One of my earliest vacation memories involves the dunes of Padre Island—the northern end, near Corpus Christi. When I was in sixth grade, my thrifty grandma mailed in enough empty Virginia Slims cigarette packs to purchase a promotional buy-one-get-one-free plane ticket, which we used to fly from Wisconsin to visit my Gulf Coast cousins. I remember how we turned the dunes into a slide and how she sculpted an intricate miniature golf course into the wet sand with her perfectly manicured nails, using seaweed for the greens and water-filled shells for hazards.

My most recent trip to the dunes, almost forty years later, would be memorable for entirely different reasons.

This past summer, with my sixteen-year-old daughter traveling out of state and my other kid, Nick, turning into a teenager, I planned a mother-son adventure trip to South Padre, a resort island known for the best waves in the state.

Now, Nick’s an energetic dude. He seems to plan his free time according to a simple principle: if it’s dangerous, it’s fun. There would be no dune golf— certainly no sitting around. Where adrenaline could be primed, we would say yes. There would be horseback riding, parasailing, fishing, and surfing. For itinerary ideas, my photographer-surfer friend Kenny Braun suggested Gene Gore as an adviser. Gore moved to South Padre from Honolulu in 1995 and started Texas’s first surf school, South Padre Surf Company, which he still runs. I called him and said bluntly: “Nick likes to hurl his body at anything that could hurt him.”

“Sounds like my guy,” Gore said.

Is it unnatural for a mother to be comforted by these words? 

An aerial view of the island.
An aerial view of the island.Photograph by Ben Lowy

We started out easy on the first evening. We headed north of downtown, where a tableau of buildings, cars, and sunbaked bodies gives way to only sky, water, sand, and clumps of wavy grass. We saddled up for sunset horseback riding with a small group at South Padre Island Adventure Park. “It’s monkey see, monkey do with these horses,” our herd leader told us as we adjusted our stirrups. The horses clustered together and trotted out of the barn across State Park Road 100 and then onto the beach. 

Horses aren’t new to Padre. Though they went extinct in North America ten thousand years ago, they were reintroduced by the Spanish in the sixteenth century and thrived along the Gulf for hundreds of years—hence Mustang Island, up near Corpus Christi. While the horses we rode could hardly be called wild, they easily trotted on the packed sand, their manes blowing in the salty breeze.

Forty-five minutes in, as the sun began to set into an orange blur, we formed a single file and turned west, climbing onto the dunes’ ridge, where we could see the east and west sides of the island flattening out into gray-blue waves. This big-sky view would impress even admirers of the plains. 

Nick didn’t come for the view. He wanted to bust loose from the herd and bring his horse, Crush, to a run—and he wasn’t alone. The animals knew they were coming into the homestretch, one of our two guides explained, so they were becoming antsy, eager to return to the barn. A guide noticed Crush racing to the front of the crowd and sympathized with the impulse—one the staff occasionally indulges. “Every once in a while, we take a guide-only ride and open the horses up,” one of them said. “Some of them are retired racehorses. You can tell they miss it.”  

We set out to amp things up the next morning by parasailing—a first for both of us—with Sonny’s Beach Service. An open parachute towed by a motorboat would send the two of us airborne together. I signed the waivers, reading parts aloud. What to do if the cord between you and the boat breaks? “Don’t panic!” If the wind suddenly dies down, and you plummet into the water? “Don’t panic!” 

I could tell that Nick secretly hoped the parachute cord would snap and send us squealing into the bay. But the boat’s captain was a pro who led us on a balletic figure eight as smooth as a ride on a swing, slowing only once so we could dip our toes into the water before sending us back skyward. Such care would have thrilled Nick as a toddler. For a teen, though, it felt a little tame. “That was . . . nice,” Nick said back at the hotel. I signed up for a kelp mud wrap and worried that I was boring my kid. 

Maybe, I thought, the next morning’s two-and-a-half-hour fishing trip in the bay would provide more action. After our captain, Jonathan Garza, with On the Bay Fishing Charters, cast our lines out into the water, he raised our hopes with a promising fish story. “Two weeks ago, a guy in my boat had a trout on the line, and as he was reeling it in, it became bait for a blacktip shark,” he said. “Shark fought a few hours before we cut the line.”

This idea of a trout-hungry shark fed our imaginations as Garza’s red-dirt country playlist blasted. We pulled in a 22-inch redfish and an 18-inch trout, along with a 24-inch speckled trout too big to keep. 

