The Shore Thing
South Padre isn’t just a beach anymore: It’s a resort town with better food than Florida, cooler bars than the Carolinas, and more action than the Mexican Caribbean. A complete guide to the best summer vacation in Texas.
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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.
I prefer the four-mile stretch of beach within the town limits, because it’s free, motor vehicle traffic is banned from the sand, and cleanup crews are dispatched every day. The half-mile between the Sheraton Fiesta Beach Resort and the Saida Town condominiums is the most crowded in-town beach, but the farther north you go, the more elbow room you have (and the older the demographic profile of beachgoers gets). Although most of the property fronting the beach has been developed, Gulf Boulevard has several public-access points. Still, arrive early, because the parallel parking spaces on the street tend to fill up fast.
The crowds thicken again at Andy Bowie Park, directly north of town, because it is closest to the first access point where automobiles to drive on the beach (you can drive all the way up to the Port Mansfield cut). With no commercial development or concessions, this is a proverbial wide-open space, but the accumulation of trash is a real eyesore. Park admission: $1.50 per car.
There’s no beach per se on the west side of the island adjacent to the Laguna Madre, an exceptional hypersaline bay that separates South Padre from the mainland. The laguna’s “skinny” waters are rarely deeper than three or four feet and brim with a rich diversity of marine life, which is why many water sports enthusiasts and fishermen never even bother with the Gulf.
In the Water
For most of my life, I associated the Gulf with wading, splashing, wave diving, and swimming, and I partake of these activities to this day. You should too–but the water offers other pleasures.
South Padre has somehow avoided the ravages of overfishing and the stain of brown tide that plagues the northern part of the Laguna Madre. Some of the best fishing in Texas is found here, with the island’s boats claiming state records for blue marlin, tarpon, wahoo, and spearfish. But you don’t need a boat to fish on the jetties, in much of the shallow laguna, or at the lighted 24-hour Port Isabel-South Padre Island Fishing Pier on the Port Isabel side of the causeway, which charges $3 per rod.
On the island, fishing charters dock at Jim’s Pier (761-2865) and Fisherman’s Wharf (761-7818). In Port Isabel, you’ll find them at either the foot of the causeway or the Hi-Way Bait Stand and Marina (943-6311). For bay fishing, a four-hour group charter runs about $15 per person; private charters average $200 for one or two persons. An all-day group charter in the Gulf, which is home to red snapper and other deep-sea fish, runs about $60 to $75 per person, bait and tackle provided; private charters for one or two people run from around $350 for half a day to $1,000 for a whole day. More than fifty full-time professional charter captains and guides offer their services in the area. Three of the best are Gilbert Vela (761-2865), Vere Wells (943-1628), and Lee Roy Summerlin (761-2865).
Though sandbars tend to churn the waters near the beach, farther offshore the Gulf takes on a deep blue hue, and visibility underwater is much improved. For about $100 a person, American Diving (761-2030) and Ocean Quest Dive Center (761-5003) lead full-day scuba trips to the Devil’s Elbow area, where wrecks of several Spanish galleons can be found in the briny deep.
The ugly truth is that except when there’s a hurricane or a low-pressure system in the Gulf, the surf at South Padre is practically nonexistent. Still, you can rent boards for $5 an hour at the Surf Stop by the causeway (761-1478) and at concessions by the pavilion at Isla Blanca Park. The diminished wave action is perfect, though, for small boogie boards, which these same places rent for as little as $8 a day.
Constant southeasterly breezes and the shallow bottom of the Laguna Madre make South Padre Island one of the world’s premier windsurfing sites, which is why the nation’s largest amateur windsurfing tournament, the South Padre Island Blowout, is staged here each May. If there is the slightest breeze, you’ll find sailboarders gathering around the flats on the laguna north of the convention center. When the gusts are really kicking, hot-doggers shoot the Gulf waves by the jetties, ride the Ditch (known to mortals as Brazos Santiago Pass) by Isla Blanca Park, or jump the chop off Boca Chica beach just south of the Ditch.
Two outfitters on the laguna are glad to show newcomers how to master a sailboard. Jibber Terheggen, who owns Windsurf the Boatyard (761-5061), was one of the first sailboarders to move to South Padre back in the seventies, when the sport was in its infancy. He charges $20 for a one-hour lesson and rents a full board and rig for $15 an hour or $45 a day. Phillip Money of Windsurf, Inc. (761-1434), a full-service sales-and-rental operation, shadowed my rig in an ocean kayak and had me riding with the wind in less than thirty minutes. An hour of instruction is $30, and a full board and rig rents for $20 an hour or $50 a day.
Other Water Sports
Concessions on both sides of the island rent a variety of vehicles that allow you to take part in more-adventurous activities, including jet-skiing (you ride a floating version of a dirt bike), parasailing (you hang suspended from a parachute three hundred to six hundred feet above the water while being towed by a speedboat), and banana boating (you can up to five friends tear around the surf straddling a contraption that looks like a torpedo). Two of the largest concessions are the Water Sports Center (761-1060), which has Gulf and Laguna Madre locations, and Parrot-Eyes Water Sports (761-9457), on the laguna south of the convention center, which has a guest pickup service. Parasailing runs from $20 to $50, depending on how long and how high you want to go. Jet-skis start at around $30 for thirty minutes.
If there were no beaches or bodies of water, South Padre would still make a fine amusement park. What little terra firma exists presents all manner of possibilities for landlubbers.
The island’s flat topography is perfect for riding, especially in the early mornings and late afternoons. You can rent wheels of all shapes and sizes for $8 an hour at Pedal Padre (761-5701) and for $7 an hour at A-1 Beach Bike and Blade Rentals (761-6162). Texas Watercraft Center (761-4674) rents old single-speed beaters for $3 an hour.
Two stables north of town—the Island Equestrian Center (761-4677) and the new Beach Riding Outpost (761-4141)—offer hour-long rides on the beach for about $20 per person.
Wherever there’s pavement on South Padre, there are in-line skaters, who especially like to do their thing on Padre Boulevard and along the shoulder of the frontage road between Jeremiah’s and the Mall at Sunchase. A-1 Beach Bike and Blade Rentals (761-6162) rents blades for $7 an hour, $20 a day, and $40 a week.
One of the quieter and more reflective activities available, kite flying was practically invented for a breezy place like South Padre. Jim and Cathy Geyerman’s Windchasers (761-7484) stocks the island’s most extensive selection of kites, which start at $12 and run to $400. The wind is free.
The aptly named locals Amazin’ Walter and Sandy Feet, who head the award-winning Sons of the Beach Sand Castle Wizards, are living proof that island culture is different from mainland culture. The Sons specialize in creating elaborate sand sculptures on demand, and on Saturdays, when they’re not doing custom jobs, they give private demonstrations in front of various hotels. They also offer private sand castle construction lessons (761-6222).
Given its geography, South Padre is a prime destination for sun worshipers who sneer definitely at the word “melanoma.” Most of the bronzing is done around hotel pools, but the best roasting spots on the beach are on the stretch between the Sheraton Fiesta and the Saida Towers. If George Hamilton visited the island, my bet is that he’d fry himself on the beach in front of the Radisson Resort, one of the hip spots to see and be seen, where you can rent two beach chairs and an umbrella for $18 a day.
The best place to find a match is the two courts at the Radisson, where guests pay $4 an hour and non-guests pay $8.
The spike set can usually be found around the Radisson, the Sheraton Fiesta, Bahia Mar, or one of several condos where nets are set up on the beach.
The scene may not be as keen as what you’ll see on the sidewalks of Venice, California, but the strand of sand that fronts the Gulf on South Padre may well be the best promenade in Texas. You’ll especially enjoy a morning stroll on the beach between the Sheraton Fiesta and the Radisson.
They’re a perfect escape from the midday heat or a good excuse for an evening out. Two complexes show first-run features: the Cinema 4 (761-6600) in the Mall at Sunchase, which charges $3 for matinees; and the Island Cinema 4 (761-7828), which sometimes has early showings on rainy days and also charges $3 for matinees.
South Padre doesn’t have a factory outlet mall—yet. But for the benefit of homesick city folks, it does have the Mall at Sunchase, where they’ll find Jones and Jones, the Valley’s premier clothiers (761-7851). There are also several interesting individual retailers in town, including two that specialize in handcrafted goods: the Sisters Trading Company (761-2896) and Sisters Texas Mercantile (761-9316). The swankest boutique for clothing and custom jewelry is Barbara (761-9329), a clone of the famous Matamoros store. Kitty connoisseurs will appreciate the Texas Cat House (761-1844), where the merchandise has a feline theme.
