Texas’ Only Tropical Island, Where Skyscrapers Never Block the Ocean Sunrise

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Wide open skies, long farm roads, seven-lane interstates outside the cities, H-E-Bs bigger than some northern strip malls. Texas is big and wide and it feels like it. Crossing it by road gives you a sense of wonder that reality often scrubs away. That's what the drive down to South Padre Island is like. This is the only tropical island in Texas where skyscraper hotels don't hide the ocean shoreline between the streets. Where you can cook your catch and dine later at big city-quality restaurants on the same island strip. Welcome to South Padre Island, it's waiting for you.

I went to South Padre in January 2020 and had what I consider the perfect long weekend trip. Here's our itinerary, with thanks to all of the kind vendors who hosted Wide Open Eats. South Padre Island is a welcoming, unfussy beach destination that doesn't quite know just how beautiful it really is. It (and you!) are about to find out.

Getting to South Padre Island

South Padre Things to Do
Shannon Ratliff. Pier 19.

If you're too far to drive, you can reach SPI through Valley International Airport (VIA). Rent a car for the drive in; you won't regret that stretch of the Queen Isabella Causeway where the sea air begs for you to open the windows. I drove the six hours from Austin, leaving around 6:30 a.m. in the pouring rain and let me tell you, when the rain cleared just outside San Benito and the desert opened up, it was like chicken soup for the soul. Route 77 does that to you, and the family-owned Valley citrus farm stands make every mile even more worth it.

Stay at the new Courtyard Marriott near the end of Padre Boulevard and you could be the first person in that room! It opened January 2020 and has scenic views, a continental breakfast that opens to the beach past the pool, and more space than you thought you'd want but somehow deserve. Just go with how right it feels.

Start your morning on the water

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You're on the Texas Gulf Coast, so grab that continental breakfast from the Marriott on their beach dining room and start your day under the sweet sun. It's time to enjoy the sea life and as an angler, I recommend heading out early for a fishing trip where you'll watch the sky and water mingle in the fog until it opens up into the clearest blue skies you've ever seen.

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. Osprey Cruises.

If your crew is the type to wet a line or two, head to Pier 19 for a fishing trip with Osprey Cruises where you'll drop weighted rigs off the side into Laguna Madre Bay with your whole family while you wait for whiting and sand trout. The view of the jetties from the water is a soothing morning scene that makes you feel that everything is all right in the world.

No matter if you're bayside or beachfront, keep your eyes open for bottlenose dolphin watch! Oh, and watch your bait on the open water.

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Shannon Ratliff. Osprey Cruises.

If you're feeling bold, schedule a deep sea fishing trip into the Gulf of Mexico where the rigs get bigger and the fish do, too. Osprey also offers boat tours of the barrier island if fishing isn't necessarily your thing.

If you've wet your lines and caught your fair share of the tasty catch of the day, head back to Pier 19 where they'll clean your catch and teach you how to do it at home! Now for that bag of fresh fish...

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. Pier 19.

Psst, non-anglers! Fishing isn't the only option for a lovely morning on South Padre Island, it just happened to be what we did! I heard the water sports like kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, paddleboarding, kiteboarding, and parasailing are excellent options for all ages.

Cook your catch for lunch

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In honor of Cook Your Catch Day on January 23, we embraced the holiday and took full advantage of our catch. The chefs at the iconic Painted Marlin Grille are ready and waiting for your catch of the day to prepare it six ways to Sunday, per your requests. While I do love the classic salt and pepper shore lunch next to a trout stream, there is no denying that the fried, blackened, and grilled fish at the Painted Marlin Grille is the next best thing.

Things To Do South Padre
Shannon Ratliff. The Painted Marlin Grille.

Grab a seat on the sunny bayside deck with a stack of appetizers that'll keep you full until your fresh fish is ready and margarita bowls the size of your face (yes, you need it). This is the perfect stop after a morning on the water.

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. The Painted Marlin Grille.

Don't forget an order of Padre Pie, the combination key lime and mango that you will remember long after you leave. I know I'm still dreaming of that sweet, creamy last bite.

Find a little piece of South Padre to take home

Things To Do South Padre
Shannon Ratliff. Sisters Interiors.

If you're like me, you love to bring home a small piece of your travels with you. I stopped picking up shells awhile ago (those sea creatures still need them!) and instead went in favor of wooden kitchen magnets. You could say that I like small souvenirs from my getaways and let me tell y'all, despite that, I almost took all of Sisters Interiors on Padre Blvd. home with me.

The family-owned store specializes in interior design with a full working kitchen so you can really get a feel for your makeover. If you're visiting and not looking to renovate, rest assured that the MacKenzie-Childs hand-painted ceramics and tasty treats will convince you otherwise.

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. Sisters Interiors.

If shopping isn't your wheelhouse and you haven't hit the boardwalk or the beach yet, take the afternoon to do so. Catch a nap with the waves rocking you to sleep. If you're not there during Sandcastle Days, you can still take part in sandcastle building. There's just something about that South Padre sand that holds. If you love lighthouses, the Port Isabel Lighthouse is a must-see on the way before you cross over the Queen Isabella Causeway. It became a National Historic Place in 1976 during America's bicentennial year.

The best dinner you've ever had on vacation awaits

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. F&B SPI.

Whether or not you'll be joining the many nightlife festivities later, you still have to eat dinner after such an active day! We recommend Sea Ranch Restaurant or Food & Beverage SPI for two upscale dining experiences that make for the sweetest date night in the sea air.

South Padre Things to Do
Shannon Ratliff. Sea Ranch Restaurant.

At Sea Ranch Restaurant, the starters are especially delicious; if you love ceviche, order it as soon as you sit down. The blackened grouper was cooked beautifully and seasoned just enough to provide that depth of flavor off the grill without overwhelming the tender meat. Of course, the key lime pie is the perfect size for its richness.

Food & Beverage SPI, or F&B SPI, is where exceptional, inventive dishes meet the laidback island atmosphere of South Padre for a dinner you'll never forget. The dining space is light and airy with comfortable seating and incredible jellyfish-style light fixtures.

South Padre Things Do
Shannon Ratliff. F&B SPI.

For the food, which is really why you're here, the special menu we experienced was unlike anything I've seen before and watching the reveal of the salt-crusted fish was exceptional. From redfish to grouper, there was no better meal on South Padre than F&B.

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. F&B SPI.

F&B is a locally-sourced seafood restaurant with the best gourmet dessert menu in Texas.

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. F&B SPI.

You couldn't order anything wrong from this menu, and it is with true delight I tell you that they have the best chocolate chip cookies, possibly in America.

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. F&B SPI.

Y'all, these cookies are about three inches tall and came so warm from the oven, it was impossible not to dig in immediately.

Is it time to come back already?

South Padre Things To Do
Shannon Ratliff. Pier 19.

Sure, if you know South Padre Island, you know the basics: Sea Turtle, Inc where they rescue and rehab injured sea turtles; the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center; Port Isabel and Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark; the Laguna Madre Nature Trail; Sandcastle Days; the Dolphin Research & Sea Life Nature Center; and the incredible seafood. While we didn't experience these mainstays, there's a reason people still rave about Isla Blanca Park and Schlitterbahn Waterpark. Our Wide Open Eats trip highlighted a few off-the-beaten-path options for anglers and families alike.

South Padre Island isn't just a spring break mainstay; it's a family-friendly destination that offers everything from jet ski tours of the coastline to horseback riding. If you're looking for a tropical paradise with the old school charm of a beach town and food better than what you'll find in any major city, look no further in the United States than South Padre.

Watch: Fort Myers: Beaches Like the Bahamas Right Here in America

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