South Padre sits on the south end of the 34 mile-long Padre Island, which is the longest barrier island in the world. On the ocean side of the narrow strip, the island is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico, while three blocks to the west, the bay side sits on Laguna Madre Bay. South Padre Island has a small year-round population, about 5,000, but spring break and summer vacations bring a million tourists a year. March is the busiest month after the summer months, with massive events like the Coca Cola Spring Break party at the Isla Grand Beach Resort attracting crowds of 12,000 to 18,000 college students daily for much of March.
But even spring-breakers will find plenty to do here aside from partying and lying on the beach: deep-sea fishing, parasailing, golfing, horseback riding, banana boat rides. For nature-lovers, there are over 300 species of birds, a turtle rescue center that offers tours, and boat rides to see dolphins. Riding the shuttle from the Brownsville airport across the 2 ½-mile-long Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge, I spotted a sign warning of low-flying pelicans as one swooped off to my right.
A steady airstream in spring and fall make Laguna Madre Bay a popular place for activities that rely on wind, like kiteboarding and windsurfing. Except for a narrow shipping channel, the water is just 3 to 4 feet deep from the island most of the way across to Port Isabel on the mainland several miles away. The shallow, calm water on the bay side makes it easy for water-sport beginners to right themselves. Waves provide more of a challenge on the Gulf side for surfers and boarders with more experience. In March, water temperatures range from low to high 60s, with air temperatures from the 70s to 80s. Full wetsuits aren't usually needed, though some spring breakers may pair a wetsuit shirt with bikini bottoms or shorts.
With a couple of friends, I headed to a local surf shop, Island Native, to rent surfboards and take a lesson. We piled into a pickup truck and took off for the jetties at Isla Blanca Park, about a two-minute drive from the shop. Dave Nowak, co-owner of Island Native and an avid surfer, has been in South Padre since 1980. He says he's lived in many other places, including California, but prefers the friendly, laidback surf community here.
It was my first time surfing, and I figured South Padre wasn't known for waves, so it must be pretty tame. Wrong! The surf is plenty intimidating. One of my friends was up in a matter of seconds and had a mad-hatter grin for the rest of the day. It took me about three hours, but finally I was on my feet. Other surfers in the water, ranging in age from 14 to 60, laughed and joked with us, while shouting free pointers like, "Just stand up!."
Later that day, we headed to Sea Ranch Marina for a sunset trip around the bay offered by The Original Dolphin Watch. As the sky turned orange, red and purple, a group of dolphins played just off the port side of the boat, splashing and chattering, seemingly oblivious to the human gawkers 15 feet away, including a child shrieking with delight.
The next day we tried kiteboarding. It's a mash-up of windsurfing, snowboarding and hang-gliding, with your feet strapped to a board, and your torso harnessed to a giant kite as you hang onto a trapeze-like bar attached to the kite. For safety reasons, the beach is split between kiteboarders and windsurfers, who use a sail to catch the wind and skim the water while standing on a board.
Kiteboarding was one of the best workouts I have ever had. We started on the beach so we could get used to handling the large kite. I immediately wished I had been lifting weights for about a year before I tried this. My arms felt like rubber within minutes.
Luckily we had picked a good day to try it. The wind was blowing, but not too hard. This time we were on the bay side, so we could stand in the shallow water and get on and off our boards easily. This helped immensely considering that I was on my board for about six seconds at a time before I would lose my balance and flop into the water. The difficult part was directing the kite while trying to stay on the board. It is one of the most technically challenging sports I have ever tried.
Others on the beach offered tips. After what felt like the best, and most affordable, group lesson ever, I was beginning to get the hang of it. Getting air while kiteboarding is as close to flying as you can be outside of a plane.
As the sun set that day and people loaded their gear into vans and SUVs, my friends and I sat in the sand to watch and reflect on the experience of visiting a place known for spring break at another time of year. We'd spent a week on the island, and hadn't seen one wet T-shirt contest, beer bong or popped collar. Instead we had discovered an incredible water-sport scene that included friendly advice from the locals. I had planned my next trip to South Padre Island before we were back on the plane.
If You Go.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND: http://www.sopadre.com/island/ or 800-767-2373.
GETTING THERE: There are two airports nearby: Valley International Airport in Harlingen, 45 miles away with shuttle service, served by Southwest and Continental; and Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport, 26 miles away by shuttle, served by Continental and American Eagle. Most flights routed through Dallas, San Antonio or Houston.
ACCOMMODATIONS: The island offers a variety of lodging, from hotels in every price range, to beachfront condo rentals with kitchens, perfect for shares with friends or family.
ISLAND NATIVE SURF HOUSE: 700-A Padre Blvd.; http://www.islandnativesurf.com/ or 956-772-7100. Lessons, $40 for 90 minutes.
WINDSURF THE BOATYARD: Windsurf gear and lessons; http://www.windsurftheboatyard.com/ or 956-561-4189. Rentals, $45 a half-day, $60 full day, lessons $40 an hour. Make reservations and you'll be met at Windsurfing Park north of town.
THE ORIGINAL DOLPHIN WATCH: Boat ride; http://www.theoriginaldolphinwatch.com/ , $16 for adults, $13 for children.
ISLA BLANCA PARK: Southernmost tip of South Padre Island, http://bit.ly/fKRKkw
SEA TURTLE, INC.: 6617 Padre Blvd., http://www.seaturtleinc.org or 956-761-4511. Open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Turtle hospital, educational presentations. Free; $3 donation requested..
(This version corrects east to west in second paragraph. )