The Coast

We came into Biloxi on Highway 110 and Boom! there was our hotel, the IP. How handy is that? We dropped off our stuff and headed out to see Biloxi, starting with the lighthouse and the beach, both of which were lovely. The lighthouse wasn’t open – it’s too hot in the afternoons this time of year, but we walked down to the water and checked to be certain there wasn’t any tar around. There wasn’t. Not a bit. Then we went to the Welcome Center (which is in a really charming old house) where we picked up several brochures and bought a Biloxi tee shirt. We don’t actually wear a lot of tee shirts, but it’s a nice way to contribute to the local economy and we feel an almost moral obligation to do that in most of the places we visit in Mississippi.
The medians on Highway 90 – the highway that runs right along the beachfront for pretty much the entire coast and is an absolutely beautiful drive – used to be full of oak trees. Pre-Katrina, that is. Someone (many someones, I suppose) took the ones that Katrina killed and chain-sawed (and detailed) them into these beautiful sculptures. Some are really elaborate, others simple, but they’re all lovely and uplifting.

Beauvoir (pronounced “buhv WAH” locally), post-war home of Jefferson Davis, is in Biloxi, of course, and it’s well on its way to being totally restored. Apparently, there were seven outbuildings on the property prior to Katrina in 2005, and only two have been replaced, but the house itself is finished and lovely. It’s really a beauty of a place, we had a great tour guide, and the restoration job is first rate. Katrina tore off the porch and the roof and, actually, she tore up and carried off the huge stone entry gateway (it lies in pieces in the cemetery behind the house). But, only a foot of water got into the house, and that’s a blessing. The piano and one bed were lost, but everything else could be redone, and you can’t tell now.
This is one of the pictures that was posted at Beauvior. It shows how the house looked immediately after Katrina finished with it. Yes, that is a cloud in the upper right roof area.  The old picture doesn't show the remains of the President Casino which was moved from its Gulf location about a block east to the lot next door.

The cemetery behind Beauvoir has many graves of Confederate soldiers and their wives (from the days after Davis, when it was a rest home for Confederate soldiers), but Jefferson Davis is not there, so don’t wander around in the heat trying to hunt him down like we did. He’s in Richmond, Virginia, at the Confederate Cemetery.

There is another place of historic proportions in Biloxi, and that is the restaurant, Mary Mahoney’s. Since we were only spending $48 a night for a room, we figured we could splurge on a nice dinner, and Mary’s is a splurge. We had gumbo – absolutely the best gumbo either of us had ever tasted, simply beyond belief – and then Marian went with fried oysters and I had an escargot entrĂ©e made with shrimp rather than snails, which is the way I prefer escargot. We literally ate ourselves sick.

The posts pictured above are what remains of the President Casino. I'm sure that it had some beautiful views, and I understand that the “on the water” bit was to circumvent Mississippi’s gambling regulations, etc., but really – What were they thinking?

Biloxi’s IP Resort turned out to be a really good hotel choice – and not just because of the price. The employees were nice and our room was lovely, with comfy beds, good linens, a very nice bathroom, and completely toenail-free carpets throughout. And, like everything else on the coast, it is relatively new, or at least newly refurbished. You’ll find very, very few dry goods of any sort on the coast that pre-date 2005. Also, and this was a surprise, they gave each of us a $10 casino tab, making our room, effectively, $38 a night. Now, we realize that $10 doesn’t exactly make us “whale” material, but that’s just what Marian and I had planned to spend gambling, so isn’t that a nice coincidence? Marian managed to parlay hers into $17+, and I cashed out with a dollar to spare before I lost everything, but we spent a pleasant half hour or so.

We took a look around the Beau Rivage, which is the biggest, glitziest casino and a little better located than IP, being right on the coast highway and therefore, the water, and it was very nice. I must say, some real name entertainers come to the coast. They don’t stay long – most of the shows are one-nighters – but they do come.

Everyone whose tastes we admire told us how wonderful Ocean Springs is, so we were real excited about seeing it. While it was nice – a cute little downtown – we weren’t overly impressed. To be fair, one reason may have been the heat. It was 600 degrees that day. Just miserable. Maybe if we had been able to stroll the streets we would have felt differently, but it just wasn’t strolling weather. We did find a row of cute stores with good air conditioners and we whiled away an hour or so.

There are so many artists on the coast! We saw beautiful things, and found some great “beach themed” things for the beach houses we don’t own, and many lovely items useful for the sort of entertaining we don’t do – so we had to put most of that stuff back. We did pick up quite a few pretty things, though. Sadly, I opted not to get the glass wine cooler I had my eye on, and I’m still regretting it. (I do drink wine. I could have actually used that. I don’t know what I was thinking. It must have been the heat.)

We tried to visit the Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge just outside Ocean Springs, but we were told that we wouldn’t be able to actually see any cranes and it was waaaay too hot to be out and about with no payback. Also, in her effort to encourage us to see the place, the volunteer ranger told us we should be sure to take this little hike along the water and look for their resident alligator. “It’s huge!” she exclaimed. “Almost everyone sees him,” she went on, "it's like he knows people are there, so he pops up out of the water!" Okay….

I think most Mississippians know that there are shipyards in Pascagoula, but I also think that, like us, they would be astounded to see how huge said shipyards are. Massive! Gives you faith to see that something – anything – is made in the U.S. (and in Mississippi). We didn’t really tour around Pascagoula; we didn’t see anywhere to tour, although there might be some really pretty parts somewhere. To us it just seemed like Gautier and Pascagoula were industrial areas, but again, we were just glimpsing this trip.

(Marian -- I was driving on this trip-- as per normal -- and chose a wrong lane -- also, as per normal -- and put us on a 3 lane access road to the massive shipyard at the exact time when 1500+ workers were getting off work. The traffic was so heavy leaving the shipyard area that they have traffic lights controlling their departure and, quite frankly, if it were not for those traffic lights, our U turn wouldn't have been so quick...)

It was obvious from the get-go that Gulfport got hit a lot harder than Biloxi in Katrina. As we drove down 90, the beach was gorgeous and oh so clean, and the inland side of the road was bare. Well, it wasn’t completely bare, of course, if you looked closely you could see the foundations of former homes, along with an occasional set of steps and a few really gnarly trees, but it appears that the beach, the highway, and the houses that lined 90 through Gulfport all blew away. Some houses have been rebuilt, but not many. It’s an absolutely gorgeous strip of real estate, and the beach, which is mostly new sand, is simply stunning. Nobody was on the beach. Nobody. It was clean – no oil – but there were no tourists.

Speaking of Gulfport’s beautiful beach, the Audubon Society has claimed part of the beach for a Least Tern Nesting Area. The least tern is the smallest of the terns and gulls, at about nine inches. Their nesting area is roped off, which seemed unnecessary since there are virtually no people on the beach, but it turns out that the roping off, as well as the sign that says, “Nest in peace,” might be to protect people rather than warn them. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “The least tern breeds in colonies of up to 200 birds. Nests are scraped in sand, shell or gravel, and may be sparingly lined with small shells or other debris. Eggs are commonly laid in clutches of 2 from late May through June, and are incubated by both sexes for 21 days. The young fledge in 19-20 days. The least tern is very defensive in the colony, and adults scream and dive at intruders.”

My research also indicated that the birds are endangered in the interior U.S., but not on the coast. Hmmm? I don’t know much about such things, but it would seem to me that most “ocean birds” would be endangered in the interiors of the country. Any country. Granted, there are sea gulls all over Utah and Idaho (left from the days when the Great Salt Lake was an ocean, maybe?) but this same train of thought would mean that beavers would be an endangered species in the Mojave, or lobsters in Colorado, and I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that. Anyway, we’re glad the Audubon Society is doing what it’s doing, because we really really love birds.

