South Padre Island
The massive 130-mile long Padre Island is home to the longest sand beach in the United States. Never stretching more than three miles wide, the island was formed by the methodical process of sea erosion and deposition. The northern portion, adjacent to Corpus Christi, has a modest collection of hotels and residences and is mostly recreation-oriented; the central portion is the natural protected wonderland of Padre Island National Seashore; and the southern tip is a major resort area lined with hotels and restaurants catering to a thriving tourist industry.
South Padre Island isn’t technically a separate island; rather, it’s the name of the resort community at the southern portion of the big island. The town is flanked by the Gulf of Mexico to the east, a narrow ship channel to the north, and the Laguna Madre, the narrow bay leading to the Texas mainland.
Spanish explorers visited the area in the 1500s, but what is now the resort community remained a barren stretch of pristine seashore until the 1950s when a causeway bridge connected Port Isabel to South Padre Island. Although it provided access to the nicest beaches on the Texas coast, the community remained a low-key resort destination until the late 1970s, when insurance companies were required to provide hurricane coverage and the population increased rather dramatically (from 314 to 1,012 residents) thanks to the increased emphasis on tourism. For the past two decades, it’s become a major Spring Break destination for college students, who descend on the small town by the thousands for revelry and recreation each March.
Island time is good for the soul. Everything slows down, priorities shift to beach activities and seafood options, and even tightly-wound Northerners lay off their car horns. It may take a day or two to assimilate to South Padre mode, but once you’re there, you won’t want to leave.
South Padre is the ultimate beach vacation in Texas. Its soft, smooth sand is far more inviting and picturesque than the grainier, darker versions further north along the coast. The resort community offers everything seaside travelers seek—beachcombing, fishing, parasailing, dolphin viewing, biking, snorkeling, and scuba diving. Lodging options range from opulent resort condos to pitching a tent on the beach, and restaurants offer Gulf-harvested oysters, shrimp, and fish.
If you’re visiting in the winter, you’ll be surrounded by Midwestern license plates and polite retirees taking advantage of restaurants’ early bird specials. In the summer, Texas families flock to the island to play in the gentle waves and devour fried shrimp. Any time of the year is a good time to visit South Padre, since the beach is always pleasant and the vibe is always mellow (except during Spring Break).
The islanders take their enviable natural resources seriously, offering opportunities for visitors to experience the wonders of this region. Make a point of taking a dolphin tour and visiting the sea turtle research center to get a true appreciation of the sea life that doesn’t end up on your dinner plate.
Though it takes some effort to get to South Padre, once you’re there, maneuvering around the small town is a breeze. After crossing the Queen Isabella Causeway, take a left onto Padre Boulevard to reach the main drag with hotels, shops, and restaurants. Take a right off the causeway to reach the public beaches and seaside attractions.
Getting to South Padre Island
The Brownsville South Padre Island International Airport (700 S. Minnesota Ave., 956/542-4373, www.flybrownsville.com) is the closest airport to South Padre. At 27 miles away, it’s not too far, especially if you need to get to the beach in a hurry and don’t feel like making the nearly nine-hour drive from Dallas or approximately five-hour trek from Houston and Austin. The airport offers five Continental Airlines flights daily to and from Houston. Rental car services are available at the airport.
Once you’ve rented a vehicle, from the airport make your way to TX-48 and head northeast to Port Isabel where you’ll take TX-100 onto South Padre Island.
© Andy Rhodes from Moon Texas, 6th Edition