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 to the statue of Padre Nicholas Balli, the first European to settle on the island. The statue greets you immediately after you cross the Queen Isabella Causeway, the only way to get on and off the island without a boat or a helicopter.
Turn right at the statue, for instance, to get to the southern end of the island, which is home to Isla Blanca Park—a county-run day-use area and RV park—and the adjacent Sea Ranch marina. Go straight past the statue and you’ll find yourself smack-dab in the thickest concentration of high-rise hotels and condos in the town of South Padre Island. Turn left at the statue to access most of the island’s businesses and attractions, which are clustered along the main drag, Padre Boulevard, and the town’s two other primary streets: Gulf Boulevard, which parallels the beach to the east, and Laguna Boulevard, which runs alongside the Laguna Madre to the west. As you’re heading north, the last building on the left is the pastel-colored South Padre Island Convention Center. Across the road and up a few hundred yards is the entrance to county-run Andy Bowie Park.
Since the town of South Padre Island is only four miles long and no more than half a mile wide, many people think they can get around by walking. But considering the heat—daytime highs in the summer are consistently in the nineties—it’s a good idea to have some kind of wheels. The obvious choice is to motor your own car, but be warned: Local police pull over anyone who exceeds the speed limit, though first-timers are often only issued warnings.
If you don’t want to drive your own car—or if you’ve been drinking—you can still get from here to there. The town operates the Wave, a rubber-tired trolley that makes free runs along Padre Boulevard from 6:45 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily (210-761-1025). For a minimum fee of $3, a taxi will take you anywhere on the island. The four big taxi services are BB’s (761-7433), Airport (761-1040), Cantu’s (761-1155), and Island (761-2222). And if you want to cruise in style, you can pay $75 to rent a street-legal beach buggy for two hours from Beach Buggy Rental (761-2847) or Uncle Buggies (761-6162).
Sand and Surf
South Padre’s main draw is the beach, a wide swath of fine white powder backed by low dunes. The simplest pleasures prevail here: digging for coquina clams, building castles, advancing on and retreating from the waterline, and chasing sand crabs. The green-blue Gulf won’t be confused with the Caribbean, but the water quality is considered good, and the view is great, as this is one of the few places along the Texas coast where oil rigs don’t clutter up the horizon. Offshore, three sandbars shallow enough to stand on create three sets of waves, and a strong undertow pulls swimmers northward, though rarely out to sea. The wave action is minimal, except during storms, with just enough swell of make bodysurfing enjoyable. The biggest dangers are the strong sun, occasional flotillas of man-of-war jellyfish, and the rare shark encounter.
There are three sections of shoreline on the Gulf side of South Padre. The mile-long stretch of beach at Isla Blanca Park is usually the most congested, attracting day-trippers, surfers, windsurfers, and fisherman, who congregate on the north jetty of Brazos Santiago Pass. Facilities at Isla Blanca include two covered picnic pavilions with showers and restrooms, snack stands, and a bait shop. Park admission: $2 per car.