A Grand Tour by the Gulf
In October, when it doesn't sizzle, plan a trip to Padre Island, Brownsville, the Gladys Porter Zoo, and H. Matamoros.
IN SOUTH TEXAS, OCTOBER IS the month for the beach. Rather than hit the sand in July and August when our most vivid memories are likely to be sweat-soaked sheets, hot, sand-blistered feet, infestations of small children, plagues of teenagers on Hondas, sunburned ear lobes and eye lids, we make our move in the fall when the sun is a friend and the resorts practically deserted.
Here at the southern end of Padre Island, we bask in the sun, fish, and collect shells during an Indian summer. And, when we tire of these sybaritic pastimes, we travel to nearby Brownsville for a tour of that city’s historic sites and a visit to the unique Gladys Porter Zoo. Af.ter the sun goes down, Matamoros is at our beck and call for shopping and fascinating dining. If you are susceptible, as are we, to such an unbeatable vacation combination, here is how to do it.
South Padre Island
South Padre Island runs unbroken from Mansfield Channel to the Brownsville Channel and is notable in that it has the only five-mile stretch of beach in Texas (outside of the National Seashore at Corpus Christi) that is closed to motorized vehicles. At most Texas beaches, if you don’t drown in the surf or suffer terminal sunburn, you are likely to end up a traffic fatality. On South Padre Island, you can spread your blanket without first considering automobile traffic patterns, loose your children without fearing that they’ll be flattened by a panel truck, and walk from your accommodations to the water without worming between campers, dune buggies, and dragsters. Along this five-mile stretch, which begins at the southern tip of the island, are a public park with a fishing jetty, a cafe, trailer and camping facilities, and most of the island’s motels and condominiums. Above this strip is the rest of the island, 29 miles of undeveloped, unpolluted, unmolested beach.
In October the water is still warm because it gets deep quite rapidly along this part of the coast. The sun, while it will still burn at high noon, has lost its summer intensity, so you can collect shells, fish, or go boating comfortably. Fall storms distribute a plethora of shells on the beach, many that you won’t find any other time of the year; besides, in October you won’t have to fight 80,000 other tourist-malacologists for a lone spirulla spirulla.
Some of the best shelling is at the north end of the island. You may drive several miles north in your family car when the sand is packed, but your safest bet for serious ventures is to rent a motorcycle or jeep from one of the several participating filling stations along the island’s main drag. Thus equipped, you can drive all the way to the Mansfield Channel without fear of getting your car engulfed in the sand for the winter season.
A 30-minute drive through desolate mud flats will bring you from South Padre Island to Brownsville. Plan to spend most of a day here.
Founded when General Zachery Taylor planted the American flag on this side of the Rio Grande at the outset of the war with Mexico in 1846, Brownsville has a lot to offer the history buff. The ruins of Fort Brown, named after Major Jacob Brown who died in the U.S.-Mexico conflict, are still visible. During the Civil War, the area was important as a port through which the Confederates shipped cotton and imported European supplies. As a matter of fact, the last battle of the Civil War was fought just northeast of Brownsville six weeks after the war was officially ended. The Confederates won. Take that, Yankees. Actually, historic sites and buildings dot Brownsville. A fine map with self-guided tour of the city (emphasizing historic sights) is available at the Chamber of Commerce, Elizabeth at Gorgas, and at the National Bank of Commerce, 2300 Boca Chica Boulevard.
The highlight of your Brownsville junket will be your visit to the Gladys Porter Zoo (9 a.m. to sundown, 365 days a year; adults: $1.50, students: $1, children under 12: 50¢).
Zootopia on the Rio Grande, the Gladys Porter Zoo is both a Noah’s Ark for the preservation of endangered species and a landscaped park for their human observers. Opened in 1971, this unique and splendid zoo was funded by the Sams Foundation (Earl C. Sams of J.C. Penney fame), was donated to the City of Brownsville, and is managed by the Valley Zoological Society. It is named after Gladys Porter, daughter of Mr. Sams, and the person responsible for most of the miracles at the zoo. She is also president of the Valley Zoological Society and is often seen in her golf cart as she makes her rounds of the zoo. The purpose of the zoo is to be a “survival center” for rare and endangered species where carefully selected animals may live, mate, raise offspring, and be observed in areas free of caging, crowding, or stress. Hopefully, if the population explosion proceeds according to plan, the animal residents of Brownsville will become the parents of many specimens which can be returned to their native habitats.
