A warm ocean breeze accompanied my husband and me on our afternoon walk, rustling the leaves in the trees that canopied the street. Something above our heads sparkled in the sunlight, clinking gently into the wrought-iron railing of a second story balcony. A closer look into the leaves and there it was, caught on a tree branch -- a few strings of Mardi Gras beads left over from rowdier days on the otherwise quiet street on which we strolled.
The setting could be New Orleans. The fleur-de-lis was prominent on street signs and buildings we encountered. French names appeared on many businesses and a certain je ne sais quoi filled the air.
But it wasn’t New Orleans. Instead, we were about 90 miles east in lovely Ocean Springs, Miss., a genteel community founded by the same French explorers who founded New Orleans about 20 years later.
Ocean Springs is one of several captivating little communities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast filled with as much culture and bon temps as New Orleans, but without the “been there/done that” stigma of travel to the Big Easy. Add to that the 72 miles of sandy beaches, small town charm and a destination somewhat off the beaten path, all at a price considerably less than NOLA, and you’ve got four good reasons to turn left when you reach the south end of I-55.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast took a beating every bit as bad -- some say worse -- than New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the region in August 2005. In some places, the vacant lots, concrete steps leading to nowhere and the absence of trees are painful reminders of the devastation. But the rebirth and renewed spirit of the Gulf Coast makes your visit here that much more invigorating.
Take time to explore the Katrina Sculpture Garden on Highway 90 in Biloxi. These were the remains of those massive live oak trees found throughout the south, destroyed by Katrina’s winds and the salty storm surge. But now they are chainsaw sculptures representing sea life that bring a new level of comfort and beauty to the region.
We fell in love with Ocean Springs, where much of the creative energy is found along Washington and Government streets. Despite their distinctive American names, these streets offer up multi-cultural experiences. From art galleries featuring local and international artists to shops carrying handmade wares and restaurants serving everything from crepes to gelato to Costa Rican coffee, this is much more than your stereotypical Mississippi town.
However, one of the most famous restaurants along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is indeed down-home southern eating. It’s called The Shed Barbecue & Blues Joint. Fans of the Food Network may recognize it from its two-season run there.
When you first pull into The Shed’s gravel, rutted-out parking lot off of Highway 57, you think you might have stumbled upon the town trash dump. But that’s The Shed, a meandering collection of this and that held together with baling wire and duct tape on the banks of an alligator-filled bayou. The floor is gravel, the seating is communal and the ribs alone are worth the journey south to Mississippi.
And speaking of alligator-filled bayous, an afternoon swamp boat tour will get you up close and personal with those ancient critters while teaching you the difference between swamps, bayous, marshes and other habitats. We picked up our tour at Pascagoula Audubon Center, which is just about to move into a brand new facility these many years after Hurricane Katrina dismantled the original building.
Birding is big business in this region with more than 325 species found along the Pascagoula River, which, locals are proud to tell you, is the largest free-flowing river remaining in the lower 48 of the United States. Captain Benny McCoy, who operates the swamp boat tours, will tell you all about it and do his best to get you uncomfortably close to alligators. In the meantime, he may offer you a bite of a duck potato pulled from the mud or let you play with a lubber grasshopper, surely one of God’s ugliest creatures. But it’s a fun, refreshing afternoon nonetheless.
Another town we fell in love with is Bay St. Louis. The vibe here is not so much French, but a little more edgy, kind of like Key West, but certainly a place with a mojo all its own.
Kerrie and Jesse Loya felt it right away. They were in the midst of a move from Los Angeles to Destin, Fla., when a jazz musician in New Orleans turned them on to Bay St. Louis, a little town about 60 miles east of New Orleans. The musician told them he would live in Bay St. Louis if he could live anywhere in the world.
A few days later, just for kicks and grins, the Loyas stopped in Bay St. Louis to see what was so great. They never made it to Destin.
One of the appealing attractions for the Loyas, both professional musicians, was a run-down ramshackle building on Union Street. It had an aura about it that both were drawn to. That was in 2004, prior to Hurricane Katrina ripping the roof off the building on Aug. 29, 2005.
Just before it was demolished, Jesse Loya swooped in and bought it for pennies. It was not until he and Kerrie had begun to restore the building, with hopes of turning it into a special events venue, did they learn its historical significance.
