Hit the beach in South Padre Island

Watersports, nature, food among highlights of a trip south

Runners drop the day’s first footprints as an orange-streaked sky throws sparks across the Gulf of Mexico at sunrise. In the evening, friends sip cocktails and watch the sun set over the bay on the west side. In the intervening hours, an expansive beach entices visitors with rich, beige sand perfect for forming sandcastles, and waves welcome kiteboarders, windsurfers, anglers and more.

This is South Padre Island, the southernmost Texas beach, well known as a laid-back, unfancy, typically affordable choice for those who seek sun, surf and seafood on a small, unpretentious island.

Life here can be lived entirely in swimsuits, shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops, and activities are all about the water: surfing, parasailing, windsurfing, kiteboarding, deep sea fishing, dolphin watch cruises and pirate-ship adventures. On those last two, you’re virtually assured of seeing dolphins. In the much calmer Laguna Madre, better known simply as the bay, you can also fish, as well as enjoy stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, jet-skiing and romantic sunset cruises.

Ask your hotel about booking these activities or pick up brochures at the South Padre Island Visitor Center, 610 Padre Blvd. It’s the building with the huge sandcastle out front.

Beyond the pleasures of the Gulf itself, you’ll find adventurous water rides, lazy rivers and wave pools, along with a kids’ play area, at Schlitterbahn water park, which has an enclosed section open year-round on weekends.

Eventually, you’ll have to get out of the water or you’ll prune. Spend some time at Sea Turtle Inc., a local nonprofit that rehabilitates injured sea turtles. Watch them swim in tanks and learn their histories. Sea Turtle Inc. also gathers and hatches eggs from nesting sea turtles and returns hatchlings to the Gulf. You might get to witness some of that if you’re there on the right day.

Back on the beach, you can go for a horseback ride or take a lesson in building intricate sandcastles from one of the island’s master competitive sand sculptors. Check out South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, whose boardwalk offers views of waterfowl such as great blue herons and roseate spoonbills — and even an occasional gator. You can also play golf on a course in nearby Laguna Vista.

There aren’t any truly upscale hotels, but you’ll find plenty of good chains, as well as a couple of homegrown, full-service beachfront hotels. Pearl South Padre ranks high for its pool with swim-up bar, restaurant offering a big Sunday brunch, fitness center overlooking the Gulf and summer kids’ camp. There’s a good spa right next door at the Sapphire condos. Rates list from $89 in winter to $269 in summer but can drop if the hotel’s not full.

A bit more casual and dog friendly, La Copa Inn is a hit with young adults for its lobby iPads, in-house Starbucks, fitness center, business center, small pool and convivial beachside bar and grill. Rates list from $76 in winter to $176 in summer.

And, needless to say, condo and beach house rentals abound. In fact, one of the local sand sculptors, Lucinda Wierenga, better known locally as Sandy Feet, rents one of the coolest beach houses, featuring beautiful wood and tile work. Any real estate office also offers rentals.

You’re going to want seafood, and you’ll find plenty of it, mostly fried. Remember, this is a casual island. One of the oldest restaurants — 38 years old — is also one of the most consistently good, whether you’re after plump Gulf shrimp fried to crisp perfection or grilled local grouper. That would be Blackbeards’, which also specializes in serving large groups expeditiously without messing up any of the orders. The margaritas are good, too.

The best place for a romantic dinner with good wine is Gabriella’s Italian Grill and Pizzeria. You can’t go wrong with the chicken marsala.

And, of course, South Padre boasts a splendid array of casual, non-hip beach bars, a few on the beach, but most on the bay, where the sunset is the main attraction. One of the newest is Painted Marlin Grille at Jim’s Pier, where you can watch fishing boats return and contemplate your own fishing expedition. Laguna Bob probably has the juiciest burger. Both of these bars often feature live music by local musicians, whom you’ll find surprisingly good. Munch, sip a cold brew and listen as you watch the sun slide into the bay.

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