Paradise on a Budget

IN SEARCH OF A WINTER HAVEN, MY HUSBAND AND I STUMBLED UPON an island paradise at the
southernmost tip of Texas, boasting fewer crowds, less strain on the wallet and more
RV-accessible campsites than the Florida Keys. Named for Padre Nicholas Balli, who obtained
the land from Spain in the mid-1700s, South Padre Island is called the “Tropic of Texas”
for its temperate climate and oceanside landscape. Such ideal conditions have attracted
many residents. The last in a chain of barrier islands stretching along the Atlantic and
Gulf coasts, South Padre guards southern Texas from the onslaught of hurricanes, but that’s
not all it offers. Known for its treasure-rich history and exceptional fishing, this
Texas-style paradise provides budget-conscious motorhome travelers with warm breezes, fresh
seafood and abundant outdoor activities in every season. Whether spending a weekend or an
entire season, you’ll certainly find no shortage of things to do. Crossing the Queen
Isabella Causeway, the 2 1/2-mile high-rise bridge that spans the Laguna Madre from Port
Isabel to South Padre, you might smirk at the posted signs, warning motorists to heed
low-flying sea gulls and pelicans. Of course, it’s difficult to mind kamikaze seabirds when
there’s such a sight before you. At the crest of the causeway, the only road onto the
island, you can see South Padre splayed out for 34 miles, a jungle of towering
condominiums, windswept sand dunes and wooden fishing piers. (The causeway bridge was out
of commission for a few months last fall, but has been completely repaired.) On holiday
weekends, driving onto the island can be slow going, and finding a place to stay is often a
challenge. But with two RV parks and miles of beach, South Padre usually provides plenty of
spots to park a motorhome. Surrounded by palm trees on the balmy southern peninsula, Isla
Blanca County Park offers 450 full hookups, quick access to the beach, prime fishing spots
and fresh seafood at the Dolphin Cove Oyster Bar. At $18 per day, $100 per week or $260 per
month, paradise on the gulf has never been so affordable. For slightly higher prices,
Destination South Padre RV Resort (a Good Sam Park) offers more luxury, including a
swimming pool, a fitness center and a boat launch. If you’d prefer a private beachfront
location, dry-camping on the island’s uninhabited beaches is a popular alternative. Several
points along Padre Boulevard allow access to 29 miles of prime gulfside sand. The farther
you go, the more solitude you’ll find, but beach driving is harder than it sounds. At low
tide, it’s best to traverse the hard-packed sand near the water’s edge. When the tide’s
high, motorists must drive closer to the dunes, in deep ruts formed by other vehicles;
however, the soft sand can be a potential tire trap. Tow-truck drivers can charge a pretty
penny to bail your motorhome out, which is why, despite the appeal of our very own nature
preserve, we chose to stay in Isla Blanca. Once you’ve found a spot to park, it’s time to
explore the island. From shopping to seafood to surfing, South Padre offers something for
everyone, whether you’ve brought the kids or not. The weather is perfect all year-round:
hot and breezy in the summer, cooler in the winter months, but still warm enough to attract
the snowbirds. With this mild climate, South Padre offers an ideal haven for sportsmen,
nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. If fishing’s your game, you’ve come to the right
island. The cheapest method may be to pack your own fishing gear, obtain a Texas fishing
license and some live bait from a local bait-and-tackle shop and find a good spot to cast
from. Small bands of anglers sit on the rocks along Dolphin Cove or venture out onto the
jetties in the gulf, hoping to reel in a trout or two and perhaps spot a family of dolphins
in a shrimp boat’s wake. Surf-fishing on the beach up north allows more chance for solitude
and less chance of snagging a swimmer. Fishing from bayside piers, especially near sunset,
is a superb way to angle for redfish, speckled trout or black drum. Fishing boats in the
Sea Ranch Marina offer daily trips for $15 per person, though rods and reels cost extra.
For a heftier price tag, anglers can go deep-sea fishing for blue marlin, tuna, red snapper
and shark on the family-operated Murphy’s Law or a private charter. However you manage it,
fishing on South Padre is ideal if you enjoy cooking local delicacies in your motorhome. If
you’d rather eat out, though, most seafood restaurants, like Amberjack’s Bayside Bar and
Grill, will broil, blacken or fry your catch for you. The Sea Ranch Marina houses more than
just fishing boats. Large cruise ships, such as the 70-foot Fish Tales, offer
dolphin-watching trips, birding excursions and marine-ecology tours for roughly $10 per
person. More intimate nature tours, like Colley’s Fins to Feathers, may have less boat
space but provide more one-on-one interaction with the dolphins. For a firsthand look at
the island’s migrating birds, stroll along the Laguna Madre Nature Trail, a free-of-charge
boardwalk through the coastal wetlands near the Convention Center. There you’ll spy egrets,
herons, terns and perhaps the alligator that lives among the reeds. Taking a private walk
through the wilderness north of the city is another way to appreciate the island’s
wildlife. Coyotes, jackrabbits, lizards, rattlesnakes and more than 400 species of birds
and waterfowl dwell within the grasslands, beaches, dunes and tidal flats. Sea turtles,
including the endangered Kemp’s ridley, sometimes swim ashore during the nesting season —
an incredible sight. Some islanders have struggled to educate visitors about these
creatures and save them from extinction. Though a terrific spot for fishermen and
naturalists, South Padre also boasts a wide range of water sports. Swimmers, surfers,
tubers and boogie-board enthusiasts abound on the gulf side, while several operations offer
personal watercraft rentals, banana-boat rides, parasailing excursions and sailboat
cruises. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, you may opt for scuba-diving lessons or
rent a small boat and go water-skiing. The Laguna Madre is also a prime location for
swimmers, waders and windsurfers of all ages. Residents and tourists crowd the beach near
the Convention Center, the official windsurfing access point, designated by a row of RVs
and Jeeps along the shore. Some windsurfers look as if they’ve done this before, decked out
in neon-tinted wetsuits, riding top-of-the-line boards. Others are just beginning the
sport, perhaps taking lessons. “You couldn’t find a better place to learn,” says Valerie
Ekstrom, an island resident for 20 years. “It’s shallow and warm. If you fall in, you’re
only waist-deep.” Vacationing families will find water fun tailor-made for the kids. The
Aqua Dog, an amphibious vehicle, takes visitors across the bay to Barracuda Cove, where
they comb the beaches for sand dollars and scan the landscape for exotic shorebirds. The
Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark, which opened last summer, lures kids of all ages with four
water coasters, two tube chutes, a wave lagoon, a surf machine and a five-story water
funhouse. For beach fun without the water, you can rent dune buggies from Island Fun
Rentals or go horseback riding with experienced guides from the Island Equestrian Center.
Beach-chair rentals are available for those wanting to sunbathe, or you can play a game of
volleyball in the sand. With its consistent gulf breezes and miles of soft sand, South
Padre is a perfect spot for kite-flying or building sandcastles. If shopping’s more your
style, Padre Boulevard houses a wealth of shops, enough to fill an entire day of strolling.
Like many tropical towns along the Gulf, South Padre has its share of gargantuan T-shirt
shops, providing everything from beach towels to seashell picture frames. But dress
boutiques, tattoo parlors, novelty shops and used-book stores also line the streets,
offering lovely souvenirs or conversation with local characters. For a more exotic shopping
experience, you can drive across the Mexican border, just a few miles south, or ride a tour
bus to the bustling cities of Matamoros or Progreso for a day of bargain-hunting and
sightseeing. When you’ve tired of shopping, the island’s elegant restaurants and casual
cafes offer a medley of refreshments, from Mongolian cuisine and fried fish to
cheeseburgers and spicy ceviche. Most offer cheap lunch specials and reasonable dinner
entrees. We enjoyed oyster-and-shrimp po’boys for less than $8 from Amberjack’s bayside
patio and Mexican fajitas for two for $20 at the Palmetto Inn. After hours, the island
comes alive with lights and activity. Several watering holes along the bay offer the
perfect spot to sip drinks and watch the gorgeous night sky, dance to live music or play a
round of pool over beer and buffalo wings. Depending on the season, nighttime crowds can be
thick in this area. There are also two movie theaters on the island. More than just an
affordable vacation spot, South Padre is an island rich with natural and cultural
treasures. For beachcombers, there are miles and miles of seashells and wave-carved
driftwood. Some treasure-seekers search the shoreline with metal detectors, hoping to find
lost rings or coins. But local hunters research the island’s complex past and, armed with
shovels and metal detectors, seek the long-lost Spanish bullion or Civil War bullets
they’ve read about. South Padre is close to other activities as well. It’s a short drive
back to Port Isabel, a coastal community with its own share of seafood restaurants and fine
boutiques, not to mention the longest fishing pier in Texas and a historical lighthouse
with a terrific view of South Padre. Several 18-hole golf courses are found on the island
also. South Padre is busiest in the summertime, cheapest in the winter months and teeming
with teenagers during spring break, but, no matter when you visit or how long you stay,
you’ll probably encounter one of the island’s many annual events. South Padre is abuzz with
activity throughout the year, including fishing tournaments, fireworks events and seafood
cookoffs. Yet, despite such liveliness, South Padre is a slow-moving, relaxing place to
visit, where wearing a tie is rumored to be against the law. The natives refer to “island
time,” claiming that, after awhile, this laid-back attitude becomes contagious. Like many
island residents, you may cross the causeway in your motorhome and end up staying for
decades. Or perhaps you’ll find yourself returning every winter to savor the ambiance of
this island paradise at the tip of Texas. For More Info: South Padre
Island Convention and Visitors Bureau: (800) SO-PADRE; www.sopadre.com. Texas Tourism:
(800) 8888-TEX; www.traveltex.com. For complete campground listings, visit
www.tldirectory.com

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