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Are You Game?

Tunica delivers blues, gaming, and history with Southern ambiance.

Bets, blues, and big-name entertainment beckon visitors to Tunica, Miss. This small but fascinating town, located 30 minutes south of Memphis in the storied Mississippi Delta, packs a wallop when it comes to things to do. And it’s all served up with a big dash of Southern charm.

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The Tunica RiverPark & Museum offers exceptional views of the Mississippi River from an observation deck (above), as well as exhibits on the region’s history and culture (below). Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau

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A sure bet for entertainment

Tunica is flush with casinos – eight in all – built in former cotton fields on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. The casinos are actually in Tunica Resorts, also known as Robinsonville, just north of the City of Tunica. Glitz and colorful neon shine on the outside, but look inside to see that the casinos exhibit their own personality.

At Hollywood Casino, memorabilia and props from famous movies provide an interesting backdrop on the gaming floor. Bally’s, playing off a vintage 1800s Delta theme, prides itself on a relaxed atmosphere.

“It’s real comfortable fun,” Jackie Pinner, senior director of marketing for Bally’s, said. Bally’s recently renovated the casino and installed 180 new slots. A hotel makeover is underway.

The casinos also offer a variety of entertainment. Recent headliners include singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson, country singer Jennifer Nettles, and the rock band Foreigner. Beach Boys’ co-founder Brian Wilson will be at the Horseshoe Casino on July 22. Many venues also feature popular regional and local artists, performing music – the blues – for which the area is known.

Blues connection

The Mississippi Delta, birthplace of the blues, celebrates this American music genre that the Mississippi Blues Trail website describes as the single most important root source of modern popular music. The soulful, heart-felt music form originated in the Delta’s African-American communities following the Civil War, later giving rise to R&B and rock ‘n’ roll.

For a blues crash course, stop by Gateway to the Blues Museum that opened last year. Developed to be a primer to the blues, its galleries explain the blues, its different forms, and why it’s unique to the Delta, according to Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau. Visitors can even make their own blues recording to email to themselves.

The museum, a stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail, shares space with the visitors’ center on U.S. Highway 61 inside a rustic, historical train depot. The blues trail winds through Mississippi with 120 historical markers – six in Tunica – telling about people, places, and events significant to the creation of the blues.

A place like no other

Visiting Tunica is an opportunity to learn about the Mississippi Delta and its culture.

“There is no other place like the Delta of Mississippi,” said Richard Taylor, a former cotton farmer who now is executive director of the Tunica Museum. “It’s as close to a foreign country as you can come and still be in the United States. It’s everything old and everything new rolled up together. It’s just another world.”

Locals donated 20,000 artifacts to the museum, many of which are displayed on a rotating basis. Taylor said the museum’s mission is simple.

“We present the history of Tunica County from the paths of the Indians to the bright lights of the casinos. It’s all our history, and it’s presented from the perspective of somebody who lives here and appreciates the change from the old to the new,” he said.

The Mississippi River is a large contributor to the area’s history and culture, and the Tunica RiverPark & Museum makes the river its focus. At the museum you’ll find four aquariums, two floors of exhibits, and a third-floor observation deck with a bird’s-eye view of the park and the river.

“The view is beautiful here, whether you are up on the observation deck, the front deck sitting on the rockers watching the river traffic go by, or the river walk right next to the river,” said Mary Hodges, the museum’s executive director.

Lodging and dining

With 5,000 rooms, Tunica’s lodging options range from casino hotels in the middle of the hubbub to lodging away from the action. Prices also can run the gamut.

Gold Strike Casino Resort (AAA Three Diamonds) rises 32 stories and has more than 1,100 rooms – some with river views. Also on Casino Strip Boulevard is Best Western Tunica Resort (AAA Two Diamonds). Key West Inn Tunica (AAA One Diamond), with a south Florida ambiance, is a smaller option on Highway 61.

Tunica’s busiest time is March through November but Franklin noted, “Everyday is a value in Tunica. The average daily hotel rate is about $75.”

Restaurant choices range from grab-and-go to fine dining. Plus, you can eat around the clock at the casinos’ 24-hour eateries.

Don’t miss the Blue & White Restaurant, originally operated by Pure Oil as a travelers stop at its service station. It has been dishing up diner fare with a Southern accent for decades. The restaurant moved to its current location on Highway 61 from downtown Tunica in 1937.

Another legendary stop is Hollywood Café, immortalized in Marc Cohn’s song “Walking in Memphis” (“Now, Muriel plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood”). Open since 1969, the restaurant is noted for its fried pickles.

Among the fine dining options is Fairbanks Steakhouse (AAA Three Diamonds), Hollywood Casino’s tribute to movie great Douglas Fairbanks. Prime beef is the headliner here, but there are other options. “We have wonderful red snapper and sea bass,” said manager Rex Lafayette. “The chef does a kind of New Orleans twist on shrimp.”

For dessert, Fairbanks’ pecan pie has its own twist. “It has a little bit of orange in it. That gives it a totally different flavor, and it’s just spectacular,” Lafayette said.

Café Marie in downtown Tunica is a French restaurant in the former Hotel Marie where W. C. Handy, father of the blues himself, used to play at dances. It’s tucked away on a side street, but many consider this eatery quite a find.

When you visit Tunica, you might find a few gems of your own.

Kathie Sutin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

July/August 2016 Issue

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BEFORE YOU GO

For more information, contact TunicaTravel.com, (888) 4-TUNICA,
(888-488-6422).

To visit Tunica, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTik® Travel Planners and TourBook® guides.

You can order free information about Mississippi through the Travel Information Card found online.


 


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