CRYSTAL BEACH, TEXAS — An unmarked car pulls into the line of traffic stretching down the beach and out of sight. The procession moves slower than a saunter as girls in string bikinis and guys in cowboy hats spill out of pickup trucks. They're dancing and ogling - but most of all, they're drinking.
Two agents with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission scan the crowd from inside the car. They mumble in tones barely audible to anyone but each other: "What do you think that girl's drinking? How old do you think he is? What do you think he's trying to hide?"
The radio crackles: "There's a bunch of guys drinking from a beer bong down here. A girl in a green bikini is about to drink from it. The guys look plenty old, but that girl isn't close."
The agents swing their patrol car around to see if they can catch the girl. But before they get there, they spot a truck loaded with co-eds. The driver is tipping one back. "Bingo," the agents say, almost in unison, as they jump out of the car. The guy is busted for drinking and driving, and several others in the bed of the truck are ticketed for underage drinking.
Nearby, college frosh Brent Briggs is watching the scene. "Bummer," he remarks.
Over the years, Brent and his buddies have seen this isolated peninsula grow in popularity as a rowdy spot for spring break.
"Every year it just gets bigger and bigger," he says, as he cruises in a Chevy loaded with scantily clad girls he does not know. "It's great. We like to come and relax, forget about the pressures of school. I say: the more, the merrier."
Many Southern beach cities - overrun during the months of March and April - do not agree. There's money to be made off college kids determined to throw the party of their young lives, but the trash and drunken behavior - which can sometimes lead to more serious crimes like rape - have caused a number of cities to pass on the "party central" banner.
And while larger communities such as South Padre Island, Texas, and Panama City Beach, Fla., are better able to handle huge crowds, smaller communities such as Crystal Beach are overrun.
'This ain't Disneyland'
"This ain't Disneyland and this ain't the autobahn," says Doug Hancock, an electrician who's helping build a sheriff's substation near the beach. "I'm not saying I didn't party in my day, but these kids have no sense. They tear up the place and throw their trash everywhere."
Many beaches along the Gulf of Mexico prohibit drinking, as well as driving on the sand. But Bolivar Peninsula is an unincorporated area of Texas where rules are rare and, at least in springtime, common sense rarer.
During busy weekends, this rural peninsula - home to roughly 3,000 people - can swell to 50,000 as partiers flood the area. There are no hotels here, so most people just crash on the beach or make their way to Galveston for the night.
In addition to the new $2.3 million sheriff's substation and jail, Bolivar Peninsula is getting its first set of traffic lights in an effort to manage the thousands of cars ripping down its one road.
"It's like a roller derby out there," says Eddie Barr, a county commissioner who represents the 15-mile-long peninsula. "We've tried to ban bonfires, glass bottles, and alcohol on some parts of the beach, but we are limited in what we can do."
Because the land is unincorporated, residents can't pass ordinances and are governed by lenient state laws.
Currently, the county spends $900,000 a year cleaning up the beaches and providing security. Per weekend, there can be as many as 50 officers patrolling the area.
In the past two weeks, the Galveston County Sheriff's Office arrested 196 spring-break revelers on Bolivar Peninsula - most for things like disorderly conduct and public intoxication.
Things are different on nearby Galveston Island, where drinking on the beach has been illegal for several years.
"At one time we were like South Padre, but we made the decision to be alcohol-free and it has made a big difference. It helped to clean up the beaches and brought more families down," says Christine Hopkins, spokeswoman for the Galveston Island Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Beach communities have long had a love/hate relationship with spring break.
The money is good, but the image of drunken college students passed out on the sand drives other vacationers away. Many communities tire of the hassle and begin discouraging their areas as spring-break destinations.
Fort Lauderdale made a concerted effort to leave behind its image as Party Central in the mid-1980s. Daytona Beach inherited the crowds, but quickly passed the torch to Panama City Beach.
As more US beach cities crack down, foreign destinations are becoming increasingly attractive to spring breakers. Not surprisingly, Cancun is the No. 1 foreign destination.
25,000 visitors, 1,600 hotel rooms
What is surprising is the lure of towns such as Lake Havasu City, Ariz., along the Colorado River. The Travel Channel just ranked this small desert town the third-most-popular spring break destination in the world.
With just 45,000 residents, Lake Havasu gained notoriety in 1995, when MTV hosted its spring break bash there. Since then, it has continued to grow in popularity.
"It's kind of ironic because we only have 1,630 hotel rooms in the entire town," says Bonnie Barsness, president of the Lake Havasu Tourism Bureau.
Overall, the town can get as many as 25,000 spring breakers in the month of March and makes $15 million off them.
Texas' South Padre Island, which sees about 185,000 students in March, receives about $150 million in revenue.
But the Texas Legislature is drawing a line in the spring-break sand. Last week, the House approved a bill that prohibits passengers from drinking alcohol in vehicles. Texas, which leads the nation in alcohol-related traffic deaths, is one of the few states that still allows open containers in vehicles.
The measure is making big news in a state where many say "Bubba with a beer can" is simply part of the culture.
"This is Texas. Everybody drinks beer and carries a gun. It's been that way since the days of the Wild West," says Agent Marc Decatur of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. He is preparing to hit the beach.
Spring breaker Mickey Parker wrinkles his nose when he sees the dozens of officers scouring the sand.
"We're out here trying to have fun, and they're wrecking it," says this high school senior from Lufkin, Texas. "They're pulling us over for every little thing: 'Your music's too loud, you're spinning out on the beach.' This is the last spring break of our life, and they are wrecking it."
When asked if he and his buddy are drinking, he quickly says no.
Then, leaning out his window, he adds in all honesty: "We will be tonight. It's a little early."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor