South Padre Island, TX: Sea Turtle Art and Sandcastle Capitals of the World
This region has something for everyone, even if they don't fish.
My 18-year-old granddaughter, Mollie, loves turtles. She has since she was little. So in all my travels, I’ve sent photos of turtles from around the world. But between the Turtle Rescue Center, the turtle conservation efforts, and the expansive turtle art displayed throughout South Padre Island (SPI), my phone ran out of batteries before I could capture them all.
Although the Sea Turtle Art Trail is what first captures the imagination, a visit to the Sea Turtle Rescue Center is an excellent place to start the journey. Injured turtles from the Laguna Madre Bay, often discovered by tourists and fishermen, are brought to the hospital for rehabilitation and usually recover enough to be released back into the wild. The Center offers tours of its many residents in various stages of recovery. It provides an extensive education program involving lectures and field trips, and an overseas conservation program that patrols the beaches during nesting season from March to August to help the moms lay the eggs and the babes find their way to safety once hatched.
And now it’s time for turtle art, where local artists transform fiberglass turtle forms into vibrant creatures of the sea. Tank is the giant turtle on the trail, covering the whole front of a store building. Other sculptures, spread throughout the island, sometimes reflect their artists’ proclivities. Crush, for instance, was inspired by the creator’s love of dogs.
SEA TURTLE SCULPTURES DELIGHT VISITORS TO SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TEXAS
The visual theme of the turtle named Miracle tells of their miraculous journey, as its sign relates: “From the beaches where I nest, the inshore jetties and rocks where I grow to the deep open oceans where I live and breed.” A painted turtle named Rosie represents relaxation as a synonym for SPI – a turtle that stops to smell the roses….
At the Visitors Center, Indigo comes by its name honestly: a rich, deep blue reminiscent of the ocean. At the Sea Ranch Restaurant, weighing in at 400 pounds, Lucy is the most giant hand-carved turtle made out of Mesquite wood. Some lovely Mesquite dolphin playmates are nearby.
Isla, 11 feet tall, is one of the giant sea turtles on the trail and her colorful design depicts the beauty of SPI, complete with sea life, palm trees, and luminous islands. Every turtle tells a different story in its unique creative way – and along with its companion Sandcastle Art Trail, it provides a delightful diversion to the usual beach shops and beach bars all along the main road of this pretty beach town.
And then I was on an actual beach, shovel, and bucket in hand, getting a lesson in what little kids have universally been doing forever. Only my instructor was a world-famous sandcastle sculptor – the first to introduce visitors to SPI to the art of sand sculpting – responsible for many of the more than two dozen wondrous creations gracing the same area as the sea turtles in what is called the Sandcastle Capital of the World.
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TEXAS, DESERVES ITS DESIGNATION AS THE SANDCASTLE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
As Lucinda Wierenga of “Sandy Feet” explained: “You always start with a firm base and then build smaller bases.” Of course, this required very sophisticated implements: a shovel, buckets, planters with the bottom removed, a pastry knife, a plastic spoon, a straw, and a toothpick. No technology is allowed.
And what emerged, an hour later, were two very realistic-looking lighthouse towers, replete with stairs, windows, doors, brick siding, ramps, and a bridge connecting them protected by ramparts. Admittedly, hers looked a tad – okay, a whole lot – more professional than mine, but I couldn’t deny the sense of pride.
All the sculptures use sand from the Rio Grande River because it’s illegal to remove any from the beach areas. And yes, they are made of sand. What keeps these treasures from crumbling? Easy answer: water and compaction. Add in a variety of more sophisticated techniques and ingredients – AKA powerful glue – and you have an awe-inspiring creation resistant to the elements – as well as finger pokes, though the latter is severely discouraged. Some do begin to crumble with time. The many island artists are always on the lookout for those that need repair.
Like the turtles that adorn restaurants, hotels, and attractions along Padre Boulevard, was the Tiki, a four-sided pyramid highlighting SPI’s signature animals: turtle, pelican, dolphin, and alligator. A lounge-singing mermaid seemed a fitting choice for the Coral Reef Restaurant, whose sculptor needed special dispensation to show her bare nipple.
The South Padre Island Inn sculpture was a surprise because it was actually of a sandcastle – the traditional kind that kids most often build on beaches. Very unlike the giant Indian elephant god gracing the entrance to the Blue Bay Inn.
SANDCASTLE VILLAGE IN SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, TEXAS, IS A ONE-OF-A-KIND CREATIVE EXPERIENCE
But nothing prepared me for Sandcastle Village – initially a vision of Lucinda’s -- a vast tent-like structure housing a fairyland of colossal phantasmagorical creations celebrating holidays, animals, famous characters, castles – total immersion in a dream-like sequence of other-worldly shapes of giant proportion. There’s a massive Neptune and Santa, an enormous butterfly and bear, and an alligator and iguana, a castle large enough that a dwarfed visitor can sit upon a throne and feel overwhelmed by its surroundings.
The intricacy and precision of the creations are revelatory. And all around are smaller heart-shaped carvings of personal salutations to loved ones and shout-outs to newborns that can be bought with a $20 donation. And often, an artist is on hand to update a “tired” sculpture or create a new one. Despite my lesson at Sandy Feet, I did not yet qualify.
Ordinarily, South Padre Island’s main appeal is its beaches, but I was visiting in February 2022, known for frigid temperatures nationwide. Fortunately, I enjoyed SPI’s sea (turtles) and sand in sculpted form. For more information, visit sopadre.com. There’s an Art Trails map showing the location of all the turtle and sand sculptures.
Fyllis Hockman is a multi-award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for over 30 years — and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles appear in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet. When not traveling, she is almost as happy watching plays or movies, working out, and sitting on a barstool next to her travel-writing husband.