Then Nick got a hard hit. He fought with a redfish, stopping every few seconds to catch his breath. “Keep reeling!” our captain cheered, assuring us he could see the redfish on the side of the boat as he held the net ready. But the fish had other ideas: take the hook, the lure, and get out. “Dang. That redfish was twenty-eight inches, easy,” Garza said.  

It might as well have been a shark. As we got back into our rental car, Nick said, “That was the greatest.” Later that night, we took our catch to Lobo Del Mar, where the kitchen grilled the fresh fish and served it with french fries. But it was Nick’s battle with the one that got away that we truly savored—his own fish story. The redfish’s size, no doubt, will grow in the retelling.

A fresh catch.
A fresh catch. Photograph by Ben Lowy
Surfer Gene Gore.
Surfer Gene Gore. Photograph by Ben Lowy

That afternoon we drove to the county-owned Isla Blanca Park, on the southernmost tip of the island, to meet Gore for a surfing lesson. I’ve boogie boarded many times on Padre, but I’d always found the waves a little underwhelming. I’d never been to this mile-long beachfront park. Now that I was here and saw the waves, I understood. Duh. This was the surf beach. 

We spotted Gore pulling two boards out of his truck and parked behind him. “Where’s the dog?” a guy walking past asked. “Archer’s at home today,” Gore replied and then turned to us. “My dog’s famous. He’s a golden retriever, and he likes to surf, so he gets a lot of attention.” (Archer died of cancer shortly after we visited, and Gore is teaching his new golden puppy, Astro, the ways of the board.)

We walked out into the water and settled on a sandbar, where the waves started to curl. Nick and I were acquainted enough with surfboards, having gone a few times to various beaches. But I figured it was always a good idea to get tips from a more experienced practitioner, and Gore excelled at helping us understand how to catch the waves better. He recommended that we start swimming daily—a nice way of saying our arms were on the weak side. 

We would see the wave approaching. “Paddle, paddle, paddle!” he’d command and then give us each a shove. “Go!”

The perfect beginner-size waves—two to four feet high—were just big enough to push us forward but still easy enough that we could stand upright without tipping head over heels. We could glide all the way in to where we were able to see the sand, then hop off gracefully and fight the waves to get back out to Gore, who seemed more thrilled with each ride. 

During a lull, as Nick and I lay down on our boards, Gore mentioned that the waves grew up to eight feet higher in the fall before they settled back down to two to four feet, in March. Regardless of season, he likes the mornings best. “I get it all to myself,” he said. 

When we returned to Isla Blanca with boogie boards in hand the next morning (after feeding gators at the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary, as one does), I counted maybe ten people on the sand. We rode the waves for a while, then I took a rest. I could see the SpaceX launchpad on the other side of the jetties that bookend Brazos Santiago Pass, and I asked Nick if we should visit it. The trip is quick as the seagull flies—by car, it takes an hour. Still, it’s right there. I reminded him that Gore told us we could drive right up to the Starship SN15. 

But staring at a rocket was aspirational; boogie boarding was active. Why drive an hour when you could feel zero gravity right here in the water and get tossed into a pretzel? The salt water pickling your sinuses, the energy of the waves pushing directly on you? 

We stayed, fighting our way out in the surf and gliding back in, until our bodies felt like wrung-out dishrags. Well, at least mine did. 

Nick, as usual, wanted more.  

Cafe on the Beach.
Cafe on the Beach.Photograph by Ben Lowy


Cafe on the Beach: With a view of the water from the covered patio, this is a great spot for a drink and fish tacos—fresh mahi-mahi nestled in corn tortillas. 

Grapevine Cafe: Indulge in decadent breakfast treats, such as bananas Foster pancakes. 

Josephine’s Kitchen: Don’t let the line to get a table deter you. The breakfast and lunch dishes are worth the wait—especially the shrimp and grits. 

Yummies Bistro: One of many breakfast-all-day joints on the island, it offers thick smoothies made with fresh fruit. 


South Padre Island Farmers Market: Every Sunday from 11 to 1, vendors set up their local produce, gifts, and treats. 


Island Arcade SPI: Ideal for a rainy-day escape, this spot features about 75 arcade games.

Sea Turtle Inc.: Stop by to visit the “rehabilitating patients and non-releasable residents,” such as Gerry the Atlantic green sea turtle, or make a special trip in the summer to see the conservators
release the newly hatched baby sea turtles.

South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary:
More than 3,300 feet of boardwalk and five bird blinds offer views of a wide variety of species. Don’t miss the alligators—especially the twelve-foot-seven-inch Big Padre.

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Week of ‘Yes’ at the Beach.” Subscribe today.