- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas - Sure, there are Cancun and Florida, but when it comes to the college crowd’s annual quest for sun and fun, the good old-fashioned road trip to ssouthern Texas seems hipper than ever.

Folks here are getting ready — fixing the bungee jump, painting the emcee stands, dusting the strobe lights and waving goodbye to the legions of Midwestern retirees who leave this strip of aquamarine shoreline just before the craziness rolls in.

Sometime during the past few decades, spending Easter break someplace warm with a gang of college buddies became part of Americana.

For the frigid campuses of the Midwest, that meant South Padre Island. The influx starts with a trickle in early March and becomes a monsoon when Texas colleges let out en masse for Texas Week, this year March 14 through 18 for many campuses in the region.

South Padre, once a desolate barrier island populated mostly by pelicans and migratory birds, grew up with the trend and continues to embrace it as the island co-markets itself as a family resort and upscale retirement haven. The island has developed into a stretch of campy novelty shops against a backdrop of high-rise hotels and multimillion-dollar condominiums.

Though March is the peak time for college-age visitors, waves of other tourists come throughout the spring, from families to sports enthusiasts. A kiteboard rodeo is scheduled for April 9 and 10, and a windsurfing competition will be held April 30 and May 1.

Now, however, after a few lackluster years since September 11, travel bookers say collegians are calling with money to spend on the most upscale debauchery they can find.

“Higher-end beachfronts are really what’s going,” says Chad Hart of Inertia Tours, one of several agencies that specialize in spring-break packages. “They’re just saying, ‘What’s awesome? That’s what we want.’”

While the Internet has allowed students to book their own hotels and research their own activities, Mr. Hart says plenty of students — particularly the women — go for package deals that include meals, club passes, an evening cruise and a jaunt to the Mexican border.

“Girls like to have a real full package; they don’t want to take chances. A lot of guys, it’s still, ‘Let’s just load into my dad’s SUV and sleep in a tent,’” he says.

During the past decade, the island’s popularity waned against the competition of package deals to foreign destinations, especially southern Mexico. However, parents have grown warier of sending their children outside the country, and each year, the area is seeing more East Coast students arrive on $900 weeklong packages. Students on tight budgets are saying they would rather pitch in for a couple of tanks of gas than spend hundreds of dollars on airfare to a destination outside the United States.

Part of South Padre’s allure has always been that it’s near the Mexican border, where the drinking age is a loosely enforced 18. Buses are on hand to run the spring-breakers back and forth to a neighborhood of bars in Matamoros, Mexico, only a block across the border but fully in another country.

No one here thinks the U.S. Department of State’s travel warning about violent drug killings in northern Mexico is stopping the students from going.

Dan Quandt, head of South Padre’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, says bookings on the Mexico buses are up 30 percent from last year, but the island’s message about Mexico hasn’t changed.

“We’ve always urged students that if they’re going to go on one of those vans, go in a group, stay with people,” he says. “If you don’t know where you’re going, don’t go there.”

For those with the energy and the money, South Padre offers many alternative diversions to lying in the sun.

It is one of the best spots in the world for kiteboarding, but lessons are pricey — a three-hour class for two runs $225 a person at South Padre Island Kiteboarding. Groups can spend a morning or a day deep-sea or bay fishing. Dolphin tours are delightful, and with prices typically much less than $20 a ticket, relatively inexpensive. Personal watercraft rentals are available, or one can parasail or ride the waves in a banana boat.

The Army will be erecting a climbing wall on the beach. Some spring breakers might try out for — or just watch the filming of — “National Lampoon’s Greek Games,” a televised parody of the Olympics with competitions such as the hands-free Salisbury steak toss, a keg toss and female strip wrestling.

Locals also know that it’s important to make sure their college-age visitors remain safe. The Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Web site has a page on “How to Avoid Getting Busted,” reminding visitors of the local drinking age and zero-tolerance policies against drugs and drunken driving. There also are safety warnings for students younger than 21 who cross the border to party.

Stormy Wall, a former college athletics coach who manages the Padre South Hotel, says he’s ready to take on the killjoy role of making sure students who drink too much don’t fall off balconies or walk through glass windows. He has threatened to throw out visitors for flouting his rules and once chased a local drug dealer out of his hotel and down the beach.

In the end, he says, his guests seem to understand that safety is as important as having fun.

“I have guys calling me on the phone, saying, ‘Dude, I’m coming back. Remember me? We’re the guys that gave you a hard time.’”

Located on the Gulf of Mexico at the tip of the Texas tail, South Padre is seven miles long, a half-mile wide and at about the same latitude as Miami.

For details on activities, click on the links for attractions and recreation at the Convention and Visitors Bureau Web site, www.sopadre.com, or call 800/SOPADRE.

Harlingen’s Valley International Airport www.iflyharlingen.com is about 40 minutes from the island. Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport www.flybrownsville.com is about half an hour away. Both Web sites have maps and information about car rentals and shuttle services. Drivers can take Interstate 37 south from San Antonio to U.S. 77, then east on Route 100.

The Wave is a free shuttle that circles the island every half-hour between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Night-life options are within walking distance of most hotels, and taxis are available. However, the island is fairly compact, and traffic can be at a standstill during spring break.

The State Department has a travel warning for northern Mexico because of gang violence, so visitors are advised to go with groups and stick with well-known bars, restaurants and shopping districts. For guided trips for an evening, a day or longer, contact:

Inertia Tours, www.inertiatours.com.

Go… With Jo, www.gowithjo.com.

Leisure Tours International, www.leisuretours.com.

Valley Transit Co., 866/WEGO-VTC.

Original Tour Co., 888/296-3522.

A driver’s license will suffice for trips just across the border. Many a spring-breaker has gotten a ticket for failing to slow down while driving through small towns on the way to South Padre Island.

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