South Padre Island, Texas
It's a familiar and garish sight — car after car with "Spring Break" or "Padre or Bust" scrawled across the windows in white shoe polish crossing the bridge on highway 100 to South Padre Island. Padre has always been a spring break party animal's paradise. Students reserve hotel rooms and condos months in advance and sleep 10 to a room in an effort to live even more cheaply than they do back at college. Therefore, rates triple from mid to late March and the island is overrun with partying 20-somethings.
The other 11 1/2 months of the year are perfect for vacationing families and honeymooners. This beach is for the value-conscious traveler. Although the town offers little in the way of luxury or entertainment, there are scores of moderately priced and budget accommodations, including well-known chains and one-of-a-kind motels with more charm than class. Restaurants, bars, shops and a movie theater add to the atmosphere.
Water sports abound; just wander the bayside to find combination bar and grills/water sport rental outfits, like Coconuts and Parrot Eyes, that offer deep-sea fishing, diving, dolphin watches and other ecological excursions. Both the town and the beach are clean and safe.
Casa de Siesta Bed and Breakfast
The Casa de Siesta recreates the charm of Old Mexico with love and care. An archway creates a dramatic entrance to the B & B's sleepy and romantic central courtyard, where colorful flowers create a nice backdrop for a fountain pool. Each of the 12 large rooms opens onto the courtyard. Details, such as hand-painted ceramic tile bathrooms, Mexican antiques and stunning stained-glass windows, transport the visitor back in time. Modern amenities include terrycloth bathrobes, cable TV, phones and an outdoor pool. Pets are also welcome. The continental breakfast is buffet style, and the Casa is only one block from both the bay and the beach.
Best Luxurious Hotel
Sheraton South Padre Island Beach Resort
Unlike other beaches rampant with lavish resorts and plush hotels, South Padre Island is more of a budget traveler's vacation spot. Therefore, the Sheraton South Padre Island Beach Resort is a pleasant anomaly. Although service is efficient and satisfactory throughout the island, the Sheraton's doorman/porter and smiling, enthusiastic concierge put this hotel ahead of the pack. The lobby is small yet airy and tasteful. There are 2 pools (1 laguna-style with a swim-up bar) and 3 tennis courts between the hotel and the beach, as well as a gift shop, boutique, restaurants, 2 lounges and a gym.
Best Family Hotel
Best Western La Copa Inn & Suites
This hotel offers one of the best family values on the island. The Best Western is a clean, quiet and inexpensive alternative to some of the older beachside motels that often attract a rowdier party crowd. All rooms have 2 queen-size beds, or 1 king-size bed and a queen sofa bed, as well as a microwave, refrigerator, cable TV and phone. The rooms are spacious and comfortable and offer plenty of closet space. With fresh paint, doors with key card entries and new carpeting, the hotel lacks the signs of wear common to other island spring break havens.
Best Budget Accommodation
South Padre Island Days Inn
On the hotel strip that runs along the west side of Padre Boulevard, Days Inn stands out as the budget vacationer's best bet. Rates tend to run less than the others in the same class, yet the management seems to have kept an eye on aesthetics and routine maintenance where other budget hotels haven't. Plus the Inn offers free breakfast - complimentary coffee, juice and donuts are served in the lobby every morning. A bayside hotel, the Days Inn is quieter and slightly cheaper than other bargains along the beach (none of which have full oceanfront views), and it is only 2 blocks from the sand and surf. All rooms have kitchenettes and cable TVs, and the Inn provides laundry facilities, a pool and a hot tub.
Bahia Mar Resort and Conference Center
Bahia Mar is a tropical retreat for the weary traveler. At first glance the resort appears to be nothing more than a typical, anonymous beachside hotel, but closer inspection reveals a pleasant surprise. Beyond the monolithic hotel (where only half of the resort's rooms are located) is a labyrinth of condominiums set among beautiful, lush, tropical foliage. Paths descend along a cascading stream, and moisture hangs in the air and clings to the flowers. A stroll meditatively along the path, a dip in 1 of the 2 pools (one is heated), or a soak in the large hot tub - with drink in hand from the pool bar - are only a few ways to relax. The more athletic will enjoy the tennis courts, beach volleyball courts and exercise and weight room.
Best Beach Bum Hut
The Surf Motel
These surfside digs are a beach bum's dream. Recently renovated, the Surf Motel offers basic rooms and suites - some with kitchenettes - at a moderate price and just a stone's throw from the beach. Amenities such as barbecue areas, a sun deck, swimming pool and beach volleyball courts are the main draws for serious sun worshippers. The adjacent Boomerang Billy's Beach Bar is a spring break favorite and lends a party animal atmosphere year-round.
