Weekender: Good Afternoon, Isabel
By Helen Bryant
I wear a path to South Padre Island, where I like to read, walk the beach, and be a sea slug, but today I’m taking a break to drive over the Queen Isabella Memorial Bridge to Port Isabel on the mainland.
The bridge—at 2.6 miles it’s Texas’ longest—descends into Port Isabel (originally Point Isabel), and I park in Lighthouse Square, where shops and restaurants surround a small hill topped by the famous Port Isabel Lighthouse. There’s plenty of free parking behind the lighthouse and in a lot next to Pirate’s Landing.
Port Isabel has three museums, and you can see them all for a combined $7 ticket. I start with the Port Isabel Historical Museum, where exhibits tell of wars, settlers, and the shrimping industry. Port Isabel once called itself the “Shrimping Capital of the World”; shrimpers here harvested 12 million pounds annually during the mid-20th Century.
Much of the museum is devoted to the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846-48, which won this nation 529,017 square miles of land. Displays include flintlock and percussion pistols, swords, buckles, buttons, bullets, cannon balls, and a timeline of Laguna Madre history. My favorite museum artifact, though, is a 30-inch-long sawfish bill (it does, indeed, look like a saw) that hung in the lighthouse back in the 1950s.
A ramp behind this collection leads to the Treasures of the Gulf Museum, which focuses on the shipwreck of three of four vessels that set sail in 1554 from Veracruz, Mexico, headed to Spain. Instead, they ran aground off Padre Island about 30 miles north of Port Isabel. The sunken ships carried 87,000 pounds of gold and silver. Mexican divers and salvage crews recovered about half the payload, and some silver coins, along with sea-ravaged cannons, are here. But much of the loot is, apparently, still in the sea. Displays and videos tell the tale of 16th-Century ships and the dangers the sailors faced (storms, fire, and pirates, for starters). I learn that 300 people survived the shipwrecks, but once ashore, only two lived to tell the tale.
Next, I cross the street to the Sealife Nature Center, a delightful, little aquarium whose mission is to educate the public and promote the wellbeing of local sea life, including the native bottlenose dolphins.
At a petting tank, you may pick up a jellylike anemone, a sea cucumber, a lightning whelk (the official state shell), and hermit crabs. Other tanks are filled with stingrays, along with a spiny scorpion fish, a five-pound grouper, a guitar fish, seahorses, a moray eel and Spike, a spiny, three-pound lobster with big purple antennae that was rescued during the area’s unusual cold spell several years ago.
Across the street, I refresh my lighthouse history at the Point Isabel Lighthouse, completed in 1853. Its early keepers made $500 to $700 a year for turning the light on and off to warn incoming ships as they approached shore. The landmark beacon guided ships in the Laguna Madre until 1905, when it was permanently decommissioned.
A climb to the top of the 73-foot lighthouse involves 74 steps and three 8-rung ladders. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s stuffy in there. At the top, it’s windy, but it’s worth the bluster to be able to see all the way to the Gulf of Mexico to the east and many miles in all directions.
Nothing but Net: Courtside or Mezzanine, It’s a Ball!
Pro basketball’s NBA season continues to fast break forward
at full speed. Hopes for the playoffs and a championship trophy resound with
the Mavericks, Spurs, Rockets, and their many fans. Modern, spacious arenas
(American Airlines Center, AT&T Center, and Toyota Center) and exciting,
winning teams in Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston make attending a game a real
thrill. International stars (Dirk Nowitski, Tim Duncan, Luis Scola), dancing
cheerleaders, funny mascots (the Coyote!), and a sport filled with
From the January 2010 issue.