The Daytripper, Chet Garner, on the Port Isabel Lighthouse in Port Isabel, Texas
© Todd White Stills and Motion

Everyone who goes to South Padre Island passes through Port Isabel, but there are plenty of reasons to make this bay front town your final destination. One of the oldest towns in South Texas, it’s a harbor that’s got fascinating history, top-notch seafood, and plenty of sunshine to spare.

Port Isabel Lighthouse State Historic Site

In this town, there is no spot more quintessential than the Port Isabel Lighthouse. Built in 1852, the lighthouse glowed over the bay for more than 50 years, including through the Civil War. Although its light was permanently extinguished in 1905, it still beckons travelers to climb its 75 steps and enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the sprawling Laguna Madre. You’ll feel taller than South Padre’s distant condominiums.

Manuel’s

This restaurant whips up the community’s favorite breakfast, along with classic American and Tex-Mex dishes. I recommend the “Con Todo” breakfast taco stuffed with eggs, beans, cheese, potatoes, and your choice of breakfast meat, all wrapped in a giant homemade tortilla. It’s big enough to carry you through breakfast, lunch, dinner, and possibly even your midnight snack.

South Padre Island Dolphin Research & Sealife Nature Center

You don’t have to be a mermaid to get a glimpse under the sea: just head to this informative nature center. Inside you’ll find dozens of tanks where you can learn about Texas sea life and even touch starfish and hermit crabs. The real adventure begins on the water, where Captain Scarlet Colley (aka the Dolphin Whisperer) takes visitors out on a boat to see dolphins in their natural habitat. You’ll think she actually speaks “dolphinese” as she calls the animals over and has them do tricks.

Port Isabel Historical Museum

This is the go-to spot for all ship nerds and history buffs. Located in an old general store, this incredible museum covers everything from the Karankawa people to the discoveries of various shipwrecks and battle sites. I was amazed to learn that the humble town played a critical role in both the Civil War and the founding of Brownsville, a city 40 minutes southwest of Port Isabel.

Los Tortugos

If you’re in town to fish, bring your catch to this Mexican seafood market, and they’ll happily cook it up for you. But, if you’re like me and usually catch more seaweed than sea life, don’t worry; there’s plenty of fresh seafood in the back. The blackened shrimp tacos with fresh avocado and lime hit the spot, and the housemade ceviche—a top-secret recipe—features a mix of fresh shrimp, fish, and calamari. It’s so popular, Los Tortugos has shipped orders all over the country.

 

So whether you follow my footsteps or forge your own path, I hope to see you on the road.

Chet Garner is the host of The Daytripper® travel show on PBS.
To view the Port Isabel episode visit thedaytripper.com.
Follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @chettripper.

From the June 2020 issue
The October 2020 issue of Texas Highways Magazineq


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