From San Antonio to South Padre

My latest for Web2Carz:

San Antonio to South Padre
Traveling to the Gulf Coast’s best-kept secret.
By: Mark Yost
Web2Carz Contributing Writer
Published: June 19th, 2013

Editor’s note: San Antonio may be making waves right now as the Spurs compete against the Miami Heat in the NBA championship, but those aren’t the only waves you find on a trip to San Antonio and nearby South Padre Island. Mark Yost writes another guest article for Web2Carz to tell us all about this gem of the Gulf Coast.

wanna_wanna_inn_1371653740_300x200South Padre Island is about as far south as you can go on the Texas Gulf Coast. It’s perhaps best known for the tens of thousands of college kids who overrun the 10-mile isle every spring. That’s probably the only time of the year most people don’t want to be on this gorgeous spit of mostly undeveloped white sand. But in the summertime, families from Denver to Dallas replace the frat boys and fill the eclectic mix of beachfront condos. After Labor Day, the seafood is still fresh and it’s warm enough for a dip in the ocean or a scoop of mint chocolate chip. Best of all, the crowds are gone, leaving just the locals, who often number only a few thousand. With temperatures averaging in the low-80s from September through December and from April to June, it’s perhaps the Gulf Coast’s best-kept secret.

Day One, 3 p.m.: If you think getting there is half the fun, fly into San Antonio, pick up your rental car, and drive downtown to the historic St. Anthony Hotel (330 E. Travis St., http://www.thestanthonyhotel.com.) Opened in 1909 by three cattlemen, the National Historic landmark’s 352 distinctive suites have been restored to their former glory. Crown princes, presidents and movie stars are among the celebrities who have stayed here. For an extra special treat, book the John Wayne Suite, decorated just the way The Duke liked it.

Day One, 4 p.m.: After parking your car and dropping off your bags at the St. Anthony, walk over to Penner’s (311 W. Commerce St., http://www.pennersinc.com), a classic old-school men’s shop that specializes in tropical Guayabera shirts imported from Yucatan, Mexico. The hand-made shirts come in a variety of cotton blends, but get one made of linen, perfect for picking up every breeze at one of the beachfront cabana bars in South Padre.

To keep the sun off your head, walk from Penner’s over to Paris Hatters (119 Broadway, http://www.parishatters.com). Just steps from the Alamo, it’s the oldest retail business in San Antonio. Paris Hatters has provided Stetson cowboy hats and classic fedoras priced from $20 to $7,000 to everyone from Pope John Paul II to Kid Rock since 1917. The service is unlike anywhere else, as they’ll custom fit your hat with antique wood blocks and steam it to get the brim just right.

Head back to the St. Anthony for a pre-dinner drink. You can watch the comings and goings in the ornately decorated lobby from one of the couches or barstools in the Peacock Alley Lobby Bar, or head downstairs to Pete’s Pub, a subterranean where both the cocktails and the atmosphere are cool chic.

Day One, 7 p.m.: Continue to explore Old San Antone by walking past the Alamo and over to the Menger Hotel. Originally built in 1859, the hotel bar, an exact replica of London’s House of Lords’ Pub, is where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his Rough Riders. It still features dark cherry wood paneling, French beveled mirrors, and the original brass spittoons. Grant and Lee both dined in the Colonial Room restaurant, as did French actress Sarah Bernhardt. Start with the Escargot Bourgoignonne or Menger’s Signature Tortilla Soup. Steaks, including an exquisitely prepared 8 oz. filet mignon Bearnaise, dominate the menu, along with veal scaloppini and fresh Gulf red snapper.

Day One, 10 p.m.: For a nightcap, find your way to the nearest stairway that leads down to San Antonio’s famous Riverwalk. Meander along the waterway – which is usually about 20 degrees cooler than the sidewalk temperature – and stop for a margarita and watch the tourists float by in the guided tour boats.

Day 2, 9 a.m.: There are plenty of good places to eat a traditional Tex-Mex breakfast of chorizo and eggs in San Antonio. Or you could stop at Lulu’s Bakery and Café (918 N. Main St., http://www.luluscafeinsa.com) on the south edge of downtown. But I’m going to suggest you make your way to Highway 16, just south of town off the beltway, and stop into Taqueria San Juan. Don’t let the bars on the windows scare you; inside is the best plate of chorizo and eggs you’ve ever tasted. And prices that can’t be beat.

