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Eat, drink, stay and play on South Padre Island, Texas

Summer is here, and that means it's time to hit the beach. Texas has hundreds of miles of shoreline, but none as picturesque, diverse, and alluring as South Padre Island, a 34-mile long barrier reef island at the state's southern tip and part of the 110-mile long stretch of what is actually two islands divided by Port Mansfield.

 South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Texas
South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, Texas
Julie Catalano
A serene moment after sunset
A serene moment after sunset
Julie Catalano

With a population of about 2,800 at the 2010 census, the small town of South Padre swells with more than a million visitors every year. Spring break may be legendary, but summer is when this gem of an island really shines.

There's only one way to reach the island from the mainland, and that's by way of the soaring Queen Isabella Causeway at Port Isabel. Once there, sand and water takes center stage—swimming, sailing, sunning, surfing, windsurfing, sand sculpting, parasailing, SCUBA, beachcombing, and some of the best year-round fishing to be found. In short, a sand and surf playground like nowhere else in the state.

The South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, 6801 Padre Blvd., 956-243-8179. A gorgeous 50-acre model of the area's diverse habitats—dune meadows, freshwater ponds, and wetlands—that draw more than 300 species, this is one of the nine World Birding Center sites located in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Enjoy the view of Laguna Madre and the Gulf of Mexico from the five-story tower overlooking 3300 linear feet of boardwalk.

Clayton's Beach Bar and Event Venue, 6900 Padre Blvd, 956-761-2344. The biggest beach bar in Texas, and that's not just a slogan. Clayton's has a 50-foot bar and 15,000 square feet of deck area to listen to bands or host a special event. Lunch, dinner, drinks, dancing, concerts--right on the beach.

The Palms Resort, 3616 Gulf Blvd., 800-466-1316. Remember those seaside motels of the 60s? Even if you don't, you'll get a kick out of this newly renovated retro style boutique hotel that kicks the nostalgia factor up a notch with modern amenities and excellent dining. Cafe on the Beach serves up fresh-made breakfast, salads, soups, burgers, sandwiches, seafood, desserts, wine, and specialty coffees and cocktails on their covered outdoor deck with surfside views.

Paragraphs on Padre Boulevard Bookstore, 5505 Padre Blvd., 956-433-5057. What's summer without summer reading? Paragraphs is a full-service independent bookstore (and we love independent bookstores). Warm and welcoming atmosphere, with free Wi-FI, comfy chairs, a great selection of new and used books, game boards, and they're pet friendly too. A bookstore for booklovers run by people who love books. Open daily.

Pier 19 Restaurant and Bar, 1 Padre Blvd., 956-761-7437. This is the place to watch people, pelicans, fishing boats, and some pretty cool sunsets. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, they'll even cook up your catch and prepare it with all the trimmings. Fireworks on the looooong scenic Pier every Saturday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

For more info, sopadre.com