As beach locations go, you’ll notice the difference in atmosphere on South Padre Island; the island is free-spirited and full of eclectic shopping and local, family-owned restaurants. On the initial drive over the bridge, look for parasailers, jet skiers and a marauding pirate ship, too! Once on the island, take sandcastle-building lessons, go horseback riding at sunset or find a spot to camp. This Gulf of Mexico island has a simple layout with only one major road to navigate and multiple locations to access the beach. Shorts and t-shirts are a must in this year-round paradise, as my family has been greeted with 80°F weather all the way into January. You’ll also find conservation focus here with bird, sea turtle, and ocelot refuges and sanctuaries.
KidTripster Tip: South Padre is best avoided over spring break, as college students flock to the beaches.
What to do?
Rub fins with a sea turtle at Sea Turtle Inc. (6617 Padre Blvd.) and learn more about the feeding, lifecycle, and conservation efforts for these amazing creatures. My children delighted in getting so close to these enormous, gifted swimmers and participating in feeding time. Their favorite sea turtle was Allison, the one-flipper sea turtle with prosthetics to help her swim. Cost: $5 donation requested.
While there are several dolphin tours available, I highly recommend The Original Dolphin Watch (1 Padre Blvd.) for the best combination of quality and price. The staff is quite knowledgeable, delivering an eco-friendly presentation featuring a host of island creatures netted from the ocean. My kids were able to hold a squid and jellyfish, as we chased several pods of dolphins and ended up with hundreds of photos. Even at full capacity, the boat is never uncomfortable with plenty of space for everyone to get a good view. Cost: Youth (2 -12) $10; Adult $13.
KidTripster Tip: Keep an extra eye on toddlers due to the gaps in the boat railing.
Initially created to protect waterfowl, the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge gives your family a chance to connect with nature. You can explore the park via kayak, tram or birding tours. View endangered ocelots, diverse coastal birds, deer, antelopes, bobcats, coyotes, javelinas, and tortoises but watch out for the American alligators and Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes! Cost: $3/vehicle; first Sunday of the month is free, but visitors are still required to check in.
KidTripster Tip: Bring plenty of bug spray!
For the water lovers in your family, splash and play all day at Schlitterbahn South Padre Island’s 11 attractions and 13 water slides. Indoor and outdoor facilities offer tons of flexibility, as well as direct connections to the beach. The water park has plenty of lazy river water trails and inlet locations for the little ones to relax. Head over to Sand Castle Cove, a five-story sand castle in the middle of the park with cannons, spraying fountains, slides, and a giant pail that dumps water every couple of minutes. Cost: Youth (3 - 11) $38.99; Adult $50.99.
For those willing to make the trip, the Gladys Porter Zoo (500 E Ringgold St) is a short 40-minute drive from the beach. Zoo aficionados will find over 1,500 animals. The sting ray petting exhibit in the newly-opened Russell Aquatic Ecology Center and the kangaroos are my family’s favorites. Cost: Youth (2-13) $8; Adult (14 – 64) $11.
Where to eat?
My family’s hands-down favorite on the island is Burgerfi (5001 Padre Blvd.) for its outstanding grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free burgers. And don’t forget one of the yummy custard shakes on the way out the door! Local favorite Yummies Bistro (700 Padre Blvd.) is the breakfast hotspot on the island with mouse-shaped pancakes that my kids adore. Expect long waits for breakfast, as the beach crowd lines up for mimosas and Bloody Marys. Get your seafood fix at Blackbeards’ Restaurant (103 East Saturn Lane) with blackened catfish, fried gulf shrimp, and stuffed crab.
KidTripster Tip: While waiting for at table at Yummies Bistro, take the kids across the street to one of the largest outdoor permanent sand castle sculptures, located in front of the South Padre Island Visitors Center.
Where to stay?
For the widest assortment of amenities, Schlitterbahn South Padre Island Beach Resort delivers convenience, location, and an enormous water park. We had a great time running indoors, outdoors, and down to the beach, depending on the kids’ whims. The rooms are clean, modern, spartan, and baby-proofed enough to let my littlest crawl around without worry.
Pearl South Padre Hotel offers a kids’ camp in the summer (June 3 to Labor Day) with daily activities for kids (ages 5 to11). This fancier resort will please those looking for a swim-up bar and massage.
For a more unique experience, there are many individual beachfront condos available for short stays. KidTripster recommends websites like Homeaway for affordable options.
There are two options for getting to South Padre Island. From the north side/Harlingen area, take TX-100 West from 69 East about 35 miles through Laguna Vista. From there, you’ll head through Port Isabel and over the bridge onto the island.
From the south side/Brownsville area, take TX-48 East approximately 28 miles, again into Port Isabel, and over to the island. The traffic is usually non-existent on the freeway but during peak travel times, the bridge can get plugged up.
South Padre Island is about a 6-hour drive from Houston.
Born in nearby Brownsville, Carla Reed grew up building sandcastles and collecting shells on the beaches of South Padre Island.
This writer received a complimentary stay and some activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.