Mississippi’s moment: Gulf Coast resurges with new attractions, resorts

Larry Olmsted, Special for USA TODAY

10:47 a.m. EDT June 17, 2016

Hurricane Katrina was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, devastating a large swath of the Southeast, though many people still associate it solely with New Orleans. In fact, Mississippi was the most widely affected state, as the storm traveled 150 miles inland after ravaging its entire coast, and every single one of Mississippi’s 82 counties was declared a Federal Disaster area. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill provided a second round of trauma.

Nearly 11 years after Katrina, New Orleans has rebounded impressively, and many affected parts of Alabama and Florida have been rebuilt. But no area has seen a resurgence quite like Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, which spans three counties and 62 miles of shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico.

Rebuilding went way beyond restoration, with a wide range of new tourism offerings. Just the past couple of years have seen new hotels, museums, myriad restaurants, a new minor league ballpark with ocean views, a new Audubon Nature Center, even a Saturn Rocket from the Apollo program. The debut of the region’s first marathon, coming later this year, was inspired by the largest and longest man-made beach in the U.S., conveniently stretching 26 miles from Biloxi to Henderson Point, all wide, clean and rebuilt.

The Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum moved into a brand new three-story $8 million building; there’s a just-opened $32 million Frank Gehry designed art museum; NASA’s Stennis Space Center launched a $44 million visitor center; and the regional airport got $56 million in upgrades.

But while so much is happening, with more on the way, the main attraction of the Gulf Coast remains unchanged: It is one of those rare destinations that truly offers something for almost every traveler, from the beach lover to birdwatcher, golfer to gambler, foodie to fishing fan, and does so very affordably.

When Mississippi decided to allow casino gaming in 1990, gambling had to be “offshore,” with most casinos built on huge permanently moored barges. But after one of these ended up on the highway well inland after Katrina, laws were changed to allow land-based casino resorts, and ever since, these large full-service properties, many with associated golf courses and other amenities like a water park, have fueled the area’s renaissance, full of dining, entertainment, spas and, above all, thousands of reasonably priced hotel rooms.

The new Scarlet Pearl opened last November as the 12th casino resort on the coast, and houses a lavish mini-golf facility with two courses and a volcano erupting every half-hour that is impressive enough to have been chosen to host an upcoming World Championship. Two more casinos, the last remaining licenses on the coast, are being built, and several existing properties, especially the posh family-owned Island View, Golden Nugget and Silver Slipper, recently completed major multi-million dollar renovations or expansions.

The Island View just opened a new beachfront tower, giving it the most restaurants of any property in the state, and over a thousand rooms. The former Isle of Capri was rebuilt as the Golden Nugget three years ago, and the Beau Rivage, an MGM Resorts property and sister hotel to the Bellagio in Las Vegas, just added an impressive regional seafood restaurant last month, Catch. The casino also sponsored the new MGM Park minor league stadium outside its doors, and its golf course hosts an annual PGA Champions (Senior) Tour event.

All this expansion has in turn spurred more non-gaming lodging, and right in the epicenter of the coastal strip stands the new White House, the region’s first luxury boutique resort, just down the street from a new DoubleTree hotel. Properties like these are in turn attracting more international visitors who prefer non-gaming stays, especially from Europe.

Gulfport and Biloxi anchor the center of the region, “twin cities” that have morphed into one nearly 10-mile long tourism-intensive stretch laid out along coastal Highway 90, better known as Beach Boulevard. This concentrated area is home to the Beau Rivage, Island View, Hard Rock, Palace, IP, Boomtown, Golden Nugget and Harrah’s Gulf Coast casino hotels, most of which also operate their own golf courses by top designers like Tom Fazio and Jack Nicklaus. The White House Hotel is here, as is the coast’s most revered restaurant, Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, housed in Biloxi’s oldest home, circa 1737.


Great American Bites: Gulf seafood at Biloxi's Mary Mahoney's

Walkable downtown Gulfport has the Half Shell Oyster House, legendary for its local seafood and for pioneering the region’s most unique specialty, the very rare Royal Red Shrimp. All of the casinos have multiple dining options, and the area’s newest addition is Restaurant Row on Biloxi Beach, five adjacent freestanding eateries and open-air bars on the sand, buzzing day and night, four of them opened in the past year. The new ballpark is here, home to the Biloxi Shuckers, the Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers, named for the region’s longstanding oyster industry.

