A heartwarming experience awaits at Sea Turtle, Inc. (6617 Padre Blvd., 956/761-4511, www.seaturtleinc.com , 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., $3 donation requested), an unassuming little spot at the end of South Padre ’s main strip. Inside, you’ll find tanks full of various types and sizes of sea turtles, several native to the nearby Gulf Coast .
Try to arrive at 10 a.m. for the informative presentation offering context about the several dozen friendly and fascinating creatures on site. Kids can feed the turtles and everyone has a chance for a photo op. Marvel at these prehistoric animals—some can reach 450 pounds—and toss an extra few dollars on the box for this organization that works tirelessly to protect and promote these endangered sea creatures.
Kids aren’t the only ones who’ll learn something at the nearby Sea Life Nature Center (110 N. Garcia St. in Port Isabel, 956/299-0629, www.spinaturecenter.com , 10:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. daily, $3 donation requested). This low-key locale just across the causeway from South Padre  contains about 20 aquariums filled with sea creatures from the Gulf waters.
Shrimp, starfish, rays, and eel await at the center, which offers a children’s program at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day, allowing youngsters to handle and feed some of the species in the non-threatening touch tanks. Knowledgeable staffers educate visitors about environmentally responsible ways to enjoy their time on the island.
It’s well worth the 74-step climb up the tight spiral staircase to experience the breathtaking views from the Port Isabel Lighthouse (421 E. Queen Isabella Blvd. in Port Isabel, 800/527-6102, www.tpwd.state.tx.us , summer: 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–8 p.m. Fri.–Sat., winter: 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, $3 adults, $1 students).
From the bug-sized cars passing over the gorgeous Laguna Madre Bay on the San Isabella Causeway to the remarkable view of adjacent historic downtown Port Isbell, the vantage point from this historic lighthouse is truly a sight to behold.
Constructed in 1852 at the request of sea captains frustrated by visibility issues along the low-lying Texas coast, the lighthouse was a prominent and necessary fixture in the region until the early 1900s, when newer, more efficient, and more powerful towers were constructed.
Sixteen similar lighthouses graced the Texas coast at one time, but the Port Isabel structure is the only facility remaining open to the public.
Not quite as family-oriented as other area attractions, the Pan American Coastal Studies Laboratory (100 Marine Lab Dr., 956/761-2644, www.utpa.edu/csl , 1:30–4:30 p.m. Sun.–Fri., free) is designed more with researchers in mind than kiddos. Regardless, you’ll learn things here about the plant and animal life in the Laguna Madre and Gulf of Mexico through interactive displays (shark jaws, turtle shells) and limited aquariums.
Despite the fact that real waves are lapping at the shore just minutes away, families still flock to the water rides at Schlitterbahn Beach Waterpark (33261 State Park Road 100, 956/772-7873, www.schlitterbahn.com , June–July 10 a.m.8 p.m. daily, check web site for April, May, August, and September schedule, $28–35).
Without any pesky sand and saltwater to worry about, kids and adults can spend the day gliding and cruising along water trails and rides, including popular attractions such as tube chutes, the Boogie Bahn surfing ride, uphill water coasters, and the Rio Ventura.
Unlike the original Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels , which is far more spread out with more meandering, lazy inner tube rides, the South Padre version is more compact and beach-oriented, with a five-story sand castle fun house and a surprisingly good restaurant (the Shrimp Haus).