Retail business on South Padre is dominated by T-shirt shops, which easily outnumber every other kind. After an informal inspection of seven shops I have come to two conclusions: that most shops get their merchandise from the same wholesaler and that the five-shirts-for-ten-bucks come-on is all hype, though I did find some nice Spring Break leftovers priced between $3 and $5. By far, the coolest beachwear is at Isla (761-4090), whose custom designs are the local equivalent of Galveston’s Yaga Ragz line. Grateful Deadheads will want to check out Sunshine Daydreams (761-5890), a small store stocked with merchandise sanctioned by the band, including tie-dyed T-shirts designed for the Lithuanian basketball team, which won a bronze medal at the 1990 Olympic Games. On the lower end of the shopping scale are Alternative Vintage Clothing (761-5977), where I found a box full of Hawaiian print shirts for $3 each; the Island Book Exchange and Art Supplies (761-7455), which carries a fine stock of Texana and island-specific books; and the Peddler’s Co-op (761-7585), which stocks antiques, collectibles, and used books.
Other Things To Do
Learn About Marine Life
One of the biggest drawbacks of the South Padre boom is that there is precious little of the place left in its natural state, but if you hit the right spots, you can get a glimpse of what it used to be like. Start at the Sea Turtle (761-2544), the home and research facility of Ila Loetscher, who has single-handedly raised public awareness of the plight of the endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Now in her late nineties, the Turtle Lady, as she is known, doesn’t get around much anymore, but for a donation of $2 per person, her staff puts on a good presentation, starring rehabilitated turtles, Tuesday and Saturday mornings at ten.
The University of Texas-Pan American Coastal Studies Laboratory (761-2644), in Isla Blanca Park, has twelve small tanks containing native sea life, including sea robins, rays, and sea horses; shelves full of specimens; and a small screening room, where nature films are shown every half hour. The lab is open to the public Sunday through Friday from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. Also in Isla Blanca Park, UT-Brownsville (761-7806) runs a summer nature studies camp for kids at the old Coast Guard station.
The new South Padre Island Aquarium (761-7067), at Louie’s Backyard, is a single forty-foot-diameter tank with nine portholes for viewing sea life. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for kids. In the great Louie’s tradition, you can pay an additional $20, climb inside a cage, and swim with the sharks and fishes.
Tour the Island
If you want to appreciate just how beautiful the area is, nothing compares with an aerial view of South Padre, the Gulf, and the laguna. Parrot-Eyes Water Sports (761-9457) books flyovers in a two-seater ultra-light for $45 per person.
Watch the Sunset
Tracking the sun’s daily descent is one of the most popular island rituals; the question isn’t whether to do it but where. For the best viewing, I like the 1,550-foot Laguna Madre Nature Trail walkways by the convention center, which are elevated above the wetlands and the tidal flats and have several blinds for viewing birds and waterfowl. (Be sure to check out the 160-foot Whaling Wall #53, a mural painted on three of the convention center walls.) Another terrific spot is Dolphin Cove, which sits at the southern tip of Isla Blanca Park overlooking Brazos Santiago Pass; here, bottlenose and spinner dolphins compete with the sun for your attention. For $10 to $15, you can also take a sunset dolphin-watching cruise booked by American Diving (761-2030), Aquatic Wildlife Tours (761-7646), Breakaway Cruises (761-2212), or Jim’s Pier (761-2865).
The restaurants and bars along Laguna Boulevard offer sunset happy-hour prices and have the finest waterside views of both the show and the elaborate fireworks extravaganzas that are staged on Friday nights from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Unfortunately, these establishments have a habit of blasting music on their speaker systems, which can be distracting if not downright unpleasant.
The antithesis of South Padre’s gleaming glitz, Port Isabel exudes the charm of the Texas coast back when life was considerably slower. To sample the local ambiance, head back over the causeway, go right on Yturria Street, and inspect the lobby of the Yacht Club motel and restaurant and all the sailing rigs docked in the neighborhood. Or take the first left off the causeway and follow the road as it twists around to where the local shrimp fleet docks. Or take a slow cruise on Texas Highway 100 and behold the bizarre larger-than-life sculptures along the road, including various octopi positioned in front of shell shops, a twenty-foot gorilla in a tank top and baggies peeling a banana, a grinning tooth advertising an orthodontia clinic, a snub-nosed sienna-toned shrimp suspended above a seafood store, and a swash-buckling pirate who stands watch over the Lady Bea shrimp boat, which is dry-docked next to the library. Whatever you do, be sure to stop in at the most important landmark of all, the Port Isabel lighthouse, which was built in 1852. The lighthouse is open from 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 1 to 5 p.m. daily; admission is $2 for adults.
