Texas’ Gulf Coast is a scenic (and nearby!) getaway from the cold winter


BREAKING DAWN | Early risers on South Padre Island are treated to first light glistening over the Gulf of Mexico, which offers a winter retreat — not just a spring break destination. (Terry Thompson/Dallas Voice)

ANDREW COLLINS  | Contributing Travel Writer

Although America’s Gulf Coast doesn’t have any major gay beach resorts, the Texas coast’s largest city, Corpus Christi, contains notable attractions while the southern tip of the Texas South Padre Island has developed as a getaway, thanks in part to biannual Splash South Padre Island gay parties.

Corpus Christi

With a population of just more than 300,000, Corpus Christi  is the largest community along the coast, just a three-hour drive down I-37 from San Antonio. The city enjoys a sheltered setting on Corpus Christi Bay, which separates it from Padre Island. From downtown Corpus, it’s an easy drive to the island, which is home to popular seaside attractions like the scenic town of Port Aransas.

A fairly conservative city with a strong military presence, Corpus has a limited gay scene but is home to noteworthy attractions. The outstanding Art Museum of South Texas and Museum of Science & History anchor a waterfront cultural district that includes the Harbor Playhouse Theatre and a complex of restored historic houses known as Heritage Park.

A bit north, the Harbor Bridge leads to the North Beach neighborhood, home to the world’s oldest surviving aircraft carrier, the World War II-era USS Lexington, now an impressive floating museum. Next door, the excellent Texas State Aquarium is home to sea turtles, river otters, piranhas and three graceful bottlenose dolphins.

Downtown’s upscale Omni Corpus Christi Hotel Bayfront Tower and the more intimate V Boutique Hotel  are reliable, gay-friendly lodging options close to local attractions and both a short walk from Water Street Market, a lively hub of restaurants, shops, bars and a museum dedicated to Texas surf culture. The excellent coffeehouse, Agua Java, the Water Street Seafood Co. and Oyster Bar and the Executive Surf Club are excellent for drinking and dining.

The Hidden Door is the primary gay club on the south side of downtown that features good drink specials, a cheery patio and the piano cabaret side bar the Loft.

If you’d rather stay outside of the bustle of downtown and near the beach, Anthony’s by the Sea is a terrific, lesbian-owned B&B in Rockport, 30 miles up the coast from Corpus Christi. This comfy six-room property is just a few blocks from Aransas Bay, and rates include a hearty breakfast, which you can enjoy on the shaded patio.

South Padre Island
Bustling South Padre Island, the southernmost Gulf Coast town,  has long been famous as a family vacation spot and Spring Break destination. In the past few years, two raucous gay circuit parties now call it home — Splash South Padre Island held twice a year, once in late April and again in the fall (usually late October or early November). Splash South Padre Island is a fun visit, drawing revelers from all over the country. (Dates are announced a few months in advance.)

The geography can be confusing for outsiders. Because the central section of the island is preserved wilderness, you can’t drive from the northern side to the southern side. The town of South Padre Island is the only substantially developed part of the island, and from Corpus  you take U.S. 77 south to Highway 100 east, about a four-hour drive.

With a mild climate, a couple of miles of beautiful beachfront, and a restaurant scene that’s become more sophisticated, this narrow island community is a terrific destination year-round, especially from fall to spring, when the weather is mild (it can be a little toasty in summer, although Gulf breezes moderate the temperatures).

The preferred activity here is relaxing: laze on the beach, ride horseback at Padre Island National Seashore and enjoy the usual sorts of recreation you’d find at the seashore: fishing, boating, kite-boarding, surfing, snorkeling, and even dolphin-watching cruises. Fans of nature should check out the fascinating South Padre Island Birding Center, which comprises of a nature center and a network of boardwalks that lead out along the bayfront (where you can spot everything from alligators to least sandpipers). Just across the Queen Isabella Causeway on the mainland, the historic village of Port Isabel contains shops, restaurants, a marina (with boat tours) and an historic lighthouse.

Seafood is naturally big in the area, and the Dirty Al’s/Daddy’s restaurant group is among the top contenders with locations on the island and across the bay in Port Isabel. Fried shrimp, oysters on the half shell, and blackened fish shine. The low-frills Manuel’s in Port Isabel is a good bet for outstanding Tex-Mex fare, with enormous breakfasts. More upscale, urbane options include stylish Cafe Kranzler, where specialties include lobster omelets at breakfast and marinated sesame-crusted ahi at dinner; and Zeste, a gourmet market and restaurant known for creatively prepared tapas, salads, sandwiches and other healthy fare.

There are no gay bars on South Padre Island, but establishments like Mooncussers and Louie’s Backyard are welcoming and often host LGBT parties during Splash weekend.

South Padre is lined with resorts and condos facing the Gulf and others set along the bay. Most properties are moderately priced, such as the relatively new Hilton Garden Inn and the small, friendly spot on the beach, the Palms Resort, one of the best values on the island with kitchenettes and the on-site cafe overlooking the water that serves tasty, casual food.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 9, 2011.