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Travels with Vic

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by Victor Block 

‘Fish.  Party.  Repeat.’ 

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

SPI (as locals call it) and nearby Port Isabel also boast a long list of other things to see and do.

That’s well known to “Winter Texans.”   They are people primarily from the Midwest who spend several winter months soaking up the sun, and fun at those twin towns nestled along the Gulf of Mexico at the Lone Star State’s southern extremity.

This is an area of outstanding beaches, a long list of both land and water activities, and intriguing historical tidbits that add color to the setting.

At first glance, both communities present the atmosphere of many beachfront locations.  Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops abound.  Colorful golf carts are a popular mode of transportation.  The favored attire gives new meaning to the words “casual clothing.”

These are among attractions that draw visitors, then keep them returning year after year.  Much more awaits those who find their way to this inviting destination, within a seashell’s throw of Mexico.

Seashells are a fitting image because South Padre Island’s beaches have won well-deserved accolades, and the proximity of Mexico has influenced the local culture.  After the Spanish exploration period, the area was owned by Mexico and then the Republic of Texas before becoming part of the United States. 

Visitors soon learn why the destination is 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 (antiquing) to Z (ziplining) list of activities includes many that are water-related.  They range from kayaking and canoeing, snorkeling and sailing, to speeding along on a jet ski and 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 that reside in or migrate through the area.  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 prey 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.  

Adding to the enjoyment was inspecting specimens that a net had dredged up from the bay floor.  Among sea life we examined were a sting ray, several fish and shrimp.

It’s no surprise that shrimp were part of the catch because those crustaceans have been the source of an industry that has thrived in the area since the 19th century.  Trawlers drag their nets through the Gulf of Mexico for as long as three weeks at a time, working at night because the shrimp are nocturnal.     

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

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

Port Isabel also is home to a lighthouse, which was completed in 1853 to guide ships bringing supplies to U.S. military posts.  During the American 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. 

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.   

If clambering to the top of a lighthouse 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 log onto sopadre.com and portisabel-texas.com.

After gallivanting around the U.S. and more than 75 other countries, Retiree Victor Block retains the travel bug. He believes travel offers a wonderful education, and says he still has a lot to learn.  He loves experiencing new destinations and cultures, and his stories have won many writing awards.