One of South Padre’s greatest assets is its proximity to Mexico, a claim no other U.S. beach location east of California can make. After you cross the causeway into Port Isabel, it’s only 25 miles along Texas Highway 48 to Matamoros, where you can dine out and shop in both the market and the swank boutiques on Avenida Alvaro Obregon, including the original location of Barbara. On this side of the border, Matamoros’ sister city, Brownsville, has plenty to offer too: the Gladys Porter Zoo (546-7187), considered one of the best small zoos in the world; historic Fort Brown, a converted military site that predates the Civil War; the Sabal Palm Refuge, which has one of the last stands of native palms in the Valley; the shrimp fleet at Port Brownsville, where the best cheap seafood can be found; and the road to Boca Chica, the undeveloped shoreline south of South Padre.
Where to Stay
Condominiums are the preferred lodging on South Padre. There are three times as many condos as motel rooms on the island, and they come equipped with important extras, ranging from kitchens to bedrooms whose doors lock. Prices begin at around $100 a night in the high summer season, but you can save money by eating in.
One way to book a condo is to call a reservation agency, such as Island Reservation Service (800-926-6926), Service 24 (800-828-4287), Sunny Isles Rental Services (800-221-0169), or Padre Island Reservation Service (800-447-5223). These clearinghouses rent available space at several different condos.
Or, if you know what you want, you can call a condo directly. Among the popular complexes on the beach are the Saida Towers (800-426-6530), the Royale Beach and Tennis Club (800-772-3224), Franke Plaza (800-447-4753), the Sunchase IV (800-944-6818), the Padre Grand (800-638-4106), the Inverness (761-7919), the Suntide III (800-847-5728), and the Tiki (800-551-8454). My favorite is the Bridgepoint (800-221-1402), the tallest structure on the island, where my family spent three nights this winter. The rates were pricey—we paid $185 a night for our two-bedroom spread, and the price jumps to $300 during the summer—but the amenities included a full kitchen, a washer and a dryer, two bathrooms, three TVs, two balconies, and spectacular views of the Gulf and the Laguna Madre. When we arrived, my nine-year-old declared, “This is the best place I’ve ever been!”
The island’s big hotels are also an option, offering such conveniences as in-room maid service, big pools, and on-site restaurants and bars. The two best full-service hotels are the Radisson (800-292-7704), whose gift shop stocks the Sunday New York Times, and the Sheraton Fiesta (800-672-4747), whose two-swimming-pool complex is the island’s biggest swimming facility. The other two major hotels are the Holiday Inn Sunspree (800-292-7506) and the Bahia Mar (800-292-7502). In the summer, doubles at these four hotels run from $75 to $230 a night.
Doubles go for between $50 and $70 a night at four beachfront motels: the Surf Motel (800-723-6519), the Palms Resort Motel (800-221-5218), the Island Inn (761-7677), and the Capri (761-5832). The Motel 6 (761-7911), on the bay side of the island, advertises rooms for $43.99. The Sand Castle Motel (800-221-5218), also on the bay side, rents efficiencies for as little as $54 a night on weekends.
The island’s first bed and breakfast, the Brown Pelican Inn (761-2722), has eight rooms overlooking the laguna in a Nags Head-style two-story clapboard beach house. Rooms for two are $80 to $115.
Travelers pulling their own lodging behind them should try the Cameron County-run RV and trailer park (761-5493) at Isla Blanca Park or Outdoor Resorts (943-6449), a privately run park in Port Isabel. Some RV’s, campers, and trailers stake out turf on the beach north of town at Andy Bowie Park (761-2639), though overnight access isn’t permitted and no hookups are available.
Given the popularity and preponderance of condos with kitchens, this is an easy—and economical—option.