Food & Drink
Coconuts Bar & Grill
Set amidst palm trees, this wacky bar is "the best" for many reasons. Happy hour draws a diverse crowd, including quite a few foreign tourists. But the real draw is Coconuts' location. The charming palapa bar faces the bay (west) - ideal for watching the sunset. Go to the upstairs bar for an even better view, or take your drink down to the pier and watch the sun go down as you dip your toes in the water. Reggae music thumps from the speakers, and sometimes live bands keep the crowd moving through the night. A limited Caribbean-inspired food menu, including such items as Jamaican jerk pork ribs and chicken wings, coconut shrimp and ceviche, is daring but overpriced.
Best Waterfront Atmosphere
Scampi's Restaurant and Bar
Whether dining inside or on the deck, the view is fabulous at Scampi's. The glassed-in entire back portion of the dining room provides plentiful bay views. Scampi's also has its own dock - perfect for romantic evening strolls out over the water. The food is almost as good as the atmosphere. The menu is extensive and includes such favorites as oysters Rockefeller and shrimp cocktail and Texas-flavored appetizers such as lobster filo burrito and nachos "Scampi's". Scampi's delectable peanut butter shrimp - seasoned with ginger, soy sauce, peanut butter and garlic - is clearly the most popular dish. Redfish, flounder, snapper and salmon populate the menu, as do various traditional beef dishes. The wine list includes more than 200 wines.
Best Family Restaurant
Amberjack's Bayside Bar & Grill
From the sophisticated tastes of moms and dads to the choosy buds of finicky kids, Amberjack's has something for every member of the family. The onion blossom is a crowd-pleaser - kids seem to like peeling off the pieces of deep-fried onion and adults enjoy the savory aioli dipping sauce. Amberjack's has several wholesome salads, such as the tropical chicken cashew and gorgonzola shellfish, but the seafood tops the menu. Shrimp and crab enchiladas, sauteed amberjack and snapper Rockefeller tempt parents. Kids can still have their favorites, such as seafood po' boys and burgers. The decent kids menu serves hot dogs, burgers and "smashed" potatoes in smaller portions.
Best Brew Pub
South Padre Island Brewing Company
OK, so it's the only brew pub on South Padre Island, and, in fact, the only brewery south of San Antonio. Nonetheless, South Padre Island Brewing Company is one of the few places on the island that serves premium beer. Giant, burlap malt sacks hang from the ceiling and mason jars full of barley and hops sit on each table. The beer menu offers popular flavors and lists the ingredients and brewing method of each beer. Names such as Tailing Red Amber and Speckled Trout Stout recall the wildlife of South Padre Island. A nice summer treat is the Tidal Wave Wheat, a light but malty brew served with lemon. Or sample several flavors served in mini glasses.
Best Beachside Bar
Wanna-Wanna Beach Bar & Grill
Wanna-Wanna's customers are a peculiar mix. Patrons of the adjacent Island Inn Motel and sun-bleached South Padre natives are the usual suspect at this palapa-style thatched hut. It's the perfect island dive complete with cheap, so-so drinks and great views of the beach. The bartenders are friendly and it's easy to see why the locals keep coming back. A kitschy flag of a skull and crossbones is hoisted high above the hut and the whole thing suggests 1960s beach movie fun.
Best Day Trip
Matamoros, Mexico, is only 30 miles from South Padre Island and the most popular day trip for island tourists. For the shoppers, open-air markets sell a variety of trinkets and barter for an agreeable price. Just about everything is cheaper in Mexico, including prescription drugs, jewelry and leather goods. Restaurants supply diners with authentic Mexican food and margaritas. Nightlife is the main attraction - the drinking age is only 18, so Matamoros teems with college and high school students during spring break and summer. Most people prefer to leave their cars on the US side of the bridge and walk across for a small fee.
If the beach bum life isn't for you, why not jump out of an airborne plane? There's no reality check like a good skydive. If you've never experienced such a thrill, talk to Enrique Zolezzi and Bob Steenbock, S.P.I. Skydivers' certified tandem instructors. Look for specials if you visit South Padre off season, and visit the S.P.I. Skydivers web site for a coupon good for 10% off a tandem jump.
Island Equestrian Center
Island Equestrian Center offers an unusual, relaxed way to see South Padre Island - by horse. Guides lead riders of all experience levels on a picturesque voyage to Laguna Madre. The equestrian center has a horse for every level and pony rides for kids under 6. Leave the car and discover the magic of the island from a horse's-eye view.