New York, Washington, and San Diego may boast more zoo inhabitants, more acreage, and more attendance, but Brownsville has a few features that outdo them all. First, instead of starting out life as, for instance, did the Houston Zoo with its homeless bison in a barbed wire fence, the zoo was planned, engineered, and built before a single resident was acquired. Second—and perhaps most important, the climate in Brownsville is much like that in tropical Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia, and so permits open housing for nearly all the specimens.
Third, by providing homes and a climate that pleases the tenants, the Gladys Porter Zoo has been highly successful in breeding hard-to-convince parents. Other zoos throughout the country are sending prospective mates to Brownsville in hopes that a short vacation, a different climate, and new faces will turn confirmed loners into proud parents.
The 26 acres on which the zoo sits was reclaimed from a decaying residential area on a resaca—an old bed of the Rio Grande. With a little help from a backhoe, the architects were able to use the natural river beds and water as moats to separate habitat areas. In the African area, for example, it appears that the cheetahs, giraffes, antelopes, and lions wander side by side. Actually, hidden moats separate predators from their preys. Wire cages are non-existent, and housing for the animals is part of the landscaping. Most homes resemble grottoes or caves that are sculptured into the terrain.
Your walk through the zoo will take you through four main habitat areas: Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia and Indonesia, and South America. Among the rarer species included in the 3000 zoo animals are the jaguars, orangutans, cinnamon bears, black duikers, gorillas, polar bears (rare at least in south Texas), red pandas, pigmy hippos, white rhinos, red-necked ostriches, blue-faced boobies (rare outside the Zipper Lounge) , and hunter’s hartebeestes. These animals are usually in threes, one male and two females—Noah had more faith—so that they will multiply and replenish the earth.
Save at least one afternoon and an evening for Matamoros. (Most motels can provide baby sitters if you are encumbered.)
Founded in 1765 as San Juan de Los Esteros, this city was officially renamed in 1823 for Don Mariano Matamoros, a hero of Mexican independence. The “H.” designates “heroic city” and was added in 1823 in honor of the city’s brave stand against attacks by revolutionaries. Matamoros figured, of course, in the war between the States and Mexico, and also played an important part during the Civil War when it and its shanty outposts on the Gulf, Bagdad (now called Washington Beach), served as a Confederate seaport. Still a prosperous port and business center, Matamoros is an attractive bustling city of 185,000 with interesting shops and some excellent restaurants.
When it comes to crossing the Rio Grande between Brownsville and Matamoros, you have several options. You can of course drive your car and risk learning a whole new set of driving skills, but your best bet for a first visit is to park your car in Brownsville and walk across the bridge. Once on the other side you can hire a taxi that will take you to your destination. If the weather is nice, walk on down the street (you’ll be on Alverado Obregon) toward the center of town past lovely pastel homes surrounded by plants that will depress anyone who has tried to nurture potted tropical plants in nontropical climes. Look for schefflera shading houses, luxurious Norfolk pines two stories high, and rampant bougainvillea.
The first major shopping stop on your visit (you will undoubtedly have already looked into a shop or sipped a margarita by the time you get this far) should be the Centro Artesanal, The National Arts and Crafts Center (Cinco at Iturbide, next to the Holiday Inn).We think that this is one of the most attractive buildings and one of the most discriminating collections of native crafts anywhere in Mexico. On the outside pebbly sidewalks wrap themselves right up the side of the building. Small staggered stained glass windows temper the glare of the sun on the stark white walls.
Inside you’ll find simple but exquisite displays of tinware, lacquered boxes, ceramics, copper, textiles, furniture, baskets, silver, jewelry , and dollhouse trappings. Prices are more reasonable than those at most of the other shops in town save for the city markets (the newest at Ocho and Matamoros and an older one on Matamoros between Ocho and Nueve) where bargains are to be had if you are an adroit haggler. The markets, however, don’t have the quality merchandise found at the Centro Artesanal. Down every street are tourist shops bulging with everything from onyx chess sets to purses made out of armadillo shells—face, feet, and all. Haggling is also expected at most of these.
