I know the goal of many travelers is to never visit the same place twice. It’s a big world and we all have long bucket lists. But there is something to be said for finding a sweet spot in your travel routine, for creating traditions connected to a place you visit frequently.
For me that place is South Padre Island. It became the beach in my family’s life when my son was seven. From the time Elliott was born we had seasides in our summer plans. Upstate New York’s lakes were followed by Rhode Island’s rocky strand. But when we visited the Jersey shore with friends, I discovered what we were looking for had less to do with a particular beach than with the ritual. Our pals had been traveling to the same beach all their lives, enjoying the same ice cream stops, meal plans, and sand and surf sports their parents had enjoyed. Now they visited every summer with their own children. Our beach time was spent chasing our two-year-old, but my husband and I left desiring a Texas summer tradition of our own.
The first time we drove across the two-mile Queen Isabella Causeway, I knew the compass needle in my heart was set on South Padre Island. As we came to know the island’s slants of light, shifting dunes, and local hangouts, we began creating a ritual itinerary of events that defined our joy in being there.
Even 10 years later, the island ritual is the same whether it’s just Elliott and me, or a pod of friends and family. Upon arrival, always late in the day, we make a grocery stop in McAllen, encouraging each other to splurge on goodies we don’t stock at home. We buy boogie boards and inflatable rafts, stow it all carefully, then soar up and over the causeway. Pelicans swoop away our workaday cares.
Because we opt to stay in a different condominium every year, choosing rooms is part of the day’s excitement. Then everyone helps to stash the groceries and we head out to salute the sunset over the ocean. We are officially at the beach.
Early the next morning we stake out a spot for our beach HQ. We bring our own shade, little more than four tent stakes and a roof, the better to create a central meeting site and to ensure we are not burned to cracklins. This becomes the spot for napping, reading, unpacking the daily lunch buffet, and, at day’s end, making dinner plans. Breaking down camp and toting everything off is part of the ritual, too. That the beach makes happy work of any chore is part of its magic.
Sillier rituals accompany sensible ones. Day one is for tattoos. Young Elliott was the first to clamor for this, but all adults happily join in the madness. Ladies, I note, are drawn to strands of flowers for their biceps and maybe a star fish for the ankle; boys and men gravitate toward dragons and insects. These are temporary tattoos, of course, but we wear them proudly, amazed at how indelible they are during a week of sand and surf.
Another tradition calls for slurping copious amounts of oysters at Dirty Al’s before following State Park Road 100 south to its end at Channel View Loop. Once there, we clamber over jagged rocks to shout salutations to the pods of dolphins that near dusk leap and spout through the Brazos Santiago Pass, a ritual passage of their own.
Eating out is a big part of the fun. All over the island, open-air restaurants create an easy camaraderie among guests of all ages—and food served in baskets defines perfection in beach dining. We have a favorite spot for each night of the week, but Wanna Wanna Grill, smack-dab on the beach, has been a must since our first trip. Live music, colorful locals, and great burgers are the draw, but here we began a summer tradition of rating restaurants by their French fries. Something about a day of bobbing in the sea upped the attraction of sizzling hot and salty pommes frites, or maybe we just created another excuse to indulge.
Every visit involves at least one trip to Sea Turtle, Inc., where we learn something new or inspiring about advances in turtle rescue and rehabilitation. We also plot a trip in search of bayside alligators and schedule in a fireworks display.
There are more musts and do’s and don’ts. But really, our love affair with South Padre isn’t as much about what we eat and drink and do, but rather that we return here every year to do it. Plugging into the rhythm of the waves, we recharge—as our tradition would have us do.