You got on Highway 16 for a reason. Rather than take Interstate 37 to South Padre (something we’ll do on the way back), stay on Highway 16 south for a closer look at the gorgeous green scrub of South Texas. You’ll pass through Poteet, the state strawberry capitol. This year’s event (it’s in April) featured country stars Chris Cagle and Neal McCoy, as well as conjunto tejano sensation Los Texmaniacs In Tilden, you can take a break at Wheeler’s Mercantile and order lunch at the deli counter alongside the wildcat drillers and truckers who feast on Texas staples like chicken-fried steak and steamed greens. You’ll also pass the gates to some of the most exclusive South Texas hunting ranches. It’s a drive that’s not out of your way (it’s maybe an hour longer than the interstate), and will give you a good flavor of the state the media seems to love to hate, but people are moving to in droves.

You can’t take Highway 16 all the way to South Padre. At some point, you’ll have to cross over and pick up state highway 77. Down around Brownsville you’ll see signs from highway 77 for South Padre.

Day 2, 4 p.m. (or so): Once in South Padre, park yourself – literally and figuratively – at the Wanna Wanna Inn (5100 Gulf Blvd., http://www.wannawanna.com). For most of the summer, rates at this 15-room, retro beachfront hotel straight out of “Beach Blanket Bingo” are $199 a night, but after Labor Day they drop to just $79 (if you ask nicely at the desk).

On weekends the open-air tiki bar features local musicians playing covers of Jimmy Buffet and George Strait, while the kitchen serves up fresh gulf shrimp and steamers. Wash it all down with a Shiner Bock, or a house special margarita on the rocks. The bar stays open late on Sunday nights during the NFL season so guests can watch Sunday Night Football with a gentle gulf breeze at their backs. http://www.wannawanna.com

Other lodging options: Schlitterbahn, the water park conglomerate, recently opened a 221-room resort here. A beachfront king with a sleeper sofa goes for $349 a night in October. There are also plenty of weekend condo rentals on web sites like http://www.pirentals.com.

For some, beach vacations are all about doing nothing. If that’s your preference, you can simply hang out at the Wanna Wanna and never be far from the bar or the beach. For those who want a more-active vacation, here are a few suggestions (in no particular order):

Sea Turtle Inc.: The northern half of South Padre Island is mostly undeveloped, partly because it’s a critical nesting area for one of the world’s most endangered species, the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. STI Executive Director Jeff George and his staff welcome volunteers (over 16) all year round. “We put them through a one or two-hour training class then put them to work.” You can check out their blog, too.

The South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center: Offers guided bird walks Thursday-Sunday for $5. The island is home to scaups, gulls, herons, egrets and warblers, as well as a variety of migratory birds. Visit their site for more details.

Sunset: The Gulf is east, but later in the day people flock to the west side of the island for the spectacular sunsets over the bay. Louie’s Backyard has two big outdoor decks, a nightly seafood buffet and a nightclub vibe. And the web site offers a sunset clock so you don’t miss the end-of-day event. But for a more low-key evening head next door to Laguna Bob’s, which advertises “seafood, sunsets and cocktails.” The music is acoustic and the Wahoo sandwich are off the charts.

BBQ: South Texas is littered with little roadside BBQ stands. One of the best – and a great stop on your way back from South Padre Island along highway 77 – is Pop’s, a converted trailer parked next to an auto repair shop on Main Street in Robstown, about two hours north of Padre. The smoker hangs on a wire rack on one end of the trailer. Home-made wooden stairs lead up to the window where you can order a mixed plate of brisket, ribs and smoked Bavarian-style Texas sausage for about $12. Pint sides of vinegary coleslaw and baked pinto beans marinated in Pop’s sauce are $2. There are no tables, but sitting in your car, the windows down, watching a freight train go by on the tracks 30 feet away, just adds to the experience.

About Mark Yost
Mark Yost is the author of the Rick Crane Noir series, published by Stay Thirsty Press. Rick Crane is the classic, anti-hero private eye in the spirit of Sam Spade and Jim Rockford. He works in the unmistakably noirish underworld of Upstate New York, running errands and fixing problems for Jimmy Ricchiati Sr., one of Upstate New York's most notorious crime bosses. But readers quickly learn that deep down, Rick Crane is one of the good guys. "Cooper's Daughter," the first book in the widely acclaimed series, is a fast-moving tale in which a heartbroken father comes to Rick and asks him to find out what really happened to his daughter, who was murdered and the details buried in the Unsolved Crimes File of the local police department. The second book in the series is "Jimmy's Nephew," which begins with the death of Joey "Boom Boom" Bonadeo, an up-and-coming boxer and the nephew of Rick's underworld boss. What starts out as a routine investigation turns into a case that will test Rick's faith -- in the Catholic Church and his fellow man. Book No. 3 in the series, "Mary's Fate" is due out in August 2015. Mark Yost also writes for The Wall Street Journal Arts in Review page, as well as the Book Review section. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America -- Midwest Chapter, International Thriller Writers, and a number of other author groups. He is also a member of the Amazon Author's Program. Mark lives in the Loyola neighborhood of Chicago, but he and his son, George, call the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn "home."

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