South Padre Island: A good winter escape

Meet Allison, an Atlantic sea turtle at a sanctuary on South Padre Island. (Sea Turtle Inc photo)

Meet Allison, an Atlantic sea turtle at a sanctuary on South Padre Island. (Sea Turtle Inc photo)

You likely have heard that a hoard of college kids invade South Padre Island during their Spring Break. But the rest of the year this narrow strip of land at the far southern edge of Texas is a perfect vacation spot for girls’ getaways, couples, families and retirees looking for a new destination.

Picture blue-green water to sooth the soul, glistening sand for a sunrise walk, terrific Mai Tais, Martinis and Margaritas to sip at sunset and yummy seafood for lunch and dinner.

For a change of pace there are cruises to see bottlenose dolphins, kite boarding to move with the breeze and sand castle building lessons to find your inner architect.

All those experiences (except for the kite boarding which maybe I’ll try next time) made my really brief visit to South Padre Island (often referred to as SoPadre), a memorable vacation.

I had heard of the destination but what spurred me to visit this fall was United Airline’s decision to fly from Chicago nonstop to the Brownsville International Airport on Saturdays. The airport is a mere 30 minute drive or shuttle ride away.

Hilton Garden Inn pool (GI photo

Hilton Garden Inn pool (GI photo

 

After arriving at the Hilton Garden Inn which has an airport shuttle, the first thing I did was step out onto the patio to inhale the warm air and collapse on a chair to gaze at the pool, greenery and gulf. Time out really means something on South Padre.

Second, was to don a bathing suit (unpacking could wait), dip a toe into the pool, relax in a cabana then begin to think about dinner. Vacationing on the Gulf of Mexico is a chance to indulge in shrimp, crab, scallops, oysters and fresh fish.

But what surprised me after three days of trying different, preparations for lunch and dinner at different restaurants was how good the food is on the island and Port Isabel which is just across Laguna Madre Bay.

Pier 19 had a terrific shrimp basket. Pirates Landing had a wonderful shrimp and oyster po’boy. I learned not to judge by appearance. The elongated shacks that make up Pier 19 attract the locals and the commercial looking Pirates Landing has good shrimp and salads.

Pier 19 was also well placed to take an Osprey nature and dolphin cruise on Laguna Madre Bay. Watching dolphins slip in and out of view was fun but the crew also emptied a net into a tank so that passengers could see and touch what was swimming in the bay. While waiting to board it was fun to watch the kite boarding on the other side of the pier.

Fun to watch dolphin from the Osprey Nature Cruise. (Osprey photo)

Fun to watch dolphin from the Osprey Nature Cruise. (Osprey photo)

Kites, period, are popular in the South Padre area.. B&S Kites is worth stopping just to say OMG when seeing their huge, wonderful shapes hanging from the ceiling. It’s also fun to watch people try to control these large kites on the beach.

What looks deceptively easier is building a sand castle worth of Disneyland. Playing in the sand isn’t just for kids on South Padre. Sand castle lessons are actually advertised on the island’s tourism site.

A group of us staying at the Hilton booked a sand castle lesson with “Sandy Feet,” an expert sand sculptor who used common silverware tools. We learned you don’t have to be among the kindergarten set to enjoy creating a sand castle.

Building sand castles is not just for kids. (Sandy Feet photo)

Building sand castles is not just for kids. (Sandy Feet photo)

What fun and a good way to work up an appetite for dinner! I had already enjoyed red snapper at Sea Ranch so went for sophisticated dining at South Padre’s new, upscale  F&B SPI (Food and Beverage South Padre Island). Both restaurants have terrific seafood appetizers and fresh fish. But I also loved the desserts (which I never order when home) at F&B.

Before returning to Chicago, I had to visit the island’s famed Sea Turtle Inc. sanctuary. So the next day I heard an excellent talk and saw some rehabilitated turtles swimming in tanks. To see Allison and Gerry, two Atlantic sea turtles, visit the center’s web cam.

South Padre Island is a major turtle protection and rehabilitation area. Alerts go out when baby turtles that their moms buried in the sand for protection start hatching and are guided into the gulf by staff and volunteers.

Sunset from Sea Ranch Restaurant and marina on South Padre Island. (J Jacobs photo)

Sunset from Sea Ranch Restaurant and marina on South Padre Island. (J Jacobs photo)

The island also has a bird center and sanctuary which is interesting to walk during spring and fall migrations but has birds landing all year round.

Also nice all rear round are the island’s wonderful sunsets.

 

 

 

 

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