It’s Always Five O’Clock at South Padre’s Margaritaville – Texas Monthly

My impressions of resort life have been informed chiefly by HBO’s dark comedy The White Lotus, filmed at luxury resorts around the world. Unfortunately, our HBOverlords have not yet given us the White Lotus season we deserve: one set at the Margaritaville on South Padre Island. The romances and tensions would grow around the crystalline turquoise waters of the hotel’s pool, with its swim-up bar, and unspool beneath the thirteen-foot-high yellow flip-flop sculpture in the lobby. The characters would be extraordinary.

The season would begin much like my visit in mid-March does, with Daniel Haughan, the general manager, watching guests pass through the lobby with coolers and occasionally canines in tow. (The hotel allows pets for a $200 fee per visit.) “Compression season,” his fabulously militaristic term for the period in which masses of visitors funnel onto the island, has just begun. Haughan, a narrower Channing Tatum, is a paradigm of beachy suiting. He wears a well-tailored blue blazer with a blue-and-white striped shirt and blue espadrilles. He was raised in England and Pittsburgh and has been stationed at hotels across the United States. One imagines him in well-tailored suits and regionally appropriate footwear at each.

For more than seven million annual visitors, South Padre Island is simply “the beach.” For many Texans, it’s drivable and relatively affordable, with all the surfing and fishing and parasailing offered by far-flung locales. It also serves as a popular destination for those refugees from the frigid North—the so-called winter Texans—who enjoy discounted rates in the offseason. Until recently, South Padre may not have courted national and international holiday travelers as actively as, say, Florida has. It has charmed Haughan, though. “In the morning time, walking around making sure everything is set, when the sun is coming up right off of our restaurant . . . I think that not enough people really realize how nice it is down here,” he tells me. Margaritaville is betting that they will.

Signs at Margaritaville, which opened last year on South Padre Island.
Signs at Margaritaville, which opened last year on South Padre Island. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

The Margaritaville pool.
The Margaritaville pool. Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

Founded almost forty years ago, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, named in honor of his 1977 hit song (supposedly written after he enjoyed a drink at a Mexican restaurant in Austin), has grown into a global chain of hotels, casinos, restaurants, and retail stores. In Texas, Margaritaville Lake Resort, on Lake Conroe, opened in 2020, followed two years later by Camp Margaritaville Crystal Beach, an RV resort. A Margaritaville resort is expected to open in Galveston in 2026. Haughan calls Buffett, who died in September 2023, the “backbone” of the brand, and some of the singer’s lyrics and quotes are referenced on the walls and menus. But his legacy feels less pronounced—and the visiting Parrotheads more subtle in their reverence—than I expected. The brand has transcended its front man.

Margaritaville Beach Resort South Padre Island held its grand opening last June, after a $30 million renovation to what was formerly the Pearl South Padre resort, so this is the hotel’s first official spring break. In a season when Miami Beach decided to “break up” with collegiate spring breakers via a digital advertising campaign announcing curfews, restricted beach access,  and other measures to discourage attendance, the City of South Padre Island reportedly spent $400,000 marketing itself to both revelers and families. Also, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched a rocket from nearby Boca Chica shortly before my arrival, drawing visitors from across the country and abroad. The hotel boasts a perfect view of SpaceX’s Starbase: members of the Musk family held a party on the rooftop for a previous launch, and I’m told a SpaceX executive is staying in the vast presidential suite on the twelfth floor. I resolve to remain alert in case I can land a space husband during my stay.

The spring breakers, space persons, and visiting families cram into the elevators with their elders, the winter Texans. The people-watching opportunities rival the airport’s, but the drinks are cheaper. “Just $9,” proclaims the board at the swim-up bar about the “Perfect Margarita.” For my purposes—a vacation on which the people around me distract from angst about the state of the world—there is nowhere better.

Sunbathers at the pool.Sunbathers at the pool.
Sunbathers at the pool.Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

I wonder if I could build a life for myself as the Anthony Bourdain of Margaritavilles, swanning from resort to resort. I would wear caftans and wait for an older business executive to notice me, invite me onto his health insurance policy, and possibly fire me into the cosmos on a rocket at no cost. But already I have stiff competition for the role of “resort wild card,” which I realize when a woman in a blue bathing suit steps into the elevator with me and other guests and hollers, “If y’all are headed down to the pool, I apologize in advance for my brother.” Oh no.

