GOOD TIMES ARE BACK IN MISSISSIPPI'S
BILOXI/GULFPORT & GULF COAST
Back in the 1920s, the Isle of Caprice resort was a playground built on Dog Island to draw tourists to the Mississippi Gulf Coast with dining, dancing, and gaming in a luxurious setting. Excursion boats carried parties from Biloxi out to the plushly-appointed pavillion and casinos. Those were the good times on the Gulf Coast and the area became known as the "Playground of the South."
Indian legend says that Dog Island disappears and reappears periodically and thanks exactly what happened on the shifting sand key. The resort's pavillion and cabanas burned in late-1931 and, soon afterward, the entire island was submerged.
Though Dog Island hasn't yet reappeared, the good times have. Long able to boast about its lovely beaches; gentle year-round climate; low prices for accommodations, shopping, and dining; and friendly southern hospitality, the Gulf Coast now flashes its new attraction of gaming (see sidebar), which has afforded the area a revitalization and renaissance to its tourism business. The Playground of the South is alive and well inside and outside the casinos.
"Our high quality hotels, casinos, entertainment, outstanding cuisine, great shopping, and the overall beauty of Mississippi's small sea coast on the Gulf of Mexico are attractive to all those who have discovered this emerging destination," says the executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, Stephen Richer. The price is also right: the region was recently named 1996's top tourism value in a well-respected survey, succeeding 1995 winner, Las Vegas.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is a succession of glittering towns along U.S. Highway 90, which follows a 26-mile strip of white sand beach, the Gulf of Mexico, Biloxi Bay, and the Bay of St. Louis. For much of the distance, beautiful old mansions shrouded in live oaks line one side of the highway and the beach and water are on the other side.
French explorers who 'discovered' Mississippi's Gulf Coast in the late-1600s went on to establish settlements that would eventually become New Orleans, 50 miles to the west, and Mobile, about 50 miles to the east. Of course Native Americans already knew about this peaceful location and their legacy lives on in names like Biloxi, Pascagoula, and the Tchoutacabouffa River.
Situated in the middle of this stunning stretch of coastal heaven, Biloxi was once known as the seafood capital of the world. In fact, the Biloxi Lighthouse sits right in the middle of Highway 90 in town. Built in 1848, it has an unusual history of female lighthouse keepers.
In keeping with the heritage of the sea, Biloxi is also the home of the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, with many interesting displays and two recreated Biloxi schooners that offer sailing trips. Also in Biloxi, visitors can learn about marine life at the J.L. Scott Marine Education Center, with its live display of coastal marine animals. There's also the Biloxi Shrimping Tour, a 70-minute excursion that lets you see all sorts of catches brought in during an actual shrimping expedition.
While wandering around this quaint town, be sure to stop by Mary Mahoney's Old French House Restaurant in Vieux Marche. This 1737 building and garden features a fine dining restaurant and a 24-hour cafe that serves beignets (famous square doughnuts) and cafe au lait. Vieux Marche is also home to several antique shops and the Mississippi Museum of Art/Gulf Coast, a resource center for George Ohr, the "mad potter of Biloxi," and his innovative ceramics. The Mardi Gras Museum, housed in the pre-Civil War Magnolia Hotel, means you can enjoy this huge celebration anytime of year.
Across Biloxi Bay in Ocean Springs, the Walter Anderson Museum allows visitors to experience the art of the region's most celebrated eccentric and reclusive artist. The late Walter Anderson captured the spirit of the Mississippi Gulf Coast with his vision of local flora and fauna. Be sure to see "The Little Room," moved from his own cottage, where you'll be surrounded his work on the ceiling, floor, and all four walls.
Further east, in Pascagoula, the Scranton Floating Museum makes for an interesting excursion. This 70-foot commercial shrimp boat features an authentic deck, galley, bunk room, and wheelhouse. The lower level has been converted into a museum depicting the local and Gulf Coast environment and issues. Also in Pascagoula, the Old Spanish Fort and Museum is believed to be the oldest building in the entire Mississippi Valley. Many 18th century relics are inside the 18-inch-thick walls.
To the west of Biloxi, bustling Gulfport features more seafaring fun at the Marine Life Oceanarium. This unique attraction features dolphin and sea lion shows, a giant reef tank, underwater dive shows, a touching pool, and macaw performances. There's also a fascinating 25-minute train tour of Gulfport Small Craft Harbour, the deep seaport, the commercial harbor, and the banana terminal. Most of North America's bananas arrive in Gulfport. Be sure to check out the gulf view and food at Vrazel's Restaurant.
Further west, quiet Pass Christian has beautiful old homes facing the beach and provides the perfect setting several B&Bs, antique shops, and the popular Blue Rose Restaurant. Nearby, seafood lovers flock to Chappy's Restaurant, tucked in the woods overlooking the coast in Long Beach.
Just over the bridge, Bay St. Louis, is another quaint village of charming shops, restaurants, and B&Bs. It's a wonderfully historic town for a walking tour. On the modern front, Bay St. Louis is home to the John C. Stennis Space Center, where there are guided tours of NASA's space shuttle main testing complex museum and many filmed and live presentations.
Many of the historic homes all along the coast date back to the 1800s. Some of these private estates can be visited during the annual spring Pilgrimage, which takes place March 11-22 this year (the 50th anniversary). Along with private homes, many of the area's historic attractions host special events.
If you can't make it during the Spring Pilgrimage, many homes are open year-round. Some of the highlights include: Biloxi's Beauvoir (Jefferson Davis's last home); the Biloxi's Tullis-Toledano Mansion (a grand Greek Revival antebellum home, with the 600-year-old Councilor Oak); the Old Brick House in Biloxi (built in the late-1700s); and Gulfport's Grass Lawn (a southern summer home built in 1836).