The real lure of Matamoros is its surprising restaurant population. You can get anything from haute cuisine to barbecued goat on a spit. Most border restaurants offer—for about $3—a house (or is it tourist) dinner: salad, choice of two meats (white wing, quail, cabrito, and filet), French fries, refritos, and onion rings. Perhaps the most popular spot for visitors .at Matamoros is The Drive In (Iturbide at Seis). Some 40 years ago it actually was a drive in, but now is a combination curio shop (liquor, jewelry, crafts), cocktail lounge, restaurant, and aviary. Customers dress in everything from magenta flowered Hawaiian sport shirts to evening attire, but the men will not feel out of place in coats and ties. Soft lights, a string orchestra, a small dance floor, continental cuisine, and south-of-the-border flavor add up to a romantic (and even economical) evening.
They offer (in addition to the choose-two-meats-dinner) quail, cabrito, and seafood entrees, along with a selection of continental dishes (even these are served with refritos, French fries, onions, and hot peppers). Nachos are good for nibbling while you sip a margarita and peruse the menu. For an interesting appetizer, try the smoked eels, a heap of long thin creatures served in an avocado half. For an entree, the quail has been excellent, the cabrito sometimes good, the Steak Diane beautifully prepared, and the Chateaubriand tasty but chewy (Mexican beef is not always as tender as its counterpart in the United States). For dessert don’t pass up the crepe Suzette sauced with a memorable combination of rum, brandy, kirsch, creme de cacao, licor de naranjas, and fresh citrus juices.
Less touristy than the Drive In is the Hotel Ritz (Matamoros at Siete)—pronounce it Hotel REETZ for your cabbie. This quiet businessmen’s hotel has a sparsely elegant dining room with silver appointments and stoic waiters who must have been installed with the fixtures. On weekends, your fellow diners (usually only a few) will be local folks. The menu, although offering the “two meat” dinners, is more regional than that of the Drive In. One of our two favorite dishes here is the caldo tlalpeno, a heavenly soup made with a rich chicken broth and studded with fresh tomato, avocado, and hunks of chipotle chiles (Muy picante!). Our other favorite dish is the broiled robalo, a fish which we think is probably sea bass. It comes in a lovely, garlicky, lemon and butter sauce. The fried version isn’t as good.
The Santa Fe, as its name doesn’t imply, dispenses Cantonese food. Although the main fascination of this restaurant is the Chinese people speaking Spanish, the food can be exceptional. We are especially fond of the Chinese silver noodle soup and the red snapper with Chinese vegetables.
The best cabrito is found in the little shops featuring whole goats roasted on spits in the windows. Don’t miss the hard rolls served at almost all the restaurants or the boiled corn on the cob with chili sauce sold by street vendors in the fall. Drink the water in any sizable restaurant—it’s bottled—and stick to beer and margaritas if a place looks questionable. We have downed greens and raw vegetables in most of the larger restaurants without ill effects, perhaps because we were galvanized by the chiles and margaritas.
With food and entertainment under control, all you need now is a place to hang your sombrero and to stow your sea shells. The companion list of accommodations is not complete, but will give you a start. Keep in mind that all numbers are in area code 512 and addresses are in zip code 78578. We have quoted two sets of prices when appropriate, one for the summer and holidays, and the second for the off season (usually after Labor Day to May, except for Christmas and Easter). Under each of these we have given the lowest rate for two people in a room (no kitchen) and the lowest rate for two people in a room with kitchen. Condominiums and some motels will only have rooms with kitchens.
If you choose to rent a kitchenette, condominium, or beach house, you will find yourself provided with a stove, refrigerator, pots, dishes, and cutlery. Come bearing paper towels, detergent, a sponge, baggies, and other vital kitchen paraphernalia. You should also bring some kerosene (nail polish remover or lighter fluid will do to get the ubiquitous tar off your feet. Bottled water, available anywhere on the island, will come in handy. The water from the tap is ghastly. It’s adequate for brushing teeth and bathing, and it won’t kill you if you drink it, but it ruins ice tea and bourbon.
