I was looking at Google Maps, deciding where to spend December for our first family gap year, when my husband reached over and scrolled as far south as he could, pointed to south Texas, and said “There. That’s where we should spend the winter.”
I had no arguments! We wanted to stay warm and visit someplace new, and South Padre Island, on the Texas gulf coast, checked both of those boxes. So we found a condo on Airbnb and booked it.
We drove to South Padre after a day spent in San Antonio. I had fully researched the area and got excited when we saw the lighthouse in Port Isabel and approached the big bridge over to the island.
Once on the island, there were lighted holiday decorations and palm trees lining the way into town, seeming to welcome us. We couldn’t have been more excited.
We spent four weeks on South Padre Island in December 2018, and then we returned for four more weeks in October 2019! We really love the island, the weather, the beach, the activities, the food, and the atmosphere. And there’s a pretty good chance we’ll be returning for another stay soon.
South Padre Island beach
One of the big draws of spending time on South Padre is, of course, the beach! The navigable portion of the island is about 12 miles long, and there’s quality beach along the whole coast.
And you can swim year-round. The weather was warm and balmy, even in December.
I enjoyed many early morning walks and runs along the beach, often catching a gorgeous sunrise.
South Padre’s beach is narrower than some, but still great for sunbathing, playing, swimming, etc. There’s not as much dry sand as some beaches, but the sand here is known for being perfect for sandcastle building! In fact, SPI is the Sandcastle Capital of the World!
We had to put that to the test, of course, so we booked a sandcastle lesson with Sandy Feet. Not a bad way to spend a homeschooling day!
South Padre Island food
There are plenty of great restaurants on South Padre, with a good combination of unique local restaurants and national chains, for when you want something cheap and quick. Here are some of our favorites:
Boomerang Billy’s is a seafood shack right on the beach where you can enjoy a good meal while feeling the ocean breeze. They often have live performers, and we saw a lot of locals gathering for lunch, including a Christmas party on one day. Everyone seemed to know everyone else — I guess that’s life on a small island!
JAX is the place to go for a delicious burger. We loved their picnic-style indoor theming and all the different topping options.
The Painted Marlin is on the bay side of the island (the island is super skinny, so you can walk from the ocean side to the bay side in a matter of minutes). Their back patio gives a great view of the bay, and I recommend the avocado fries!
If you’re in the mood for some Italian, head for the Meatball Cafe. That’s where we went when my parents visited us, and everyone had a great meal! The meatballs are homemade, so that’s a good place to start.
Cafe by the Beach is exactly what it sounds like. We discovered this place on our second visit and had dinner there on our anniversary. It’s attached to a hotel and the back patio is right next to the beach. Great place to hit for happy hour!
South Padre Island activities
If there’s one thing our kids loved the most about South Padre, it was Gravity Park. The main attraction is the awesome go-karts, with several layers of wooden ramps, curves, and hills that are super fun to zip around. They also have a mini golf course, a small arcade, and a few other attractions like the reverse bungee (terrifying but I’m determined to do it someday) and the skycoaster, which Carter and I did!
When we played that video back and he heard his screaming, Carter asked, “In theory, can you remove certain sounds from videos?”
Sea Turtle Inc is a sea turtle rehabilitation center, and it was a perfect homeschool field trip! They have several full-time turtle residents you can visit and learn all about how the center helps rescue and heal injured sea turtles, and you can also learn about the turtles they are working to prepare for release back into the ocean.
While we were on the island, we had the incredible opportunity to see a sea turtle released back into the ocean at Isla Blanca Park. Everyone gathered on the beach to see her off!
If you’re up for more adventure, visit South Padre Island Adventure Park for ziplining or horseback riding on the beach.
There’s also a Schlitterbarn on the island, for fans of water parks. We haven’t visited yet, but maybe we will on our next trip!
And keep your eye on the calendar for local events. While we were there in December, they had an incredible holiday sandcastle display outside the South Padre Island Convention Center!
I want to shout out the local gym, Island Fitness. I bought a month membership for our second visit, and yes it was a bit more than my $20/month chain gym membership, but it was well worth the money. Also, I was motivated to actually show up!
I could walk to the gym from our condo, and they had a good selection of strength machines, free weights, and cardio machines (though I didn’t use those because, like I said, I walked to and from the gym so that served as my warmup and cool down!).
They also have a smoothie bar outside, which I enjoyed more than once. The owner and staff were always super friendly and helpful, and I will definitely sign up for another month if we return.
If you’re a book lover, you’ll love Paragraphs on Padre. The local bookstore looks deceptively small, but the shelves are packed with a large variety of books, so you’re sure to find something for everyone. While you’re there, why not check out the mystery series, starting with The Padre Puzzle, by local author David Harry. The whole series takes place on the island!
Day Trips from South Padre Island
While there’s tons of fun to be found on the island, there’s even more to do nearby. Just cross the bridge into Port Isabel where you’ll find more great restaurants, shopping, and activities.
You can visit the Port Isabel Lighthouse and enjoy the views from above. Then, head to Pirate’s Landing for some good seafood, and then take a spin through the Mercado Faro and purchase some local crafts.
We also loved taking a Pirate Adventure Cruise on The Black Dragon in Port Isabel.
This was an incredibly fun excursion that entertained parents and kids alike! We even saw dolphins and SpaceX from the boat! Check out the video of our experience:
Just a 45-minute drive from South Padre Island is Brownsville, Texas, the nearest large town. You can do lots of shopping here, visit your favorite chain restaurants, and attend local events. We also enjoyed a visit to the Gladys Porter Zoo and took in several performances at the Camille Playhouse.
South Padre Island atmosphere
Yes, South Padre Island is known for being a major spring break destination, so I’d definitely recommend traveling families avoid the area in mid-March. But we had an absolutely lovely time in both October and December.
South Padre Island has one of most unique climates I’ve encountered. The sea air and humidity is so tangible that walking down the street can feel like walking through a cloud. It was almost mystical, and perfectly pleasant in the winter at least!
In the winter, the island is home to a lot of “Winter Texans” which is the Texas term for snowbirds. In my opinion, they are living their best lives! I’ve often said that I aspire to be a snowbird.
But otherwise, the island is pretty quiet in the winter and a perfect place for a traveling family to spend a month or more. It’s humid but with mild enough temperatures in the winter to be comfortable and warm enough for swimming.
South Padre is one of our favorite places we’ve visited over the past few years, and I know it will be a regular beach vacation destination for years to come!