Local piers offer oystering and shrimping trips on working boats to see how it’s done, and the Maritime Museum operates two historically accurate replica “Biloxi Schooners,” 68-foot two-masted sailboats once used widely for oystering, offering charters, scenic public cruises and sunset sails. Another top Biloxi cultural attraction is Beauvoir, the 52-acre estate of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy. Besides the antebellum mansion there are nature trails, his historical library, a Civil War Museum, gardens, and, oddly, wildlife including camels.

The new Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art can also be found in the heart of the Biloxi-Gulfport strip, just across Beach Boulevard from the sand. Primarily celebrating the work of one of America’s greatest ceramicists, George Ohr, “The Mad Potter of Biloxi,” whose work is widely exhibited in places like the Metropolitan Museum of Artand Art Institute of Chicago, the museum was designed by architecture legend Frank Gehry. Here he had a lot rich in old and impressive oaks, and took a campus approach — Gehry envisioned a museum that “would dance among the trees.”

There are six main structures, anchored by a traditional Southern-style coastal main house surrounded by four very contemporary freestanding metal flower-shaped pods, each an exhibit gallery. Ohr was a forerunner of abstractionism in the late 19th century, known for his use of iridescent colors in the pottery glaze, and more than 300 pieces are on display. The campus also includes the Museum of African American Art in its own building.

“We have a lot of people who come in because their spouse loves to gamble and they are looking for something else to do. There are a lot more alternatives now, and I think that is really supporting a lot of the new attractions in the area,” said Kevin O’Brien, the museum’s executive director.

Just to the east of Biloxi sits Ocean Springs, a popular dining destination that is home to many beloved regional eateries, including the flagship of famed barbecue spot The Shed, Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Restaurant, and the Tatonut Shop, with a cult-like following for its potato-based doughnuts.

Further east, on the Florida border, is Pascagoula, home to the new Pascagoula Audubon Center, opened last October. Besides the interpretive center, there are walking paths, kayaks and scenic boat tours. “It’s the last of its kind, a large river with no dams or controls on it at all,” said Dr. Mark LaSalle, the center’s executive director. “It’s very popular with birders, and the facility is a very manageable 10 acres, but the Nature Conservancy, Audubon and others have been buying and protecting land for years. Almost 50,000 acres are now in state, federal or non-profit conservation or protection status.”

Near the Louisiana border, the towns on the west end of the coast, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, are known for fishing and seafood, and the former is home to the newly redone Silver Slipper casino resort, as well as the Hollywood casino.  The biggest attraction here — quite literally — is the immense NASA Stennis Space Center and its four-year-old Infinity Science Center, the public visitor facility. The Infinity has tons of interactive exhibits for all ages, including a life-size walk-through model of the International Space Station’s Destiny module, one of the huge F-1 engines that sent men to the moon, and a 7-mile scenic nature trail.

Admission includes a guided bus tour of the working NASA site, which spans 220 square miles, a city unto itself with several university research centers, private industries, a U.S. Naval Command, the weather headquarters for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and much more. The main purpose of Stennis is rocket and engine testing, and the trio of launch pads each includes more steel than the Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower. The largest NASA and private industry engines and rockets are ignited and tested here, including the latest generation Space Launch System, or SLS, designed for deep space flight to Mars and beyond.

This facility, the second largest of NASA’s 10 space centers, was specifically built to test the rockets to send men to the moon, and celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. The scope of the facilities is overwhelming, and everything from the three stage Saturn rockets for Apollo to the Space Shuttle to engines privately used by SpaceXand competitors have been tested here.

“When they tested the Saturn V cluster (five engines) the engineer’s viewing stand had to be 2 miles from the pad, and you could hear the roar all the way from Baton Rouge to Mobile, Alabama,” said Mary Douglas, Infinity’s marketing manager. Last month the final remaining significant piece of Apollo space flight hardware, the Saturn V first stage rocket booster slated for the canceled Apollo 19 mission, was brought to the Infinity Science Center. The mission was to have been commanded by local Mississippian and retired astronaut Fred Haise, who served as Lunar Module Pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13 and whose personal space gear is displayed here.

None of the main attractions sits far from the others, or from the waters of the Gulf, and no matter where you are along these 62 oceanfront miles, you are never far from fresh and amazing seafood, especially wild caught Gulf shrimp, plus oysters, crab, catfish and po’ boys. Likewise, you are always close to great golf, with nearly 20 courses, and plenty of inshore and offshore sport fishing, with several marinas and lots of waterfront restaurants that will cook your catch.

Biloxi-Gulfport International Airport is served by American, Delta and United. Gulfport is less than a 90-minute drive from New Orleans, and some choose that larger airport. More tourism information at: gulfcoast.org.