I’ve made my way west, and many a time, headed out east. I’ve ventured up north and dawdled all about in the center. But only once have I found myself in South Texas. That lone experience was a spring break excursion to South Padre Island about which I recall little. And not for the boozy, girls-gone-wild reasons you may assume. The university I attended graciously booked our springtime reprieve for late February, which meant my Padre experience was not about sunny skies, skimpy clothing, or the somewhat warm waters of the Gulf Coast. In fact, we had such a dreary time that just about all I can remember is gloominess. So when a friend floated the idea of spending the Fourth of July in the Rio Grande Valley, particularly Harlingen, I gladly agreed, eager to imprint some fonder memories of Texas’s nether lands.
Early on Saturday morning we headed south out of San Antonio on U.S. 281, which quickly merged with Interstate 37. We passed tiny towns along the way, and in Mathis, I spotted a palm tree, the first of the trip. Outside Corpus Christi we jumped on U.S. 77, which goes all the way south to the tip of Texas. If you look at a map, there’s not much there on this stretch of the highway. We did stop in Riviera, a place that, according to legend, was once considered the French Riviera of Texas. Following a tip from a Texas Monthly reader, we sought out the Baffin Bay Cafe, a restaurant that sits beside Baffin Bay at the end of a lonely road. Baffin Bay is considered prime fishing country, so we knew we’d be getting some fresh seafood. While we stared out at the murky brown water before us, waiting for our ample plates of fried goodies (shrimp, fries, onion rings), we found it hard to imagine that this near deserted area could ever draw comparison to the beauty that exists in France, but we enjoyed the opportunity to think about Texas as it once was and what it may be one day.
We made our way back to U.S. 77 for a near sixty-mile stretch through Kenedy County. The span winds through but one town, Sarita, before arriving in the lush Rio Grande Valley—once you hit the many palm trees lining the freeway, you’ll know you are close. Harlingen, a city of nearly 58,000 that my friend would call home for the next month, was our first destination. After settling into her new digs, we made a visit to the sparkling Texas Travel Information Center. There, via a bevy of brochures, we did local chambers of commerce proud and took a crash course in the offerings of the region, educating ourselves not only about the attractions in Harlingen (the Forever Aloe Plantations, the Rio Grande Valley Museum, the Iwo Jima Monument, and the numerous birding hot spots) but also about what would entertain us in the surrounding area (dining options in Port Isabel, museum opportunities in Rio Hondo, sight-seeing prospects in Weslaco and beyond).
We headed to Port Isabel, famous for its annual Texas International Fishing Tournament. But before we got to the funky little coastal community on the mainland across from the high-rise condos on South Padre Island, we stopped at the tourist-trappy Seven Seas gift shop. There was something about the giant fabricated coral reef out front and the larger-than-life imitation conches beckoning at the Seas’ door that proved irresistible. Once inside this huge space, we enjoyed a complimentary shell necklace and wandered through the aisles, admiring shells, jewelry, shell craft books, and coastal knickknacks.
One of Port Isabel’s star attractions is its lighthouse, which upon its inception in 1852 served its purpose for fifty years. The lighthouse was christened a state park in 1952, and it was restored in 2000. We climbed to the top of the spiral staircase that looks out onto a jam-packed pier stockpiled with local anglers, blue-green waters, and South Padre beyond, taking advantage of the fact that the Port Isabel lighthouse is the only one of sixteen lighthouses originally constructed along the Texas coast that is open to the public.
Because it was the weekend of the Fourth, the island was packed with tourists. We opted to forgo the traffic; so after a couple of cups of Kahlua-mocha and caramel-banana ice cream from the Lighthouse Point Ice Cream Factory, some of the best ever to grace our lips, we made our way back to Harlingen, enjoying sporadic fireworks shows along the way.
We started off the next morning without a plan. One of the summer guides we’d picked up mentioned an aviator’s appreciation breakfast at the Texas Air Museum, in Rio Hondo. Feeling patriotic (and hungry for the promised waffles), we drove the ten miles to the museum only to find it closed. Now what? Weslaco. Once downtown in this small town west of Harlingen, we ambled into the Lobby, the restaurant in the, well, lobby of the renovated 1920’s Villa de Cortez Hotel. We feasted on breakfast tacos of eggs and chorizo that cost us no more than a Lincoln. After strolling the main street (Texas Boulevard), where we passed clothing shops, empty on this Sunday, we hopped back in our car and continued to roam. We made our way to nearby Progresso, stopped at a fruit stand to pick up some limes and such, and then crossed the border into Mexico to explore. In the tiny community of Nuevo Progreso, shopping venues abound—markets, small stores, fancy boutiques. Unfortunately, our stay was brief. I had a plane to catch and another part of Texas to return to.