South Padre Island (or SPI, as locals like to call it) may be best known for being a popular spot for spring breakers in Texas, but this coastal destination is so much more than a party paradise. Sitting at the southern tip of the Lone Star State, with the Gulf of Mexico on one side and the calm waters of the Laguna Madre on the other, South Padre is a nature lover’s dream. Aside from frolicking in the waves and soaking up the sun on one of the many beaches here, visitors can go hiking, birdwatching, horseback riding, or visit a sea turtle sanctuary or nature center. There’s also plenty of great seafood and shopping to be had. All you have to do is avoid the island in March to escape the college-age crowds.
Eat at Clayton’s Beach Bar and Grill
Billed as the “biggest beach bar in Texas,” Clayton’s Beach Bar boasts excellent oceanside views, a scrumptious fresh seafood menu, and signature-brand Turbo Piña Coladas (proceed with caution). This lively, iconic restaurant also has fireworks on the beach every weekend, “fitness beach parties,” and regular live music performances. It’s always a party at Clayton’s, where you could technically start your day and end your night without ever leaving the beach.
Stroll Along the Laguna Madre Nature Trail
Want to experience the local flora and fauna while you’re on SPI? The Laguna Madre Trail offers a scenic glimpse of the diverse wilderness here. This peaceful, 1.1-mile trail stretches along a boardwalk through acres of marshland, from the South Padre Island Convention Center to the Laguna Madre wetlands. Birders especially will delight in this trail—throughout the year, more than 300 coastal and migratory bird species come through the area. (Pro-tip: If you’d rather explore the Laguna Madre on the water, there are plenty of outfitters across the island that rent kayaks, surfing gear, and stand-up paddleboards.)
Dine at Pier 19 Restaurant & Bar
Take a break from sightseeing and playing on the water and go indulge in a meal at Pier 19, where the menu ranges from fresh-caught, grilled fish to baskets of fried local shrimp and chicken to creamy pastas and citrusy salads. They even offer a “You hook it, we’ll cook it!” option—you can bring the kitchen your catch of the day, and they’ll clean and cook it for you. Pier 19’s location—an entire pier directly on the Laguna Madre—is tough to beat, too.
Sail Away with Southern Wave Sailing Charters
To really experience South Padre Island, you have to get on the water. The best way to do so? By chartering a state-of-the-art catamaran, of course. Southern Wave Sailing Charters offers sunset dinner cruises, snorkeling lunch cruises, day charters, and private gatherings for groups of more than 40 guests or even a romantic day for two. The crew provides a variety of locally grown fruits and ice-cold beverages, in addition to fresh-grilled seafood and meats (depending on the type of cruise you book). There's nothing like watching a Texas sunset from the privacy of your catamaran on the Gulf.
Sit Bayside at The Painted Marlin
At the popular eatery The Painted Marlin, enjoy a frosted margarita at your sunny bayside table, where you can watch seagulls soar and pelicans dive for fish. The menu is a smorgasbord of (mostly fried) seafood dishes that run the gamut from blackened redfish fillet to Budweiser-battered cod and shrimp. And, happy hour is a delight, with six-dollar drinks that include a house margarita, various piña coladas, and sangria.
See Wildlife at South Padre Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary
Billed as the Rio Grande Valley’s “premier destination for birdwatching,” the SPI Birding, Nature Center & Alligator Sanctuary makes for a wonderful spot to see local wildlife. In addition to birds—the island itself is an important rest stop for birds making the cross-Gulf migration; as such, there are five bird blinds at the center—visitors may spot one of the dozens of alligators at the sanctuary. (Note that the SPI Birding and Nature Center sits along the Laguna Madre Trail.)
Explore Port Isabel
The only lighthouse on Texas’s Gulf Coast, Port Isabel is a must-see destination when you’re on South Padre. The lighthouse was erected in 1853, to help guide ships through the Brazos Santiago Pass to Port Isabel—today, it’s a Texas State Historic Site. Be sure to climb the lighthouse’s 50 feet, for sweeping views of the island, the Gulf, and the Laguna Madre Bay. And, for a special treat, plan your visit around the Lighthouse Establishment Cinema series, where classic summer films like “Grease” and “Jaws” are screened against the side of the building.
Shop at Shell World
In the mood to buy funky island souvenirs, like Hawaiian-style shirts, SPI shot glasses, quirky local art, or maybe a seashell lamp or two? You’ll find all this and more at Shell World, which is one of the best places to buy fun clothing and souvenirs on the island. Make some time to peruse the offerings here, and you'll undoubtedly come away with a unique, kitschy treasure.
See Rescued Sea Turtles at Sea Turtle, Inc
At Sea Turtle, Inc, visitors can get an up-close-and-personal look at the five species of turtles that are found in the Gulf waters here—all of which are, unfortunately, threatened, including the endangered Kemp’s ridley turtle. The organization was originally founded to aid in the protection and recovery of the Kemp’s ridley but has since branched off to focus on the rehabilitation and conservation of all marine turtles.
Play on the Beach at Isla Blanca Park
Located on the southernmost tip of the island, Isla Blanca Park occupies a mile of pristine beach along the Gulf. Visitors can partake in a number of beachy-fun activities—there are walking trails, jetties and surf fishing, onsite food and beach rental concessions, cabana rentals, a full-service marina, and even full hook-up RV sites and tent sites, for those who’d like to spend a night on the beach.
Enjoy Upscale Coastal Dishes at F&B (Food & Beverage)
A relatively new, upscale eatery along SPI’s main drag, F&B serves modern American food with a coastal flair. Think steamed clams with garlic and white wine, lobster pappardelle, seafood risotto, whole grilled red snapper served with chimichurri sauce and veggies, and other dishes that showcase fresh seafood and F&B's housemade pastas. It’s easily one of the best restaurants on South Padre.
Ride Horses at Island Adventure Park
On the north end of the island, Island Adventure Park occupies forty acres of land spanning the Gulf to the Laguna Madre Bay. The park offers guided horseback riding, ziplining, and ATV tours on the beach—children and first-time riders are welcome, making this a perfect activity for the family. Horses walk right alongside the water and over the sand dunes during the ride, and younger children can pet ponies at the Petting Barn and Pony Ride corral. (Plus, there are even moonlight riding tours available.)
Stay at the Pearl South Padre
A stay at the Pearl is definitely in order when you’re on SPI. One of the only local resorts with ocean views from every guestroom, the Pearl is four-star coastal luxury at its finest. The hotel has a spacious outdoor pool with a swim-up bar, a full-scale spa, and elegant on-site dining options. And, the hotel is very family-friendly—there's even a separate kids' pool and a kids' camp during the summertime.
Experience Padre Island National Seashore
The longest undeveloped barrier island in the world, Padre Island National Seashore is brimming with pristine natural beauty in the form of coastlines, dunes, and prairies. Stop by the Malaquite Visitor Center on your way in—in addition to swimming, hiking, and all manner of water sports to partake in, there’s excellent bird-watching at PINS (more than 380 species have been spotted here), and if you come in mid-June to August, you could catch a sea turtle hatchling release. Camping is permitted in five camping areas, and campsites are open year-round, on a first-come, first-served basis. (If you’re up for it, the primitive camping—over 60 miles of shoreline, all to yourself—is the best.)