When I first visited South Padre with my parents, 35 years ago, there wasn’t much to it other than the white sand, the undulating dunes, and the warn waters of the Gulf of Mexico. You reached it by driving across a swing bridge and a bumpy two-lane causeway. The sum total of commerce was four small motels, two restaurants—the Jetties and the Palmetto Inn—a Gulf station, and a cafe-convenience store called Andy’s Sandbox. From my point of view as a nine-year-old, all there was to do was play on the shore, watch Valley broadcasting legend Moulton “Ty” Cobb on the motel TV, or feed dimes into a pinball machine. But my father, who spent his time fishing for pompano and hammerheads in the surf, was sold on the place. He thought it had all the ingredients of a world-class resort. He predicted that its beach would someday rival Miami’s.
The first evidence that he might be right about South Padre came in 1964, when the Port Mansfield cut opened, separating the lower 34 miles of the long barrier island from the upper 92. Then, in 1974, a new multilane road, the 2.4-mile Queen Isabella Causeway, was constructed, providing an elevated link with Port Isabel over the Laguna Madre. And then, over the next two decades, the kind of development frenzy rarely seen in Texas turned South Padre into a major magnet for vacationers. Vast stretches of beachfront were overtaken by whitewashed high-rise condominiums and swanky private homes dreamed up by architects with visions of Waikiki and Malibu. With the new accommodations came new retail shops, new restaurants, and new amusements. And people: On any given day, thousands of visitors might cram their way onto the strip.
Today, South Padre competes for tourist business with Florida, the Carolinas, and the Mexican Caribbean. It has, among other things, the best beach, the warmest year-round climate, and the most activities and diversions on the Texas coast. It is literally all things to all people. During Spring Break, it is a haven for college students; during Easter Week, rich Mexicans are drawn there; during the winter, senior citizens and the RV set battle for space. And in the summer, of course, it is the perfect place for all of us. If I were a kid today, I’d have a ball there. But as you’ll see on the following pages, you don’t have to be a kid—or a dad hooked on surf-fishing—to enjoy South Padre.
South Padre is divided into three parts, each best identified by its location relative