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South Padre & The Rio Grande Valley: Winter Getaway

By Paris Permenter and John Bigley, editors of

Combine a trip to South Padre Island with a visit to the Rio Grande Valley and what do you get? Sun, sand, and surf -- not to mention sombreros, shopping and sightseeing. These destinations in the southern tip of Texas promise not just fun in the sun but plenty of educational sites, family fun, and ecotourism activities as well.


For many air travelers, their first look at this region is the Brownsville/South Padre International Airport. With a quick flight from San Antonio, you'll soon be on your way traveling this region (it's just a 30-minute drive from South Padre Island), but don't miss a look at Brownsville itself.

Brownsville, Texas's southernmost city, offers families a wild time--at the zoo, that is. Children love the Gladys Porter Zoo, one of the country's top 10 small zoos and home to over 1500 species ranging from African animals to local reptiles. If you visit the zoo on a Sunday afternoon, you can hop a ride on the Safari Express, a small train that tours the zoo from 1:30 p.m. - 3:30 p.m., weather permitting.

Nature lovers also find plenty of birding sites in the Brownsville area. Locally, you can grab your binoculars and bird guide and head to Camp Lula Sams, Boca Chica wetlands, and the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary. Many sites are part of the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and local guides are available for tours.

Ready to shop 'til you drop? Brownsville is known as a gateway to Mexico's Matamoros. In Brownsville, follow TX 48 downtown to the convention center and park at the municipal lot, then take a quick five-minute walk across the International Bridge. A short taxi ride will transport you to the mercado for silver jewelry and other Mexican crafts.


Along with the Brownsville airport, you can also opt to fly into Harlingen's Valley International Airport, a 45-minute drive from South Padre Island and in quick reach of many of the Valley's diverse attractions. Just steps away from the airport, you'll find one of Harlingen's most unique attractions: the Iwo Jima Monument and Memorial Museum near the Marine Military Academy. The site includes the working model of the famous Iwo Jima statue and numerous exhibits.

Harlingen is also of special interest to birders. Home to several sites on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, the city also hosts the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, scheduled for every November.


Driving toward the Gulf, Port Isabel is your first look at the water for which this area is known. There's no need to worry about missing this community: just look for the lighthouse. Since 1853, the Point Isabel Lighthouse has overlooked the Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island, and the surrounding region. Today the structure, the only historic lighthouse in Texas open to the public, invites you to visit. The building is also home to the Port Isabel Chamber of Commerce and exhibits on historic lighthouses.

Just steps away, you'll find Port Isabel's other museums. Three Spanish shipwrecks are the focus of the Treasures of the Gulf Museum, transporting visitors back to the year 1554 when these vessels sunk 30 miles off Port Isabel. The Port Isabel Historical Museum, housed in a former dry goods store built in 1899, features local history as well as one of the largest collections of Mexican artifacts from the U.S. - Mexican War.

If all that sightseeing works up an appetite, have no fear: you're surrounded by some of the best shrimp restaurants in the country. Port Isabel is home to the Annual World's Championship Shrimp Cook-Off every November when two tons of these Gulf shrimp are cooked but anytime you visit you'll find fresh from the Gulf shrimp served throughout the city.


It's a quick drive from Port Isabel to the barrier island of South Padre Island. Here you'll find miles of beach as well as family-friendly attractions, shopping areas, restaurants, and plenty of condominium and resort complexes.

Every visit must include some time along the miles of beach, where the kids can enjoy romping in the surf, collecting seashells, and building sand castles. Drive north of the community and you'll find that 29 miles of this strip of sand are completely undeveloped, ready for exploration. Fall visitors and winter visitors find lighter crowds than in the summer, perfect for long beach walks.

On of summer's most popular beach attractions, Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark. The newest attraction is Sea Trek Adventure, which allows you to don a dive helmet and literally walk with rays and other sea life in an 80,000-gallon tank! No dive experience is necessary and family members age eight and above can participate. Unlike the waterpark itself, Sea Trek can be enjoyed through the cooler months.

For another look at Gulf marine life, the island has several attractions focusing on the region's aquatic neighbors. Sea Turtle Inc. at 6617 Padre Boulevard teaches visitors more about the center's rehabilitation work and its efforts to save the endangered Kemps Ridley turtle. If you've got family members with an interest in dolphins, The Original Dolphin Watch departs from the Sea Ranch Marina aboard the 60' cruise boat M/V Diver I; participants get a close view of bottlenose and spinner dolphins in the wild. And just south of town, the University of Texas Coastal Studies Laboratory offers another chance to learn more about the denizens of the deep.

About the Authors: Paris Permenter and John Bigley are the publishers of TexasTripper Travel Guide , an online look at Texas vacation travel

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