My first visit to the state of Mississippi brought me to the Gulf Coast for Mardi Gras, where the down-home locals have been welcoming tourists since the early part of the 19th century.
Biloxi and the surrounding Gulf Coast towns have an egalitarian spirit that has little in common with the traditional, Southern gothic, Faulkneresque world that I had imagined. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Friendly folks are the rule here, not the exception.
The so-called “Playground of the South” offers inexpensive, family-friendly diversions like the beach, as well as numerous casinos that could easily occupy you for a weekend. Biloxi is located directly on the Mississippi Sound and is totally free of pretensions — fitting for a place that was once known as the Poor Man’s Riviera. St. Tropez or Capri it is not, so don’t come here and expect fancy.
Sandy Beaches of Biloxi
The best part of a family vacation in Biloxi is its waterfront location. The Gulf of Mexico surf (thoroughly tested after the BP Oil Spill and proclaimed clean) is usually gentle and the sand soft, perfect for barefoot walks and splashing with your toddlers. All the beaches are public, so you can lay down your towel or open up your beach chairs wherever you like. Once the kids are in the water, they will probably never notice that the beach is situated between oil rigs and highrise casinos.
In spite of the hasty development that the casino boom brought to the region, there are still unspoiled barrier islands scattered off the coast and into the Gulf of Mexico.
A walking and bike trail runs along the coast, increasing recreational possibilities. There is an old lighthouse in the center of town, and families will want to climb to the top of the spiral staircase to get a birds-eye view.
Family-friendly Activities on MIssissippi Gulf Coast
The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in nearby Gulfport is the place to visit on a rainy day. It is a hands-on children’s museum that helps give kids a historical perspective on life in this area through interactive learning. Favorite exhibits were History Hotel, where you can see what a local hotel was like here in the 1890’s and To Market, To Market, which recreates a Mississippi grocery store.
Big Play Family Fun Center in Biloxi is a kitschy oasis of kid-approved fun. It features two 18-hole mini golf courses, classic bumper cars and lots of arcade games.
If you are looking for a special day trip, take the ferry to Ship Island, an undeveloped barrier island that is located 10 miles off shore. Ship Island Excursions departs from Gulfport Harbor, and will have you there in an hour. Be on the lookout for Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, known to frolic in these warm, clear waters. Explore old Fort Massachusetts and enjoy a day of swimming, shelling and picnicking as you commune with nature on this pristine island.
If you and your family enjoy golf ,the mild climate means year-round possibilities. There are nearly 20 courses in the area, some designed by big names of the game like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Fazio. If fishing is your sport, the area enjoys the reputation of being one of the nation’s finest fish hatcheries, where many species of fresh water, saltwater and deep sea game fish are usually in abundance year round.
Mardi Gras in Biloxi
Mardi Gras in Biloxi is full of families, many with very young children. I was lucky enough to have visited during the traditional pre-Lenten celebration.
There are festivities for several weeks leading up to the main event on Fat Tuesday, a parade that is bursting with music, dancing and merriment. The good news is that all of the fun is on a very manageable, kid-appropriate scale.
Mardi Gras felt more like a state fair than the rowdy, alcohol-fueled fiesta that I had anticipated. Everyone lines the town’s broad streets pleading for the various Krewes, perched on top of their floats, to throw them Mardi Gras beads in the traditional shades of purple, gold and green. There are white beads flying as well, and the locals refer to these as pearls. The coronation of the Mardi Gras King and Queen is held on the eve of Mardi Gras and everyone is welcome to attend the pageantry of this ceremonial crowning. If you have a fan of Disney princesses with you, don’t miss this fairytale come to life.
Hurricane Katrina Memorial
This area took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina and saw devastating destruction and loss of life. Locals talk about life as “before” and “after Katrina” the way loquacious old-timers will tell you they used to speak of Hurricane Camille, 1969’s powerfully destructive storm.
The Hurricane Katrina Memorial in downtown Biloxi is worth a visit. Townsfolk will proudly tell you that the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew helped to build this memorial dedicated to Katrina’s victims. I highly suggest speaking with as many locals as possible, as many are glad to share their experiences. The resilience that they have shown is a valuable lesson for all ages to admire.
Casinos and hotels of Biloxi
Biloxi has had legal gaming for nearly a generation and many locals sing the praises of the economic benefits that they have brought. I am not a fan of bringing children to casinos, and keep in mind that Biloxi is full of them. The smoke factor alone keeps me at a distance.
In fairness, I am a non-gambler, so the charms of all casinos escape me. In Biloxi they are an eyesore. I couldn’t stop thinking how much more scenic the coastline would be without them.
The only one I would recommend to families is The Palace. It is the only smoke-free casino on the Gulf Coast. This family-run operation is clean as a whistle, with the right amount of glitz to impress teens. Mignon’s Steaks and Seafood is a fine dining option located in the casino. The menu includes a stellar wine selection for adult oenophiles and some fabulous dessert options for everyone in the family.
The Four Points by Sheraton is a super-clean, non-gaming hotel that is near the beaches and many attractions.
Southern Eats along Gulf Coast
It is in the culinary arena that the Southern charm I had been seeking was found. Casual, family-owned eateries dominate. Fresh seafood, very fair prices and large portions will put families at ease.
The Harbor View Cafe in Long Beach is a fine place to start the day. Shrimp and Grits and Pecan French Toast are tasty, homespun choices and there is a kid’s menu for the 12-and-under crowd. If you come here for lunch, indulge in a po-boy sandwich filled with locally caught fried shrimp or oysters, a hometown classic. You will need both hands to get a grip on it, so unless your appetite is big, consider sharing.
For dinner, the Lookout Steakhouse in Gulfport offers downtown taste with hometown prices. Pasta, steak and seafood appear on the menu along with some Creole favorites, like red beans and ham and crawfish etouffee. There is a kid’s menu with lots of options. The owner has several children of his own, so he knows what to do to make families feel comfortable.
McElroy’s on the Bayou in Ocean Springs serves ethereal beignets, those delectable fried clouds of dough draped with a veil of confectioner’s sugar, served fresh out of the fryer. There is a casual, diner-like atmosphere here, perfect for any meal when you want to eat copious portions of fresh food and not break the bank.
Trip Planning for a Biloxi Weekend
The Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport is located in Gulfport, and is served by several major airlines. Interstate 10 connects the area to Houston, New Orleans, Mobile and other Southern cities. Beach Blvd., also known as Highway 90, hugs the beaches and is where most of the casinos are located.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Official website is loaded with helpful information that should assist you in planning your vacation.
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