Biloxi and Gulfport both serve as points of departure for daily cruises to Ship Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Situated where the Mississippi Sound meets the Gulf of Mexico, Ship Island and the other barrier islands feature quiet beaches and crystal-clear waters. West Ship Island is the home of historic Fort Massachusetts, one of the last masonry forts ever built on the coast.
Back on the mainland, golf is another popular pursuit throughout the area. There are 18 great coastal courses, with more than 100,000 rounds played annually. Pleasant winter conditions make January through March popular tee times.
Throughout the year, numerous festivals and special events mean even more good times along Mississippi's Gulf Coast. The calendar includes: January's Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration in Biloxi; Mardi Gras parades and festivities in February; Spring Pilgrimage (see above) in March; Oyster and Crawfish Festivals in April; Shrimp Festival and Blessing of the Fleet in May; the Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo in July; the Blues Festival in September; the Fall Muster (a Civil War reenactment at Beauvoir) in October; the Peter Anderson Arts Festival in November; and Christmas on the Water in December.
A typical January day on the coast features a balmy temperature of 69 degrees fahrenheit. It's a perfect temperature for beachcombing, roaming through museums, golf, excursions at sea, and much more. Throughout the year, the temperatures increase and so do the good times, which have obviously returned to Biloxi and Mississippi's Gulf Coast.
For further information about the Mississippi, contact the helpful Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 6128, Gulfport, MS 39506-6128, (601) 896-6699 or (800) 237-9493. If you plan to explore other parts of this interesting state, contact the Mississippi Division of Tourism Development at (800) WARMEST.
CASINOS OFFER EVEN MORE GOOD TIMES
It's hard to believe that casinos have been open for more good times here for less than five years. "In just four short years, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has emerged as the number two gaming destination for multiple-day travelers, following Las Vegas," says Stephen B. Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The variety of the attractions the Coast has to offer, such as the beaches, golf courses, charter fishing boats, and museums, helps keep our visitors here overnight."
But the casinos have brought many more of them here in the past four years or so. Gaming in Mississippi began August 1, 1992, in Biloxi, when Casino America opened the Caribbean-themed Isle of Capri casino, then housing two small paddle-wheel boats with no hotel rooms. People lined up outside the entrance, waiting for hours to test their luck at the south's first legal casino. Since it's opening, the Isle of Capri has expanded considerably. The casino now offers 32,500 square feet of gaming space, a 370-room Crowne Plaza Resort Hotel, restaurants, and several entertainment. The Isle of Capri was recognized as the top Crowne Plaza Hotel worldwide in 1996.
"Casino America, as the operator of the Isle of Capri, is proud of its role having initiated gaming in Mississippi," says Jack Gallaway, president of Casino America. "Mississippi gaming, particularly Isle of Capri, focuses on a high degree of service, outstanding amenities, and an approach to entertain which produces fun for all customers.
Since gaming's inception on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 1992, casinos have sprung up throughout the state, with 29 now operating in various regions. Up in Tunica County, the Grand Casino Tunica recently opened as the world's largest dockside casino. But the Coast has become the state's major hub for gaming and entertainment, with 12? casinos, more than 600,000 square feet of gaming space, and more than 3,500 hotel rooms. The area is second in gaming space only to Las Vegas and may soon top Atlantic City as number two in gaming revenues.
This awesome growth has caught the attention of major casino developers, as two major projects are under construction and several more have been proposed. Mirage Resorts is building a $475 million, 1,800-room Biloxi hotel and casino called the Beau Rivage. Circus Circus Enterprises, Casino World, and several other large projects are in the planning stages.
Whether you're inside or outside the casinos, the good times have returned to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. So have lots of smart visitors to the Playground of the South.
The following provides phone numbers for the Gulf Coast's casino/resorts. Keep in mind that there are many other varied accommodations, dining, and entertainment options throughout the area:
Boomtown Casino, Biloxi, (800) 627-0777.
Casino Magic-Bay St. Louis, Bay St. Louis, (800) 562-4425.
Casino Magic-Biloxi, Biloxi, (800) 562-4425.
Copa Casino, Gulfport, (800) 946-2672.
Golden Nugget, Biloxi, planned for 1997.
Grand Casino Biloxi, Biloxi, 800-WIN 2WIN.
Grand Casino Gulfport, Gulfport, 800-WIN 7777.
Imperial Palace Casino, Biloxi, 601-436-3000
Isle of Capri Casino Crowne Plaza Resort, Biloxi, 800-843-4753.
Lady Luck Casino, Biloxi, 800-539-5825.
Palace Casino Biloxi, 800-725-2239.
President Casino, Biloxi, 800-843-7737.
Treasure Bay Resort & Casino, Biloxi, 800-747-2839.
FUN FACTS ABOUT THE
PLAYGROUND OF THE SOUTH
--The longest man-made beach in the world is 26 miles long and runs along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
--There is only one city named Biloxi in the U.S.
--Biloxi is an Indian word meaning "first people."
--Biloxi was the capital of the Lousiana Territory.
--Beauvoir, the last home of the only President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, is in Biloxi.
--Queen Ixolib (Biloxi spelled backwards) rules over the city's huge Mardi Gras festivities, which has been celebrated longer than the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
--Mary Mahoney's Old French Restaurant was once the site of the Louisiana Territory headquarters.
--The largest oak tree in the state is located in the coastal city of Long Beach.
--The city of Bay St. Louis has the largest antique and art centers in the state.
--The Mississippi State Port of Gulfport is the nation's top banana port.
--The largest house in the state is in Pass Christian, with 19 full and half baths, three kitchens, and 15 bedrooms.