A guide to Coasting
The Gulf Coast’s silky white sandy beaches, sun-kissed balmy temperatures and unique fishing opportunities are enough of an attraction, especially this time of year coming off the dreary cold of winter and leaving the fun of Carnival behind. But the Coast offers so much more, from a new Minor League Baseball team in Biloxi to ziplining over land and sea. The spring also brings numerous festivals and special events, such as the 29th annual Sandestin Wine Festival and the juried art show at the George Ohr Museum.
Here are 20 fun suggestions of things to take in on your next trip to the Gulf Coast. Of course, you can always go swimming, sun bathing and cast out a line.
Biloxi’s White House hotel has long been a staple of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Built in the 1890s as the home for Judge Walter White and his wife, Cora, the couple later took in boarders and in time expanded the business. They adjoined buildings and added two wings with help from architect George B. Rogers, designer of the Bellingrath Gardens house in Alabama, to finally create a hotel with its now trademark Grecian columns that overlooks the beach. The hotel became the place to stay for decades until, like many historic properties, it fell into neglect. Last year the hotel reopened as a boutique property with Cora’s Restaurant and Bar serving up local fare, a rooftop terrace ideal for weddings and a pool and hot tub area that faces the beach. Southern Living just named The White House one of “The South’s Best New Hotels.” WhiteHouseBiloxi.com
Visitors can now add baseball to the beach mix as the Biloxi Shuckers Minor League Baseball team takes up residence this spring in downtown Biloxi. The Shuckers will begin their regular season in April as the new Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers in the new MGM Park across from Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. The team chose the Shuckers name from 60,000 votes in a “Name the Team” contest. “The seafood industry is so important to the entire region, and we wanted a name that meant something to the community,” said Shuckers President Ken Young in a press release when the name was announced. The Shuckers’ logo includes an oyster in the colors “Gulf blue, sand, coral and black.” BiloxiShuckers.com
Float the lazy river at Turquoise Place in Orange Beach, two luxury condominium towers that offer 400 spacious condos with a host of amenities, including a lazy river that’s so relaxing you’ll never want to leave. All units face the azure Gulf waters with oversized balconies featuring massive hot tubs and tables and grills. Every bedroom is complemented by a private bath, and every unit by a gourmet kitchen and living area. Other amenities include several outdoor heated pools to accommodate all ages, indoor heated pools and hot tubs, a children’s playground (next to the lazy river so parents can enjoy one while the kids enjoy the other), fitness rooms, sauna and steam rooms and tennis courts. Access to the beach is private and includes beach service, and cabanas are available for spa services or poolside convenience. In addition, there’s covered parking, concierge services, free DVD checkouts and resort activities such as beach volleyball and poolside “tots time” throughout the week. TurquoisePlace.SpectrumResorts.com
Breakfast at the beach runs the gamut, and naturally we have our favorites. You can sample the sunrise egg platter at Tacky Jack’s if you’re heading off to fish, or relax and enjoy the morning view, complete with birds and occasional dolphin, with pancakes, French toast or omelettes. Tacky Jack’s offers three locations at Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Fort Morgan, and three opportunities to have breakfast and bloody Marys overlooking the water. In Ocean Springs, there’s no water view at Buzzy’s Breakfast Joint but the meals are outstanding and especially enjoyable on the front patio. Buzzy’s serves up breakfast daily from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m., and includes a menu consisting of eggs any way, grits and biscuits (of course) and their trademark “Exploding Egg Sandwich.” TackyJacks.com; Facebook.com/bbjkorisinc
