Let's not mince words: The Texas coast is far from a beach paradise, at least in the collective American consciousness.
Take South Padre Island, for example. If you know anything about South Padre, it's that it's a nightmare during spring break and even worse during the summer holidays. If you don't live in Texas, you probably haven't ever thought about going, and if you do, you probably didn't think for long—your answer was surely "No."
South Padre Island Is a Hot Spot for Sea Turtle Rescue
South Padre Island is probably not the first place you associate with ecotourism, but it's actually a hub for sea turtle rescue. When you make a visit to the aptly-named Sea Turtle Inc., you'll not only learn more about sea turtles and their increasingly uphill battle, but you can volunteer to help rescue and rehabilitate them.
You'll even have the opportunity to adopt your very own sea turtle, which will make sure he or she has the funds and support necessary to make it before returning to the sea. You might more readily associate the paradisiacal beaches of Central America with sea turtle rescue than the shores of South Padre Island, but devoting some of your spring break to these sweet animals might just be the lucky break they need in their lives.
Scenery Is Just the Beginning of Padre Island's Charm
It's difficult to deny the beauty of South Padre Island, but there's a lot more to do here than long walks on the beach. The historical lighthouse in Port Isabel, for example, is not only a picturesque nod to the 1850s, but is your gateway to the two other museums in Port Isabel, which provides a beautiful backdrop as you learn about the history and scenery of this region. Believe it or not, the first people who explored and settled here were not over-worked college students in search of sun, surf, and margaritas!
Plus, if you look closely from the top of the lighthouse, you might just be able to spot one of the sea turtles you helped rescue! Another tip is that while the Lighthouse looks best at sunrise since the ocean sits to the east of the island, skies at sunset can be dramatic, too, as the clouds reflect the disappearing light to the west.
Winter Is the Best Time to Visit South Padre Island
If the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of South Padre Island is drunk co-eds, you'll take peace in knowing that they aren't there year-round. What is in South Padre Island year-round, however, is good weather—the average high temperature in winter is a balmy 70ºF.
Visiting anytime outside of spring break (or, if you're trying to avoid throngs of younger schoolchildren, summer vacation) ensures a more tranquil stay, but in winter you might well have the beach to yourself. Well, and potentially a sea turtle egg or two, although they'll be buried far underneath the sand.
You Don't Have to Stay in a Spring Break-Style Resort
Speaking of spring break, another image many people have of South Padre Island is a mess of adults-only resorts, infested by teenagers who are only "adults" according to their fake IDs. In reality, there are dozens of great South Padre Island hotels, from corporate properties to boutique bed and breakfasts, to unique apartments and condos via Airbnb.
And there are dozens of amazing South Padre Island restaurants to explore. (Thankfully, none of them serve turtle soup—your participation in sea turtle rescue will not have been in vain!) Likewise, just because South Padre is best known as a spring break destination doesn't mean you have to get wasted to enjoy a cocktail. In fact, many beach bars have Happy Hour specials that allow you to have a fancy drink by the sea just in time for sunset.
South Padre Island Is a City, Not an Island
South Padre Island is not a small island just south of Padre Island—it's a city on the southern tip of Padre Island, the world's longest barrier island, which boasts an area of more than 200 square miles. Of course, not a lot of people call this "city" home. It has just 2,800 or so permanent residents, which is fewer than some of the high-rise condo buildings in Austin, Dallas, and Houston. The plus side of this, provided you don't visit during Spring Break when the population swells, is you can really feel like you've gotten away from it all here.
City, island, or any combination thereof, South Padre Island is but the beginning of your Gulf Coast vacation, whether you're in search of scenic relaxation, sea turtle rescue or any combination thereof. Surf's up, y'all!