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South Padre Island offers Texas-Size Fun

South Padre Island

South Padre Island offers outstanding beaches, numerous land and water activities and intriguing historical tidbits.

By Victor Block

“Fish. Party. Repeat.”

Those words, printed on a sign in a South Padre Island, Texas, restaurant, refer to two of the area’s most popular pastimes.

SPI, as locals call both the barrier island and one of its towns, and nearby Port Isabel also boast a long and inviting list of other things to see and do.

It didn’t take long after arriving at this barrier island off the state’s southern coast, to understand that this is a place of outstanding beaches, numerous land and water activities and intriguing historical tidbits.

After the Spanish exploration period, when the area was under that country’s domain, it was owned by Mexico and then the Republic of Texas. It became part of the United States when Texas became a state in 1845.

Visitors soon learn why the destination is included on “Best Beaches” lists and why it’s a magnet for people who like to fish. The waters are so productive that one charter boat captain advertises “No fish – no charge.”

The A-to-Z (antiquing to ziplining) list of other activities includes many that are water-related. They range from kayaking and canoeing to snorkeling and sailing to speeding along on a jet ski to loping along a beach on horseback.

Birding also attracts its fans At the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary, I spotted some of the 350-plus species of high flyers and low waders that reside in or migrate through. Some have colorful names like marbled godwit and semipalmated plover.

Another expedition took me on a dolphin-watch cruise in Laguna Madre Bay. Captain Bob pointed out the first sighting as soon as we left the marina.

Whenever someone saw a telltale fin, or better yet a dolphin leaping out of the water, a collective “ooooh, aaaah” echoed among the passengers.

Trawlers typically drag their nets along the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for as long as three weeks at a time, working at night because shrimp are nocturnal.

Adding to the enjoyment was close-hand inspection of specimens a net had dredged up from the bay floor. Among sea life we examined were a sting ray, several small fish and shrimp.

It’s no surprise that shrimp were among the collection because those crustaceans have been the source of an industry that has thrived in the area since the middle of the 19th century. Today, Texas consistently ranks among the top three shrimp-producing states, along with Alaska and Louisiana.

Trawlers typically drag their nets along the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico for as long as three weeks at a time, working at night because shrimp are nocturnal. When not at sea, the boats may be spotted docked at several locations in Port Isabel.

Locally sourced shrimp is served in South Padre restaurants.

Also not surprising are the variations on shrimp dishes that are served at local restaurants. They augment the American, Mexican and Texas-based cuisine which are found on many menus. Preparations using shrimp that were new to me included tacos, quesadilla, chipotle, omelets, Benedict and added to a BLT sandwich.

The story of shrimping is among many told at the Port Isabel Historical Museum. Exhibits there portray the area’s past, beginning with the arrival of Native Americans and moving on to the Spanish exploration period, the Civil War and colorful tales of border folklore. The museum is housed in a historic building (1899) which in the past served as a dry goods store, post office and railroad station.

Port Isabel also is home to a landmark lighthouse, which was completed in 1853 to guide ships bringing supplies to U.S. military posts. During the Civil War, it was used as an observation tower by both forces. Of 16 lighthouses along the Texas coastline, this is the only one that’s open to visitors and those who climb to the top are rewarded with dramatic 360-degree views of the surroundings.

Memories of the Civil War and U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) are kept alive at the Walk of Generals, which surrounds the lighthouse. It consists of 21 medallions set in sidewalks surrounding the lighthouse which commemorate military men who served and fought in the area during those conflicts.

Among emblems I spotted are Generals Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Zachary Taylor (12th President of the Unites States, as well as a general in the U.S.-Mexican War).

South Padre Island

Any flat surface inside or outside a shop, restaurant, home or other building can serve as a palette.

Both Port Isabel and SPI also lay claim to being art appreciation destinations, in a non-traditional way. Any flat surface inside or outside a shop, restaurant, home or other building can serve as a palette for paintings, usually depicting sea life. There also are two trails which I followed that are focused on unusual themes.

The Sea Turtle Art Trail leads to 10 colorfully painted Fiberglass replicas of those hard-shelled reptiles as they’ve never been seen before. My favorite was named Tank, which covers the entire front of a building. The images on Miracle’s shell relate the challenges of turtle life from hatchlings to avoiding predators in the deep oceans.

Over two dozen sites comprise the Sandcastle Art Trail, supporting the claim of SPI to be the Sandcastle Capital of the World. Along with traditional castles, the creations include a singing mermaid and wildlife — pelican, alligator and dolphin — that frequents the area.

In addition, a tent-like structure called the Sandcastle Village houses an eclectic collection of works. Santa Claus stands not far from Neptune, an enormous butterfly dwarfs a nearby iguana.

If seeing sand animals isn’t your thing, perhaps world-class fishing or relaxing on celebrated beaches is. They’re among many treats that await those who visit SPI and Port Isabel, Texas.

For more information go to sopadre.com and portisabel-texas.com.

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