South Padre's Snowbirds

You might call it Baby Boomer Spring Break. We’re not talking about a week of Hawaiian Tropic-scented, girls gone wild, hedonistic beach parties here. Oh no. We’re talking about hordes of middle-aged Northerners and Midwesterners (mostly retired) who meet up every year for several months of eating, drinking and merriment.

Yes, they’re primarily on southern beaches to get away from the bitter cold, but if you think that’s all there is to the story you’re missing the much bigger—and oft-times compelling—picture.

As a species, they’re pretty predictable. Small flocks begin migrating south in November and December, but the full-on invasion doesn’t happen until early in the New Year. Or at least that’s how it is on South Padre Island.

Snowbirds are people from the Northeast and Midwest who spend part of their year in a warmer climate. Habitats are varied: some own second homes or condos, some arrive in fancy RV’s and some simply secure long-term rentals. And while they hail from a variety of geographic regions, one thing is clear: they’re a thriving part-time community.

My fascination with this huge population of retirees started on a less than stellar note. While shopping for groceries at the Port Isabel HEB, I ran into one too many pissy old ladies. I smiled; she scowled. I said excuse me, she looked at me and sighed, as though I owed her the right of way. "Who is the native Texan here?" I thought, full of self-righteous contempt.

Over the next few days I ran into them pretty much everywhere I went, and as a whole I didn’t find them very friendly. By that time I was developing a full-on bias, which prompted me to try an experiment: for one day, I would see how many snowbirds I could get to talk to me.

I’m happy to say that my judgmental generalizations were wrong.

The great majority of Winter Texans I encountered were very nice. They’re just not effusive southerners. 

The first couple I met was from Nebraska, and I think her name was Laura. 

They aren’t retirees; they were just on the beach for a two-week vacation. But when we ran into them later at Louie’s, it was apparent they were a part of the larger demographic. (And I do mean large. Louie’s had five different dining rooms that were completely packed with middle-aged folks and retirees.) Laura and her husband were sitting at a very long table with about 15 other people, eating, drinking, and cheering for the Cornhuskers, who were battling out an NCAA basketball game on TV.

And most of the folks I stopped on the beach were more than happy to talk to me.

I was chatting with Gail from Fargo, North Dakota (L) when Canadians Cheryl and Dean (daughter and father) walked by; the three greeted each other like old friends. None could recall which year they actually met, but they’re neighbors in the loosest sense of the word: they’re all three citizens of Snowbird City and enjoy seeing each other from year to year.

Nick and Martha from Boston say they're the ones who got lost. Most New England snowbirds go to Florida for the winter, but these two having been visiting South Padre for 15 years. They much prefer the southern hospitality and the lack of pretense.

Snowbirds commonly travel solo and in packs. 

Gulf Boulevard, which runs parallel to the beach and to the main drag, Padre Boulevard, is usually buzzing with activity anytime of the day during Snowbird season.

Between 4:00 and 5:00 every day, it's not uncommon to see snowbirds congregating on balconies for conversation, happy hour, or just to say “howdy” to passers by. 

Time for a commercial: One of our favorite restaurants on the island is Captain Roy’s. I love their fish tacos, but they also have plenty of other Tex Mex and seafood. They’ll even fry up whatever you catch!

The yellow bus below is called The Wave, a free shuttle service that offers transportation all over the island and to/from Port Isabel.

Port Isabel is touristy, but has some local flavor. 

While I was walking around the docks I kept seeing these two ladies, and they were having so much fun together. I vowed that if I saw them again I’d stop and ask them if they were twins. 

About half an hour later I learned that Kitty and Sue are indeed sisters, but not twins. 

South Padre Island and Port Isabel are joined by the Queen Isabella Causeway. It’s a beautiful little jaunt.

As I’m writing this on September 12, we’re heading back home from a week on the Island. While we walked and rode our bikes this trip, I noticed that the great majority of the cars parked at complexes and resorts have Texas license plates. While I was there in February (when I took these pictures) a casual survey yielded plates from 22 states, most of them from the Midwest. And like clockwork, the procession will begin again in a matter of weeks.