South Padre Island Winter Vacation
To escape the cold weather after a lively Christmas in Austin with the family, on December 26 we (our daughter and her husband and two boys, 2 and 5 years old) started the drive south to South Padre Island to warm up. After a long boring drive we arrived in South Padre around 6, immediately unloaded the car, downed a quick beer, got a recommendation for dinner and music, and jumped back in the SUV for a short drive to Padre Rita Grill. And what a great way to start a fun week long winter vacation in South Padre Island!
We walked into Padre Rita Grill and felt like we were on the outdoor patio of some beach bar in the Florida Keys – colorful tropical coloring, palm trees covering comfortable chairs and tables, and Michael Laferty singing Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville to a packed house of friendly and fun loving locals and tourists. The food was ok, the margaritas were excellent, and the live music was lively and very good – it was jam night and the lineup included: Michael Laferty (the owner and “the island’s own Jimmy Buffet – a great sense of humor and an excellent voice and a wide variety of songs) solo, then Michael backed up by a guitar player, drummer, and keyboard player. For the next set, Nancy Cook who plays on Tuesday nights, joined the group to sing some of her songs, and the final set was one of the South Padre Island Skydiving instructors singing with the band and then belting out and pickin’ a few of his favorites.
During our winter vacation on South Padre Island, we were going to:
enjoy some fabulous meals
race across the bay at 50 miles per hour
cruise the bay on a pirate ship with a bunch of rowdy pirates
sail on a dinner and sunset cruise on a 50 foot catamaran
learn about some of the fish in the bay and see playful dolphin up close
ride bikes around South Padre Island and historic Port Isabel
parasail 600 feet above the bay
visit a very well done birding center and museum
ride horses on the beach
play some fun golf courses in the Rio Grande Valley
frolic in the sand and surf
catch some fish for dinner
ride ATVs in the sand dunes
get stuck in the sand dunes
jump out of an airplane at 13,000 feet above the Gulf of Mexico
bar hop on New Years Eve and enjoy the fireworks
visit with some turtles as they go through rehab for release back to the Gulf
- lots of laughs and margaritas at several beach bars
When was I going to get a nap with all that fun stuff to see and do! We booked a lot of fun stuff because we knew we wouldn’t be back to South Padre for another 10 years. It has really changed since our last visit in 1995 and South Padre Island now has plenty of options for lodging ranging from Motel 6 hotel rooms to fancy five bedroom homes with fabulous beach views to RV parks. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from ranging from fast food to gourmet dinner with a beautiful sunset. And it would be hard to get bored during a South Padre Island vacation – there are lots of fun things to see and do for all ages, fun nightlife with friendly and outgoing locals, and miles of surf and sand!
South Padre Island is a 34 mile long barrier reef which is about a half mile wide at it widest point and it is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on the east and the Laguna Madre Bay on the west. The only access to the island, beside swimming or by boat, is across the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge. The streets are lined with one million visitors annually enjoying the retail shops, resort hotels, condominium towers, restaurants, and recreational activities – but it never seems that crowded or busy, particularly when compared to Destin. The exception may be during spring break when the population really swells and gets pretty rowdy! And winter is a perfect time to visit – it’s cooler but not cold with average winter temperatures around 68 to 73, not near as crowded, and a lot of the lodging and attraction pricing is less expensive!
On our last trip we stayed at South Padre Island KOA and loved it. They have great full hook-up RV sites (some of which have a patio and chairs facing the bay and the sunsets are stunning) and a variety of cozy cabins and other lodging plus a couple cool rental Airstreams. In addition to great sites, they are close to everything (Schlitterbahn is across the street and several good restaurants are within easy walking distance as are charter fishing boats, parasailing, and more) and they have some very good amenities like a pool, playground, fitness center, ping pong, and more. Read our review of South Padre Island KOA to learn more.
Monday morning we put on the Levis and cowboy boots and headed to Horses on the Beach for just that, a horseback ride on the beach. Horses on the Beach has over 50 horses available for riding for anyone over 6 years old. After qualifying us on our riding skills, they gave each of us a horse (mine was Big Red) that they thought would be suitable to our riding experience or in my case, size. We mounted our steed and set off for a fun ride over the sand dunes, through the surf, and along the beach. To learn more and see some pictures, read our article about Horses on the Beach.