The best place to stock up on nonperishable supplies is the Blue Marlin Supermarket (761-4966). For fresh, cheap produce, pop over to one of the roadside stands on Texas Highway 100 between Los Fresnos and Port Isabel. B&A Seafoods (943-2461) in Port Isabel has fresh shrimp and fish, as does Ted’s Seafood (761-4674) in South Padre Island, though the selection of fish is more limited. Cheeses, cold cuts, and prepared sides and salads are available at Feldman’s Wines and Liquors (761-1488), the Pantry and Grill Room (761-9331), and Le Deli Cafe (761-2059) in Fiesta Plaza. Feldman’s and the Pantry also sell freshly baked French bread and stock an extensive selection of wine, as does the Sisters Texas Mercantile (761-9316) in Franke Plaza.
You have three options in the area, and they all have a common theme: D’Pizza Joint (761-7995), Beer and Pizza Barn (761-1368), and Piasano’s (761-6060).
The restaurant scene on South Padre has improved considerably in the past three years. Dining out is no longer a hit-or-miss proposition, but one loaded with choices, from crabcakes and cold beer to caviar and Château Lafite-Rothschild.
Several places actually live up to their double-digit entrée prices. The Sea Ranch (761-1314) continues to be my favorite spot for red snapper, even though it has become so crowded that the service has suffered: On a weeknight in late February, it took almost three hours for my family to be greeted, seated, and fed. That slip-up made me appreciate how smoothly things run at South Padre’s most popular steak-and-fresh-seafood restaurant, Blackbeards’ (761-2962), and at Louie’s Backyard (761-6406), where the hordes hoard the nightly $17.95 prime-rib-and-seafood buffet.
For a really extravagant night out on the island—that is, for entrées approaching $20—it’s a toss-up between Joseph’s (761-4540), a spacious place next to the Holiday Inn, and the Pantry and Grill Room (761-9331), which is as cozy and intimate as a European bistro and which stocks the aforementioned caviar and Château Lafite. But for true quality and elegant ambiance, no place is better than the 69-year-old Yacht Club in Port Isabel (943-1301). The fish is fresh, the sauces are exceptional (if my flounder Monique in a garlic-tomato sauce was any indication), and the wine list is impressive.
If it’s value you’re after, look no further than the area’s bounty of specials. Some of my favorites are the $4.95 sampler lunch—four grilled shrimp, a small fish filet, four fried oysters, fries, and salad—at Jitterbug’s (761-5643); the seafood-heavy $5.95 early-bird menu and $3.45 children’s menu at the Gulf Coast Oyster Bar (761-7867); the $4.95 early-bird special, including shrimp ranchero, at Jesse’s (761-4500); the Thursday night $9.95 all-you-can-eat fried shrimp pig-out at the Sheraton Fiesta (761-6551); the $2.99-and-up lunches at Marcello’s Italian restaurant (943-7611) in Port Isabel; the $6.99 dinner buffet—including fajitas, linguini, shrimp, fish, and oysters—at Rossi’s (761-9361); and the lunch specials at Blackbeards’ (761-2962), which include chicken-fried steak for $5.50 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, shrimp ranchero for $5.50 on Wednesdays, and $5.25 Mexican plates on Fridays.
As strange as it may sound, it used to be pretty hard to find seafood on the island that wasn’t frozen before it was fried. No more. I’ve sampled reasonably priced fresh shrimp, fish, oysters, and crab at the Gulf Coast Oyster Bar (761-7867), whose menu emphasizes New Orleans and cajun styles; Amberjack’s (761-6500), where you can either have your own catch cooked or eat off the adventurous Mexi-marine menu; La Jaiba (761-9878), where crab rules; Scampi’s (761-1755), where the house specialty is peanut butter shrimp; and Pirate’s Landing (943-3663) in Port Isabel, an informal place run by the owners of the Sea Ranch.
The other native cuisine is well represented on the island. Manuel’s (761-9563) has the morning market cornered with taquitos (massive flour tortillas stuffed with picadillo, beans, cheese, lettuce, and tomatoes), menudo, and barbacoa. The best lunches and dinners are at Peso’s Comida Fresh-Mex (761-7890); Jesse’s Cantina and Restaurant (761-4500), a Port Isabel eatery that recently moved across the causeway; and Tacos Al Pastor (761-6787), where the specialties are prepared Mexico City style—meaning the folded tortilla is stuffed with unlikely combinations of meats and veggies.
