Texas has a tropical island. Surprising? Well, it certainly was for me.
South Padre Island is a 113-mile-long barrier island that runs along the Texas coast from Corpus Christi to Port Isabel. With 34 miles of wide and wonderful pearly white-sand beaches and crystal-clear aquamarine waters, the picturesque island on the southernmost tip of Texas borders the Gulf of Mexico on the east and Laguna Madre Bay on the west. Considered one of the world’s most beautiful barrier islands, South Padre sports more than 300 days of sunshine and offers a myriad of things to do for outdoor adventure enthusiasts and nature lovers.
It’s no wonder so many Texans and U.S. visitors from the northern states flock to this fun and fascinating island during the winter months. After all, the average winter temperature runs about 65-degrees Fahrenheit. But it’s not just escaping the sleet and snow that attracts travelers here as South Padre Island is an ideal year-round destination for a weekend escape or a longer play and stay getaway.
Beach View (Photo via SP Island CVB)
Head to the Beaches and Sand Dunes
There’s no doubt that one of the top draws of the island is its magnificent beaches located on both sides of South Padre. These stunning stretches of sand are perfect for relaxing, swimming, building sandcastles, long beach walks or taking advantage of the numerous wind and water sports available to locals and visitors.
What makes its southern-most stretches of sand unique is the numerous grassy dunes that provide a picturesque backdrop to the beaches. But more important than their natural beauty is their role in protecting the Gulf coastline from waves, tides, currents and high winds. Forming a natural dike, these dunes prevent storm tides from inundating and destroying the island’s precious grasslands.
And this quiet, secluded and the breathtakingly gorgeous strip of land on the far end of South Padre is one of the least visited spots on the island. When we were here, we counted only a handful of people on the entire stretch of beach.
Explore the Birding and Nature Center
This impressive non-profit nature center is a great place for birdwatching, observing wildlife in its natural habitat and experiencing up-close nature encounters in coastal South Texas. But be sure to bring your binoculars as there’s quite a lot to see. And take advantage of the knowledgeable guided tours for a really in-depth experience.
Located on 50 picturesque acres on the shallow Laguna Madre Bay wetlands, the center features an impressive 3,300 feet of boardwalk surrounding dune meadows, salt marshes and intertidal flats. The center’s main mission is to educate the public about the birds of South Padre Island and its environs with an emphasis on conservation and environmental awareness.
Even on a chilly windy morning, we were surprised at the number of birds we were able to see – brown pelicans, egrets, grey and tricolored herons, curlews, warblers, and my favorite, the fascinating roseate spoonbill. The center boasts five bird blinds and a five-story observation tower providing stunning views of the nature center grounds.
Visit the Amazing Alligator Sanctuary
One of our most fun surprises was getting to visit the nature center’s impressive alligator sanctuary. These gators, rescued from pools, ponds, piers and other awkward situations, are housed at the sanctuary as they can’t be returned to their natural habitat. Our expert docent explained that once they have been exposed to other food sources (intentionally or unintentionally) they will always return to the source of that food.
We had the chance to hold and pet a baby alligator and learn about the habits of these fascinating reptiles. It really was an amazing experience. And don’t forget to take home a tree ornament, informative book or other souvenirs as the gift shop here is quite lovely.
Saving the Sea Turtles
The stories of South Padre Island’s sea turtles are heartfelt.
Thanks to the “Turtle Lady” of South Padre and the efforts of her eco-friendly team, thousands of the area’s sick and injured sea turtles have been rescued, rehabilitated and released back to the wild since 1977.
It was that same year the late Ila Fox Loestscher, a female pilot from Iowa, launched the non-profit foundation Sea Turtles, Inc. to aid in the protection and recovery of the endangered Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle.
These beautiful marine creatures injured by hook ingestion, entanglement, boat strikes, predator attacks or other medical conditions are brought here and treated by the veterinarian team. If they can be rehabbed, they are restored to health and released back into the Laguna Madre Bay.
If they can’t be released, they are provided their own individual water enclosures and given lots of tender loving care and their favorite foods.
Though I’d visited other turtle rescue centers throughout the U.S. and Mexico, this was the first time I’d ever witnessed a survival tale like the one of Allison, who survived a predator attack in 2005 with only one remaining flipper. Because she could only swim in circles, an intern designed an all-encompassing prosthetic device that now enables her to swim normally. It’s a story that’s been featured by National Geographic and several national television shows.
The turtle experience here is a definite not-to-be-missed venue for visitors to the island.
Sunset on South Padre Island (Photo via SP Island CVB)
Outdoor Activities in Nature
For those who love the outdoors, South Padre Island offers so many fun things to do year-round.
Who doesn’t love flying a kite? It brings out the kid in all of us. But on South Padre Island, winter brings the annual KiteFest attracting some of the world’s best flyers and featuring mesmerizing individual and group performances. The shows are spectacular and artistic as these kites dance to music and pirouette like ballet dancers in the winds along the beach. You’ll hear oohs and aahs from the crowd along with the bewildered utterings of “How do they do that?” It’s quite a special event.
Speaking of the wind, adventure enthusiasts here thrill with the elation of kite-boarding. It’s the chance to see the stunning area literally from a bird’s eye view.
To get up close and personal with some beautiful sea mammals, guests can book a dolphin tour and meet bottle-nose and spinner dolphins in the wild. And if you have more time, an eco-tour can be added to your dolphin experience.
But it doesn’t stop here. The beauty of South Padre Island can also be experienced by kayak or canoe on both the salt waters of the Laguna Madre and the open sea. The Laguna Madre boasts shallow protected waters that are perfect for both beginner paddlers and seasoned explorers.
As the sun set on our last night on South Padre Island, a large flock of birds as if on cue flew over the dockside pier where we were dining. It brought to mind a favorite quote: “Never forget to stop to appreciate life’s unexpected and awesome moments.”
I smiled for South Padre Island was filled with those unexpected moments.
Noreen L Kompanik is a Registered Nurse and published freelance travel writer and photographer based in San Diego, California. She has written about green topics, healthy living, family travel, history, wine and food along with inspirational prose. She is a member of the International Travel Writers and Photographer’s Association and International Food and Wine Travel Writers Association. Noreen is a columnist for milesgeek.com, Traveling Mom, wineormous.com, and a regular contributor to several San Diego publications. She is married with two grown children and two grandchildren. She maintains a Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Whats-In-Your-Suitcase-322531634589666/ where readers can find her published articles.