Riding horses in the surf on a windy day tends to build up a big desire for some good food and cocktails, so based on a couple of recommendations by some locals, we ended up at Pier 19 for a great lunch and what turned out to be some very tasty but powerful margaritas. I do seem to recall that during our lunch a pirate walked past our table and out onto the pier. A few minutes after the pirate strolled by, a pirate ship arrived and started yelling and firing a canon at our pirate, who just happened to have a cannon on the pier and was firing back and getting all of us to yell Aaaarrrrgggghhhh and shake our fists at the pirate ship. Shots and words kept bantering back and forth between the ship and our pirate until, much to my shagrin, our pirate raised the white flag and surrendered (and then posed for a picture with some kids) at which time the pirate ship sailed off into the sunset! Wow, those margaritas were strong! The next morning the grandkids and spouse verified that yes indeed a real pirate ship had sailed up and fired shots at our pirate! Thank God, it really was true and not just another margarita dream!
Monday afternoon we visited Sea Turtle, Inc. which a non profit organization dedicated to the:
- rescue, rehabilitation, and release of injured sea turtles
- education for the public on this endangered species
- assistance with conservation efforts for all marine turtle species
Sea Turtle Inc has several tanks filled with turtles that have been rescued and are currently being rehabilitated to be released as soon as they are ready. A number of the turtles were missing one or more flippers thanks to predators like sharks, boat propellers, gill nets, and more. Each tank has an explanation of what happened to that particular turtle. On of the tanks has a turtle that feeds on sea weed and at 10:30 a bowl of lettuce is available for the visitors to feed one of the turtles – when you hold it up against the outside of the tank, he’ll come up to the glass and try and eat it. They claim the turtle was raised by some Aggies and still after all these years thinks he can get the lettuce on the outside of his tank. The other picture is of a turtle who lost three of it’s four flippers. At Sea Turtle, Inc. they also have a 20 minute or so very interesting and informative talk about the turtles, their nesting, characteristics, and more. Well worth the small donation to help save an endangered species.
Next door to Sea Turtle, Inc. is the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center which is very impressive, even if you’re not a big birding fan. Similar to Sea Turtle, Inc., the goal of the Birding and Nature Center is to provide educational opportunities for residents and visitors to learn about birds, flora, fauna and the natural environment of South Padre Island, the Laguna Madre Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico with an emphasis on conservation and environmental awareness. The Center, which has a small entrance fee, is home to:
a five story observation tower with magnificent 360 degree views of Laguna Madre Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the boardwalk, and a lot of South Padre Island.
over 4800 linear feet of bay view boardwalks and paths that meander through 43 acres of freshwater ponds, island scrub brush, brackish and saltwater marshes
seven bird blinds in the wetlands for great viewing
very well done indoor educational interactive exhibits of the nature of the island and the surrounding area
an auditorium that features an informative and interesting film which is an overview of the island’s ecology and birds
- gift store
Tuesday, it was off to watch the dolphins on an eco dolphin watching tour with the Original Dolphin Watch Company. Over the next hour and a half we had a hands on and interesting session about some of the fish and other interesting creatures that we caught in a net that the boat drug behind it, watched dolphin playing and jumping in the bay, and had a scenic as well as informative tour of the bay and out to the entrance to the Gulf. Read more about our Dolphin Watching Eco Tour.
We walked off the boat and jumped on our bikes to head to a beach bar for appetizers and drinks and hopefully a sunset – it was overcast and windy so the main reason we headed there was for the drinks. The wind which was blowing about 30 made for a very easy ride a couple miles to the Palm bar for happy hour and 25 cent oysters. The ride back was grueling into a 30 knot wind! Must have worn off at least two beers and it helped for a very restful nights sleep!
Speaking of a good night’s sleep, we were staying in a two bedroom one bath suite at Travelodge. Our suite had a partial view of the bay, a large living area with a big screen TV, dining table and chairs, and a pretty well stocked kitchen. The beds and pillows were soft and comfy, the suite was very clean and function, the price was reasonable, and it came with daily maid service, free continental breakfast, and a happy hour with free beer, wine, and snacks! Can’t get much better than than. Oh, and it had a heated pool, hot tub, sports court, and private access to the beach which was a three minute walk from our room! Travelodge also has typical hotel type rooms with queen, king, or double beds for daily, weekly, or monthly rental. To learn more about the Travelodge and some other places to stay during your visit, click on .
Around 4, we headed over a pier smack dab in the middle of the entertainment district to board a catamaran for a sunset dinner cruise on Laguna Madre Bay. The Southern Wave is a beautiful cat – a 48′ long with a 25′ beam which easily accommodated our family as well as an number of other guests – and we cruised by some beautiful homes, had some very tasty food, and enjoyed a stunning sunset as one of the island legends serenaded us with tropical island music and some Jimmy Buffett favorites. Read about our sunset dinner cruise on the Southern Wave.
