Port Isabel: Little Gem By the Bridge
Port Isabel is the last stop before the causeway that connects mainland Texas to South Padre Island. While you can’t avoid driving through town, it’s easy to hit the gas and fly over the bridge without a glance in the rearview mirror. But, if you do that, you’re missing out on fish so fresh that it was hauled out of the Gulf only hours earlier, a lighthouse that sometimes doubles as a movie screen, and the world’s largest fly fishing rod and reel.
You know the tall tales that fishermen tell, about how their catch was thiiiiiiiiis big? Well, this rod’s stats have been verified by the Guinness Book of Records. The rod is seventy feet in length and made from fiberglass. The reel has a four-foot diameter and is formed from aviation grade aluminum. The most unexpected aspect of this piece of kitsch is that it actually works. So if Goliath stopped by and wanted to haul in some snook, redfish or trout, never fear – Port Isabel is prepared.
Don’t expect a polished, large-scale aquarium. The Sealife Nature Center is a charitable organization, occupying a few rooms across from the lighthouse. Fans battle the Texas heat (AC is just a dream) and handwritten signs are taped to the tanks. The messages on them include things like ‘I am endangered… Don’t buy my friends and family as souvenirs.’
The marine life on display can all be found in the bay. Yellow and purplish-black seahorses scull through the water near aquariums containing crabs, an octopus and snails. A touch tank contains hermit crabs and starfish – which you can hold for up to ten seconds. There are also clownfish, cowfish, stingray and turtles in residence, which is impressive because this place is small. Staff members are well informed and eager to share their knowledge and, despite the size, I learned more here than at many of the fancier aquariums.
This lighthouse was built in 1852 and is the only remaining one along the Texas coast that is accessible to the public. Today, you can climb the seventy-five spiraling steps and some fairly vertical, if short, ladders to admire the view of South Padre Island’s skyline.
Given the waterfront location, it’s unsurprising that some of the best eats in town revolve around seafood.
This joint is attached to a convenience store, but don’t let that deter you. The fish here is so fresh that we thought we caught it ourselves! Living in landlocked Santa Fe, we went a little wild when confronted with so much seafood. Lane sampled the ceviche for an appetizer, which predominantly consisted of white fish, with a touch of dill, green peppers, scallions and tomato. I took the shrimp and flounder plate for a test drive, while Lane made the red snapper her entrée. Both fish were well-seasoned – we detected mostly lime and paprika. Many restaurants specializing in fish are formal and pricey.
Joe’s is a little short on atmosphere, but it gives you a great bang for your buck and, it’s casual enough that you can lick your fingers without feeling self-conscious (and believe me, you’ll want to).
Given its proximity to the World’s Largest Fly Fishing Rod and Reel, it makes sense that Pirate’s Landing is kitsch central. Pause in the courtyard out front to see a man selling jewelry forged from what appears to be chainmail. If you time it right, you can also make a ‘donation’ in exchange for having a parrot sit on your head. If that doesn’t scream pirate, I don’t know what does.
The portions here are as over the top as the décor (we made two meals out of ours). We’d recommend the coconut shrimp, scallops and tilapia. You can order your fish broiled or fried, which made me feel healthy until I took a bite of the slightly sweet dinner rolls, which might as well have been listed on the menu as Carb-loading Crack. If you want a dining option with water views, this is your place.
Not in the mood for seafood? Grab some BBQ to go from Big Mike’s Smokehouse. I recommend takeout because the ambience is sports bar meets abandoned store. That said, the pulled pork melts in your mouth. Big Mike’s doesn’t make its own sauce, but I’m a fan of Sweet Baby Rays – which was one of the options available – so that didn’t bother me. Unlike many SPI establishments, it’s also easy on the wallet.
- To see the fishing pole, make a left at the last light, as you approach the causeway from the Port Isabel end, then park and walk toward the water.
- The Sealife Nature Center can be found at 110 N. Garcia St.
- The Port Isabel Lighthouse is located at 421 E. Queen Isabella Blvd.
- The address for Joe’s Oyster Bar is 207 Maxan Street.
- Pirate’s Landing is at 110 S. Garcia Street.
- Big Mike’s Smokehouse is at 209 E. Maxan Street.
- It is easy to walk between all of the attractions listed above.
- Keep an eye out for the vibrant dolphin statues sprinkled throughout the town.
What’s your favorite small town along the Gulf Coast of Texas?