Sand spills over the road north of town on South Padre Island, where surf and sand beckon visitors to the southern tip of Texas.
TRAVEL: SOUTH PADRE ISLAND
Get your groove back at Texas' tropical paradise.
By Louie Bond • Photos by Chase Fountain
Whether South Padre Island is your annual beach vacation or you’re on your maiden trip, the Port Isabel Lighthouse is the perfect first stop to prepare yourself for island time.
My traveling companion, Lydia, and I eagerly jump out of the car, feeling that first sweet sea breeze and marveling at the history portrayed in the museum and the reconstructed keeper’s cottage. We try to photographically capture sunbeams as they peek from behind the historic landmark, first built in 1852 to guide ships through the Brazos Santiago Pass.
Some couples choose to marry at the top of the lighthouse. Eager to get our toes in the sand, we decide not to climb up to see the view. (The lighthouse, the only one of 16 along the Texas coast open to the public, was restored by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 2016-17 and was recently transferred to the Texas Historical Commission.)
Back in the car, we now need only to cross the beautiful Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway to get to the southernmost tip of the nation’s longest barrier island. At nearly 2.4 miles, the bridge is one of the longest in Texas and rises to 85 feet. After a tragic collapse of the original causeway killed eight in 2001 (only four days after 9/11), it was rebuilt and reopened. Brown pelicans (once endangered) now soar around the curving roadway as if they haven’t a care in the world.
After all, they’re on island time.
It doesn’t take long to pick up on that island-timey kind of mood as we cruise down the main drag, Padre Boulevard, checking out the many restaurants, gift shops and attractions. We drop our bags off at our hotel (choose from several classic options, including the newly updated Isla Grand, or find an eclectic bed and breakfast), then take off for our first of many seafood feasts, tonight at the island’s famous Blackbeard’s. We plan our activities and research a little island history.
Formerly Isla de Santiago and then Isla Blanca, the island was inherited in the 1820s by Padre José Nicolas Ballí, and renamed Padre Island on his death in 1829. In 1962, the Mansfield Cut was dredged; no longer could anyone drive the entire length from Corpus Christi to South Padre (the town was incorporated in 1975).
While South Padre’s famous for its beautiful beaches, with water as azure as the Caribbean, I want to meet some notable residents as well. After all, who better to give us the inside track on island life than the locals?
I slip out of bed before dawn to meet Amazing Walter, who holds court at his usual table at Ted’s every morning at 7. The walls of the modest cafe are lined with photos of the fantastical sand castles he’s been creating for four decades.
Walter has a last name, McDonald, but most folks here just call him Walter or simply Amazing. He’s talented enough to deserve that moniker, with countless sand castle titles under his belt. He wasn’t hard to recognize, with snow-white curls atop iconic black-rimmed round glasses. When I take a seat, he introduces me to welcoming folks at the other tables, obviously the regular morning crowd.
He skips over one young man, so I promptly inquire: “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’m new,” he declares with a shy grin. We all laugh. You’re not a stranger here for long, apparently.
The friendly waitress keeps our coffee cups full while Walter regales me with tales about the castles he’s built in shopping malls and his travels around the world as a master of his craft. I have lots of questions: how you get the sand into the mall, how you build walls that stand tall, what kind of sand is best and how in the world do you make a living at this?
The answers? Wheelbarrows, clay in the water, definitely not playground sand in a bag and, well, Walter supplements his castle building by making balloon animals for waiting customers at Blackbeard’s.
Walter and I discover we share some mutual friends, including Scott Wade, known as the Dirty Car Artist, who draws masterpieces on dusty car windshields. We laugh at this concept of artists building careers from dust and sand. From humble beginnings comes the finest of art.
“I’m the oldest sand sculptor in captivity” is how Walter likes to describe himself. It’s only one of his countless quotables.
One hour turns into two, and I regretfully leave Ted’s to gather my companion, but not before promising to try to attend Walter’s party that evening to play a song with his ukulele pals, The Happy Band. Now famished for breakfast, Lydia and I head over to the Palms Cafe, tucked behind a homey hotel on the Gulf side of the island. South Padre cuisine marries seafood and Mexican food, so we share plates of migas and salmon Benedict. The open-air terrace is separated from the beach by masses of wildflowers, and we linger in this enchanting setting.
Fortified, we head over to Sea Turtle Inc., eager to check out the new center, open since 2018. I recognize some of my favorite turtles from previous visits, and they seem quite happy in their new digs. We’ve just missed the feeding but enjoy reading the stories of each injured turtle, and we marvel at the apparatus designed to keep the turtles with missing fins from swimming in endless circles. Rescue is the main work here, but more capital improvements and additional programming are on the horizon.
“We’re adding a small stingray touch tank [anticipated opening in April 2020] and adding native fish and bonnethead sharks to our large turtle tanks,” Executive Director Jeff George tells us. “Additional daily children’s educational programs will also begin this summer, along with newly designed summer camp programs.”
