Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
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Though its reputation as a Spring Break destination tends to be the first thing that Texans think about when they hear South Padre Island, there’s a whole lot more to this fun and friendly coastal town. South Padre likes to boast about its warm weather and nearly 300 days of sunshine a year, making outdoor activities the perfect bet at this coastal destination. The cleanliness of the Gulf water in this area is also a big draw, and frequent dolphin sightings are just one of the many ways you can get to know the wildlife of the area better.
You’ll keep your drive at just under six hours if you don’t linger too long at stops and take the US-59 S and US-77 S route.
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Heading in from Houston, you should arrive at South Padre Island around lunchtime. Before grabbing a bite, stop at the Port Isabel Lighthouse to experience panoramic views of the area you’re about to visit. On a clear day, you can see up to 16 miles in any direction. Once you’re back in the car, cross over the Queen Isabella Causeway and head straight to Dirty Al’s to see if their claims to fame really stack up: “best seafood on South Padre Island” and “world’s best-fried shrimp” are pretty tall orders, but Dirty Al’s doesn’t disappoint; neither does the cold beer and beautiful harbor views.
Some of South Padre’s most famous residents are its sea turtles and starting off your trip with a quick visit to Sea Turtle Inc. to learn about their local rescue and rehabilitation efforts is a great way to get to know them. Arrive around 2 p.m. to explore the facility on a self-guided tour, then head to the rehabilitation center to watch some enrichment feeding at 3 p.m. You should be finishing up just in time to check into your accommodations and freshen up for happy hour and dinner.
Your first stop when heading back out is Padre Island Brewing Company for a locally brewed craft beer and a great happy hour that runs from 2 to 7 p.m. This is your place to indulge in Gulf oysters (when in season), cheap bar apps, and $3 pints of craft beer while lounging on their large patio. After a couple of beers, move on to Sea Ranch Restaurant to linger over a late dinner of fish, seafood, steaks, and cocktails. After a busy day, hit the hay and get ready for an even busier day to follow.
Start an active day off with a big, Texas-sized breakfast at Pier 19 and treat yourself to their famous giant cinnamon rolls, omelets, or huevos rancheros along with well-priced mimosas and bloody marys. Be sure to keep your eyes on the water, as dolphins enjoy playing in this area. After that heavy breakfast, but before you hit the beach to enjoy your day, make a pit stop at the small counter restaurant, Ceviche Ceviche, to build your own ceviche bowl, then stick it in a cooler to enjoy for a beach lunch later.
Now is the time to choose your beach spot, and Isla Blanca Park at the southern part of the island is always a great bet, with concessions, facilities, and a fishing area, it’s great for families. However, if you want to end your day with a Turbo Pina Colada in hand as you watch the sunset, set up your spot in front of Wanna Wanna Beach Bar a bit further north. It gets a little rowdy (in a good way) over there, so if you have kids with you, just keep that in mind (don’t worry, it’s still very family-friendly). At the beach, try snorkeling, taking a beach bike ride, or do something very South Padre and take a private sandcastle-building lesson so you can really impress your friends. If you’re still feeling beachy, grab dinner there at Wanna Wanna, but if you want to treat yourself to one of the best dining experiences on the island, get cleaned up and grab a table at F&B, where the food looks as good as it tastes.
If you still have some energy after that long day, South Padre is a good place for nightlife. There are plenty of options for live music, mariachi bands, and nightclubs. Louie’s Backyard is always a great choice, with a vibrant atmosphere, karaoke, live DJ/dance party, and the famous Charlie’s Cherry drink.
Eggs Benedict, french toast, healthy plates, and some killer iced coffee awaits at Yummies Bistro, the perfect place to fuel up before starting your day. After breakfast, pop into South Padre Island Dolphin Research & Sealife Nature Center to get up close and personal with a variety of rescue animals including turtles, iguanas, and non-native fish, as well as the dolphins through their bay view education center.
Ready to get back in the ocean? Of course you are, that’s why you chose South Padre Island. Instead of spending your last day relaxing, get a little wild and try booking a fun ocean activity for the late morning. There are plenty of things to choose from ranging from a simple 30-minute banana boat ride to something a bit more daring like parasailing. Grab lunch at a local favorite, Chillito Pikin, for authentic Mexican and Tex-Mex food; tacos and tortas travel well if you want to head back to the beach to eat. If activities on the beach aren’t your thing, you can always go back to lounging, or get a little crazy and head to the Beach Park at Isla Blanca water park for the day (enjoy lunch and cocktails there, as well). Finally, if you want to squeeze in one more activity before heading home, a sunset dolphin watch cruise is only 1.5 hours long and will certainly leave a beautiful, lasting memory of your trip.
WHERE TO STAY
For a real resort experience, Pearl South Padre is a great choice, complete with spa, restaurants (including a swim-up bar), and a kids camp. The Isla Grand is another good resort choice, with tennis courts, golfing, two huge pools, and dining with live music. La Copa Inn is a more affordable version of these resorts that includes a pool and a boardwalk to the beach.
For more budget lodging, Wanna Wanna and Surf Motel Padre are both beachfront and have fun and festive restaurants/bars attached to them, making for great options if you won’t be spending much time in your room and want to be mere stumbles away from the beach. The Palms Resort is a little less lively at night, but still has a restaurant and bar attached, as well as beachfront access, to go along with their mini-suite accommodations.
For a variety of vacation rentals including beachfront, houses with pools, and bayfront homes, try SPIRentals.
WHEN TO GO
If you don’t want to party like a spring breaker, you’ll want to avoid the island during March when it becomes a hedonistic paradise for college crowds. Highs in the southerly island rarely dip below the low 70s, making it a good place to visit year-round.