Not Just for Spring Break: South Padre Island a Great Family Getaway


South Padre Island off the tip of Texas is not a good vacation destination in March and the first half of April. Unless, of course, you are a college student. In that case, South Padre Island is the place to be.

For decades, the small barrier island, flanked on the west by Laguna Madre Bay and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico, has had a reputation as a wild spring break fling for young adults seeking beach time, booze and booty.

But the other 46 weeks of the year, South Padre Island is a great getaway for couples, families and groups of friends.

The call of the ocean is particularly strong for landlocked Coloradans because when you live in the mountains, the sea seems like a natural place to leave reality behind.

My family has visited several times, with and without children, and every time we leave, we start thinking about when we can go back.

The island unofficially boasts some of the most pristine beaches around.

White sand that's light and powdery lies within feet of the long string of condos and hotels lining the 34-mile seashore.

Up and down the shoreline are plenty of places to rent an umbrella and chairs and make a day of hanging out in the subtropical climate.

The island has one of the few sandcastle trails in the nation, with amazing creations scattered around town. Sandcastle-building lessons also are available - TripAdvisor's No. 1-ranked outdoor activity on the island.

Fairly clear, warm water with two sandbars enable beachgoers to walk pretty far from the shore and still be able to stand up.

While the surf is usually calm, surf boarders and kite boarders can post successful rides.

Fresh water also appeals to visitors. Schlitterbahn Beach Resort is the island's top tourist attraction, according to Adrian Rodriguez, spokesman and film commissioner for the South Padre Island Convention Centre. The giant water park has outdoor and indoor equipment, including inland surfing, uphill water coasters, lots of slides and other slippery fun.

My kids loved it. Adults should be prepared for crowds.

Tourists also can get their fill of the sea from atop the waves. Anglers can fish year-round from the bay side, on charter boats, kayaks or from the pier or shore. Many local restaurants will cook your catch your way. The varieties cast a large net - redfish, pompano, speckled trout, whiting, red drum, snook, mangrove snapper and others - depending on the time of year.

Boats also offer eco-tours, dolphin watches, sunset serenades, pirate-themed excursions and float parties. The dolphin-watch trips are worth the time and money. Certain areas seem to guarantee a sighting.

We've also spotted dolphins while driving across the 2.3-mile Queen Isabella Causeway, the sole roadway connecting the mainland to the island. But it's much more fun and better viewing on a boat tour.

South Padre Island is named for a Catholic priest who established a church in the mid-1700s and brought the first permanent settlers. In recent history, the island has purposefully been built as a resort. In fact, it's in the city charter, Rodriguez said.

About 3,000 residents live there year-round, many working in industries that cater to upwards of 1 million visitors each year.

Tourists like the island because, "It's fun for all ages," Rodriguez said. "Depending on what stage you are in life, there's something to be found for you on South Padre Island."

In addition to Schlitterbahn, our kids had a good time at Gravity Park, which has go-carts and a bungee ride; the Sea Turtle Inc. rescue with all kinds of salvaged sea life; and the Birding and Nature Center, which in addition to being a haven for feathered creatures has an alligator and crabs in a natural, sanctuary environment.

South Padre Island is known as the "Fireworks Capital of Texas," with fireworks displays every Thursday and Friday in the summer from the bay side and Friday and Saturday nights on Gulf's beach side.

There's also a wide selection of nightlife for adults with live music and that laid-back tropical party atmosphere.

Summertime brings special events, such as fishing tournaments, a catamaran race and hula dancer shows.

We always return to our favorite restaurants. Louie's Backyard, across from Gravity Park, has bay side waterfront seating, a delicious seafood buffet, hand-cut steaks and a deck bar with bands.

Dirty Al's is another required stop for our family. From oysters on the half shell and boiled peel-and-eat shrimp to blackened fish tacos and po'boys, the food is consistently good. We weren't brave enough to try the fish throats but heard they were tasty.

Our No. 1 breakfast place is the Grapevine Café, on the main thoroughfare, because it has American and Mexican dishes, such as Migas Mexicanas: scrambled eggs, corn tortilla strips, tomato, onion, jalapeno and cheese.

Visitors who travel by plane must fly into Harlingen or Brownsville, Texas, and drive to South Padre Island. But before crossing the Causeway, stop in Port Isabel, for some shopping and Pirate's Pier, the state's longest pier. There's a lighthouse, several restaurants with the best Gulf coconut shrimp and fried chicken and fishing with rental poles, tackle and bait.

Brownsville, about 45 minutes from South Padre Island, is on the Mexico border and a day-trip option.

"Everybody comes to South Padre Island for their needs," Rodriguez said. "Whether you want to curl up on the beach and read a book, get married or have a divorce party, we have it all."