Built in 1920, this was home to 100 Men DBA Hall, a social club/support network for African-Americans of the community that began in the 1890s. It eventually became a music hall, hosting the biggest names of the Chitlin circuit of the 1940s and '50s. Fats Domino, Otis Redding, James Brown and Big Joe Turner all rocked the wooden floors here. This is one of the very few physical locations that exist on the Mississippi Blues Trail, documenting and preserving the birth and growth of a fabulous musical genre. And now, Kerrie and Jesse host regular blues jams, drawing musicians from N'Orleans, St. Louis, Memphis and beyond.
To ensure your visit coincides with one of those performances, plan to be in Bay St. Louis the second Saturday of any month. That’s when the community hosts its monthly art walk, and the Key West vibe really shows in Bay St. Louis. Those are among the reasons that in April 2013, Budget Travel magazine named Bay St. Louis as one of the three “Coolest Small Towns in America.”
Many community celebrations and events include the historic train depot, which was featured in the 1966 film classic, “This Property is Condemned,” starring Robert Redford, Natalie Wood and Charles Bronson. A self-guided walking tour of Bay St. Louis sites featured in the movie begins at the train station.
The train depot features Mardi Gras costumes from the city’s many celebrations over the years and an art gallery devoted to the work of Alice Mosely, a sassy little octogenarian who made Bay St. Louis her home late in life. From a little blue cottage nearby -- it is now available as a vacation rental -- Alice created some delightful folk art that shows off her sense of humor looking back on life in Mississippi.
With Bay St. Louis as your base, plan a day trip to Gulf Islands National Seashore. Specifically, you’ll be visiting Ship Island, one of many barrier islands that make up the national park unit here. These barrier islands are why much of the oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010 never reached the Mississippi mainland.
Most people reach Ship Island via the Captain Pete, a family-operated excursion boat that makes two trips a day in the summer months from its base in nearby Gulfport, Miss. Grab a seat near the back and watch the bottlenose dolphins play in the wake created by the boat. Mother Nature always provides the best entertainment.
Once on the island, most folks grab a beach chair and umbrella and just relax. At just $10 for two chairs and an umbrella, it’s quite the deal. The surf is ideal for splashing about and the beach wide open for tossing a Frisbee or flying a kite. Bring along a fishing pole, explore the remains of old Fort Massachusetts or just walk the island’s three mile circumference. It’s a great, low-key day at the beach.
Of course, beautiful white sand beaches line the entire 72 miles of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. A day at the beach is as simple as parking your car, kicking off your shoes and enjoying the Gulf.
Just 30 miles east of Bay St. Louis is Biloxi, famous for its lighthouse standing in the middle of Highway 90 and the Frank Geary-designed art museum. Inspired by the works of Biloxi’s “mad potter,” George Ohr, the museum includes a gallery featuring African-American art of Mississippi. The ceramics studio on site provides a welcomed diversion on the occasion of rain on the Gulf Coast.
If you want to climb the easy 55 steps to the top of the Biloxi lighthouse on one of the morning-only tours, you’ll need to buy tickets ($5) at the nearby visitors center. The climb is easy, the view spectacular, and it works off some of The Shed’s barbecued calories.
But take time to explore this visitors center, a replica of a magnificent southern home that stood on this spot before Lady Katrina’s visit. In addition to all of the brochures and people available to answer your questions, there’s a lovely gift shop and very well done museum documenting the cultural diversity of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
Yes, cultural diversity in Mississippi. This region’s cultural richness includes Greek, Vietnamese, Italian, Irish and Slavic families, in addition to Caucasian and African-American. This is why people like Kerrie Loya say the Mississippi Gulf Coast is so creative, so inviting and gentle.
Of course, many people come to Gulf Coast for the nine casinos in Biloxi. The granddaddy of them all is the Beau Rivage, complete with delicious spa, pool, golf course, shopping and entertainment beyond the casino floor.
But the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is always a lot of fun for a bit of rock ‘n roll nostalgia. For those who like to gamble, but despise the smoke-filled setting, check out the Palace Casino -- one of the nation’s only smoke-free casinos.
Biloxi is also a destination for the parrot heads of the world. Jimmy Buffet was born just a few miles away in Pascagoula, so his Margaritaville Casino, with its beach bar atmosphere and Land Shark Lager, has an air of authenticity. The barefoot man often sneaks in to surprise the staff.
But the surprise was really ours at every turn along our journey of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. “Who knew?” we kept asking ourselves. But now that you do, you have no excuse not to plan a visit to this vacation hot spot.
DIANA LAMBDIN MEYER is freelance travel writer originally from Wolf Lake in Union County. Diana and her husband Bruce specialize in travel journalism. Some of George Ohr’s pottery and Alice Mosely’s folk art now adorn their home near Kansas City.