The Astrodome of South Padre breakfast places is the recently expanded Rovans (761-6972), which has quick, efficient service, an on-site bakery churning out fresh, tasty goods, and a set of toy trains chugging around the ceiling to keep everyone amused. For cappuccinos and other strong brews, try Sacred Grounds (761-9456), a genuine java joint with comfy furniture, plenty of reading material, and a full complement of pastries. The popular bagel-and-coffee wake up is $2.95. Fresh squeezed is the only kind of orange juice served at the Radisson (761-6511), the Wanna Wanna Beach Bar and Grill (761-7688) at the Island Inn, and Naturally’s health food cafe (761-5332), where juice and smoothies are two-for-one from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m.
The island doesn’t have a boardwalk like the New Jersey shore, but it does have the Fudge Factory (762-9555), where you can chew on that Jersey treat known as saltwater taffy, as well as fudge and doughnuts. For ice cream, try Yummies (761-4907), TCBY (761-2921), or Blue Rays Diner (761-7297), South Padre’s version of a Hard Rock Cafe, which serves great shakes and sodas and where the classic Harley-Davidson motorcycles on display are for sale.
The roster of everyone’s favorite franchises includes McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, Whataburger, Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Denny’s.
Where to Drink
Between the salt and the sun, the desire to wet one’s whistle is somehow stronger on the coast. As such, the consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially drinks with little umbrellas, is a popular pastime. Several bars along the Laguna Boulevard waterfront compose what is known as the entertainment district. The linchpin is Louie’s Backyard (761-6406), which sells more booze during Spring Break than any other establishment in Texas. (Charlie’s Paradise, Louie’s main Spring Break competition, is open only in March and early April, during holidays, and for private parties.) Louie’s caters to the student clientele year-round with a carnival atmosphere defined by brightly painted shuttle buses, a bungee jump, a “Boing” catapult crane, and a house drink called a Whammie, which is an unspeakable conflagration of tropical liquors. During the summer, an older crowd hangs out at Louie’s tiered patio or leans on one of five bars, including one for “locals only.” Amberjack’s (761-6500) is a smaller version of Louie’s with better food and a porch overlooking the water. Also nearby—with less pretentious open-air decks—are Wahoo Saloon (761-5344), Tequila Sunset (761-6198), and Coconuts (761-4218).
Dirty Dave’s Deck (761-1314), at the Sea Ranch down by Isla Blanca Park, is great for watching the boats putter into the dock early in the evening; margaritas and bellinis are only $1.50 from 4 to 7 p.m. Another early evening hangout is the Dolphin Cove Oyster Bar (761-2850), which has an excellent view of Dolphin Cove in Brazos Santiago Pass. The beer is cheap (a glass of Busch or Lite is only $1), the short-order menu features burgers, u-peel-’em shrimp, and raw oysters, and the owner is a genuine island character: Joe Buck Camp, who writes orders on the bar in chalk while manning the register. Camp’s ’53 Chevy panel truck is perhaps the most distinctive motor vehicle on the island.
On the Gulf side, the best beach bars are the Wanna Wanna Beach Bar and Grill (761-7688) at the Island Inn and Boomerang Billy’s (761-2420) at the Surf Motel, where owner Gary Wages shares whatever he happens to be grilling on Wednesday nights.
Believe it or not, some bars actually eschew a nautical theme. The Little Bit of Heaven Irish Pub (761-7571) is a classic hole-in-the-wall with a pool table, dart boards, and Guinness and Bass ales on tap. Jake’s (761-5012) is a watering hole with local charm and a patio. The Padre Island Brewing Company, scheduled to open sometime this summer, will be the Valley’s first brew pub. The Third Coast (761-6192), the island’s premier kicker bar with live bands, has airbrushed figures doing the cotton-eyed Joe on the side of the building. For blues bands, check out Bandana Dan’s (761-5337). Babes By the Bay (761-9500) is South Padre’s first and only topless bar—although voyeurs are likely to see more (or less) on the beach.
When all is said and done, of course, the amusements are mere adjuncts. Without the sea and the sand, the island would be just another strip mall. But for all its baubles and sizzle, South Padre proves you can have your beach and the conveniences of back home too. It’s a delicate balance, but it works like nowhere else on this part of the coast. Come to think of it, South Padre today exceeds even my father’s expectations. It isn’t Miami Beach. It’s better.