Eclectic By The Seashore


Nobody lands on Texas’ Padre Island by accident. To reach this 70-plus-mile stretch of spectacular white-sand beaches and turquoise Gulf waters, you have to detour south from the east-west Interstate at San Antonio and head for Corpus Christi.

To an East Coaster, even a well-traveled one, the place names in South Texas have an odd, eclectic flavor: Beeville, Falfurrias, Seven Sisters. Many, like Corpus Christi, are reminders of the region’s Spanish-Catholic heritage and its status as a Mexican border region: Refugio, Concepción, Benavides.

While the names may sound exotic, the beaches are exactly what you’d picture. The jewel is Padre Island National Seashore, one of just four national seashores operated by the National Parks Service, with 65 miles of Gulfside beach on the world’s longest barrier island (fun fact: Padre is the second-largest island in the U.S. after Long Island).

This month, the hot ticket is South Padre Island, a resort town that’s a favorite with spring breakers. By the time they all head back to class in April, the area will be lively, the water warm and the ice cream shops ready for winter-weary vacationers. Few places have nicer weather year-round; by spring, you can expect daily highs around 80.

What’s there to do? The National Seashore is a paradise for birdwatchers, surfers, sun-seekers and lovers of wildlife: thousands of sea turtles make their home here, and dolphins frolic just offshore. Explore the Laguna Madre Nature Trail, an open-access path that winds through some of America’s prettiest shoreline.

Even a bird-hater like myself has to admit that the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center is worthwhile. The center offers guided walks daily and boasts a fifth-story observation area with views of the turquoise sea, lush green marshes and exotic-looking pink and white birds. Inside, there’s a short documentary film on South Texas fauna and a handy gift shop.

This time of year, the marshes and dunes of Padre Island are abloom with wildflowers; many of the yellow, purple and orange blossom are unique maritime varieties that thrive in the salt-air climate. And it is very salty: Laguna Madre, the body of water between island and mainland, is called a hypersaline lagoon for its intense concentration of salt. On the other side, swimmers will find a paradise of options in the warm Gulf waters, from surf-worthy breaks to limpid lagoons.

It may or may not amaze you that oil and gas drilling takes place in this supposedly unspoiled nature. I remember the kerfuffle when a wind farm was proposed off Martha’s Vineyard, which is not even a national park. From the consternation, you would have thought they were proposing a coal mine, not a handful of Scandinavian-style, clean-energy-producing windmills. But this is Texas.

The anything-goes Western vibe is more evident in South Padre Island, which is as built-up as the national seashore is unspoiled. High-rises soar above the flat barrier dunes and lagoon; Mexican cantinas and surf shops cater to an endless parade of weekenders, youthful revelers and vacationing families. High season starts with spring break and continues well past Labor Day, as the strip buzzes with events and fireworks explode over the bay every weekend night.

Padre Island has been a Jewish destination since the 1800s, when Eastern European merchants put down roots in Corpus Christi and Brownsville, a Spanish-flavored border town that is the closest city to Padre Island. The Jewish congregation in Brownsville, Temple Beth-El, tends an active cemetery that dates back 150 years. Jewish life was historically less established on Padre itself — but between recreation, real estate, smaller minyanim and what locals lovingly refer to as the “chazzerei” trade, there has always been a significant Jewish presence in season.

Today both Corpus Christi and Brownsville remain communal hubs for Texas’ far south, though the Jewish population has been declining. Demographics tell the story: these majority-Hispanic cities are notably poor, and recent generations of Jews have tended to follow opportunity elsewhere.

In Brownsville, an influx of Hispanic Jewish arrivals (from Cuba, Mexico and elsewhere) has revived the Reform Temple Beth-El, which holds more traditional services on Saturdays in deference to a diverse membership. A decade ago, the Reform and Conservative temples of Corpus Christi successfully merged into Congregation Beth-El; here in the Bible Belt, religion runs strong even where numbers don’t.

South Padre even has a Whaling Wall — though unlike its Jerusalem homonym, there’s nothing Jewish about this orca-themed mural by an artist named Wyland, which wraps around three sides of the South Padre convention center. You wouldn’t see anything similar in Nantucket or Montauk, but that’s the point: Like everything else in Texas, it’s oversized, colorful and catches your eye.