The next morning I got up a little earlier than normal to drive up the beach and take some pictures. There are miles of beach to drive on and some are open for camping. I just barely made it through the access to the beach – the sand must be deeper in the morning – and started driving up the beach with the intention of taken the next beach exit back to the road. After what seems like hours, I was still driving north on the beach and noticed that the beach seemed to be getting a little smaller (the tide was coming in) and no one else was in sight. And I’m driving an SUV, not a four wheel drive jeep! Beads of perspiration starting breaking out on my forehead and I was sure I was close to the north end of the island – with no exits! I finally decided to turn and noticed that the beach was even smaller and the tall sand dunes seemed to be closer and the sand a little thicker. I was all alone, hadn’t told the family where I was going, had left the cell phone in the suite, and worst of all I had no snacks or cold beer to tide me over until the tide went out. I could keep you in suspense but I finally arrived at my entry point, gunned the engine to get some momentum through the thick soft sand, went 10 feet and got stuck! Within 30 seconds, a pickup backs ups to the start of the sand, gets out a tow rope, asks for $40 bucks, and tows me out! Turns out, he and another truck just sat near the exit waiting for dummies like me. He probably makes a pretty good living. Felt like a fool and noticed that as I was driving back in shame that the wind had blown a huge amount of sand over the paved road and a couple front loaders were trying to return it to the dunes – and endless task with the wind blowing 25.
I made it back it back to the suite in time to pick up our crew for our next adventure of riding ATVs on the beach – to which I really didn’t have much desire to return to just about where I’d gotten stuck – I was sure I would hear, “that idiot is back again.” In addition to horseback rides, Horses on the Beach had a six acre ATV park where we enjoyed zooming up and down and through the dunes. Riding in the sand tends to parch ones throat, which means after the ride it was time to find our first South Padre Island Beach bar so we can sip a margarita while the grandkids play in the sand and surf. Wanna Wanna is where we ended up and it was perfect. Step off the patio and you’re on the beach – burgers were pretty good, beer was cold, margaritas were excellent, and we had a blast with the grandkids tossing a frisbee and football, burying them in the sand, and playing in the warm Gulf water. We were disappointed when we heard they got rid of the ATVs.
Earlier I mentioned that we listened to a singer at Padre Rita Ville who was an instructor with Sky Dive South Padre Island and after quite a few margaritas, my son-in-law and I approached him and some of his fellow instructors to inquire about sky diving. Long story short, the margaritas must have been talking, because unbeknownst to us, the margaritas signed us up for a tandem sky dive. The next morning, our egos refused to admit that we were terrified and really didn’t feel brave enough to jump out of an airplane at 13,000 above South Padre Island and then hope that our chute would open sometime before we fell face first into the sand or ocean! On the afternoon of our dive, I called my agent to make sure my insurance policy was up to date and that it covered such a silly adventure – airplanes were not designed to be jumped out of. I was hoping he would say no, instead he just wished me luck and said he would mail my policy to my wife. With my heart rapidly pounding I called Sky Dive South Padre Island to verify that we were still jumping. I was relieved (crossing your fingers must really work) and disappointed to hear that it was too windy to jump – a big breath of air escaped and my heart beats returned to normal. I reluctantly rescheduled but we never got to jump thanks to heavy winds.
Thursday morning we set off early for a full day of fun adventures at Port Isabel, which is just across the causeway to the mainland. We started by riding bikes around town, across the only swing bridge in Texas, past the harbor and shrimp boats, around some nice homes, to a souvenir shop, and ending up at Daddy at Pelican Point for an excellent lunch overlooking Laguna Madre Bay. Just across the street was our next adventure at Pirates Landing – a boat ride with the pirates on the Black Dragon to attack the pirate on the pier at Pier 19 on South Padre Island. I didn’t have high expectations for this trip which sounded a little hokie and touristy – was I pleasantly surprised, we had a blast and a lot of giggles! Read more about our.
After the Black Dragon we walked around the shops, got the grandkids picture taken with a talking parrot who kept mimicking me, talked to some of the artisans in the square by Pirates Landing – all of which worked up an appetite and thirst, just in time for happy hour at the local Italian restaurant. From there we walked back to Pirates Landing and boarded The Thriller for a high speed boat ride. Wow, skimming across the bay in a catamaran hull designed 55′ speed boat powered by over 1000 horsepower. What a ride – fast and scenic with a chance to see some dolphin playing and frolicking to a beautiful sunset. Read our article on.
