Playful on South Padre Island

Story & photos by Barbara Beckley

A sensational sunset from the Laguna BOB waterfront bar.

A cellist as bar entertainer. World-class marine sanctuaries. Million dollar waterfront homes, and laid-back beach bars. The most beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. Am I in Hawaii? South Florida? No. I’m on South Padre Island in Texas!

I didn’t know what to expect when I recently visited Texas’ largest barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico — “at the tropical tip of Texas 25 miles north of Mexico” — as the locals say. I’m happy to report its mix of upscale and lowbrow eateries and bars, big splashy watersports and world-class marine ecological programs, centuries old history, and modern hotels add up to a delightful tropical playground.

And at 30 miles in length and only half-a-mile at its widest point, it’s easy to get around.

The Southern Wave Sailing Charters’ Sunset Dinner Cruise made a perfect introduction to the island — and Texas’ hospitality. Cruising the quiet waters of Laguna Madre Bay, between the island and the mainland, I enjoyed an overview of the fun waterfront bars and restaurants, ritzy neighborhoods and protected estuaries and dunes. “Can I bring you something from the buffet?” This wasn’t a deckhand asking. This was a 20-something fellow passenger, worried that if I stood in line, I’d miss the stunning sunset.

At first I was disappointed that kayaking was rained out the next morning. Then I went shopping instead. “Woo hoo!” Texas hospitality continued at two chic boutiques that serve wine while you shop. Cactus Flower Gifts & Interiors poured bubbly, and Sisters Interiors poured light rose. My kind of shopping. Paragraph Books was dry but provided a cheery environment — think a small version of Vroman’s — to sink into an overstuffed chair and enjoy a relaxing read from Little Golden Books fairytales to novels. “Visitors are always looking for something to read,” owner Griff Mangan told me, “so I opened this independent bookstore several years ago, and business is great.” Paragraph also carries gifts, cards, music, and DVDs.

Sipping rum and coke with a local girlfriend and rocking out to a cellist playing original tunes on her amplified cello at Laguna BOB (Bar on the Bay), a local favorite waterfront hangout, rounded out the evening. Who knew a cellist could be Jimmy Buffet hip? Or that sunsets could be so dramatic? As the sun hit the horizon, it literally appeared to melt onto the sea like fiery butter spreading on water. “Oh, we see these sunsets all the time,” my friend said.

The next morning dawned clear and sunny. Perfect for playing on the pristine beaches that stretch for miles along its eastern Gulf coastline. The soft, powdery sand and calm shallow waters are ranked among the 2019 Top 10 U.S. beaches for families by Better Homes and Gardens. And for building sand castles.

“We’re the “sand castle capital of the world,” Andy Hancock, owner and instructor of Sand Castle Lessons, bragged as he showed me how to carve a turret into the four-foot high castle with a kitchen spatula. In fact, the rock-solid sand — created by millennia of outflow from the Rio Grande River, according to Mr. Hancock — helped start the sand castle craze more than 30 years ago. Thousands of enthusiasts hit the beach every October (this year’s 33rd celebration is Oct. 3-6) for the Sand Castle Days competition. There’s even a Sandcastle Trail highlighting more than 30 permanent sand sculptures around the island.

Sea creatures also love the island’s unspoiled waters and beaches. Laguna Madre Bay is a nationally protected wildlife refuge. And the locals do all they can to preserve and protect them.

“Awe…” The Original Dolphin Watch eco cruise was heart-warming as we watched a mother dolphin and her small baby swim shoulder-to-shoulder in the sparkling lagoon. Like a proud papa, Captain Jesse guided the vessel safely beside the pair and explained about this newest member of the lagoon’s several bottle nose dolphin pods. Earlier, the onboard naturalist had netted a small sting ray and a puffer fish from the shallow lagoon bottom — putting them into a saltwater tank as he explained their role in the eco system before releasing them back into the water. “We preserve through entertainment — by educating and entertaining our passengers,” explained Capt. Jesse.

Sea Turtle, Inc., is not only a favorite attraction, it’s a major force in rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing injured sea turtles, especially the seriously endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, which frequent the island’s waters. “We’ve been here 42 years and are funded by tourism,” explained Jeff George, executive director. “We’re the only sea turtle center in the world with its own CT scan.” The facility also funds international turtle rescue programs off the coast of Mexico; in Athens, Greece; and in Indonesia. I enjoyed seeing the dozens of large and small turtles, each in its own tank, regaining their health — and for some too injured to return to the wild — living happily ever after.

Beautiful views and beautiful birds are the stars of the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & (recently) Alligator Sanctuary. The 360-degree view from the fifth story observation tower was magical. Then walking along the boardwalk above the protected bay-front lagoon and mangroves, I spotted of flock of bright pink roseate spoonbills, and later, an alligator floating in a pond. The alligators are “nuisance” gators, I learned, rescued from Florida where they posed a threat to people or animals.  

My hotel was the popular beachfront Hilton Garden Inn. Next door, a Courtyard by Marriott is set to open in October. Everyone was talking about Jimmy Buffet’s four-hour visit two weeks before mine. Is a Margaritaville resort in the island’s future? Stay tuned!

To learn more, visit www.sopadre.com.


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Oct 2020


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