Port Isabel – South Padre Island

Published – Southern Boating
©2016 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert

In a state as large as Texas and more closely associated with the deserts of the southwest, it’s easy to forget that the SopadLone Star State has a nearly 400 mile long coastline on the Gulf of Mexico dotted with white sand beaches, beautiful anchorages and beachside towns. Halfway down her coast, south of Corpus Christi and far from any interstate highways, lies the mouth of the beautiful Laguna Madre – one of the most remote and forgotten cruising grounds on the entire Gulf Coast.

Stretching all the way south to Mexico, this beautiful narrow lagoon running along the Gulf and shielded by the South Padre barrier island is one of the saltiest bodies of water in the world. Given its shallow depth, few inlets to the Gulf of Mexico and lack of freshwater coming from the plains of South Texas, this is a unique ecosystem forgotten and buffered on both sides by sand dunes with her shores barely touched by developers. The majority of the cruisers in the “know” about the Laguna Madre lament the discovery of the southern tip of the island by college students for their spring break, but South Padre Island and the artist and character filled town of Port Isabel at its furthest point south have their arms open wide for cruisers the other 51 weeks of the year.

First discovered and mapped by Cabeza de Vaca and his Spanish conquistadors in 1528, South Padre Island on the Gulf of Mexico was an encampment for an unusual tribe of Native Americans known as the Karankawas. This small coastal Indian tribe was quite unique in the history of the Americas – known to wear rattlesnake rattles at the end of their braided hair, cover themselves in alligator grease and quite aggressive with their bows made of red cedar, they were deadly to many of the first explorers.

The Spaniards considered them cannibals, although the tribe mostly subsisted on oysters and who may be one of the earliest people to invent fly fishing. The Karankawas were eventually chased off of South Padre Island by a group of European settlers who roped a cannon onto a donkey and trudged it across the sand dunes. It was reported by Spanish missionaries that the loud cannon didn’t scare the tribe, but the magical un-secured donkey somersaulting through the air from the canon’s recoil scared the native tribe forever into the depths of what would become Texas.

Today, billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX Corporation is constructing a new launch facility for things other than donkeys immediately south of Padre Island and Port Isabel. The EBay and Tesla fortune is pouring into the area and local government officials are already in the planning phases to upgrade coastal parks and other launch viewing sites. Dockside restaurants such as Pier 19 in Port Isabel are pre-positioned to provide not only a perfect viewing area for the launches, but also delicious local caught seafood – do not miss out on the (rocket) Blackened Baja Tacos. This far south, expect a heavy Mexican influence mingling with traditional Gulf cooking.

South Padre Island runs for over 34 miles, and the warm Gulf of Mexico washes onto her shores dotted with quiet beach houses nestled between grassy dunes – it’s an ideal beachcombers paradise. With a population of only 5,000 permanent residents, the island and Port Isabel truly has the feel of the last coastal outpost before entering Mexico, but with the townsfolk having traded in their six-shooters for charter boats.

Plying the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico and the Laguna Madre, these modern water-borne cowboys and cowgirls fish the waters for their prey offshore of the nearby and massive King Ranch – do not be surprised by bridge delays as massive herds of cattle are led by horsemen over to their next grazing lands. Charter boats will head deep into the Gulf of Mexico to hunt for Tuna, Amberjack, Kings and other big-game fish, while inshore guides will take you to hit the speckled trout and big reds along the coast.

In downtown Port Isabel the waterfront is the center of the action with the Tarpon, Port Isabel and Pelican Point marinas all within walking distance. Rustic seafood restaurants such as Will and Jack’s Shake Shack, Joe’s Oyster Bar and Dirty Al’s are filled with down to earth and artsy locals – take the time to chat with them. This quiet and low-key beach town is filled with stories and hospitality. Schedule to arrive in October when the weather cools and the town’s Day of the Dead festival explodes on Maxan Street with the township in its full quirky splendor. Or join the adventurers and arrive for the start of the Great Texas 300 in June when Hobie Cat sailors race the entire Laguna Madre up to Galveston in what is billed as the longest distance small-boat catamaran races in the world.

But mostly sail or motor south to the Texas border to experience the true untouched beauty of the waters of South Texas. The Laguna Madre is indeed a still undiscovered boating natural wonder in the United States with her salty waters and near constant winds with predatory birds soaring on the updrafts rising and drawn in from the heated scrub plains and cattle ranches of southern Texas.

With sand covered barrier islands protecting bays and fertile estuaries that are rumored to have sheltered Pirate Jean Lafitte and empty beaches stretching for miles along the Gulf of Mexico, Texas has a Gulf Coast that should not be forgotten. These are cruising and fishing grounds just waiting for boaters and anglers from outside of Texas to discover. The fresh oysters and blackened redfish landed earlier today are also waiting for your plate in this rustic town island’s restaurants and beachside haunts. Afterwards, it’s perfectly fine to dig your feet in the white sand, sip an adult beverage and watch the sunset that normally plays out across the deserts of Texas – but this time with surf rolling at your toes.

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