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South Padre Island: A Tropical Escape in Texas

Head to South Padre Island, Texas, and you’ll find a subtropical climate, miles of white sand, diverse natural wonders, thrilling water sports and ocean-fresh good eating. The area is popular with students on spring break, families and couples the rest of the year, and nature-lovers all the time.

(The following story and photos, inspired by a hosted media trip, was published by Journal and Topics Media Group on February 20, 2019.)

Building a sandcastle that doesn’t crumble takes a certain amount of skill and artistry. It’s a fine idea to take a lesson from master sand sculptor Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga the next time you visit South Padre Island in Texas.

Most important, your sand must be wet, she told us. Very, very wet. The biggest mistake people make is trying to pack sand that is too dry. It might look wet and feel wet, but it’s not wet enough to hold the individual grains together. That’s why you start by digging a hole, which will soon fill with water. Then scoop your sand from the bottom, and stack it. Any excess water drains on its own, compacting the sand and holding it in place.

Lucinda “Sandy Feet” Wierenga gives sandcastle-building lessons on South Padre Island beaches.

Lucinda, who also answers to “Sandy,” pioneered the growing world of professional sand sculpture. She’s a former Midwestern English teacher who found creativity at the beach and made a career of it. She travels the world, creating magnificent sand sculptures and competing in international challenge events. In South Padre Island, she is a co-founder of the Sandcastle Days family fun festival and the Sand Sculpture Trail of massive and intricately carved creatures, castles and monuments. Her enterprise, Sandy Feet Sand Castle Services, and her team of sculptors give private and group lessons for all ages.

Little wonder the Texas barrier island proclaims itself the “Sandcastle Capital of the World.”

In case you are new to the area, South Padre Island runs north and south along the southern Gulf of Mexico coast of Texas. It’s a sliver of a barrier island, measuring half a mile at the widest point and 34 miles in length. Only the five southernmost miles are developed. The island is connected to the mainland via the Queen Isabella Causeway, a 2.6-mile bridge. Brownsville is 25 miles southwest and Mexico is 25 miles south.

Many South Padre Island restaurants and bars serve up spectacular sunsets over the Laguna Madre Bay.

Beachfront architecture is only one reason to head to South Padre Island. The climate is subtropical, natural wonders are diverse, watersports are thrilling, and the eating is ocean fresh. The area is popular with students on spring break, families the rest of the year, and nature-lovers all the time.

New direct flights between Chicago and Brownsville from United Airlines and between Chicago and Harlingen from Frontier Airlines bring the riches and resources of South Padre Island closer than ever.

MAKE A SPLASH

Anywhere on South Padre Island, sandy shores and sapphire waters are mere flip-flop steps away. Which direction you take depends on your particular adventure style and whether you want to be in the water, on the water or just looking.

On the eastern side is the Gulf, bordered by easily accessible, all-public beaches. On the western side is the Laguna Madre (“Mother Lagoon”)  Bay. To the north are miles of rugged, low-lying dunes, which are both protected and photogenic. And on the south end is Schlitterbahn Beach Resort and Waterpark with pools, rapids, floats, waterfalls and uphill water coaster rides.

Low-lying sand dunes on the north side of South Padre Island are both rugged and photogenic.

Within the waters, you can snorkel and dive among shipwrecks, coral reefs and assorted sea creatures. Glass-bottom boat rides and other cruises feature sunsets, fireworks, parasailing, personal watercraft, and bay and deep-sea fishing. Landlubbers can learn how to build a sandcastle, of course.

ON THE NATURAL SIDE 

South Padre Island is renowned for nature tourism. Several eco-tour cruises operate most days, including Breakaway Cruises, Osprey Cruises and The Original Dolphin Watch. Sightings of bottlenose and spinner dolphins are practically guaranteed due to the sheer numbers residing off the Island’s shores. However, capturing a photograph of one leaping mid-air is not. We tried oh-so-hard.

At the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, you’ll follow the half-mile boardwalk as it zigs and zags through 50 acres of wetland habitat. More than 400 migratory and resident avian species have been documented here. Five bird blinds and a five-story tower provide additional vantage points. Keep an eye out for the occasional alligator, perhaps basking in the sunshine along a grassy shore.

More than 400 avian species and a few alligators have been documented at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.

Sea turtles are widely endangered, but Sea Turtle Inc. is working to save all they can. The rescue facility runs a rehab center for sick and injured sea turtles with hopes of returning them to the ocean. Those that can’t survive on their own are given permanent homes on the premises.

Gerry the Atlantic Green turtle makes his home at Sea Turtle Inc.

As you walk among the humongous blue tanks, you’ll meet Fred, a lovable 200-pound loggerhead whose left front flipper was amputated after being caught in a fishing line. Allison, an Atlantic green sea turtle, lost three flippers to a predator. She swims wearing a custom prosthesis!

THE FLAVORS OF SOUTH PADRE ISLAND

Indulge in bold, tropical flavors and fresh seafood at casual and fine dining establishments, most with waterfront views and patio seating. Menus boast Mexican, Cajun, Caribbean, Italian and other international influences. Plus, many chefs will cook the fish you caught and add the sides to go with it.

To whet your appetite, here’s a sampling:

Sea Ranch Restaurant adds wet-aged Angus beef and an extensive appetizer list to its signature seafood offerings. Painted Marlin Grille specializes in fruity cocktails, fish-and-shrimp ceviche and live music by local talent. Pier 19 Restaurant and Bar is an over-the-water eatery that claims world-famous shrimp. F&B (stands for Food and Beverage) serves up creative American classics and modern coastal cuisine. On the other side of the causeway in Port Isabel is Pirate’s Landing Restaurant, named after the pirate-themed marina, park and fishing pier. 

Seared ahi tuna at Painted Marlin Grille, South Padre Island.

Getting around the island is easy and comfortable on the free Island Metro shuttle. It stops at all major attractions in South Padre Island and Port Isabel. Just look for the big yellow bus.

Learn more about South Padre Island. ###

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