Sand Castle Trail on South Padre Island



There’s something new at South Padre Island. Visitors and residents can travel the island and discover about 30 different sand castles on display.

Some of them are very big and others are not so big. They’re all different and easy to find along the sand castle trail.

“The sand castle trail gives people visiting the island the opportunity to see our brand of local art,” South Padre Island City Manager Bill Dilibero said.

The sand castles can be found in front of various businesses, and a map is available to show the exact locations of the art.

Lucinda Wierenga is a world class master sand sculptor. Everyone knows her by her nickname Sandy Feet.

She has been building sand sculptures on the beach for over 30 years. “It was a team effort between the city and private businesses,” she said. “This was a fantasy that I’ve long had, building sand sculptures all over South Padre Island. So everybody that comes to the island, no matter what time of year it is, will be able to see amazing sand sculptures.”

Part of the fun of exploring the trail is looking for those hidden details in the sculptures.

“The one at the Paragraphs bookstore has scenes from seven or eight different books,” Wierenga said.

Some of the sand sculptures were damaged, during the never ending rains of May and June. However, they will be touched up. After all, this is a job where they get to play in the sand all day.

“Most recently, I did a big project in Kuwait for six weeks with about 70 other sculptors. I’ll be going to the American championship in Fort Myers Beach in November. And of course, we have sand castle days coming up here in October,” Wierenga said.

“The thing is to take the time to look at them and enjoy the unique art that we have on the island,” Dilibero said.

There is a free app people can download to check out the sand castle trail. Maps for the trail are available at the visitor’s center or most businesses.

“Oh man, I could not have asked for a better life. I feel so fortunate,” Wierenga said. “You know the sand here on South Padre Island is so good for sand castle building. We are truly blessed.”

Vacation Home Sales Surge as Buyers Seek Fun and a Good Investment



Sales of vacation home sales are surging across the nation as Americans seek out their own place for a family retreat, a regular vacation spot or a place to ski, sail, fish or hike.

Vacation home sales were up a whopping 57 percent in 2014 over the sales of 2013, according to a national report by the National Association of Realtors.

“Vacation home sales are skyrocketing,” says Dallas-based journalist Candy Evans, a CultureMap contributor and founder of and “Vacation home sales have shown astounding growth. I get 50 emails a day from developers with new projects that are coming up.”

Evans, who moderated a vacation homes panel in Miami at the National Association of Real Estate Editors Conference, says the surge is driven by “The One Percent” – affluent households who have done well in the stock market in recent years.

“The wealthy got even wealthier since the recession of 2008,” says John Klemish, broker in-charge at the upscale Greenbrier Sporting Club resort in West Virginia.

The buyers at the ultra-luxe Greenbrier often pay all cash and the typical buyer there has at least three or four other houses, says Klemish.

The massive Baby Boomer generation is supporting the surge in the vacation home market as they acquire vacation homes now and plan to convert them to their primary residences after retiring.

The top choice for vacation home buyers is the beach, according to the National Association of Realtors Vacation Home Buyers Survey.

Last year, 40 percent of vacation buyers purchased in a beach area, 19 percent purchased in the country and 17 percent purchased a vacation home in the mountains. The average buyer purchases a vacation home that is 200 miles away from his/her primary residence.

Foreign buyers are also supporting the vacation home boom. Owning real estate in a country with a stable economy can be an appealing haven to affluent people from other parts of the world.

“We’ve seen a huge desire for real estate from flight capital,” says Phillip Day, an executive with the IMI vacation realty company in Greenville, S.C. “We see a lot of people from Europe and South America.”

The ability to get rental income by renting out a vacation home is attractive, says Jon Gray, chief revenue officer at Austin-based HomeAway, an online marketplace that connects renters with vacation home owners.

The owner of a vacation home gains $28,000 a year, on average, by renting out their vacation home, Gray says.  Many vacation home buyers can cover half, or even three-fourths of their mortgage payments with rental income, says Gray, a panelist at last week’s NAREE conference.

Orlando Realtor Chris Cain, author of  “Your Made in the USA Vacation Home” says the investment aspect of vacation home buying is huge.  And it is appealing to a cross-section of buyers, not just the ultra-rich.

“If your primary residence is the best investment of your life,” says Cain, “why not buy a vacation home, too?”

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."