Venturing into the natural and man-made wilds of South Padre Island.
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Day 1 The floorboards of our rental car are immaculate. This won’t be true for long, though, as we are nearly to Padre Island, which boasts one of the longest expanses of sandy beach in the world. Located a short distance from Mexico and named for the priest who turned the unclaimed strip into a cattle ranch in the early 1800’s, Padre stretches 130 miles and has a split personality. The northern end is known for its protected national seashore, which is almost as wild and isolated as when the Karankawa made camp there. The southern tip, our destination, is associated with a different kind of wildness: that of rowdy spring breakers who come to raid the bars of their frozen drinks and the souvenir shops of their neon tees. But since that March flock has already come and gone, my three traveling companions and I have deemed it safe to make our own southerly migration.
We may be a decade (or two) removed from our own spring break memories, but after six hours of driving we’re all salivating for something slushy and filled with booze. With the Queen Isabella Causeway—the only road connecting South Padre to the rest of Texas—now in the rearview mirror, we turn north toward Clayton’s (6900 Padre Blvd., 956-761-5900), allegedly the biggest beach bar in the state. Yet as thirsty as we are, once out of the car, we instinctively walk right past the drinks and straight for the shoreline, baptizing our bare feet in the surf.
Back on Clayton’s shaded deck, we sip salt-rimmed margaritas and share baskets of fried shrimp. The sun sets, but we’re not quite ready to hole up, so once we check in to the Pearl (310 Padre Blvd., 855-887-3275)—a twelve-story hotel on Padre’s south end—we make for the pool, passing the giant frog with a red slide for a tongue on our way to the swim-up bar. We clink overflowing plastic cups of “turbo” piña coladas (“turbo” being island-ese for “Extra liquor, please!”) and toast to getting more sand between our toes.
Day 2 I fling back the curtain to our partial-ocean-view balcony to see the morning sun hiding behind thick gray clouds. This does not, however, put a damper on breakfast. The filling concoctions we find at Yummie’s Bistro (700 Padre Blvd., 956-761-2526)—bacon-stuffed waffles, shrimp with Cajun-style grits—would delight even during a hurricane. The waitress comes by with another round of cinnamon-infused coffee and assures us that the clouds will burn off by afternoon. We’ve got some non-beach attractions to see in the meantime.
Our arrival at Sea Turtle Inc. (6617 Padre Blvd., 956-761-4511), an open-air rescue center, is fortuitously timed. Allison, the resident one-flippered celebrity, has on her carbon-fiber prosthesis and has just been released into a large tank for her daily three-hour constitutional. Our next spot, the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center (6801 Padre Blvd., 956-243-8179), is just half a block over, but no one wants to leave the turtles (some as small as my hand, others as big as my coffee table)—until we hear promise of a possible alligator sighting. On the long boardwalk that extends into the Laguna Madre, we take turns with our rented binoculars, though we don’t need any extra eye power to spy several tricolored herons, great egrets, clapper rails, and red-winged blackbirds. The gator—who’s likely in the cattail marsh—eludes us.
That other elusive deity—the sun—is now out in full force. On the beach at the Pearl, we rent four lounge chairs and set up camp under two umbrellas. Over the next few hours, I alternate between dips in the surf and shaded catnaps. Post–happy hour, we stroll south along the seashell-riddled shore to the jetty that protects Brazos Santiago Pass. As we walk—and at times leap—across its enormous rocks, we make sure to stay clear of the fishing lines being cast into the saltwater for mangrove snapper, mackerel, and the occasional small shark. The indigo sky turns black on our way back. Our cellphones, now flashlights, send crabs skittering every which way, to our amusement.
Day 3 Scanning the Gulf shore for seashells, we crave—what else?—seafood. If any of us were skilled fishermen, we could take advantage of the “you hook it, we’ll cook it” policy at Pier 19 (1 Padre Blvd., 956-761-7437), a long yellow box on stilts. No matter. Crab and scallops come in our omelets and shrimp bob in our Bloody Marys. Earlier this morning, I’d called Fins2Feathers (956–299-0629) owner George Colley to book us on the dolphin cruise he and his wife, Scarlet, launch from nearby Port Isabel. The small boat fits six in addition to our captain and his trusted scout, Gorgi, who has four legs and better hearing than the rest of us. A couple of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins frolic in our wake, but Gorgi runs to the bow. Just ahead, twenty or so rambunctious mammals and their pink-bellied babies are leaping and playing. It’s hard to tell who’s more excited: the dolphins, George, Gorgi, or us. On our return, we cross underneath the causeway, and I feel glum knowing we’ll soon be back on the mainland and heading home. Of course, the guy at the rental car company did say we could always extend our reservation. I think that’s exactly what we’ll do.