Fun in the sun: South Padre Island, Texas
“Fish. Party. Repeat.”
Those words, printed on a sign hanging on the wall of a restaurant in South Padre Island, Texas, refer to two of the most popular pastimes there.
SPI, as the locals call it, and Port Isabel, perched at the other end of a causeway that connects the two, have outstanding beaches, a long list of both land and water activities, and intriguing historical tidbits that add color to the setting.
The resorts are well known to “Winter Texans” — people primarily from the Midwest who spend several winter months soaking up the sun, and fun, in those twin towns on the Gulf of Mexico at the Lone Star State’s southern extremity.
At first glance, both communities present the atmosphere of many beachfront locations. Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops abound. Colorful golf carts are a popular mode of transportation. The favored attire gives new meaning to the words “casual clothing.”
But much more awaits those who find their way to this inviting destination within a seashell’s throw of Mexico, which has a strong influence on the local culture.
More than just fishing
Sunbathers, bike riders, surf fishermen and vacationers have long been attracted to the sand that stretches in an unbroken line from White Sands Beach in the north to Pearl at its southern end.
Fishing is by far the favorite pastime for both residents and visitors. Anglers seek their dinner in the flats of Laguna Madre Bay, which separates SPI and Port Isabel, by surf casting off beaches, dropping a line from a pier or trolling the offshore depths of the Gulf.
So productive are the waters that the advertising of one charter boat captain offers “Guaranteed fish. No fish — no charge.”
The popularity of that activity also becomes clear in other ways. One is the fact that streets on SPI are named after swordfish, tarpon, marlin and other denizens of the deep. In some sports bars, along with TV sets tuned to the usual athletic events, there are others beaming fishing programs.
Fortunately, for visitors to the area seeking other activities, a lengthy catalog awaits their perusal and participation. Of course, the A (antiquing) to Z (ziplining) list includes many that are water-related.
For starters, there’s kayaking and canoeing, snorkeling and sailing, speeding along on a jet ski and loping along a beach on horseback.
Nature attracts fans to the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary, a good place to observe a variety of native wildlife.
An observation tower, blinds and a 3,300-foot-long boardwalk provide close-up sightings of some of the 350-plus species of birds that have been seen in the area. During my visit, a wall chart that lists recent identifications included colorful monikers like marbled godwit and semipalmated plover.
Another expedition took my wife, Fyllis, and me on a Breakaway Cruises dolphin watch excursion in Laguna Madre Bay. Captain Bob pointed out the first one as soon as we left the marina.
Whenever someone spotted a telltale fin, or better yet a dolphin leaping out of the water, a collective “oooh, aaah” echoed among the passengers.
Adding to the enjoyment, and education, was inspecting at close hand various specimens that a net had dredged up from the bay floor. Among sea life we examined were a stingray, several small fish and shrimp.
Shrimp a large draw
It’s no surprise that shrimp were found there because those crustaceans have been the source of an industry that has thrived in the area since the middle of the 19th century. Today, Texas consistently ranks among the top three producing shrimp states, along with Alaska and Louisiana.
The trawlers typically drag their nets along the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for as long as three weeks at a time, working at night, since shrimp are nocturnal. When not at sea, trawlers may be spotted docked at several locations in Port Isabel.
Also not surprising are the variations on shrimp dishes served at local restaurants, which augment the Tex-Mex cuisine on many menus. Dishes using shrimp that were new to me included tacos, quesadillas, omelets, Eggs Benedict and even a BLT sandwich.
The story of shrimping is among many told at the Port Isabel Historical Museum. Exhibits there portray the area’s past, beginning with the Spanish exploration period and moving on to the arrival of Native Americans, the Civil War and colorful tales of border folklore. The museum is housed in an 1899 building that in the past served as a dry goods store, post office and railroad station.
Port Isabel is also home to a landmark lighthouse that was completed in 1853 to guide ships bringing supplies to U.S. military posts. During the American Civil War, it was used as an observation tower by both Confederate and Union forces. Of 16 lighthouses along the Texas coastline, this is the only one that’s open to visitors.
The importance of Port Isabel’s role during the United States-Mexican War (1846-1848), following annexation of Texas by the U.S., and the American Civil War comes alive at the Walk of Generals. It consists of 21 medallions set in sidewalks surrounding the lighthouse that commemorate military men who served and fought in the area during those conflicts. Among the men so honored are Generals Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Zachary Taylor (12th President of the Unites States).
Local art scene
Both Port Isabel and SPI also lay claim to being art appreciation destinations, though in a non-traditional way. Any flat surface inside or outside a shop, restaurant, home or other building can serve as a palette for paintings, usually depicting sea life.
There are two “trails” that visitors may follow. The Sea Turtle Art Trail leads to 10 colorfully painted Fiberglass replicas of those reptiles as they’ve never been seen before. The largest, named Tank, covers the entire front of a building. Images on Miracle’s shell depict the challenges of turtle life, from emerging as hatchlings to avoiding predators in the deep oceans.
More than two dozen sandy creations comprise the Sandcastle Art Trail, supporting SPI’s claim as Sandcastle Capital of the World. Along with traditional castles, the creations include a singing mermaid and wildlife (such as pelican, alligator and dolphin) that frequent the area.
In addition, a tent-like structure called the Sandcastle Village houses an eclectic collection of works. Santa stands not far from Neptune; an enormous butterfly dwarfs a nearby iguana.
If seeing sand animals isn’t your thing, perhaps world-class fishing or relaxing on celebrated beaches is. They’re among the many treats that await those who visit SPI and Port Isabel, Texas, a welcome wonderland in any season.
If you go
Flights from Washington, D.C. or BWI to Harlingen, Texas, start at $430 on Southwest Airlines. The Harlingen airport is about an hour from the coast, as is the Brownsville airport.
Accommodations include the selection expected at a beach resort destination. Typical of the budget hotels in SPI is La Copa Inn, a beachfront property with a pool, restaurant and fitness room. Rates begin at $90; lacoparesort.com.
Fyllis and I opted for a three-bedroom Airbnb condo with a full kitchen, balcony and use of a swimming pool shared with occupants of the three other condos nearby.
Many restaurants in SPI and Port Isabel are similar in decor (casual) and menus (lengthy). Ceviche is a common appetizer, sometimes touted as the best in SPI, all of Texas and the world.
Many seafood restaurants offer to “cook your catch” for reasonable prices. Because entrees, like Texas, are oversized, Fyllis and I usually shared one and, at times, an appetizer, which was enough for two hungry people.
Jake’s Restaurant is a typical local eatery which has been “serving fun since 1982.” Specialties include fish, shrimp, oyster and chicken baskets with sides ($10.95-$12.95) and a bountiful seafood platter with sides ($23.95); Jakesspi.com.