Klement Grove & Country Store in McAllen is a fancy farm stand surrounded by citrus orchards that sells Texas Rio Red grapefruit juice, membrane-free segments of red grapefruit by the cup, and bushels and half-bushels of whole red grapefruits, as well as juicy Marrs oranges, seedless navel oranges, oversize Valley lemons, shelled and whole pecans, banana bread, cookies, homemade pies, Texas souvenirs, and more.
I ate a cup of shiny grapefruit segments at a picnic table outside behind the packing shed. Pink, exceptionally juicy, and free of the puckering sourness typical of out-of-state rivals, Texas Rio Red is the best grapefruit in the country, bar none. Really. It dominates comparative tastings. It’s also quite a bargain if you buy it at a grove stand in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, (or just “the Valley” to you and me). I’ve been hauling grapefruit back from my winter vacations here for over a decade.
My extended family’s Valley vacation tradition began in the late ’90s, when we started spending Thanksgiving week in a beachfront condo on South Padre Island. Coincidentally, it was the same place where the late governor Ann Richards spent the same holiday. You may remember her as the last liberal governor of Texas—I knew her as the white-haired lady who always smiled and waved to the kids on our way to the beach.
Each vacation included side trips. We played nearby golf courses, hit the fishing piers, and sometimes visited nearby Matamoros, Mexico for dinner and souvenir bottles of tequila. Of course, our wanderings always included stopping for some Texas Red.
Over the years, Thanksgiving in the Valley became a hard sell for my tribe, especially my brother and his family, who live in San Diego, so we gave up the tradition. But I still spend a few days down there almost every winter.
You will ask, as a friend recently did, “Why go to the beach when it’s too cold to swim?” Maybe I’m just being contrary. Then again, I’ve got an awful lot of company—many of them Houstonians who prefer to stand over a barbecue pit not during the hellish heat of July and August, but the balmy days of February. For some, this is the dead of winter; for me, it’s when the sand doesn’t burn your feet.
Oh, and grapefruit is in season. In February (National Grapefruit Month), the average high temperature down south is 70 degrees—too cold to swim, maybe, but warm enough for the kids to play chicken with the waves, collect shells, and throw a Frisbee. By March, daytime temps are a bit higher, and every once in a while, you’ll get a day that’s downright steamy—the thermometer has been known to hit 90-plus. (Beware of the throngs of college kids on Spring Break!)
This year, we stayed at the SandBox Inn on South Padre, a vacation rental owned by champion sandcastle builder Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga. With our three-day stay, she threw in a free sandcastle-building lesson for my two kids, and they produced a charming replica of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Castle decorated with shells.
The kids were also fascinated by the green sea turtles at Sea Turtle Inc., a rescue center right up the road from our condo. Other ecotourism options include dolphin-watching boat rides and bird-watching.
I’m content to scope out Green Jays on my way to the citrus orchards, but serious birders will want to visit the 764-acre Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, home to neotropicals like the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, not to mention an educational center, viewing towers and lots of expert information for enthusiasts and neophytes alike. It’s also the headquarters for the World Birding Center, a network of nine prime bird-watching sites in a variety of habitats along the Rio Grande.
And now, about that other migratory specimen, the snowbird. Sitting in a crowded coffee shop in Los Fresnos, you can expect to hear the words “you betcha” so many times, you may correctly deduce you’re the only Texan in the crowd. You might as well get used to it. Most of the winter tourists in the Valley are Midwesterners—they’ve always been plentiful down here.
It all started in 1914, when Nebraskan John Shary created the Valley’s citrus industry as part of a real-estate promotion scheme. Inspired by the healthy grapefruit and orange trees he saw in the region’s tiny farm groves, he bought up thousands of acres of brush land, connected the plots to irrigation canals fed by the Rio Grande, and sold the plant-it-yourself orchards to visiting Midwestern farmers. For an extra fee, Shary would manage the citrus groves, too.
Since that time, grapefruit farmers in the Valley have suffered their ups and downs (see sidebar) but have managed to hang on—lucky for us. Thanks to the Texas citrus industry’s robust mom-and-pop origins, large agribusiness concerns never got involved. Consequently, you’ll still find grove stands where you can pick your own fruit (or at least wander around the citrus orchard and consider picking it before you buy a bushel). Combined with a walk on the beach, it makes for the perfect February afternoon in South Texas.
World Birding Center Sites
The World Birding Center is an ecotourism collaboration between Texas Parks & Wildlife, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, and nine Valley communities. Made up of a network of nine prime bird-watching sites, the WBC follows the river for 120 miles, from Roma to South Padre Island, offering multiple viewing stations, watchtowers, and interpretive centers.
Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park
2800 S. Bentsen Palm Dr., Mission; 956-585-1107;
Visit theworldbirdingcenter.com for all nine locations.
A full-on tourist stand with citrus by the bushel and half-bushel, juice, fruit cups, baked goods, pecans, snacks, souvenirs, and more.
4508 N. Taylor Rd., McAllen; 956-682-2980; klementsgrove.com
Granny Clare’s Citrus
Homestead fruit stand selling citrus, juice, and fruit cups
14748 Hoss Ln., Harlingen; 956-423-1191; grannyclarescitrusatrioprideorchards.com
Lazy S Citrus Grove
Pick-your-own citrus orchard
Mercedes (call for directions); 956-264-4549; email@example.com
1601 N. Sharp Rd., E. 107; Edinburg; 956-381-0334
Organic Grapefruit Shipper
South Texas Organics
6700 North Doffing Rd. Mission; 956-585-1040; stxorganics.com
SandBox Inn of South Padre Island
A two-bedroom apartment with deluxe kitchen and decks, one block from the beach
117 E. Saturn Ln. South Padre Island; 956-761-6222; sandboxinn.com
Sunchase Beachfront Condos
One-, two- and three-bedroom condos on the beachfront
1010 Padre Blvd. South Padre Island; 956-761-1660