Ahoy, Matey! Port Isabel is a world of pirate lore and maritime culture.
You have to pass through Port Isabel to get to the spectacular beaches of South Padre Island, but take your time about it. The pirate lore and maritime culture of this colorful coastal community beckon with a treasure chest of entertainment and good eats.
The sister cities are connected by a 2.6-mile bridge, the Queen Isabella Causeway, over the Laguna Madre Bay.
Port Isabel is anchored, if you’ll excuse the pun, by the stark white Point Isabel Lighthouse near the waterfront. (Not a misprint–it’s Port Isabel but Point Isabel Lighthouse.) Built in 1852 and towering 70 feet, it’s the only lighthouse on the Texas Gulf Coast open to the public. It’s also a state park. Climb to the top for a 360-degree of the city and the bay. On clear days, which are often in this sun-shiny state, you can see for 15 miles or more.
From the lighthouse, the rest of your fun is within footsteps.
Head over to Pirate’s Landing, a pirate-themed marina and park. Along the boardwalk and shady courtyard, you’ll find casual and sit-down eateries, cruise operators, live parrots and street artists. The entire marina is decorated with maritime bric-a-brac and life-size sculptures of infamous seafaring plunderers and other scoundrels. Get out your camera. It’s Instagram time.
Stretching far into the bay is Texas’ longest fishing pier, a popular spot for anglers. No worries if you didn’t bring your gear. You can rent a rod and reel at the tackle shop, which also sells bait. Or skip the fishing, and watch the seagulls frolic instead.
The Black Dragon pirate ship, a modern-day replica of a 17th Century galleon, docks alongside the pier. All aboard for a swashbuckling, family-friendly cruise with storytelling, music, dancing, water-gun fights and treasure hunt. Check the website for dolphin-watching and sunset cruises as well.
Enjoy relaxed dining indoors or on the waterfront patio at Pirate’s Landing Restaurant. Menu favorites include fresh seafood, sandwiches, tacos, po-boys and salads. Or bring your own catch, and they’ll cook it your way. Perhaps you’ll prefer the cajun-style fixings at Krispy Krunchy Chicken. Top off your meal ever-so-sweetly with a waffle cone or salt water taffy at Davey Jones Ice Cream Locker.
The Museums of Port Isabel is a complex of three facilities, each with a different focus on the area’s diverse and international history. One is the Point Isabel Lighthouse. Another is the Treasures of the Gulf Museum, which tells the dramatic story of three Spanish shipwrecks caught in a raging Gulf storm in 1554.
The Port Isabel Historical Museum interprets the vibrant past of the area, highlighting such events as early Spanish exploration, the Civil War, arrival of the railroad, and the rise of the shrimping industry. The museum also displays one of the largest collections of artifacts from the U.S. Mexican War. The two-story building that houses the museum was constructed in 1899 as a dry goods store and residence. The exterior is wrapped in a mural of 200-plus local fish and sea creatures by a local one-armed fisherman in 1906, and since restored.
A combination ticket gets you into all three museums.
Also in the neighborhood are shops, galleries and boutiques stocked with creative wares. Look for coastal decor, fine art and handmade jewelry and crafts along with traditional souvenirs. The Port Isabel Antique and Flea Market is held at Beulah Lee Park the first Sunday of the month, and more often in winter. Admission is free.
PAM’S TIP: If you need transportation between Port Isabel and South Padre Island, Island Metro is a free shuttle bus.
(Many thanks to the South Padre Island Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting my visit!)