OCEAN SPRINGS, MISSISSIPPI — The inscription above the door at the end of the gallery reads, “Beware by whom you are called sane.”
Just over the threshold, every inch of a room roughly the size of a walk-in closet dances in rapturous homage to the natural splendors of the Mississippi coast. Sunrise pinks and yellows illuminate a fawn paused in a glade. Birds take wing on sea breezes. A rainbow bursts forth from radiant clouds.
There’s much that this space — muraled by reclusive, iconic and long-misunderstood local artist Walter Ingles Anderson — has in common with Ocean Springs itself: its color and vibrancy, the amount it packs into its diminutive size, and the fact that it was once a hidden gem that’s now become a crown jewel.
While he lived, Anderson kept the so-called “Little Room” locked away from view; today it’s a centerpiece of the must-visit Walter Anderson Museum of Art.
As for Ocean Springs’ trajectory?
Less than 90 minutes east of New Orleans — roughly double that for Lafayette — the superlatives that national outlets shower on this beachside enclave of about 18,000 include “friendliest,” “coolest” and “most beautiful.” Only months ago, a USA Today readers poll named it America’s best coastal small town.
Despite the recent fame, golf carts still leisurely putter through the oak-shaded intersection of Government Street and Washington Avenue, the hub of a petite downtown dense with cottage boutiques, galleries and restaurants. Front Beach’s miles of white sand remain unbothered by development. And locals remain so welcoming it strains credulity.
Six months after his first visit to Ocean Springs, Patrick Bowen sold his home and moved here. His visiting friends can’t believe how often people stop on the street to greet each other or chat with strangers, said Bowen, who has, in fact, stopped his brunch to chat with a stranger.
“People ask me if this is a movie town,” he adds, with a laugh. “It’s a cool place.”
City of Discovery
Nicknamed the City of Discovery, a familiar character — Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville — established the first European settlement in Mississippi here in 1699, making it the first capital of French Louisiana. By the mid-1800s, vacationers flocked here for the freshwater springs that gave the city its name, not to mention the sunshine and seafood.
But don’t mistake idyllic for sleepy. There is always something afoot in Ocean Springs.
On a balmy Thursday evening, downtown’s abundant patios are filling up. And with live music spilling out from local favorites like Murky Waters and the historic Government Street Grocery, cruising down the main drag sounds like tuning a radio dial — songs fading into each other every half block or so.
Even on the relatively quiet stretch of the up-and-coming Porter Avenue, an intimate crowd has gathered at Wilbur, the speakeasy attached to boutique hotel The Roost. Resident mixologist Henry Hartford slings cocktails as chic as the bar’s interiors.
Getting into Wilbur is all but effortless; the staff jokes that the password is “where’s the speakeasy.” Those truly in the know arrive early enough to grab one of Hartford’s small-batch clarified milk punches.
Serene views, rental bikes
The popular Front Beach, a palm-dotted two-mile stretch, offers pretty views of the Biloxi Bay Bridge and shaggy Deer Island on the horizon. Drop a line from the fishing pier, stroll the paved path tracing the shoreline or just relax.
Belly Up Beach Chairs, locally run by two trained chefs, caters bespoke group picnics on the beach complete with homemade marshmallows for s’mores.
The more athletic can rent bikes from Tri Hard Sports in town and follow the marked Live Oaks Trail through historic neighborhoods and along the coast to the Davis Bayou section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The less athletic can do like the locals and hire a golf cart from Downtown Golf Cart Rentals.
Nearby, the halls and classrooms of a former public school are home to live theater, regional artwork, a small history museum and even an architectural library. A healthy events calendar includes everything from ramen-making nights in the teaching kitchen to free monthly concerts by the Mississippi Songwriters Alliance.
Art Fest in November
Sarah Qarqish runs the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Arts Center — the Mary C to locals — and said it’s building on a strong tradition of art and design in Ocean Springs.
“There’s this connection between the past and present in the arts community here,” Qarqish said. “We all love our coast, our town. We connect and support each other.”
Art lovers will want to drop by the showroom and small museum at Shearwater Pottery, founded by Peter Anderson — brother of Walter — in 1928 and still family run.
Downtown is home to several galleries as well as artfully curated vintage at Buddyrow and Coastal Magpie. Realizations, a small shop run by Walter Anderson’s family, sells prints made from his original designs.
And the Peter Anderson Arts & Crafts Festival, the largest event of its kind in Mississippi, runs Nov. 5-6 and draws a crowd of around 150,000 with its street fair atmosphere. It’s one of more than a dozen festivals the city hosts.