Our 2012 Mostly-Great Texas Road Trip part 1: Through the Valley of Darkness
Greetings from the black hole that I call a brain. It was vacation time here at the Nathan household. Since last year we did a staycation, which is not as relaxing as one may think, we decided we needed to get out of town this time. In a flash of inspiration, and a look at our bank accounts, we chose to do a big Texas road trip spanning over seven days. We hadn't seen the ocean in several years so we were itching for some place with a beach. The last time we saw the Gulf of Mexico was our Labor Day Galveston trip in 2009.
We had the perfect plan: Head to South Padre for a few days, then up to Houston to visit some friends, then over to Austin to finish up our trip.
My partner in crime, who shall be henceforth known only as "M" supplied the vehicle: a nice black 2010 Chevrolet Aveo 5-door hatchback, which was roomy and reliable enough to carry the both of us through the back roads of Oblivion. Guiding us was a shiny new Garmin nüvi 1490T, pre-equipped with the cheerfully mentally-disabled voice of "Jack" providing text-to-speech instructions.
The first leg of the trip was most certainly the longest, as we were going from Dallas all the way down to South Padre Island on the bottom tip of Texas, a good 560 miles south of Dallas.
Our first stop, a mere 80 miles south of Dallas, was the Czech Stop (http://www.czechstop.net) off of I-35 in the town of West. There is only one reason to come here and that's for the kolaches. Now I'm not talking about the fake sausage roll things that people in Dallas call kolaches. Real kolaches are pastries filled with fruit and/or cream cheese, and they're a tasty tasty treat any time. We got four, took them to the car and, within five minutes those pastries were gone and we were happily on our way.
Just south of Austin, when we hit San Marcos, the happily dysfunctional GPS perked up and said "Take exit 204A toward TX-123". We dutifully complied. Little did we know that the sinister device would take us through the desolate and surprisingly-flat parts of the hill country. For many hours we spent speeding along the terrible two-lane road with nothing to see except a tree, the grass, or a broken-down wooden shack. Thankfully we had our MP3 players to keep us company otherwise we'd go insane...well more insane than we already were.
We stopped for gas at a Valero station in the tiny town of Geronimo. I was able to blend in and mimic the normal people so I did most of the talking. Apparently, from talking with the ladies at the station, there were five antique stores within a half-mile. There's nothing really else to say about that; I just thought I'd point that out.
For a long time it was the same on this lonely road that never seemed to end. Sure the highway numbers changed, but the scenery never changed. Our journey took us through many little Texas towns we'd never heard of before: Seguin, Stockdale, Karnes City, Pettus, Beeville, Sinton, Robstown, Kingsville, and finally down a long palm-tree decorated stretch of U.S. Highway 77. When we finally got to TX-100 we knew we were in the home stretch. The final 27 miles seemed like nothing compared to what we've endured.
We crossed the bridge at Port Isabel, and M squeed with tears of joy to finally see the ocean once again, and within about four or five miles we made it to the hotel. I was so happy to be there that I almost kissed the ground, however I wasn't sure where that ground nor my lips had been.
We stayed at the Motel 6 in South Padre. It looked a little run-down, however that applies for nearly everything in a beach resort town. Unless you meticulously and constantly keep up the building it's going to wear down from the barrage of damaging salt and sand.
South Padre Island is first and foremost a resort town. Between the months of March and September the place is overrun with families, college kids, and other random chaos. Thankfully we showed up in October so we had the island pretty much all to ourselves.
After getting cleaned up we decided that for our first night's dinner we deserved something nice. Unfortunately, nice restaurants in South Padre are few and far in-between, as this place caters to the wild beach-going masses and most of the eateries are full of despicable deep-fried seafood and tacky tiki drinks. Doing an online search netted us a table at the Sea Ranch (http://searanchrestaurant.com) over at the southern end of the island. It is quite possibly one of the nicest seafood restaurants you will find on this little island. Most of their seafood is fished from the Gulf of Mexico, and despite fears about the massive oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 I can assure you this fish is fresh and perfectly safe. Several items such as the red snapper, lobster, and king crab legs are market-priced and not always available. M had the red snapper special, while I munched on some nice and meaty scallops. All in all a perfect end to a long day.
The next morning we got up bright an early, which for us means about 10 a.m. We were looking for a good Mexican breakfast. I figured Mexican-anything would be a good idea here, because South Padre is very close to the Mexican city of Matamoros. We found The Grapevine Cafe (http://www.gvcafe.com), with breakfast tacos the size of your head. One was enough and very delicious! Being in close proximity to many orange groves they also had freshly-squeezed orange juice sold at market price. We then got our gear and went to the beach.
For most people who want to spend a lot of time on the beach the optimal time to go to South Padre is between March and September. Of course that's the tourist season, which means crowded beaches and expensive hotel rooms. We eschew encountering the unwashed masses, or at least we try to anyway. Considering the fact that we're going in late October we didn't have a problem with that. Sure there's a slight problem with ridiculously-cold water, but it's the price you pay for the freedom of being left alone.
I wandered along the beach in my shorts and sandals. It's been so long since I walked on a real sandy beach with real sand that I forgot how to maneuver along this strange substance. It didn't help that my heavy weight was making me sink with every step. M wasted no time in darting out into the freezing water. I'm sure part of him regretted doing that, however he endured the pain and managed to convince himself that the water was warmer than the surrounding air. He didn't stray too far from shore, which is good, because the last thing I want to tell his parents is that he disappeared at sea.