Those who haven’t visited in recent years won’t find the familiar rehabilitation building out front — it’s being demolished in August.
“A new state-of-the-art rehab center will be constructed on the same location, enabling us to handle more injured sea turtles and provide a better experience for our visitors,” George explains. “Plans are underway to include our own CT scan machine with public window viewing. We hope to have it completed by May 2021.”
Our turtle time is interrupted by a breathless call from Scarlet Colley, known by all as the island’s “dolphin whisperer.” We had a meetup scheduled for early afternoon, but Scarlet has found a lovely pod of dolphins while out on a morning bird tour.
“Where are you?” she asks me excitedly. “Can you come right now?”
Boardwalks extend into the bay and marsh at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.
Sea turtle art adorns the wall at Sea Turtle Inc.
Breakfast is served at Grapevine Cafe.
Photo courtesy of Walter McDonald
Sand castles built by the Amazing Walter can be, well, pretty amazing.
Though I’ve never met Scarlet in person, we’ve corresponded for years, and I know she has something special to share, so we race back across the causeway to meet her at her boat. We quickly jump into the boat with Scarlet’s canine “crew” of Rozzie and Shugie, two adorable mutts, and scan the blue expanse for dolphins. The pod she’d spotted has moved on, but the gentle sea breeze in our faces and sightings of ospreys more than offset our disappointment.
Undeterred, Scarlet decides to go pick up her “mermaid pal” Judy to bring us luck. Judy gladly ditches her window washing to jump in the boat with us and soon has us all calling out to the dolphins in our sweetest voices, beseeching them to come play with us. It doesn’t take long for Judy’s mermaid magic to work, and we’re thrilled to find several dolphins jumping through the waves.
“Liebchen! Liebchen! Come to us, my Liebchen!” Scarlet calls, reverting to her native German. On cue, our little boat becomes the center of a magical ballet. The dolphins leap high, solo and in pairs, and we clap our hands and squeal in delight. In response, the dolphins seem to leap even higher and execute ever flashier moves. Scarlet notices another dolphin staying farther away, and then spots the explanation through her camera lens.
“She has a baby with her!” she shouts with glee. “Wait, there’s another one — she’s got two!”
We keep a respectful distance while Scarlet explains that dolphin mamas will babysit other juveniles so another mother can take a break. Sensing that we pose no threat, the babies show themselves, to our delight. Scarlet revs the motor a bit and drives in a big loop, creating a frothy wake. As I hang over the back of the boat, dolphins jump joyfully through the foam, just inches from me.
Blissfully windblown and content, we say goodbye and head back to the island to clean up for our evening’s activities. We’re set to meet frequent magazine contributor Danno Wise for dinner, and he recommends Lobo Del Mar on the bay side of the island. As we walk in, we notice the place seems crowded for an off-season weeknight, with a band enthusiastically playing old country favorites by the dance floor.
The host, Lars Thanem, helps us find seats by booting a polite young man from a table with a lovely view of the water.
“It’s OK,” Lars assures us, when we feel bad about it. “He’s family. He just played the bagpipes at sunset.”
Turns out, everyone at Lobo Del Mar is part of the Buntin family — the band, the host, the servers, the bartenders and, on this night, some lovely dancers everyone’s waiting to watch.
“You’ve got to get up close to see them,” Lars tells me with pride. “You don’t want to miss the little ones.”
Sure enough, folks leave their tables to crowd the stage as tiny girls in bright costumes belly dance adorably, followed by their older counterparts who take the performance to a master level. The crowd understandably goes wild. (Each March, the dancing turns Celtic for St. Patrick’s Day festivities.)
We eat and talk about the island and eat some more. Danno regales us with island stories till we run out of steam, driving past Amazing Walter’s party nearby with regret, too tired for any more adventure today.
Lydia’s curious about Walter, though, so I promise her breakfast at Ted’s, but we’re thwarted by some sort of mechanical problem in Ted’s kitchen and head over to another spot recommended to us, the Grapevine. Wonderful aromas entice us to order a Mexican breakfast, with homemade tortillas and salsas made from scratch.
Running out of time, we grab binoculars and traverse the 3,300-foot-long boardwalk at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center. Making friends with tourists taking advantage of the amazing photo opportunities, we watch brown pelicans swooping down for their breakfast, giving a little cheer when they succeed. Roseate spoonbills and great blue herons parade for our pleasure, and we take turns feeding tortoises and alligators back at the beautiful multistory center.
It’s time to head back home, and just like that, a norther blows in to chase us off. Island time was magical, but too short. Next time, we’re going to try a bed and breakfast, spend some time fishing and make it over to the hermit crab races. We’ll drive to the place where the dunes spill over the road and maybe even fly high over the beach in a parasail.
After all, with Padre’s moderate temperatures most days of the year and activities to choose from in both high and low seasons, island time is always waiting.
SOUTH PADRE TOURISM
Port isabel lighthouse
Sea turtle inc.
Scarlet colley dolphin tours
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center
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