Story by Paula Disbrowe // Photos by Amy Mikler
For working parents, summer is a bit of a tease.
Much as you’d like to summon the proverbial “lazy days” the season suggests, it’s often a stressful—and expensive—juggle of child care, camps, and fleeting windows to accomplish far too much. However, last summer I was determined to mark my kids’ vacation with a few iconic—maybe even extraordinary—experiences that embody the best of summer’s promise.
The first time I hit the beach on South Padre, the barrier island nestled between the Gulf of Mexico on the east and Laguna Madre on the west, I was topless. I was 3 years old, and we’d traveled from our home in Yoakum. I returned periodically but hadn’t been back since my freshman year of college, so we pointed Scout—my weathered Volvo—toward the south tip of Texas and hit the road.
I’ve always loved the crescendo of excitement that builds as you approach a beach. Billboard images change to dolphin cruises, mermaids, and captain-themed seafood restaurants, while convenience marts showcase colorful surfboards, sunblock, and ice cream treats. Enthusiasm was high when we finally crossed the bridge that connects Port Isabel to South Padre Island, rolled down the windows to smell the saltwater, and admired the sky as it softened to shades of periwinkle.
Ride Horses on the Beach
“They look like mashed potatoes,” said my 8-year-old son, Wyatt, describing the creamy drifts of dunes that frame the road that leads to South Padre Island Adventure Park on the north end of the island. In addition to horseback excursions—from shorter family rides to romantic sunset outings—the park also features a zip line, a petting barn with small animals, and a pony corral for little kids. In the hopes of avoiding the heat, I’d booked a 90-minute morning ride, but the glare off the water was already intense. I strongly recommend hats, protective apparel, and serious sunblock. My 10-year-old daughter, Flannery, was hoisted onto a sorrel named Catch; I was assigned to Crush; and my son, mercifully, was placed on a smaller mount tethered to the lead horse. When everyone was in the saddle, we lined up—our guide and my son leading the way—and headed across the powdery dunes to the glimmering water. Fellow riders hailed from all over the country. I chatted with snowbirds from Michigan on a trip with their college-age daughters, a Longhorn fan from Pensacola, and a guide who’d just moved to the island from horse country in Pennsylvania. “I decided to take a year off college and do what I love, which is being with horses,” she told me. Settling into a steady rhythm, the horses ambled along the coastline, alternately splashing through the shallow tide and winding over grassy dunes, higher points that provided fantastic views of the western coastline. Naturally, when we turned around and headed back toward the stables, the horses anticipated lunch and picked up the pace, much to my daughter’s delight. “My horse was so competitive,” she told me later. “That was my favorite part.”
Net a Sea Treasure
I wanted us all to learn about the area’s unique ecology, but the trick was making science class fun—so that afternoon, we boarded Sea Life Safari and Dolphin Watch, a narrated, 90-minute cruise through Laguna Madre. In addition to providing a breezy perch for dolphin watching, the crew uses a trawling net to bring all sorts of sea life on board. Once the bounty is hauled in and carefully transferred to large tubs of water, the crew sorts through the catch and shares all kinds of facts about the species that call these waters home. Passengers can stroke and even hold everything from a blue crab to a seahorse. I was surprised when both of my kids stepped up to hold a small butterfly ray, gently touching its pale underbelly and rough, gray skin.
As we explored the coastline—the upper deck of the yacht is an ideal perch for sightseeing, and the air-conditioned cabin provides a cool spot to buy drinks and snacks—the captain told us about the natural history of the estuary and its inhabitants. We motored past the Coast Guard’s fleet and joined several bottlenose dolphins on the south tip of the island. We learned dolphins are different than porpoises (the former have a beak, hence the bottlenose name, a larger dorsal fin, and sharper teeth) and they can reach speeds approaching 20 mph. “And dolphins respond to noise,” the captain told us. Sure enough, after enthusiastic whistles and clapping ensued, the dolphins responded in kind with playful leaps and closer proximity to their fans.
Take a Pirate Cruise
The first thing you should know about Black Dragon Pirate Cruise is to arrive at “Pirate’s Landing”—across the bridge in Port Isabel—30 minutes early. That’s because before ye’ board, there’s a pre-show behind Black Jack’s restaurant. If you haven’t arrived in full pirate mode, meeting your motley crew and the blast of the 9-pound “Gollywobbler” cannon that signals “all aboard” will get you there fast. The outing is led by Captain Black-Hearted Andy and a crew of animated wastrels, professional pirates who pack the two-hour voyage with continual entertainment. My kids learned to talk like a pirate, sword fight, and hunt for treasure. Meanwhile, my husband, David, and I grabbed a seat in the shade, enjoyed the breeze off the water (and occasional blasts from water pistols, part of the rigorous pirate training) and, because it just seemed right, a rum and tonic. We left with face-painted mustaches, an obligatory souvenir picture, and smiles. And yes, there’s a bounty of pirate-themed merchandise for sale when you depart, so prepare to leave with a plastic sword.
Inspire Budding Bird Watchers
The next day, we had an early appointment at South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center, one of several regional destinations to observe birds, butterflies, and other coastal wildlife. Because of its strategic location on Laguna Madre Bay, the elevated boardwalks wind through two different ecosystems: saltwater marsh wetlands that merge into freshwater ponds. It’s a rare opportunity to see a landscape of black mangroves and other species that flourish in the concentrated salt waters of the shallow bay transition--in a few minutes walk--to cattail marshes and other plants that thrive in fresh waters.
Activities requiring a bit of patience, like bird watching, don’t always fly with young kids, so I was grateful when our guide, Javier Gonzalez, gave each of my children a Scavenger Hunt sheet of birds and reptiles to spot and check off—kind of a birding bingo—and a pair of binoculars (available for rent for $3). Suddenly our stroll became a challenge, and the kids were instantly engaged. Along the way, five bird blinds provided opportune spots to catch some shade, snap pictures, or scan that particular vantage point. At the second blind, Javier pointed to three recently hatched long-billed curlews hobbling around their parents. Having a guide definitely made the experience richer because Javier spotted things we would have missed and shared an abundance of details. We learned the great blue heron is a patient hunter who waits, still as a sculpture, until a tasty fish comes along. A bright pink belly helped my kids spot a roseate spoonbill (like flamingos, their feathers are tinged with pink due to the shellfish they consume). A flash of scarlet-tipped wings and the noisy call of a red-winged blackbird announced itself to all of us. Only two species were elusive: the American alligators, who Javier surmised were probably hiding in the reeds to avoid the heat, and a tricolored heron, which happened to be waiting for us in the parking lot, right on cue.
On the last morning of our island getaway, the promise of stellar tacos in Port Isabel made leaving a bit more bearable. A friend pointed us to Manuel’s, a family-run Tex-Mex restaurant. In the back of the restaurant, a woman deftly rolled out and griddled the giant, pillowy flour tortillas they’re known for. A long drive home awaited us, but we had plenty to talk about, as well as souvenirs—awkward family photos, the stuffed dolphin, tan lines, and sand in our shoes—to keep the experience alive. I knew the remaining days of summer would fly by, and before I knew it, we’d be starting another school year. Thank goodness we’d decided to savor time together amid the season’s last gasp.