gulf’s waves. Having never successfully surfed, I was nervous. However, after a bit of good teaching, I was standing up in no time and hanging ten all the way back to shore. Cowabunga! Make that … Texabunga!
11:00 a.m. After time in the surf, I was ready for the sand. Dennis Barrett, aka the “Sand Slave,” met me for a private lesson in building sand castles. What started out as a pile of wet sand quickly grew into a commanding tower. Before long I was carving out windows, building an arch, and even fortifying a wall to fend off marauding crabs. I finished with something infinitely more impressive than my previous dribble castles.
1:30 p.m. Hungry again, I headed to Dirty Al’s, an island institution, and found myself sitting before a massive basket of fried shrimp, fish, and oysters. In a mo-ment of bravery, I ordered some house fish throats (served fried, grilled, or blackened). I never knew that fish had edible throats, or that they were so tasty.
2:30 p.m. Next up, Sea Turtle Inc., a nonprofit sea turtle hospital and education center that rescues, rehabilitates, and protects turtles on South Padre Island and Boca Chica Beach. I learned about the five sea turtle species found off the Texas coast and walked among the huge tanks filled with Atlantic green, loggerhead, hawksbill, and even endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. I left with a newfound appreciation for turtles and planned a return trip to help release new hatchlings into the wild.
4:30 p.m. Just as abundant as the wildlife in the sea is the wildlife above it, and the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center gave me an up-close look at some of the roughly 320 bird species that live in the area, including a pair of dueling spoonbills. Watching their tussle confirmed that spoons probably aren’t the best weapon for battle.
6:00 p.m. Venturing north, I headed up Padre Boulevard until I reached a point where the pavement disappeared beneath flowing dunes of white sand. It was amazing to think that the next 100 miles of coastline are nothing but uninhabited wilderness.
7:00 p.m. I tripped back to civilization for dinner at the Padre Island Brewing Company, which has been “feeding faces”
since 1995. I ordered up a tasty scratch-made basil pesto pizza topped with chicken and fresh tomatoes. The experience only got
better with a pint of craft-brewed Texas Long Board Lager, which I enjoyed at sunset while sitting on the deck in the island breeze.
8:45 p.m. Like a moth to a flame, I couldn’t resist the lights of Gravity Park, nor could I resist the urge to tee up on its mini-golf course and ride its multi-level wooden go-kart track. However, the grand finale was to defy gravity by flying 250 feet in the air on a human slingshot known as a reverse bungee.
While South Padre Island may turn into party central during spring break, it’s what happens the other 51 weeks of the year that makes this island truly special. So, whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope to see you on the road.
Contact the South Padre Island Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800/767-2373.
Chet Garner is the host of The Daytripper™ travel show on PBS.