SOUTH PADRE ISLAND — Each sunrise and sunset splashes the sky here with gasp-worthy colors, and I love that I can see all of it from my third-floor condo, as you can from many South Padre condos, hotels and homes. That’s the joy of a narrow island with few towering edifices to block the view.
It’s a laid-back island where relaxing on the Gulf of Mexico beach is the No. 1 sport, but still, new things to do, places to stay and spots to eat keep it surprising. If you’re contemplating a fall or winter trip to the island — and you should, because these are the seasons with the best weather (typically, days are mild to only slightly chilly) and smallest crowds — check out the latest:
First of all, the South Padre Island Birding Center recently became the South Padre Island Birding, Nature Center and Alligator Sanctuary. That’s a mouthful, but it’s all true. Always a great place to see shorebirds (roseate spoonbills, great blue herons, etc.) as well as migrating birds from more than 3,000 feet of elevated boardwalks, the center recently added alligators.
These came from Beaumont’s Gator Country, the well-known alligator sanctuary that will come get any gator you run across that’s where it’s not supposed to be. It has hundreds and hundreds, all sorted by size so they don’t eat each other. In fact, it has too many, so it’s been farming some out to other locales. South Padre Island got lucky enough to get some. One pond is filled with medium-size gators, some of which are removed at certain times during the day so visitors can hold them and learn about them.
In another pond lives Big Padre, who, at 12 feet and 700 pounds, is a gator you definitely don’t want to try to hold. I found him submerged, except for his head, right next to his only slightly smaller partner, Laguna. Children are especially enthralled with the gators. The center’s open most days except holidays.
Right next door to the birding center you’ll see the big, new buildings where Sea Turtle Inc. rehabilitates wounded sea turtles and keeps them in big tanks. Make sure you drop by, meet the turtles and learn about the group’s efforts to heal adult sea turtles and rescue the eggs of turtles that nest on the beach.
The island’s bayside amusement area has added a Ferris wheel. It’s really small, so don’t get too excited, but it’s a Ferris wheel — something for the wee ones and parents to enjoy while the teens are bungee jumping. It’s all across the street from Louie’s Backyard at 2304 Laguna Blvd.
If you call up Schlitterbahn’s website, you’ll see that the South Padre park is changing its name to Beach Park at Isla Blanca. That’s because most Schlitterbahns, complete with the name, were sold earlier this year. You can expect rebranding of the attached hotel, too.
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This year, the enclosed part of Schlitterbahn/Beach Park won’t be open fall and winter weekends and holidays as it has been in the past. Marketing director Mike Bigelow said that’s because there might be work going on to improve that part of the park. Stay tuned for details, but know that the park itself won’t be part of your fall/winter plans this year.
At the south end of the island, Isla Blanca Park has a lovely new pavilion with bathrooms, as well as a boardwalk, and the site has been reconfigured so you don’t have to cross moving traffic to get to the beach. That’s all good news, although that park typically attracts primarily local visitors. Most Austinites and others from far away stay in hotels and condos just steps from the free beach.
When might you want to go to that park? When there’s a concert going on. Ed Caum, the new Convention and Visitors Bureau director, says those will start soon and that you can expect some big names. Keep your eye on South Padre’s website, sopadre.com. South Padre is in the process of trademarking Where the Music Meets the Beach and hopes to promote the island’s music scene (dozens of venues and some really good local bands and solo artists) to Austin, especially.
You’ve probably heard about SpaceX putting up a new launch pad on Boca Chica, just south of South Padre. When the new pad was first announced, island restaurateurs and hoteliers started jockeying for position to put up viewing areas. But the vision for the Boca Chica SpaceX site has changed since the first announcement.
Originally, it was meant to launch big commercial missions into space. Lately, though, it’s been a test site for little hops of no more than 600 feet into the sky. Not that it’s not worth seeing, but you can’t really see if from far away. Breakaway Cruises took a boatload of visitors out on the water to watch the last Starhopper test (within the area deemed safe by the government) in August, and apparently they got a good view. Next, SpaceX is likely to test prototypes for rockets that might someday be sent to Mars. There’s a lot of interest in colonizing Mars, and SpaceX definitely wants in on the action.
However, whether a mission, even a suborbital one, actually will launch from Boca Chica is unclear and would, in any event, be years away. Space plans are always in flux. Stay tuned.
Hotel news: By the end of the year, a big, new Marriott Courtyard with 205 guest rooms and 10,000 square feet of meeting space is scheduled to open at the north end of the island next to Clayton’s Beach Bar (6900 Padre Blvd.). Comfort Suites and the Holiday Inn both have undergone major renovations.
New places to eat and drink include Josephine’s, a Cajun-themed breakfast and lunch spot at 3409 Padre Blvd. where Liam’s Steakhouse used to be (Liam’s has moved to 202 W. Tarpon St., where La Hacienda used to be, and La Hacienda is no more).
Other favorites have opened during the past couple of years: At F&B, an upscale restaurant at 3109 Padre Blvd., chef Walter Greenwood offers dishes we haven’t seen on the island before, including octopus and lobster tagliatelle, along with fresh fish, chops and steaks. If you want to wade into the high-end food waters, F&B’s happy hour is a good place to start.
Ceviche Ceviche (1004 Padre Blvd.) mixes up a variety of takeout ceviches, all of them delicious. LongBoard Bar and Grill is a big new bayside bar with a big stage and a good sound system for music. It’s at 205 Palm St., right on the bay. A good sunset option.
Check all that out, then plant yourself on the sand and ponder whether you’d rather parasail, surf, stand-up paddleboard or just read a book and veg out. There’s plenty to do between those beautiful sunrises and sunsets.