Mississippi has 80 miles more seacoast than Oklahoma – which isn’t saying much, since Oklahoma has no seacoast. But the little stretch the Magnolia State has, they put to good use. Biloxi is the largest city on the Mississippi coast, and for a good part of its history was dependent on the Gulf for its economic base. While the seafood industry and marine services are still a big factor, today the major player in Biloxi is fun. It’s a perfect trifecta: tourism, gaming and some of the world’s best seafood.
Biloxi and environs live up to the soubriquet, “The Resilient Coast.” Its history with severe weather is daunting; if Oklahoma is in Tornado Alley, Biloxi sits in Hurricane Alley. It’s survived many brushes with severe tropical storms, but the most devastating were Camille in 1969 and Katrina in 2005.The entire Mississippi coast – and miles inland – were affected. With 140 mph winds and a 34-foot storm surge during Katrina, 90 percent of the buildings along the coast were destroyed.
It was Biloxi’s gaming industry that came to the city’s rescue. These properties were restored and back open in a matter of months. Today’s visitors see a vibrant community.
For the highlights of 300 years of Biloxi’s relationship with the Gulf waters, check out the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum. Exhibits cover everything from the fishing and processing industry to shipwrecks, boat building, hurricanes, ecology, yacht racing and art.
The centerpiece of the first floor is the 120-year-old Nydia, a sandbagger sloop that won 22 regattas. My personal favorite exhibit is on the second floor: The 1979 Lapeyre Shrimp Peeling Machine is very close in design to the first machine, invented in the late ’40s when 16-year-old James Lapeyre accidentally stepped on a shrimp and discovered that the shell peeled off. This invention revolutionized the seafood processing industry, peeling 1,000 shrimp an hour – the equivalent of dozens of workers peeling by hand.
The best thing about Mississippi seafood is eating it. Combine elegant dining with history at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, in an 1844-54 structure that’s one of the oldest documented buildings in Biloxi. As for the food, John Grisham wrote about Mary Mahoney’s seafood gumbo in two of his books, and on “Good Morning America,” Robin Roberts said it was her favorite Super Bowl food. That year the restaurant sent enough gumbo to the show for the entire cast and crew. The comment came back, “The gumbo arrived here, but it sure didn’t leave!”
For a more casual outing, try the Fillin’ Station. Although you’ll have other options, the seafood selection is impressive. Have a po-boy or seafood platter or go wild with their Oak Street Bread – a full loaf of French bread smothered with shrimp, bacon, cheese and Ponchartrain sauce. And yes, it was once a 1927 Shell gas station.
Shopping, Sleeping and Schlepping
The Beau Rivage Resort and Casino fills a lot of bills. It’s big and beautiful – filled with massive floral displays – and the rooms are great. The resort’s premier restaurants, BR Prime, Jia and Stalla, offer American, Japanese and Italian specialties with both BR Prime and Jia receiving AAA Four Diamond ratings. Several other spots provide additional variety.
Resort shops carry everything from snacks to slacks. Fashion and fine jewelry are available, as are logo apparel, home décor, cosmetics, toys and books. For souvenirs, including alligator heads and pirates made from coconuts, schlep to Sharkheads on Biloxi Beach. You can’t miss it – look for the shark head.
Gaming is a main attraction, with over 1,800 slot machines, table games, a poker room and a high-stakes lounge for the big spenders, plus smoke-free areas. But gambling isn’t the only game in this town. Beau Rivage’s Fallen Oak Golf Course was designed by Tom Fazio, and the MGM Park downtown stadium and entertainment complex is home to the AA affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, the Biloxi Shuckers.
MGM Park is also the site of concerts and festivals, and the Beau Rivage Theatre hosts headline acts and up-and-coming talent. Right next door to the Beau Rivage is the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, where you’ll find more games, more entertainment and displays of costumes and accessories from top music celebrities.
Out and About
Water’s why I go to Biloxi, so any trip will include fishing. I can recommend Capt. Kenny Barhanovich and his boat, Miss Hospitality. He’s not only a great fish finder, he’s a delightful host. When asked “What we’re fishing for?” his answer is, “Anything that’s biting!” It could be snapper, bonito, jack, shark or mackerel. Whatever it is, you’ll have a good time.
Exploring the coast to the west, visit the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport. Their mission includes rescue and rehabilitation of marine animals and education. Display tanks and touch pools include a number of sea creatures, but the big draws are the dolphins. Most visitors just watch demonstrations from the sidelines but here you can actually get into the water, too. It’s pricey but well-supervised, so that the dolphins (these are animals which cannot be released into the wild) are not stressed.
Oh, and don’t be put off by the name Blow Fly Inn in Gulfport. This little eatery has a big reputation and has been featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
To the east, Ocean Springs is one of my all-time favorite little towns. Live oaks arch over streets lined with interesting shops. Art is everywhere – from paintings by local artists to creations from the legendary Shearwater Pottery. Learn the history of the amazing Anderson family of artists, and admire and wonder at the work of Walter Anderson, eccentric artist extraordinaire, in the Walter Anderson Museum.
Eat your way through town with Tasty Tours of South Mississippi. Their three-hour walking tours provide plenty of samples of local cuisine and a side helping of history.
As you drive along the coastal highway, look for tree sculptures. These works of art were created out of trees killed by Katrina’s salty surge.
Past storms may have knocked Mississippi’s coastal communities down, but they have punched back. This 80-mile stretch is in business, and that business will be your pleasure.