Andy Bowie Park (north of commercial development)
P. O. Box 666
Daily rates: Trailer-camper spaces: $2 ($2.50 with a/c)
No restrooms at this writing.
Holiday Inn Travel-Park
P.O. Box 2106, Tel. 943-2681
Daily rates: Trailer-camper spaces: $5 (season) $4 (offseason)
Prices include water, electricity, sewer.
Isla Blanca Park (south end of island)
P.O. Box 666
Daily rates: Camp-out cabins: $8.42
Four beds, 2 burner stove, no linens or utensils, restrooms and showers in central bldg. (For the young and hardy)
Trailer-camper spaces: $2 ($2.50 with a/c)
Tent spaces: $1.50
Bath house and coin laundry (for trailer-camper, tents).
MOTELS and CONDOMINIUMS
P.O. Box 2123, Tel. 943-1321
Daily rates: Summer/Holiday $22
All have kitchens, pool. Large complex.
Sea Ranch Motel and Marina
P.O. Box 2106, Tel. 943-2681
Daily Rates: Summer $13-22 Winter $11-18
Pool, boat mooring: $1.50 first 25′ (20¢ per extra foot)
P.O. Box 2118, Tel. 943-1091
Daily rates: Summer $15 Winter unknown
All have kitchens, pool. Small complex
P.O. Box 2059, Tel. 943-2221
Daily rates: Summer $18 Winter $13
Pool, double bed, kitchenette. Small complex.
P.O. Box 2064, Tel. 943-2271
Daily rate: Summer $16-17 Winter $11-12.50
Children especially welcomed. Small complex.
P.O. Box 2070, Tel. 942-2261
Daily rates: Summer $15.50-20.50 Winter $13-15
Pool, individual cabins available. Small complex.
La Concha Condominium Apartments
P.O. Box 2105, Tel. 943-2228
Daily rates: Summer $120 per week Winter unknown
One bedroom, 2 bath (larger ones available), pool. Small complex.
P.O. Box 2301, Tel. 943-1193
Daily rates: Summer $40 Winter unknown
Two bedrooms, 1 bath, sleeps 4, pool.
P.O. Box 2100, Tel. 943-2691
Daily rates: Summer $22-26 Winter $16-18
Pool. Medium complex
Palms Resort Condominium
P.O. Box 2099, Tel. 943-1316
Daily rates: Summer $24.50 Winter $17.50
One bedroom, 1 bath, sleeps 4. Medium complex
P.O. Box 2060, Tel. 943-2658
Daily rates: Summer $17-26 Winter $13-19
Pool, restaurant, club. Large complex.
Sea Grape Motel
P.O. Box 2082, Tel. 943-2471
Daily rates: Summer $17 Winter $11
Pool, kitchens, behind the dunes. Small complex.
P.O. Box 2081, Tel. 943-2685
Daily rates: Summer $22.50-24.50
Pool, restaurant, club. Large complex.
P.O. Box 2099, Tel. 943-2831
Daily rates: Summer $10.50-12.50
Sea Island Development Company, Inc.
P.O. Box 2081, Tel. 943-2621
Daily rates: rates vary as do the houses
Broker for private beach houses all over the island.
After we have taken our last swim, packed away our hoard of shells, checked under the beds for stray shoes, dusted the sand off our feet, and climbed into the car for the trek home, we make two last stops in Port Isabel. The first one is a long the waterfront (turn left as you cross the bridge) to fill the empty places in our cooler with fresh Gulf seafood. The second is at DeFord’s Aloe Vera and Cactus Garden (Garcia St.) to select some specimens of aloe, cacti, and tropical plants. So laden, we head north for the winter.
Felecia Coates and Harriet Howle are the authors of the forthcoming Texas Monthly’s Guide to Houston, a paperback bonanza of information on restaurants (Tony’s to The Havana Cube), shopping (handmade puppets to southern sugar maple), doing things (Planned Parenthood Book Sale to Charity Cat Show), joining things (Hemerocallis Society to the Houston Designer Craftsmen), and sports (rugby to trained buzzard acts).