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South Padre Island, Texas, a barrier island off the southern coast of Texas, is the place for an affordable beach vacation. It’s easy to find accommodations for less than $100/night, there are lots of things to do that are free or relatively inexpensive and there’s free public transit to get you from one end of the island to the other and back to the airport when you’re ready to go home.
Disclosure: The writer was hosted for this trip.
Visiting South Padre Island, Texas
South Padre Island has long been on my list of “Places I Want to See.” It’s my best friend’s favorite family vacation spot. She’s a big road tripper. So hopping in the car and driving 20+ hours across the United States to get to South Padre Island from Chicago is no big deal to her.
I’m more of a fly-there kind of gal. But flying to South Padre from Chicago was never easy. It required at least one stop and took the better part of a day for travel.
That’s all changed now. United Airlines now flies direct from O’Hare International Airport to Brownsville Texas and discount carrier Frontier Airlines flies direct from O’Hare to Valley International Airport in Harlingen, Texas. Both airports are less than an hour from South Padre. United flies an Embraer-175 on the route. That’s a smaller jet with two seats per side (no middle seat misery), overhead bins that are big enough for roll-aboard bags and more legroom than a big jet. It makes for a much more pleasant ride. Even better, there’s a free shuttle from the airport to South Padre Island, so there’s no need to rent a car.
Transportation challenge solved, I hopped on the inaugural United flight and arrived in Brownsville three and a half hours later.
Natural Beauty of South Padre Island
The first thing to notice when you arrive on this barrier island off the coast of Texas is the nature all around. The expansive beaches, emerald waters and robin’s egg blue sky is a beacon for migrating birds. The long, skinny island offers the chance to watch spectacular sunrises each morning over the Gulf of Mexico and equally spectacular sunsets each evening over the Laguna Madre Bay.
The climate is subtropical–this Texas Gulf Coast spot is at the same latitude as Fort Lauderdale, Florida–so South Padre weather tends to be warm in the winter and hot and humid in the summer.
TravelingMom Tip: Don’t plan to visit during the two weeks in March when most Texas colleges have spring break. South Padre is a favorite spring break spot for college kids, and despite an aggressive plan for keeping the students in check, this is not an optimal family vacation spot during those two weeks.
9 Things to Do on South Padre Island
With the Laguna Madre Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other, there are plenty of water sports opportunities here. From stand up paddleboarding to jet skiing to scuba diving and deep sea fishing trips to horseback riding on the beach, there are plenty of ways to get active in and around the island. The island also is home to Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark. I was not traveling with kids on this visit, but if I had been, that definitely would have a required stop.
1. Take a Dolphin Watching Cruise
We took the Sea Life Safari Cruise with Osprey Cruises. Yes, we saw dolphins frolicking in the Laguna Madre, as you do on most dolphin tours. But the dolphin sightings were not the highlight of the trip. The highlight was the sea life education we got on this eco-tour cruise. As we left the dock, the crew dragged a net behind the slow-moving boat. When they pulled it in, it was filled with sea life. One by one, the crew pulled out a curious creature, offered a little information and gave kids and their adults a chance to touch the jellyfish, starfish, and dozens of other underwater wonders.
2. Learn to Build a Sand Castle
Sure, you’ve been building sand castles your whole life. But we’re not talking about a few lumps of sand here. We’re talking actual castles, with bridges and staircases, windows and doors. Castles that stand two feet high.
The teacher here is professional sand castle artist Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga. She’s been building sandcastles on South Padre Island since 1985. Her 2-hour sand castle lessons are a fascinating hands-on experience. In the end, my castle looked nothing like hers, but it was a better sand castle than I have ever built in my lifetime of lumping sand into castle-like formations.
3. Get to Know a Sea Turtle
Sea Turtle Inc. is the first place in the world to rehab injured sea turtles. The hospital has treated about 400 sea turtles in 2018. Many of them became entangled in fishing line and ended up losing a flipper. Those that can be rehabilitated are released back into the sea. Those that can’t, including Allison, a sea turtle with a prosthetic rudder, are on display.
This charming attraction with a mission was founded by Ila Fox Loetscher, a female aviator pal of Amelia Earhardt. Loetscher died in 2000, but her legacy, Sea Turtle Inc., remains. After moving to South Padre Island in the late 1950s, she discovered the wonders of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. These miraculous animals were fast disappearing. People were killing the mama turtles as they crawled out of the sea to lay their eggs on the beach — a really effective way to kill off an entire species. Their shells were harvested for leather products, their eggs used as aphrodisiacs, and their meat stirred into soups.
Today, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are protected and their numbers are growing. Their biggest challenge now: Mother Nature. The temperature of the nest buried in the sand determines whether a turtle egg will deliver a male or female turtle. In Australia and parts of Florida, rising temperatures have resulted in groups of baby sea turtles (fun fact: a group of sea turtles is called a “bale”) that are 99 percent female. In some places, it’s so hot that sea turtle tenders shade the nesting areas just to keep the eggs from cooking before they have a chance to hatch.
