You don’t have to book a trip to the Caribbean to find that perfect beach getaway during the winter. Seriously, just go to South Padre Island (for historical information on Padre Island, see “Return to Padre”). I’ll admit that the weather most likely won’t be eighty-five degrees and sunny, but it probably won’t be freezing cold either. In fact, January is one of my favorite months to go to South Padre. (Full disclosure: I was born and raised in nearby Harlingen, and my parents have had a house on the island since before I was born in 1967.)
First of all, you won’t have to bother with the crowds. Winter Texans (folks from northern states like Minnesota and Wisconsin who migrate to the Rio Grande Valley during the winter via big motor homes) will be in full force, but it won’t be anything like the summer months (or spring break, for that matter). Some of the bars shut their doors for the off-season, but most restaurants and local haunts stay open year-round. You can really get a feel for the island without having to deal with the thousands of tourists who visit each summer.
But what is there to do? Plenty. Here follows my ideal January weekend. Of course, I have a place to stay, but from what I’ve heard, the Brown Pelican bed-and-breakfast is the place to set up house. My first stop after the long six-hour drive from Austin is Wahoo Saloon and Bay Sailing, an open-air spot on the bay, to relax, have a beer, and watch the sun set. There are a couple of bars and restaurants along this stretch of the bay, but Wahoo’s is where the locals go after work. Dinner the first night is usually at Blackbeard’s. You don’t have to dress up and the food is good. This mammoth restaurant started out as a small one-room beach house and has expanded to keep up with the throngs of tourists. I always order the tasty ham sandwich (No. 6 on the menu), but the fried shrimp are comparable to my dad’s and the hamburgers are great too. An after-dinner drink is in order at the Quarterdeck, the nightclub at the Radisson, which has long been a locals’ haven. The deck just off the bar is perfect for watching a full moon rise over the water. (It just so happens that there will be a full moon on January 9.)
A walk on the beach early in the morning is a must. If you don’t do anything else, do this. You can see shells that have washed up from the night before, seagulls making tracks in the sand, and Winter Texans wearing windbreakers. This is a good time to relax, take in the view of the horizon, and listen to the waves crashing on the shore. All before breakfast. After cleaning up, Manuel’s for breakfast is the next. This taqueria is across the causeway in Port Isabel and serves up some of the biggest breakfast tacos you’ll ever see. Everyone I know orders the “Con Todo,” well, except for my father, who orders menudo. I always get the egg and potato. Hint: Split one. Believe me, these flour tortillas are so huge you won’t be able to eat a whole one.
Finally, it is time to hit the road for the 45-minute drive to Brownsville and the quick walk across the border to Matamoros. (Since I don’t like to drive in Matamoros, I always park at the UT-Brownsville lot, which is right across the street from the international bridge.) Hailing a cab right after you cross is usually no problem. Be sure and tell the driver you want to go to Los Dos Republicas, in the Market. It is here that you will see little kids selling chiclé and trinkets for sale but there are some great finds too. After some wandering around and taking in the culture, drop by Los Nortanos for a bite to eat (it is right across the street from Los Dos). Don’t let the cabrito hanging in the window scare you; it’s good. Get a bowl of pintos and a small Bohemia, con limon. Be sure and order some corn tortillas with extra limes too. Take a cab to Garcia’s (right down the street from the international bridge) and grab a bottle of tequila and some pewter picture frames before making the trip back to the island.
All of this can be accomplished by noon. Trust me. I like to get in some running around on the island too. Isla, which opened in 1987, has all kinds of funky things, from hand-painted shirts to incense. If you are interested in something more upscale, then Barbara is for you. This outpost (the original is in Matamoros) offers expensive (albeit beautiful) jewelry and clothes. On the Beach is another favorite. I can’t fit into any of the bathing suits offered for sale at this beach shop, but it is fun to look at the surfboards, photos of locals riding waves in Mexico, and all the cool T-shirts. Watch the fishing boats come in at Dolphin Cove, and go to the Jetties for sure. Once up on the rocks and facing the Gulf, to your left is the ship channel, where the surfers go when a hurricane is headed to the island. A drive down Andy Bowie Park is a delightful way to end the day. Yes, vehicles are allowed on the beach here. In fact, when I was little, we used to drive a ways down from the park’s entrance and then roast hot dogs.
For dinner, Joseph’s is my new place. This Italian spot offers delicious food and one of the best views on the island (most restaurants boast a sunset, but Joseph’s is on the gulf). The upstairs bistro features a patio and is a bit more casual than the main dining room (the menu is slightly different as well). A walk on the beach?
Of course, there are a lot of other activities: horseback riding, sailing, and deep-sea fishing, just to name a few. In addition to taking long walks on the beach, I would suggest a trip to the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which is approximately 46,000 acres of federally preserved land about fifteen minutes away from South Padre. Here you can catch a glimpse of a Redhead duck, or a sandhill crane, or a White-tailed hawk. (Full disclosure: I haven’t been to the refuge in years, but I do want to go next time I’m at SPI.) The one other thing you must do while visiting South Padre is get on island time. In other words, slow down and relax. As the bumper sticker says, “I’d Rather Be On the Beach.”