I lose her as soon as I get to the deck. I am distracted by two young women in matching black-and-silver string bikinis doing an exuberant “Cupid Shuffle” line dance with two much older men (beat me to it!) below a mezzanine where a DJ is plying his trade. Rarely have I witnessed such pure multigenerational congress. A little boy jumps into the fray toward the end of the song and begins throwing himself around like one of the possessed witch-criers of Salem. The sun muscles its way through the clouds, and I arrange myself in the one available recliner in the light’s path to wait for a spaceman to find me.

A pool marm with an authoritative voice begins conducting a contest across the water, instructing participants to move left and right to increasingly rapid commands. One of the two finalists is the woman from the elevator. She is vigilant and quick as she lunges left, then right, her face a mask of resolution. I’m able to identify the brother she warned the elevator about because he is shouting “SISTERRRRRR” in a foghornlike baritone from a pool chair. When she wins and receives her prize—a free shot of tequila—his pride breaks some levee within him. He begins slowly, sensually dancing around the perimeter of the pool. He perches on a raised wall, like a club dancer on a platform, and gyrates to Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” A woman who I later learn is his wife leans forward in her chair and puts her head in her hands. I’ve never seen so-called main-character energy distilled like this. 

I wander into the resort’s restaurant, LandShark Bar & Grill, and order my first margarita of the weekend. Featuring Margaritaville Gold and Silver Tequila, Margaritaville triple sec, orange curaçao, and lime juice, the Perfect Margarita is a staple across the franchises in the Margaritaverse. As a 21-year-old trapped in a perpetually dehydrated 33-year-old husk, I cannot always match my soul’s lust for tequila; halfway through my Perfect Margarita I realize I must adjourn to my room for a perfect nap. I wait by the elevator with the remaining quarter of my drink alongside three young women in elaborate strappy swimsuits who are just back from the beach, trailing sand and dragging along a large cooler. When the elevator arrives, a Bezos-looking man dressed all in black (no ring!) steps off. He looks so overwhelmed by the tipsy gathering before him that once the women and I get on and the door closes, we look at each other and burst out laughing.

Enjoying live music at the LandShark Bar & Grill on April 17, 2024.Enjoying live music at the LandShark Bar & Grill on April 17, 2024.
Enjoying live music at the LandShark Bar & Grill, on April 17, 2024.Photograph by Chad Wadsworth

For dinner, I return to the LandShark, where I am seated next to a sunbaked older couple, a man and woman, who ask me if I’m here on spring break. “Oh, thank you!” I say, forgetting to answer their question. They are from Wisconsin and are traveling to beach towns looking for a place where they might buy a condo to winter in; they are staying farther up the beach for the week. A cover band has begun playing, and the woman, her hair bleached and permed, talks intently at me for several minutes. Her words are lost in the music, but I nod along and after a while she too nods, looking satisfied, and returns to her meal. I feel much more aligned with the winter Texans than with the spring breakers, and after some delicious fish tacos and a Second Perfect Margarita, I return to my room and fall asleep by 9 p.m. Not very White Lotus of me.

The next morning, fog and clouds stand between me and the sunrise Haughan promised, but I go for a jog on the beach, avoiding hundreds of small blue jellyfishesque masses—Velella velella, or “by-the-wind sailors”—that had been blown ashore overnight via the finlike appendages on their backs. The beachcombers are out in full force, each of their net bags a bit less full of shells than that of the comber walking ahead. By the time I return to Margaritaville and find a recliner on which to roost, the sun has emerged, and the pool has repopulated.

I broil to a golden brown, people-watching for hours. A middle-aged woman in a straw cowboy hat sways along to a club remix of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as she waits for a drink at the swim-up bar. A passive-aggressive power struggle plays out between a grandmother and her adult daughter over what type of sunscreen a young girl should wear.

Many resorts promise some degree of solitude, enforcing it with obscene rates and fees. I think I may be post-solitude. I noticed the change in myself during the pandemic: having spent three decades feeling fussy when surrounded by my fellow man, I suddenly wanted the company of others at all times. I craved strangers’ booming speakers on the beach. I craved their chitchat from a nearby table. I craved eavesdropping on mother-daughter spats.

When I am a space wife I expect to visit Richard Branson’s private paradise, Necker Island, with some regularity. There, perhaps, I will embrace seclusion and solitude. But for now, I want to clink my Perfect Margarita against those of friendly strangers and immerse myself in their dramas.

This article originally appeared in the June 2024 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Where It’s Always Five O’Clock.” Subscribe today.

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