After a change of clothes and heading back inland we drove down to the South Padre visitor's center (http://www.sopadre.com), which we probably should have done in the first place. This is probably the most important place for tourists to go on this whole island, because otherwise you're just aimlessly wandering around like we were doing.
This is not on the main Padre Blvd strip. Instead it's on a smaller parallel street to the East, also called "Padre Blvd".
At the visitor's center we were greeted by a very nice and chatty woman, who promptly stuffed our arms with a plethora of colorful brochures. If she hadn't been so friendly I'd say she was trying to attack us with paper cuts. Nevertheless we had the information we were looking for, and promptly headed to the other side of the island to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center (http://www.spibirding.com).
The SPI Birding Center is a great place to go to see a lot of local birds, which should be apparent from the title. The building itself is not very big. There's a little movie room where you can see a somewhat campy film that tells more about South Padre activities than it does about birds. Upstairs there's a single-room exhibit showcasing models of local wildlife, along with a display about what causes the tides. If you want to go up to the third floor there's a balcony overlooking the whole establishment. It's a recommended sight, even if you're afraid of heights.
Most people aren't going to spend much time in the building, because the real excitement is out back. The total birding center covers about a square mile of wetlands, bordering the super-salty Laguna Madre. A series of long boardwalks raised up ten feet stretch out across the area allowing you to explore the wonders of wetland nature without having to march through the muck. This is good, because there are a lot of things in there that can kill you pretty quickly including a few alligators. That's right alligators! Apparently there's three of 'em, and they came with the lot. We noticed that there was no fence between the wetlands and the road, so if the gators really wanted to they could just wander over to the road, munch on some tourists, and be fat n' happy. But they seem to be content right where they are.
One thing that you'll notice when coming here, especially if the winds pick up, is a wonderful smell of various decomposing compounds. That's due to the waste management plant conveniently located right next to the birding center, which dumps freshly-filtered water into the area. The smell is only in one small area of the place, so you shouldn't have too much trouble.
After resting and getting cleaned up at the hotel we decided to splurge once again on a nice dinner. On a whim, and desiring some good Italian food, we found Gabriella's (http://gabriellasspi.com). I would say it's the nicest Italian restaurant on the island, and if Paulino's wasn't there it'd be the only Italian restaurant on the island (No, pizza joints don't count).
Gabriella's doesn't look like much from the outside, as it's shoved into a little strip mall, but once you get inside it's a world apart. The place is decorated like mad with icons that you would find in a cafe from any stereotypical Italian mafia movie, but somehow it doesn't look tacky or trashy. Every table had a candle burning in a wine bottle (How very Lady and the Tramp). For some reason the candle on our table wasn't lit. I guess they didn't want to give the impression that we were there for a romantic dinner. We shared an order of "Italian Nachos". If you have an urge to mix Mexican with Italian well this is it! According to their menu it's...
Pasta chips layered with roma tomatoes, black olives, jalapenos, Tuscan relish, green onions, and mozzarella. Topped with chicken and Italian Sausage and smothered in an Asiago Sauce.
That's right, we did it and it was good! We had other delightful Italian staples, but this is the one that stuck out the most. And thus ends the second day...well not really.
Around three o'clock in the morning I got up to go to the bathroom. On my way back I somehow tripped over our hotel room's desk chair, stubbing my toe and flopping down onto the wood floor. Apparently it was so loud that M sat up in bed and shouted "What the [censored]?!" Don't worry. It's only minor damage.
The third day was our trip out of South Padre and to Houston. We had other places to be, since we were spreading our seven-day vacation between multiple cities. We went to the far north of South Padre to see where the sand dunes were slowly swallowing the road so we could get some more beach goodness before we left. We didn't drive onto the beach, because that's one of the last places you want to take a tiny car. We just parked on the side of the road and marched up seemingly impossibly-steep sand dunes. The sand was delightfully pure and clean, as opposed to the somewhat dirty touristy areas further south.
After crossing back over the bridge we decided to make a quick stop and visit the Port Isabel Lighthouse (http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/port-isabel-lighthouse), and check out the town square. The light house is conveniently located right next to the bridge on the Western shore of the Laguna Madre.
For three dollars they'll let you climb up to the top of the light house and stay up there as long as you want or until you become a nuisance. This is pre-ADA architecture so there's no ramps or elevators or convenient and pain-free means of getting to the top. It's just a long spiral staircase with a cramped ladder at the top. Please be prepared for cramped quarters the further you go up the stairs, watch your head, and above all DON'T LOOK DOWN!
Once you get to the top fifty feet up you'll be greeted with a rewarding view of Port Isabel, the Laguna Madre, and the giant bridge to South Padre Island so it's certainly worth it.
We shot out of Port Isabel like a cannon, which is really hard when you constantly have to stop at traffic lights in what seems like a hundred little towns just along the little stretch of TX-100.
On the way we passed by a place called "Jungle Bobz" (Yes, that's how they spell it). We didn't stop there, however I imagine they were shooting for the "World's Tackiest Tourist Attraction" award with the massive amount of giant animal sculptures painted in bright colors.
Our next stop was the forested area just north of Houston along I-45 known as Conroe. For what nefarious reason were we going to such a place? Well we had friends there, and that always makes it better. We were starting on the second longest leg of our journey, a good 400 miles away through nothing but back roads and the wild wild wilderness.
Tune in next time for the second part of our trip entitled "Send in the Bugs" or "Where Did All These Cars Come From?".