Above: Fallen Oak, the Tom Fazio-designed course at Beau Rivage Casino in Biloxi, has earned nearly 20 awards since it opened in 2006.
Below: A couple enjoying a sunset stroll along the beach. Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau photo
Melodious casino resorts
Bay St. Louis marks the western end of coastal Mississippi, with Ocean Springs at the eastern terminus. A few casinos are at Bay St. Louis, but most of the gambling action is in Biloxi. Most are full-service resorts, with connections to golf courses, tennis courts, fitness centers, spas, and fishing boats. The casinos run 24 hours a day, and while slot machines seem to be the game of choice, there are dozens of blackjack and craps tables, poker rooms, nooks and crannies for high rollers.
Casinos are strange and wonderful places, and Mississippi’s Gulf Coast has 11. Inside casinos, there are no clocks and no windows. Time and space are suspended, replaced by the clicking of plastic chips or the roulette ball, the whisper of cards being shuffled and dealt, the soft thud of dice bouncing off the far wall of the table.
Beau Rivage, a AAA four Diamond property of 1,740 rooms, offers a splendid view of the gulf and other resort casinos along Beach Boulevard, including the Hard Rock, the Grand Biloxi and the Isle of Capri. Beau Rivage also has more than a dozen restaurants and bars, plus strong entertainment either inside or on the pool deck.
Entertainers stop at the gulf as they travel between engagements in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Big bands, jazz groups, alternative musicians and up-and-coming ambitious youngsters all bring charm and grace to stages at various resort casinos. Late at night, a slightly off-key piano at the dark end of a bar harmonizes perfectly with the rolling of the waves outside.
The peaceful lull at water’s edge
A casual drive along U.S. Highway 90 makes one think there are almost as many boats as people along the coast. They cruise or sail on the ocean, rivers and bayous, and many seem to be for hire.
We took a couple of 90-minute boat rides and learned a great deal about Gulf Coast fauna and flora while feeling the breeze and enjoying just enough sun. North of Pascagoula, where the Pascagoula River empties into the Gulf, is an Audubon center, where professional bird watchers and marsh monitors keep track of fish, waterfowl and water levels. A marsh tour in a 24-foot boat took us through pristine wetlands, home to birds and a wide range of animals, amphibians and fish.
Downtown Biloxi’s boat harbor is home to the Biloxi Shrimping Trip. On the 70-minute boat tour, participants learn about the shrimping industry and ride out to Deer Island. The shrimp net is pulled in, the catch dropped on the deck and the various sea creatures are identified and discussed before being dropped back into the water.
For those who love to be near–not necessarily on–water, the 26 miles of coastline provide ample opportunity to sunbathe, walk or bike at water’s edge. Plenty of beach rental companies can provide umbrellas for shade, chairs for comfort and all the water sports equipment anyone could want. Another option is taking a boat charter to West Ship Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, for a pleasant day at a beautiful beach.
There are many other things to visit along the coast, like NASA’s Stennis Space Center and its visitor center, StenniSphere, on the Interstate 10 drive to New Orleans. Stennis is one of 10 NASA field centers and home to America’s largest rocket engine test complex. Testing schedules are released about a week ahead of the event, according to Paul Foerman, public affairs spokesman. To see one of these impressive rocket tests, he suggests visitors call StenniSphere at (800) 237-1821 when in the area and ask if a rocket engine test is scheduled during their visit.
Come to the Gulf Coast in October for Cruisin’ the Coast, when close to 4,000 custom cars–from classics to hot rods–gather to rumble along Highway 90. The weeklong party began with a few hundred cars some 15 years ago and has grown into a glorious monster rally.
Dinner bells are ringing
Seafood is the stock-in-trade at many restaurants, and while we prefer our oysters to come from water colder than the Gulf, the freshness of the bivalves on the coast helps a lot. We discovered a pair of fine seafood houses in Gulfport: the Half Shell Oyster House in an old bank building across Highway 90 from the beach; and a seafood spot that dates to the 1920s, the White Caps Restaurant on Beach Boulevard.
BR Prime, the Beau Rivage steak house, also was a winner, as was the Epic Buffet at the Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Bay St. Louis.
Golf clubs cut through the air
Only a single letter need be changed to go from gulf to golf, and visitors to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast will see that finding a suitable golf course is just as easy. Courses closer to the coast are usually less hilly and offer views as well as hazards, with sea birds arriving as frequent spectators. The Great Southern Golf Club in Gulfport dates to 1908 and is the birthplace of golf in Mississippi. The Pass Christian Isles Golf Club, only six years younger, boasts the small greens of early 20th-century golf course design. Speaking of designers, the Bridges in Bay St. Louis and the Grand Bear just north of Gulfport have the signatures of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, respectively.
The sound of new construction
Building continues at the Gulf Coast, giving this area three significant attractions within the next year or two. Construction at the new Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art on the oceanfront in Biloxi continues. The $35 million Ohr Campus project, with buildings designed by Frank Gehry, may see November openings for the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center and the IP Casino Resort Spa Exhibitions Gallery. The Ohr Pods that will be home to George Ohr’s pottery are expected to be complete by the end of 2011.
The building project suffered a catastrophic setback when Hurricane Katrina deposited a barge casino onto the construction site.
Jefferson Davis’ historical home, Beauvoir, was damaged but not destroyed by Katrina. It reopened in June 2008 after a $4 million renovation, and now, the construction of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library continues, with a targeted completion for August 2011.
At press time, the construction on a $44 million science and education center called INFINITY near Stennis Space Center is planned to begin in May. It is scheduled to open late next summer and will offer guests two space exploration galleries, a gallery about the earth and its oceans, and a 75-seat 3-D theater.
Joe Pollack is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.