Twice a year, my colleagues and I get together for a week of coworking. For our most recent retreat, we left our respective corners of North America and met in Austin, Texas (home of our official headquarters).
To me, weekends are for exploring, and I wanted to salvage what I could of the precious weekend ahead of the work retreat, which included travel days due to my meeting schedule. My family was coming with me, and if I was going to be so far from where we call home in New York, I wanted to explore. We’ve been to Austin before, so our criteria for our little weekend layover was this: a budget and family-friendly destination within a 6-hour drive of Downtown Austin. I thought on this for a few days, combing Google Maps for ideas in all directions.
Well, we’d never been to any beach on the Gulf Coast. South Padre Island has generally good TripAdvisor reviews and is the furthest South we could go before the border. It also just about hit our requirement for distance to Austin, clocking in at an estimated driving time of 5.5 hours. We could fly into Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport, rent a car, and it’d only be a 30-minute drive to the shore.
The biggest minor inconvenience here was when we picked up our rental car, and the total charge for the week ended up being about $250 more than we expected. This was my error— when I booked via Expedia, I’d neglected to check off the little box to indicate an alternate return location, which always bumps up the total car rental cost. Yikes. Let that be a lesson to me!
Beachfront on a Budget
Lots of the hotels on the island are beachfront, and it’s easy to find a deal with a favorite chain. Of course, if Airbnb is more your steez, this is a big town for those, as well.
We stayed at the La Quinta Inn & Suites South Padre, which featured Queen rooms quite a bit larger than I expected, easily fitting our family of 5. We loved the view from our balcony! From there, we were served some sweet Northern-facing views of a stretch of the Gulf. With the balcony door closed and the A/C on, we couldn’t hear a peep from outside. And the live music was pretty much non-stop at the outdoor bars on Saturday night.
The staff serviced the breakfast buffet quickly and efficiently, and our room was clean, but parts of the hotel were a little dated. The bathroom was tired and in need of some actual renovation, and the ballroom on the 2nd floor (where breakfast was held) felt stuffy— like it needs a good airing out and a fresh, new carpet.
The pool at this La Quinta, while not the largest, is quite beautiful! A zero-entry kids pool sits alongside, with a fun waterfall feature.
That Beach Though
This La Quinta Inn & Suites is beachfront. You are steps to the some of the softest sand, gentlest waves and warmest water touching the continental United States. The beach on South Padre Island is breezy warm, and it is oh-so-refreshing! It was worth our while to rent a couple of beach chairs and an umbrella for the day, and for $30, we felt it was money well-spent. We also spent about $6 on beach toys from the hotel gift shop— totally worth it for the 3-year-old!
That morning, we saw groups of volunteers going all up and down the beach, picking up any litter along the way. Many of them wore t-shirts indicating the company, organization, or school they represented. I have no idea if that was a seasonal cleanup effort or a regular thing, but it was wonderful seeing how the local community came out on a Saturday morning to keep South Padre Island clean, safe, and beautiful.
Perhaps because we visited in September, but the beach was not crowded. It fit my exact expectation for perfectly beach-busy. You have the opportunity to people watch and can casually ask a chair-neighbor to take a family photo without seeming desperate, and you’ve got more than enough room to stretch your legs and stake your claim on that area in front of you— for your very exclusive sand play activities and unobstructed access to the water, of course.
Bonus experience: making friends with this little prairie dog!
South Padre Island Eats
La Quinta is right next door to Clayton’s Beach Bar, a beachfront mainstay serving up Hurricanes, lots o’ beer, and of course, fried seafood. Absolute yum, my friends.
Cap’n Roy’s on Padre Boulevard served up some hella good chicken tacos, and I must give them props for their golden, crispy fries. So good!
My favorite though? Barry’s Taco Truck, an airstream-turned-food-truck situated on the beach behind the Hilton Garden Inn (though I hear they do move around sometimes). I do not exaggerate when I say their pepper jack cream corn dip is the best corn chowder I’ve ever tasted. Call it a dip if you must, friends, I’ll just call it delicious. Another Hurricane (for me), various tacos, and one set of live Latin music later. . . we were happy campers!
South Padre Island- not just for the Spring Break crowd
I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t disclose what I know: SPI is a well-known Spring Break and broke-student destination. With that comes the stereotype of that low-key party-on-a-college-budget atmosphere.
I’m happy to report that in our solid day and a half on South Padre Island, we experienced nothing but peaceful, laid-back relaxation. Mostly. The night we got there, raucous, drunken laughter in the hallway woke me up, but they quickly quieted down. Annoying? Yes! But not completely unexpected.
We didn’t see a lot of party animals— we did, however, see lots of families and lots of older couples. We also went there right at the beginning of the off-season in September, so that may have had something to do with the relative quiet and tameness.
Another visit to SPI?
We’d definitely consider a follow-up trip to South Padre Island! I think we’d still do a weekend, albeit a slightly longer one, and again probably bookending a trip to one of the bigger cities in Texas.
Some of the things we didn’t get to do that we’d want to try next time
– Visit the sea turtle conservation center. Helping to save some sea turtles is 100% a bucket list activity for us!
– Explore one of the many bird sanctuaries! After reading about just how many bird species can be found here (over 380) I kept thinking of the movie The Big Year (which, despite less than stellar Rotten Tomatoes ratings, I very much enjoyed).
– Drive a 4×4 on the beach! While we rented nicely outfitted Ford Explorer Limited, it was, alas, the forward wheel drive version. That meant no venturing out onto the sand and dunes for us. We did get to drive over to the harder-packed bayside, scratching E.’s itch to drive on the beach!
Much love for weekend getaways
I love weekend getaways! Fewer days usually means more reasonable overall cost, even with peak weekend pricing. And time constraints mean inadvertent, sort of forced hyper-appreciation of your time and experiences.
Seriously! You set yourself up to be more efficient with your planning ahead of time, and you’re forced to be more present.