The low price was startling. A sign outside the smart looking motel on South Padre Island, Texas, advertised rooms for just $34.99. Other nearby motels were almost as cheap — $36.99. We haven’t seen US prices like that for decades.
But this is a key reason why Canadian visitors told us that the Gulf coast of south Texas is “the best kept secret for sun-seekers.”
This area gives Florida a serious challenge. Summer, when Canadians usually stay near home, is high season in south Texas (big city folks from Dallas, San Antonio and Houston flock to the seashore to beat the heat). So the rest of year (except for a week or two in early March when the spring break college crowd gathers) is off-season with a sub-tropical climate and amazing prices for food, accommodation and attractions. Plus, the beaches on the outer islands of the Texas coast are extraordinary.
Our first stop was Corpus Christi, a thriving port city of 300,000, protected by a long, sandy barrier island. Like many cities, the downtown has suffered decay but is being revitalized with more hotels and good restaurants.
Before hitting the beach on nearby North Padre Island, it’s worth a day or two exploring some unique attractions in the city. Foremost, in our view, is a giant piece of World War Two history. The USS Lexington, the oldest remaining aircraft carrier in the world, is now tied up in Corpus Christi Bay as a National Historic Landmark. The huge ship, three football fields long, was known as the Blue Ghost for its apparent invincibility in the Pacific war against the Japanese. It was built in 1942 and served in active duty until 1991 when it was decommissioned and donated to the city of Corpus Christi. Guests can now visit the massive indoor hanger, see dozens of vintage and modern planes spread out on the long deck and climb narrow staircases as the sailors did, to living quarters and the operational areas. There’s even a flight simulator and IMAX type theatre.
Nearby the Lexington are the Texas State Aquarium (remarkable for a small city, with many hands-on exhibits), the gleaming white Art Museum of South Texas and the Museum of Science and History, which specializes in marine archaeology. That museum includes the remains of both the oldest recovered French and oldest recovered Spanish ships in the western hemisphere, as well as full-size replicas of the Christopher Columbus ships, Pinta and Santa Maria. The Nina replica is berthed at the Corpus Christi marina.
Most people come to south Texas for the beaches, so we crossed a long causeway to reach Padre Island, the longest barrier island in the world. Parallel to the coast, the narrow strip of sand stretches almost 200 kilometres from Corpus Christi south to the border of Mexico. The smooth sand is firm enough to handle vehicles, so many cars and trucks drive along the beach (15 mph limit) or park by the surf for fishing or a picnic. We drove along the beach and the quiet highway to the small resort community of Port Aransas that prides itself on having no big box stores and no McDonalds. Instead, the town of 3,500 offers relaxation, good seafood restaurants and excellent fishing and birding.
One cannot drive the length of Padre Island (much of it is designated as “National Seashore”), so visitors travel inland on Route 77 to reach the southernmost part of Texas, its “tropical tip”, and the pleasures of South Padre Island.
Boasting the best beaches in Texas, along with world-class birding, fishing and dolphin watching, the community of South Padre Island has fewer than 3,000 residents much of the year but happily handles 60,000 to 100,000 visitors on hot summer weekends. The attractions are many. We visited a sea turtle conservation building on Padre Boulevard where guests learn about the five species of sea turtles found in the Gulf of Mexico and where injured turtles are kept until well enough to return to the wild. Close by is the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Centre, with a five story observation tower overlooking the bay and boardwalks that extend over four acres of wetlands frequented by a large variety of wildlife, including hundreds of species of migratory and local birds. In the afternoon we boarded a boat for dolphin viewing. Seven pods of the mammals, numbering about 250 individual dolphins, frequent the bay and immediate Gulf area. They love to get up close to tour boats and show off.
Food on South Padre Island is inexpensive and delicious. You can bring your own fresh-caught fish to many of the seafood restaurants and they’ll gladly cook and serve it to you, along with salad and dessert, for about 15 to 20 dollars. For breakfast we tried Yummies Bistro (rated a well-deserved number 1 on Trip Advisor) and found a new favourite dish – fresh grapefruit pie. Unique and amazing! Evenings are so pleasant in south Texas, everyone will enjoy the sunset dinner cruise on the Southern Wave Catamaran. The boat glides up the bay side of the island, past beautiful homes, while a talented singer rolls out clever ballads and the chef serves a feast of fresh grilled shrimp and Mexican fajitas.
Our vacation sunset came all too quickly as we headed to the mainland city of Harlingen (along with Brownsville, it has the closest airport to South Padre Island) for a quick visit and a flight home. This city of 75,000, with a small home-town feel, boasts the original Iwo Jima Memorial (based on the famous photograph, it’s 10 metres tall with an 18 metre flagpole) that has a better known brass copy in Washington, DC. The downtown is enlivened with large, colourful murals, including one honouring Bill Haley (of “Rock Around the Clock” fame) who died in Harlingen after spending much of his life here. An old-fashioned soda shop downtown has a showcase filled with Bill Haley and the Comets memorabilia. Near the city are flourishing citrus groves and aloe plantations.
In Harlingen we met John and Lucy Morey of Port Dover, Ontario. Retired for a decade, they’re now known as “Winter Texans” (the term, “Snowbirds”, seems to be reserved for Florida) and spend several months of each year in this part of the Lone Star state. “We tried Florida,” John Morey told us, “ but here in Texas people are just much more friendly and the cost of living is much less.” He and his wife noted that they could play a round of golf for $12 and buy wine or beer in a store or restaurant for less than half the price they pay in Canada. They also love it that Mexico is close by. “I can drive 30 minutes to Progreso, Mexico, and get a thorough cleaning from a good dentist for $20.”
Lucy Morey noted that more and more Canadians seem to be discovering south Texas. “Actually, we’re taking over,” she laughed. “We have friends here from all ten provinces.” John Morey agrees. “We come here because it’s warm and I think it extends my life. I don’t have to deal with cold weather.”
All photos by John & Sandra Nowlan
On board the USS Lexington Museum
Original Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen, Texas
Cars are Allowed on many Texas Beaches
Shrimp Boats and Corpus Christi Skyline