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Trip Report Roadtripping Texas - a few notes

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I have been undecided about doing this as a trip report. I'm afraid people might be bored as it wasn't a terribly exotic trip. However, some of the notes may be helpful to someone, so I finally decided I should do so. I'll put it reply with a bolded heading so that hopefully if someone is looking for information they will be able to find it quickly.

Basically, we had 2 1/2 weeks on the road. Our primary objectives were to find some sun, some birds, some golf courses, and just in general relax. I have to use or lose my vacation time at the end of each year and we have found this is a good way to use it up.

The General Route
We are northeast of Kansas City, Missouri, and made our way to South Padre Island, spent time in the Rio Grande Valley, and worked our way up the Gulf Coast of Texas to end up in Nederland Texas to spend New Year's with friends.

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    The Drive - When Toll Roads Really Count

    In general I have always hated the stretch of I-35 between DFW and San Antonio. Too many cars, not enough highway. But, this time we spent our first night in Waco and as we approached Georgetown the next morning we decided to take the toll road there. It looped completely around Austin to the East, barely any traffic, and hooked up with I-35 again at Buda. Well worth the $7.50 in tolls we paid.

    Coming back up the coast, we also took the Sam Houston Toll Road around Houston. Again, well worth the tolls.

    So, if you are unfamiliar with those areas, and want to avoid some traffic, go for the toll roads! If you don't have an EZ pass, the toll road around Austin gave you the option of billing by mail. I did not see that same option for Sam Houston, so we had to stop at each toll booth which was a little annoying, but not so bad it would keep me from doing it in the future.

    Sarita Rest Stop
    A last note on the route. We tend to take hwy 77 down into the valley. One of the prettiest rest stops I have been to is the Sarita rest stop. It's got tile murals, and if you look at all the braces they use different brands as part of the design. It's a long stretch of oaks and lots of picnic tables. It's always pretty full of people stretching their legs, walking their dogs, and like us, having a small picnic.

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    The South Padre Island leg

    Our first few days were at SPI. LarryRGV on these boards is always great with recommendations and so I must thank him. Here are a few of what I hope are helpful notes.

    Hotel - Hilton Garden Inn

    This hotel is new and I can't say enough good things about it. We have stayed at several different places in SPI, and this is the first one where we definitely want to return.

    The staff was very friendly and helpful, the rooms were nice and the beds comfortable, the balconies were large enough that you could actually spend some time on them. The hotel gym was well appointed, and the pool area is really nice, with a boardwalk directly out to the beach. I did not eat at the restaurant there but people I talked to said it was good.

    Dining

    We only ate at two places, the Big Donkey and Dirty Al's.

    The Big Donkey is Tex-Mex and was recommended on this board. We had great fajitas and I managed to score a rather gigantic happy hour margarita for $3.00. The fajitas were as good as promised, but so large I ended up eating leftovers the next night (which is why we didn't get out to dinner that night).

    I like Dirty Al's for lunch, and through a series of events had lunch there twice. The blackened fish soft tacos were not as good as they had been, but I highly recommend the Lupe's Mexican Cocktail which was shrimp, avocado, tomatoes and some spicy stuff :-) The second day I just had grilled shrimp instead of the fish tacos and the shrimp was really good.

    Coffee and a cinnamon roll in Port Isabel

    I also had a nice latte and very good homemade cinnamon roll across the causeway in Port Isabel. I had remembered this shop before and was glad to see it was still there. Right across from the lighthouse, I think it is called Sandi's Cafe and Coffee Shop. Yes! Just Googlemapped/streetview and can see that is the one.

    Activities next.

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    Activities

    It's the beach, I took walks!

    Walk 1

    Larry recommended this walk to me and I am afraid I may not describe it well. This walk was at Isla Blanca Park down at the southern end of SPI. It was basically a 2 mile loop out along the Gulf and back. I really enjoyed it, didn't see any dolphins but it was rough water that day. Lots of Winter Texans parked there, and I chatted with several.

    Walk 2

    The beach. SPI beaches are great for walking, they stretch for miles. I was able to walk out the back of the hotel via the boardwalk to the beach and walk a long stretch, taking a look at jelly fish washed up on the beach, and all sorts of shore birds.

    Dolphin Watching

    I didn't get to do this on this trip. It was the week before Christmas and a little chilly, so not enough people had signed up. Oh well, I got to see dolphins later in Fulton. I've used Breakaway Cruises before, but there are several around. It's one of my favorite things to do, so when you do go to SPI, try to take one.

    Sea Turtles!

    For one reason or another I had never managed to visit the Sea Turtle Rescue Center on SPI. I highly recommend it! The talk was really informative and you could see several rescued sea turtles. They are doing amazing work solely on volunteerism and donations, no government funding at all. I "adopted" Merry Christmas, an Atlantic Green sea turtle for a month for $30 which should offset her feed for a month I think they said. It only cost $3 to enter. www.seaturtleinc.org

    SPI Convention Center and Boardwalks

    They have built even more boardwalks, so you can walk quite aways out. You'll see a lot of shorebirds, and possibly alligators. There are plenty of butterflies near the convention center where there is a butterfly garden. There were lots of Queens and Monarchs the day I was there. I spotted a Sora, and for the first time I was able to see an American Bittern which was very exciting for me (they are sneaky birds!).

    I did not go into the new Birding and Nature Center next door. At the time I only had 30 minutes before I needed to be somewhere else, and I wasn't sure what $5 was going to get me that I couldn't see next door at the convention center that I spent more time at the next day.

