South Padre Island: A Texas Charm Bracelet

December 09, 1990|By Jeff Miller

Eighty thousand college students can't all be wrong.

Every spring break, herds of sun-worshiping, rowdy, hormone-crazed college kids from all over the United States and Canada descend on the thin strip of white beach called South Padre Island in Texas. They're there to party all night, sleep in the sun all day and find true, lasting love.

While most achieve two out of these three goals, they don't realize how much more South Padre Island has to offer -- a long stretch of clean beach for sitting in the sun, people-watching or walking; warm Gulf water with good body-surfing waves, internationally known windsurfing and great fishing; nearby golf courses; and fresh seafood. Additionally, years of economic depression have kept prices relatively reasonable and accommodations available -- other than during spring break, of course.

Located at the southeast tip of Texas, South Padre Island is about 250 miles southeast of San Antonio, 150 miles from Corpus Christi, 30 miles from Brownsville and 30 miles northeast of Matamoros, Mexico. Actually part of Padre Island -- a fingernail sliver of beach and dunes that starts near Corpus Christi and arches south for nearly 100 miles before fading away at Port Isabel -- South Padre bills itself as "the better end of the island."

While some might argue that, none would dispute South Padre's best feature, its beach. Life revolves around the miles of white sand.

As the sun rises dripping from the Gulf of Mexico, pastel shadows follow the little green tractors raking up seaweed and man-of-wars. Early-morning joggers stretch their muscles on the hard-packed sand that's kissed by the waves. Hotel workers set up rows of chairs and umbrellas, disturbing tiny sand crabs that scuttle away. Jet boats and parasailing equipment are laid out on the sand, tempting the adventurous, while children dig for lost treasure or begin the day's sand sculpture.

Evenings, when the breezes from the Gulf of Mexico blow warm and sensual, people walk for hours, dragging their feet through the cool water, picking up bits of multicolored shells or just watching as the sun splashes crimsons and violets across the backwash of waves. Sleep comes deep and natural as the body takes on the rhythms of the gulf.

But the treasures of South Padre Island are not limited to sun, sand and water. The area is rich in history, wrecked Spanish galleons and buried treasure.

John Singer, the brother of the sewing machine tycoon, and his wife Joanna, came to Padre in 1847 and built a house of driftwood on the site of the old mission. During the Civil War they buried $62,000 in jewelry and coins somewhere in the shifting sand. The treasure was never recovered.

Until the mid 1800s South Padre still was part of Mexico. But in 1846 President James Polk sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to Port Isabel, then known as Point Isabel, to build Fort Polk. With the final U.S. victory at Palo Alto, about 20 miles from South Padre Island, the area became part of Texas.

South Padre remained a small, quiet, sparsely populated beach until 1974, when it was joined with the mainland via the Queen Isabella Causeway, a 12,510-foot bridge that is the longest in Texas. Today, high-rises and condos stretch along the beach like charms on a white sand bracelet.

While the beach is Padre's most important feature, there are others worth seeing. One of the island's best-known attractions is the Turtle Lady, Ila Loetscher. More than 30 years ago, she came across her first Kemp Ridley sea turtle and fell in love. She has dedicated her life to preserving and protecting these endangered animals, taking sick and injured ones into her home until they recover.

Visitors can see the turtles and listen to a short presentation at her home on Tuesdays and Saturdays starting at 10 a.m. (September to April) or 9 a.m. (May to August). Unfortunately, because the volunteer staff doesn't limit visitors, the crowd can grow to more than 100 and the show loses some of its charm. A $1 donation is requested.

On a more posh scale, visitors can take a gambling cruise on Le Mistral, which sails from Port Isabel on day and evening jaunts. The 400-passenger ship offers six- and eight-hour cruises that include a full casino, buffet and dancing to live music.

A little further afield from South Padre are Port Isabel Lighthouse, the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, the Confederate Air Force Museum in Harlingen and bargain shopping in the Mexican border town of Matamoros.

Numerous restaurants around the island offer fresh shrimp, flounder, trout and other delicacies fresh from the gulf, while local nightclubs help patrons dance the night away.

No matter what the activity, though, all visitors end up back where they started -- walking along the spectacular South Padre Beach.

If you go . . .

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