Go above Interstate 10 for family-style adventures all located in one spot. Adventures Unlimited, located on the pristine Blackwater River near Milton, Florida, is an outfitter for tubing, kayaking, canoeing and camping. Owners will bring paddlers upstream to enjoy the spring-fed Blackwater with its clean, sugar-white sandbars. Visitors may also pause at those sandbars for overnight trips, also organized by Adventures Unlimited. For those who love the great outdoors but want clean sheets at the end of the day, there’s a variety of lodging on site from the School House Inn, once an active schoolhouse on the property, and furnished cabins that accommodate individuals to groups. The property offers no televisions or telephones and cell reception is limited, so it’s also a great way to turn off. Camping – as well as recreation – is also available at nearby Blackwater River State Park. AdventuresUnlimited.com
While you’re in the area, travel Florida’s Playground Trail, 12 tourist sites that connect historic Milton just above Interstate 10 with Navarre Beach on the coast. The trail includes Gulf Breeze Zoo, historic Arcadia Mill and Bagdad Village, the L&N Railroad Museum and the Navarre Beach Marine Park with an educational marine science station, sea turtle conservatory and near-shore reef. FloridasPlayground.com
Ziplining is not just for mountains. The Gulf Coast is now home to several ziplining attractions. Florida Zip Line Adventures, connected with Adventures Unlimited and located in Milton, Florida, will set visitors in flight over a variety of zipline packages, including over the lower Wolfe Creek and Coldwater Creek. Visitors may also soar over land and water in a series of ziplines at Gulf Adventure Center in Gulf Shores. Located within the 14 acres of Gulf State Park, the “Hummingbird Ziplines” consist of seven towers and six ziplines that take visitors as high as 90 feet in the air. The course includes soaring over Lake Shelby. FloridaZipLineAdventures.com; GulfAdventureCenter.com
Birding enthusiasts love the Gulf Coast for its wintering and migratory birds that visit every year, one of the reasons why the Gulf Shores region hosts the Alabama Coastal BirdFest every fall. Visitors heading to the coast this spring have numerous great birding spots to choose from. In Florida, the Okaloosa County Holding Ponds, Oak Tree Nature Park and the many state parks located along the coast are all great birding spots. More than 370 species of birds have been identified during migratory season at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Fort Morgan Peninsula in Alabama. The Gulf Island National Seashore extends from Mississippi to Pensacola, but the Fort Pickens area on Santa Rosa Island and the Naval Island Oaks area near Gulf Breeze remain top viewing for migrant songbirds. AlabamaCoastalBirdFest.com
Tour a craft brewery and taste local beers in Mississippi at breweries such as Crooked Letter, Lazy Magnolia and Chandeleur Brewing. Crooked Letter in Ocean Springs offers $5 brewery tours on Saturdays and Lazy Magnolia in Kiln includes six different beers in their tours for $10. Chandeleur is the newest of the group and now offers tastings in their microbrewery in downtown Gulfport. CrookedLetterBrewing.com; LazyMagnolia.com; ChandeleurBrew.com
For a drink that’s more family friendly, stop in the retro Lovelace Drug Store and Soda Fountain in downtown Ocean Springs for a milkshake or malt at the counter (remember those?). It is a great break while visiting Ocean Springs’ special events Herb, Garden and Art Festival March 28-29 and the 1699 Historical Society’s Weekend of Discovery April 25-26, with a 5K and children’s pet parade. Facebook.com/pages/Lovelace-Drugstore-and-Soda-Fountain; OceanSpringsChamber.com; 1699Landing.org
Biloxi was home to eccentric artist George Ohr, known as the “Mad Potter of Biloxi.” It is apropos then that a museum in his name would be unusual as well, including striking exhibit “pods” and buildings merging with nature designed by prize-winning architect Frank Gehry. The eclectic museum itself is on display but inside are revolving and permanent exhibits. On April 24-26, the museum hosts the 17th annual ColOhr Fest juried art show and sale with music and dance performances, hands-on activities for all ages, pottery contests, hand-crafted art and crafts for sale, food and more. GeorgeOhr.org/OhrFest.
