To Texans of a certain age, South Padre Island conjures images of complete and utter debauchery: beer-bong sessions, booze-soaked beach brawls, hubba-hubba wet T-shirt contests, and hormone-charged lunkheads. And yes, the stereotype is true. In March.
The rest of the time, South Padre Island’s family-friendliness comes to the fore, as does its natural beauty – since it lies farthest from the muddy Mississippi, Padre’s waters are the closest to blue in all of Texas, its sands closest to white.
The place is truly seductive—almost all year long.
Sea and Sun: Padre Island National Seashore
Padre Island National Seashore is home to over 400 bird species and a haven to, among others, the extremely endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle. At 70 miles long Padre is also the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island coastline in the world. Be advised, however, that coming from the town of South Padre Island, you can only drive about 35 of those miles—as far as Port Mansfield Pass—and only that far if you have a four-wheel-drive or are extremely skilled behind the wheel of a two-wheel drive. (The rest of the seashore can be accessed from the north or by boat.) Five campgrounds are scattered throughout the National Seashore.
Generally speaking, the farther north you go, the more isolation you can find. Be advised that if you go far enough north, you’ll come upon nudists. Getting your car stuck in the sand is a more commonly encountered hazard, especially at lovely Beach Access Point 6. If you are inexperienced in soft-sand driving, stick to the firmer surfaces of Edwin Atwood Park (Access Point 5), which is also home to a beach pavilion and other amenities, but still offers more of wild Padre than Isla Blanca Park in town. 20420 Park Rd 22, Corpus Christi, 361-949-8068, nps.gov/pais/index.htm.
Where to Stay: Padre Condos
Because you can find lots of fresh-off-the-boat seafood on Port Isabel’s docks, and because tippling on Padre frequently requires lots of ice and a blender, you’ll likely want a kitchen and, ideally, an outdoor grill. That’s why getting a condo for a week is the island’s best bet. Units at the beachside Pearl South Padre (956-761-6551) start at $101 a night, while more monied travelers can opt for a penthouse suite in the $5,400-per-week Sapphire (956-433-5358), which features a spa, fitness center, and 24-seat cinema.
Fun for Families
Sea Turtle Inc.
Five handicapped turtles live in Sea Turtle Inc.’s tanks year-round, including Gerry, an Atlantic Green who washed up on the beach during a Reagan-era hurricane. Gerry has met Johnny Carson and David Letterman and has an engaging personality – he is known to stick his head out a window in his tank and chomp lettuce. Allison, another Atlantic Green, was the recipient of the world’s first prosthetic sea turtle flipper. 6617 Padre Blvd., 956-761-4511, seaturtleinc.org.
Fins 2 Feathers
Yes, there’s a big honkin’ Schlitterbahn waterpark just like Galveston’s on the south end of the island, and the bayside utterly abounds with limitless watersports, from kite-boarding and parasailing to fishing charters and wave-running. And aye mateys, the Black Dragon, a kitschy replica of a Jack Sparrow-esque pirate ship, does indeed weigh anchor daily from the Port Isabel docks, complete with firing cannons and sword-waving, yar-bellowing crew.
But for our money, your best bet is to quietly putter through the Laguna Madre on a six-person pontoon boat with Scarlet Colley, leader of Fins 2 Feathers tours and known to one and all on the island as “Dolphin Whisperer.” Both an earth mother and an ocean mother, Colley calls to the Laguna’s dolphins by name and they come diving and chattering, so close you can hear them breathing. Colley’s also a bird lover, and her boat trips take in birdlife as well as dolphins; on land, her Secret Garden (7355 Padre Blvd.) provides a haven for migratory birds. 956-299-0629, fin2feather.com.
Where the Locals Go
Manuel’s, Port Isabel
You’ll always find Padre locals at restaurants in neighboring Port Isabel, where deals abound. If you get a breakfast taco “con todo” at Manuel’s, it will set you back about $7, but you will have eaten enough for a full day. Maybe more. 313 E. Maxan St., Port Isabel, 956-943-1655, facebook.com/manuelsportisabel.
Coral Reef Lounge
At the Coral Reef Lounge, a motley assortment of locals and tourists gather nightly at 9 for karaoke—365 nights a year, no exceptions. We’re imagining that the scene on Christmas night might be a great setting for a Tom Waits song. 5301 Padre Blvd., 956-761-1813, coralreeflounge.com.
Ideal Date Nights
South Padre Island Adventure Park
There’s no place in Texas better suited for that clichéd but ever-pleasant long walk on the beach than Padre. It also offers epic horseback rides on the utterly unspoiled beaches north of town at South Padre Island Adventure Park. Sunset rides are especially popular. 956-761-4677, 100 Park Rd., southpadreislandadventures.com.
Louie’s Backyard and Coconuts
The tenets of Padre romance demand that you watch the sun set from either the venerable seafood buffet known as Louie’s Backyard or the salty bar next door, Coconuts. The latter offers an exquisitely curated Texas country playlist for your sundowner cocktail, not to mention an array of watersports at its dock. Louie’s, 2305 Laguna Dr., 956-761-6406 lbyspi.com; Coconuts, 2301 Laguna Dr., 956-761-4218, coconutsspi.com.
Where to Go When It Rains
In Paragraphs, Padre is home to still another rare species, a first-class independent bookstore. Proprietors Joni Montover and Griff Mangan are a wealth of solid-gold information on island happenings, restaurants, and people, and have firmly established their shop as Padre’s cultural hub. You can trade old novels for new and/or lounge, sip coffee, and peruse the New York Review of Books. The shop boasts a great selection of Texas history and nature books, plus plenty of juicy mysteries. 5505 Padre Blvd., 956-433-5057, paragraphsonspi.blogspot.com.
Also recommended: Port Isabel’s three museums. One celebrates general history; another resides inside of a 165-year-old lighthouse; and Treasures of the Gulf houses relics from three Spanish ships that wrecked near there in 1554. (portisabelmuseums.com)
Where to Eat
Joe’s Oyster Bar, Port Isabel
Joe’s is a must-visit during the summer months, but when oysters are not in season, they also will grill, blacken, and broil seafood with more alacrity than the island’s many fry-pits. 207 Maxan St., Port Isabel, 956-943-4501.
#SeafoodSaturday at one of our favorite local restaurants! What's your go-to place for the best seafood in South Texas? #GoLocal • • • • • #EatLocal #Seafood #CoastalBend #CorpusChristi #VisitCC #Kingsville #VisitKingsville #Riviera #Restaurants #EatingOut #food #instafood #Shrimp #TartarSauce #Saturday #SaturdayTreat
Famous King’s Inn
Generations of Texans have made Famous King’s Inn a favorite stopover on the way to South Padre Island. The restaurant opened in 1945 as part of a doomed seaside beach resort whose demise came courtesy a pair of hurricanes and World War II. The boardwalk and fishing pier disappeared, but the restaurant survived. Ignore the deteriorating building, lack of decor, and worn-out furnishings.
Order the fried shrimp, the grilled Gulf fish, and Baffin Bay oysters on the half shell when bivalves are in season. And don’t miss such bygone classics as Bombay Salad made with avocados and a hint of curry, or the legendary “seafood sauce” that tastes like an elaborate French tartare sauce—they’re not saying, but we think it’s thickened with Ritz crackers and spiced up with jalapeños. 1116 S. County Rd. 2270, Riviera, 361-297-5265, baffinbaytx.com/kingsinn.htm.