Sun, Sand and History

Even in my 40s, I still look forward to the arrival of summer with as much anticipation and excitement as any kid I know. There are so many things I adore about summertime, but the common thread that runs through all of them is my kids. I cherish the extra time that summer allows us to play and reconnect with each other, friends and extended family. The busy schedule that seems to rule our lives during the school year takes a back seat to a more laid-back version of our family. Instead of looking ahead to the next few days on the calendar and wondering how I’m going to fit everything in, I look ahead and think, what shall we do today?

It was answering that very question that led us to a quick, one-hour road trip from New Orleans and a day of fun on the water and the beach. With cousins in tow, we drove to Gulfport, Mississippi, and made our way to the Ship Island Ferry terminal. In the summer months, the Ship Island ferry runs seven days a week with three round-trips on Saturdays and two round-trips on all other days. Since the crowds can get large on Saturdays, advance purchase is recommended for these peak days. Ship Island Excursions has been in operation since its founding by Capt. Pete Skrmetta in the 1930s and still remains under the reigns of the Skrmetta family today. Capt. Pete’s son, Jimmie Skrmetta, expanded the fleet with two new vessels: the 110-foot Gulf Islander in 1990 and the 100-foot Captain Pete in 2000. These boats, in addition to the 65-foot Pan American Clipper, are the vessels used for the daily trips to Ship Island. All three boats offer outdoor sun decks as well as enclosed cabins and restrooms, while the two newer vessels boast cabins that are climate controlled. The 11-mile ride from Gulfport out to the island takes about an hour.

On our particular day, it wasn’t long into the ride when we spotted our first visitors – dolphins! Many Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphins make their home in the waters off the Mississippi coast and around the barrier islands, so it’s very common to see them peacefully swimming and diving along the surface.

Once we arrived at the pier on Ship Island, we grabbed our gear and headed to the beach. Storage space on the ferry vessel is limited, so it’s helpful to pack light, but soft-sided coolers and collapsible chairs in canvas carrying bags are allowed. You will also want to make sure you have snacks, drinks and of course a lot of sunscreen. Our gang set up on the south side, the Gulf of Mexico side, of the island. Chairs and umbrellas are available for rent in the peak summer season. In no time, the kids were swimming in the Gulf, hiking around the interior marshes and playing on the beach.

The island has a serious side as well, as it has played an important role in the history of the Gulf region and still is a crucial part of protection for the region. Ship Island was discovered and named by the French in the 1600s. So many immigrants landed on Ship Island before making their way to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, that the island was nicknamed the “Plymouth Rock of the Gulf South.”

Today, Ship Island is actually two islands called West Ship and East Ship. In 1969, the powerful storm surge from Hurricane Camille left the island battered and separated into two smaller islands. The small islands, along with neighboring Cat Island to the west and Horn Island to the east, are part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and are managed by the National Park Service. Not only do these barrier islands provide protection from storm surges, but Ship Island also offers a fun walk through history, as it’s home to Fort Massachusetts. During the Civil War, Union troops under Admiral David Farragut launched offensives against New Orleans and Mobile from this fort. The fort is also an example of the effects of coastal erosion. When it was originally built more than 150 years ago, the structure was 500 feet from the shoreline. But now, it’s right at the water’s edge. Visitors can tour the fort on their own or take the 30-minute guided tour led by a park ranger.

Having had our fill of sun, sand and history, we made our way back to the West Island pier to board the ferry for our return trip. The dolphins reappeared to entertain us once again. But this isn’t good-bye; we will be back!

If you’re interested in a day-trip to Ship Island, visit for the ferry schedule, prices and additional information.