Learn about the coast’s maritime history at the new Biloxi Maritime and Seafood Museum and the Destin History & Fishing Museum. Biloxi’s newest museum includes two 65-foot Biloxi Schooners that sail Gulf waters and offers year-round educational programs and a summer Sea-n-Sail Adventure Camp. The Destin History & Fishing Museum explains Destin’s past as a small fishing village founded on East Pass in the 1830s. MaritimeMuseum.org; DestinHistroyAndFishingMuseum.org
Go smoke-free at the Palace Casino Resort, a full-service resort and casino on Biloxi’s Back Bay where every inch of the entire casino floor, restaurant and all of the 236 guest rooms and 14 suites prohibit smoking. Resort amenities include the Palace Spa and Fitness Center, banquet and meeting rooms and the Preserve 18-hole golf course in nearby Vancleave. The pool area contains an oversized hot tub and Wahoo’s Poolside Bar and, if you must smoke, the pool is the one place smoking is allowed. Be sure and ask for an odd numbered room for the bayside views. PalaceCasinoResort.com
The Blue Angels, officially known as the U.S. Navy Flight Demonstration Squadron, tour the country performing breath-taking flights in dazzling air shows. But their home is at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, where they practice along the coast. Starting in March, The Blue Angels will perform free for the public on most Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and sometimes pause for autographs and photos. Be sure and check out the National Naval Aviation Museum that includes a Blue Angel simulation ride, IMAX Theatre and exhibits. BlueAngels.Navy.Mil/Show
If you can visit Bellingrath Gardens & Home in southern Alabama during March you’ll likely catch 250,000 azaleas in bloom throughout their 65 acres of Southern estate gardens. Do not despair if travels take you there during the rest of the year, however, for Bellingrath offers a steady schedule of blooming plants, plus special events such as Easter sunrise service, breakfast with the Easter Bunny and a Mother’s Day concert. Bellingrath.org
The 29th annual Sandestin Wine Festival at Baytowne Wharf in Sandestin April 16-19 offers four days of not only wine sampling, but also wine dinners with celebrity chefs, live music, culinary events and discounted wines at the Retail Tent. It is a favorite of beachgoers and has been named the “Best Annual Event” by Destin Magazine. Participants receive wristbands for tastings, but non-drinking friends are welcomed as well at no charge. SandestinWineFestival.com
There is more than gorgeous beaches in Destin and Ft. Walton. If the kids want variety, go fly a kite with Kitty Hawk Kites, enjoy water fun from the wave pool to the 70-feet drop of Jumanji at the Big Kahuna’s Water & Adventure Park, and rent go-karts and bumper cars at The Track Family Recreation Center. Coming soon is the new GI Joe’s Theme Park, which will feature military-themed amusement rides and exhibit items from the American Forces throughout the past 100 years. KittyHawk.com; BigKahunas.com; DestinTrack.com
Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs, bookends to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, took quite a beating from Hurricane Katrina. Both have rebounded beautifully and offer great day trips for shopping – with a great meal or cocktails to accompany the experience, of course. Both offer antique shops, high-end fashion, eclectic gift shops and locally made art. Some offer a combination of fun. Maggie Mays in Bay St. Louis, for instance, sells original artwork, clothes, antiques and more while its counterpart, Lulu’s Cafe, serves up delicious sandwiches and poor boys, soups, quiches and a fabulous bread pudding. BayStLouis-Ms.gov; GulfCoast.org; BayStLouisOldTown.com/Maggie-MaysLulus.html
A visit to Ponce de Leon Springs State Park may be better served in August, during the dog days of summer, for the crystal clear springs maintain a temperature of 68 degrees year-round. The spring, fed by a convergence of two underground continuous sources, was named for Juan Ponce de León who visited Florida in 1513 searching for the “fountain of youth.” The pet friendly park located just above Interstate 10 and Panama City also includes picnic tables, fishing spots and hiking trails through a mixed forest and along Sandy Creek that make it an ideal day excursion. FloridaStateParks.org/PonceDeLeonSprings
More than 125 juried fine artists will exhibit at the 27th annual ArtsQuest Fine Arts Festival May 8-10 (always on Mother’s Day weekend) at the Grand Boulevard’s Town Center in Sandestin. In addition, there will be live bands, children’s activities, art demonstrations, food and, of course, artwork for sale. ArtsQuestFlorida.com