Downtown Gulfport is pretty impressive. We hadn’t expected a lot of nice old buildings, but there they were. While it must have been harmed by Katrina, it was not destroyed like the coastal area, although it’s only a few blocks inland. Neither Marian nor I knew much about the coast, but it appeared to us that Gulfport was more upscale than Biloxi.

There’s an old restaurant in Gulfport called White Cap Seafood Restaurant. It’s been around since 1928 – not in its present building/location, of course. We picked it blind, using the tried and true “the parking lot looks full to me” method, but we had a really good meal (fish and shrimp) and a fabulous mango margarita. Mmmmm.

Long Beach is unique, we decided, among the other coastal areas, in that it appears to sit below sea level, yet it’s actually fourteen feet above. Still, we saw some houses whose doors were no more than two or three inches off the ground! (People seem to be building new houses on stilts fifteen feet or more high.) Considering that the storm surge from Katrina was twenty-three feet, it seemed kind of perilous to us to have a house sitting smack dab on the ground, but these houses were old and had obviously survived Katrina. Don’t know how. We didn’t spend any time in Long Beach, so we don’t have a lot to say about it, but we were told it was pretty much wiped out by Katrina. Again, the beach is gorgeous.

We did visit the Antique Junction there and whiled away a good hour looking at art work, antiques, jewelry, etc. Nice place, wonderful owners.

There is a Wal-Mart on the coast highway (okay, it’s behind the highway a bit, but since nothing is right up on the highway at this time, it is “on the highway”). Now, perhaps I have missed something, but isn’t an ocean view kind of wasted on Wal-Mart? Seriously. We saw this time and time again on the coast. Ocean view lots – right on the water – tend to be prime real estate, yet we even saw a cemetery on Highway 90 in Biloxi! Not only did it seem a waste of a great view, but a really poor place to put anything underground. Surely they lose a few residents with every hurricane.

Pass Christian has a beautiful marina, and a fun restaurant named Shaggy’s right there on the water, but the city was obviously destroyed in Katrina. As an interesting aside, Pass Christian actually does sit below sea level.

Alllllrrriiight!!! That’s for us. We found our place and it’s Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Charming. Totally charming. Lots of old houses and buildings. Along the waterfront, there are many still-vacant lots, but many things made it through; not unscathed maybe, but they made it. We actually saw the remains of one ruined building that appeared to have been a bank – a bank with a water view. Anyway, we think it was a bank because amidst the rubble (the building itself didn’t make it) stood a giant vault. It was just standing there, all by itself.

Bay St. Louis was also the place where we saw our first oil booms. There’s a huge bridge that carries you (across St. Louis Bay) from Pass Christian to Bay St. Louis and that’s where the booms were. There was no oil though.

Anyway, we visited a few antique stores – we love antique stores! – and then we had to turn toward home via highway 603. The route took us through Kiln, a nice rural area with lovely homes, and by Purvis, the RV capital of the world, apparently.

If Ellisville sounds familiar, it is the home of a state school that provides services to citizens with mental retardation or development disabilities for many southern counties of Mississippi. It's a couple hours north of the coast, and is also home to some of the grandest murals in the state – all, apparently, done by one woman. They’re all over! The town looks like a nice place, though it still has a ways to go, but the work they have put into the place is extraordinary! It’s really one of the nicer towns we have come across. Take a look at some of their building sides….

As an aside: Neither Marian nor I were prepared to see the devastation from Katrina. Everything has been cleaned up, but we were shocked to see how much has not been rebuilt. It appears that the economy has all but killed a good bit of their recovery, and now... the oil spill. We saw no signs of the spill. None. Granted, the Mississippi coast will never have the crystal blue water and the surf of its Alabama and Florida neighbors, but it's still lovely, and these people are hurting. If you live close enough - and it's an easy but boring 5 hours from Tupelo - and you're looking for something to do some weekend, drive down and spend a little time and money with them. Spend the night, have a nice dinner...it won't take much money, but they really need all the help they can get. Marian and I plan to go back in a couple months and do some of the things we didn't have time for this trip - boat rides, a visit to the fort, etc.

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