With wind swept hair and big grins, we got off he boat and walked to Pirates Landing for dinner. Wow, delicious food, fantastic service, great view of the bay, family friendly, excellent margaritas and pina coladas, and very interesting decor with pirates and other related parafanilia hanging from the walls and ceiling – can’t get much better than that. Oh, and the prices are very very reasonable (average entree is around $12) – not the typical inflated and high tourist destination restaurant prices. Pirates Landing was clearly at the top of all the restaurants we enjoyed during our stay. The unique decor at Pirates Landing consists of old model ships, weathered wood, wharf-like posts and railings, several life size pirates, and myriad pictures of briny buccaneers doing their thing – seems like I spent an hour wandering around checking it all out. Their specialties are fresh fish (the Tuna was outstanding as was my fresh stuffed fish with a cajun sauce – my mouth is now watering!) and variety of house specialties. You can also find grilled tuna sandwiches to platters heaped with fried oysters, shrimp, and scallops. If you’re really hungry, I was told that the all-you-can-eat daily special of fish filets fried, broiled, or blackened was excellent. And we couldn’t believe how big our dessert was – it feed all 6 of us with some left over! If you’re in South Padre or Port Isabel or the Rio Grande Valley – this is a must visit restaurant! To learn more about some of the restaurants, beach bars, and night clubs, .
We can’t seem to go more that six days without golfing, so Friday morning we were up early, still full from our great dinner, and ready to tee off at Los Lagos Golf Course in Edinburg – about an hour north west of South Padre Island. If you’ve been to the Rio Grande Valley, you know it’s not the prettiest area of Texas – very flat, rather warm and dry, small shrubs for trees, and during the winter, its very brown. As such we didn’t have high expectations for Los Lagos Golf Course and we anticipated flat straight treeless dry and hard fairways. We weren’t even close – what a very unique and memorable course that is characterized by dramatic mounding, contoured and rolling fairways, very good conditions for late December, and challenging green complexes. Read our review of Los Lagos Golf Course. South Pardre Island Golf Club is the closest course to South Padre Island and it is a fun, scenic, and interesting course – read our review of South Padre Island Golf Course.
Mrs Texas Outside and I are addicted to golf and after playing such a fantastic course, we decided to extend our stay and play some more of the Rio Grande Valley’s best golf courses. So I immediately booked a stay and play with South Padre Island Golf Course and Rancho Viejo Resort & Country Club and tee times at 5 more courses. You can read our South Texas Stay & Play reviews of South Padre Island Golf Course and Rancho Viejo Resort as well check out our reviews of some of the Best Rio Grande Valley & South Texas Golf Courses – it’s well worth considering a golf outing to the Valley.
After a fun round we rushed back to South Padre Island just in time to jump aboard the boat for a late afternoon parasail with Breakaway Cruises. What a fantastic place to parasail – the view of the Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island, Laguna Madre Bay, and Port Isabel from 600 feet in the air is unbelievable, and even more spectacular as the sun is setting. Read about ourwith the grandkids – who are still talking about it!
What a full fun day and it was just starting – it was New Years Eve. From parasailing it was off to an excellent Italian meal at Gabriella’s and home to quickly change into our New Year’s Eve outfits – basically the same thing we typically wear bar hopping, jeans and tee shirts. Since we would most likely have a couple drinks and didn’t have a designated driver and are too cheap to pay for a taxi, we decided that we would bike to the entertainment district of South Padre Island, have at least one drink in each of the nightclubs, and from that decide which one would be best to end up at to bring in the new year and watch the fireworks. The entertainment district covers several blocks with a number of fun and lively bars and restaurants, the majority of which sit on the shore of Laguna Madre Bay – the sunsets are unbelievable, particularly after a few drinks. After visiting each club, our goal was to try and ride or walk our bikes back to our suite! Fun evening, which we started:
with good music and a crowd of winter Texans that made us feel young at Padre Rita Grill
then biked to Coconut’s Bar & Grill – a funky bar was thatched room and good views of the Bay and voted by Travel Channel as the “Best Bar on the Island”
then in biked to Louie’s Backyard where we crashed the music on the upper deck and felt like grandparents to a bunch of 20 to 30 having a good time dancing to a rock band
over to Sunset for a quick check on the action followed by Palm Street Pier
next was Amberjacks which is an upscale multi-level restaurant where we inadvertently crashed a private party to listen to the music and after one song got discovered and booted out
finally ended up at Tequila Sunset, an open air bar with a large deck and pier, listing to a good band, mingling with a fun and lively crowd, and watching the parade of boats loaded with New Years Eve party people out for a fun time, and concluding the evening with a good fireworks display at midnight
The bike ride home was a pleasant end to a fun evening and maybe a good way to wear off at least two beers and some of that good pasta. And a perfect end to a fantastic fun filled winter vacation on South Padre Island. Can’t wait to do it again next year!
Check out our South Padre Island Map to find the majority of the above and lots of other fun things to see and do plus a number infromative links.
This article was written by Mike Sharp, travel writer and owner of Texas Outside.