This facility with the wonderful mission is staffed by helpful docents who are happy to talk about the patients swimming in the tanks.
4. Commune with Nature
The SPI Birding and Nature Center is the place to see the birds that call the Rio Grande Valley home — at least for a few days on their migrations north and south. Meander along the 3,300+ feet of boardwalk, stopping along the way to read the informative signs and peer into the leaves in search of birds, butterflies and other wildlife. Grab a sheet filled with photos of the birds likely to be in residence when you visit and challenge the kids to see who can spot the most varieties of birds during your walk.
The highlight of our South Padre Island birding walk wasn’t a bird at all. It was the 12-foot alligator we spotted soaking up the sun on the banks of the marshland.
5. Learn Some Local History
The Port Isabel Historical Museum tells the history of Port Isabel and the Champion family. One of the early settlers in the area, the family operated a store from the building that now houses the museum. The museum is thick with historical displays sure to enthrall a history nut who wants to understand the politics and international dispute that led to the Mexican American War. But it isn’t likely to enthrall kids since the displays are mostly text and photos. If the kids get antsy, head next door to the Treasures of the Gulf Museum.
TravelingMom Tip: Buy the combination entry ticket that gets you into the history museum, Treasures of the Gulf and the lighthouse.
6. Discover the Treasures of the Gulf
Treasures of the Gulf Museum tells the harrowing stories of shipwrecks, lost crews and treasure beneath the sea. What’s not to love about that? As an added bonus, there’s a section just for kids. It has a stage, a table for drawing and a sandbox where they can dig for buried treasure.
7. Climb the Lighthouse
Climb the 100+ stairs of the Port Isabel Lighthouse (including the final segment at the top that is basically a vertical ladder) and step out for expansive views of the area, the bridge to South Padre Island and the seas surrounding it all.
8. Eat Some Incredible Food
This is the Gulf Coast, so the seafood is delectable. And it’s Texas, so there are steaks. Really big, juicy steaks. But I can get a big juicy steak in Chicago, so I stuck with the seafood. Three of the restaurants we tried had views of the water and the sunsets that were just as yummy as the meals.
The fish tacos at Pier 19 come with a view of the dolphins cavorting in the bay. The blackened shrimp and red snapper at Sea Ranch restaurant included a front row seat to the sunset. The ceviche at Painted Marlin Grill came with a laid back vibe and a sky painted the most gorgeous shades of red and purple. Our final dinner was at F&B, the newest fine dining restaurant right on Padre Boulevard. It did not come with a view, but every meal was as pretty to look at it as it was delicious to eat.
TravelingMom Tip: Most of the meals were Texas-sized, meaning big. If you aren’t ravenous, consider ordering an appetizer, one main course and a dessert to share.
9. Take a Pirate Cruise
A rare cloudburst on the afternoon I was scheduled to join Captain Black-Hearted Andy, the “Scourge of the Laguna Madre,” for the Black Dragon Cruise resulted in a cancelation, so I can’t say whether this is worth the money. But I can say that if I return, I’ll book it to find out. I’m a sucker for these campy, kid-friendly pirate cruises. Aye, Matey, I have done 3 in various spots around Mexico and always find them silly and entertaining.
Getting Around South Padre Island Without a Car
It’s easy: Just stand on the street and wave down “The Wave.” This shuttle bus service has been boringly rebranded “Island Metro,” but the yellow buses still ply the streets and work the same way: When you see one approach, raise your hand and wave. The driver pulls over, picks you up and takes you where you want to go. For free.
The buses even run across the two-mile Causeway Bridge between Port Isabel and South Padre Island. I did not get a chance to test this, and I saw only a handful of the buses on the street. The local tourism authorities assured me, however, that during the busy summer and spring break seasons, the buses zip up and down the main streets regularly.
Family Friendly South Padre Island Hotels
There are lots of options for non-hotel stays on South Padre Island, including vacation rentals, RV parks, and campgrounds. In fact, a large percentage of visitors are what the locals call “Winter Texans.” Those are the northerners who head south and stay for a month or more to avoid the cold winter months.
If you prefer a more traditional stay, there also are a growing number of hotels along Padre Blvd. I stayed as a guest of Visit South Padre Island at the Hilton Garden Inn. The extra space of the second room with a pull-out sofa bed couch and its own television, as well as the over-large bathroom, always make a Hilton Garden Inn a good choice for families.
Features to love about this one: It’s just a short walk along a lovely boardwalk to the beach and the pool is huge and inviting. Unfortunately, when I visited the pool water was very chilly—even the kids didn’t last long before they repaired to the two small hot tubs. The pool deck is lined with comfy round cabana chairs.
Sign up for the Hilton Honors program to get free wifi, which worked well even in my room. My phone, however, was a different story. I’m a Verizon customer and have never had trouble getting a signal. Until now. Apparently, that Verizon dude who walks around asking, “Can you hear me now?” did not make a stop at the Hilton Garden Inn on South Padre Island.