    SPI Dolphin Research and Sea Life Nature Center

    This is across from the Lighthouse in Port Isabel just across the Causeway. Again, it was off season so I was the only one in there. This worked out well for me as the person walked around with me and personally named everything! I'm kind of geeky so I really enjoy this kind of thing. There is also a touch tank that I think kids would like. $3.

    Shopping

    I have done more shopping in times past than I did this time, but generally I do usually find some nice stuff in some of the shops around Lighthouse Square in Port Isabel. I don't think I have ever done any shopping on SPI!

    Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

    Pretty interesting tram ride you can take with guided tour. Paths and viewing areas, and it looks like there are more than there used to be. I got to watch an Armadillo for awhile, which was entertaining. http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=21553

    Port Isabel Museums

    http://portisabelmuseums.com/mopi/

    Even if you don't go in the museums (which I have done and it is very interesting) if you like marine life be sure to checked out the sea life mural on the back of the museum.

    Transportation

    If people in your group want to go in different directions, SPI has a free shuttle bus called The Wave that goes in a loop constantly. Some go island only, another does the island and also goes over to Port Isabel. it's really efficient and handy.

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    Hanging out in the Rio Grande Valley

    Birds and Butterflies
    This is where we get pretty boring. We moved to various points in the valley, dictated mostly by birding for my husband. If you are a birder you probably already know these things or use texbirds as a source, so I can't imagine I can add a lot here.

    On this trip we went as far as Zapata to look for the white-collared seed eater, spent time at Falcon Lake State park looking at birds including Vermillion Flycatchers, roadrunners, and Pyrrhuloxia, and a few butterflies. Took a few naps in the sun at at the park.

    Visited Estero Llano Grande (one of my favorite areas), Frontera Audobon (we visited so many times one year we just went ahead and joined and remain a member) and Valley Nature Center in Weslaco (small, but where I saw both a Mexican Bluewing and a Malachite one year so it remains a favorite). Also Santa Ana National Wild Life Refuge and Salineno.

    A new visit this year was the North American Butterfly Association butterfly center. This was suggested by LarryRGV. Here's the website: http://www.nationalbutterflycenter.org/ I really enjoyed this, and it wasn't even the best time to be there! I can see where a sunnier day, when more was in bloom, it would be even more fabulous. Lots of places have butterfly gardens but this place blows them out of the water. Go.

    Golf

    I only golfed three days at two different courses this time, both public. I've golfed Tierra del Sol in Pharr several times in the past and played there on the 24th of December this year. Besides a tendency to overwater the course, it's an enjoyable course. Always friendly Texas golfers invited me to join them.

    I played two days (for a total of 60 holes - I didn't complete one round) at a little par 31 executive course across from Estero Llano Grande park. It's a deceptive little course with narrow fairways and water that comes into play on 3 holes (4 if you really hook a shot on one hole). It's a fun course to work on your accuracy and short game. You walk only. M-F there are is a lot of league play in the mornings from all the different RV parks. Again, friendly Texans invited me to play with them.

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    Up the Gulf Coast, with a stop in Fulton/Rockport

    As I mentioned, we meandered. We started moving up the coast after Christmas, with an overnight in Corpus Christi (Fairfield Inn, it was fine, right next door to the Hampton Inn we stayed in two years ago). After Corpus we moved to Fulton/Rockport so I could go on the Whooping Crane Tour again.

    Whooping Crane Tour - "The Skimmer"

    Even if you are not a birder, if you are in this area of Texas in the winter you should really take advantage of this opportunity. The story of this bird, the tallest bird in NA at nearly 5 feet tall, is pretty amazing. Although the numbers are still not in huge abundance, they have really come back from the brink. They are beautiful birds.

    You aren't going to see flocks of them. you will typically see an adult pair with their chick. Your best chance of seeing them is to take the boat which will take you out to the areas of Aransas refuge where they may be found.

    There a number of tours in the area. I went with Tommy Moore's boat again, The Skimmer. 1 877 TX BIRDS or http://www.whoopingcranetours.com/. I took the tour 2 years ago as well. Usually you will see additional wildlife and birds, they do a good job of pointing those out.

    If in winter keep in mind you are on the water and when windy it can be quite chilly. I was much better prepared the second time, wearing a long sleeved tee, with a light pullover sweater over that, with a large hooded sweatshirt over that, hat, and gloves. they provide blankets on the benches inside. Best to sit on them to keep your behind warm! If you have binoculars, take them.

    Inn at Fulton Harbor

    I do tend to repeat myself. 2 years ago we stayed here when I took the above tour, and I wanted to go back. It's just lovely, and conveniently, right across the street from the tour I wanted to take.

    I can only imagine how nice it is to stay here in the spring and summer. The rooms are large, the verandas wide, the pool and courtyard area inviting. http://www.innatfultonharbor.com/

    In addition to the boat tour, I did take some exploratory walks, shopped in the huge gift shop next to the Inn.

    We ate at two of the area restaurants, Moondog and Charlotte Plummer. Gumbo and stuffed flounder were good at CP, calamari was good at both, but spicy at Moondog. Had Shrimp brochettes at Moondog that were good. Both have really nice outdoor areas that would be great in spring and summer.

    After this there isn't a lot of interest to anyone else but us. The day we would have gone out to Aransas Wildlife Refuge ended up pouring rain so we just continued on up the coast to East Texas, skirting Houston and ending up in Nederland. Stopped at Al-T's, and if you spend any time in the Houston, upper Gulf Coast area you are probably already familiar with Al-T's. I got another bowl of gumbo :-) Besides my brother's, it's still my favorite at Al-T's.

    We were gone 2 1/2 weeks, covered a lot of miles, found things of interest to us everywhere we went.

    I hope sometime something here is of help to someone in planning.

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