I have been a Texan for my entire life. The Texas Gulf Coast, to be exact. When traveling from my neck of the woods to the East Coast by car, one typically travels on Interstate 10 -- first through Louisiana, then Mississippi, and finally Alabama, before arriving east. As long as I can remember, we've made that trip with an eye on speed. We never tarry because the Louisiana/Mississippi/Alabama stretch of highway is considered the "quick" leg of the trip.
I've seen the signage in Mississippi instructing us to exit "US 90 for Scenic Route." But we have always rushed through, keeping the course, sticking to the plan, never acquiescing to the signs' invitations to scenery, never pausing to break away from the travel plan.
Recently, I finally had the opportunity to explore the Mississippi Gulf Coast and I discovered I should have taken the exit to the "scenic route" much sooner. This gem of an area, tucked away from the hectic interstate, has a slower rhythm and warm hospitality that we all seek in our beach vacations.
Located between New Orleans, La., and Mobile, Ala., the Mississippi Gulf Coast is comprised of 13 coastal towns, with 62 miles of scenic coastline. The largest cities in the area are Gulfport and Biloxi, and the remaining towns include Ocean Springs, Pass Christian, and D'Iberville. If you're passing through the southern tip of the state, I urge you to at least pause a moment to dip your toes in the sand at the beach and eat fresh Gulf seafood.
But, if you want to explore the area as more than a detour, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has plenty to offer families. Sure, there's the beach. And it's a wonderful beach with white sand, a beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico, and minimal crowds. But there's so much more to explore. Here's what we discovered:
Every children's museum I've visited offers something unique, something that you won't find at another children's museum. The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, housed in a 1915 schoolhouse, is no different. Its exhibits tell the story of the area (past and present), as well as provides the opportunity to interact with science and engineering, a newsroom, art, and more. It sits on six acres of outdoor space, with a full treehouse/play structure, "Kids Street" mini-neighborhood, and an outdoor deck with a view of the Gulf's barrier islands. The museum is also home to a full children's performing arts theater, with camps and productions held throughout the year. Bonus: there is a full commercial kitchen, where kids and adults alike can take cooking courses.
At Ocean Adventures Marine Park & Center for Marine Education and Research, guests have the opportunity to explore and encounter sea creatures such as stingrays, sharks, horseshoe crabs, fish, blue crabs, sea stars, and sea urchins in the center's touch pools. And guests can learn more about the tropical birds, reptiles, and dolphins through the center's Animal Adventures presentations. Visitors to the center can even step into a room of tropical birds and interact up close and personally.
The Institute for Marine Mammal Studies is the home to Ocean Adventures and conducts research, conservation, and rescue. Learn more about the Institute here.
Margaritaville is a full-scale family resort that will delight kids of all ages. There are parts of the resort, like the pool, open only to resort guests. However, the expansive Family Entertainment Center is open to the public. It's a 55,000 square foot gaming extravaganza, with arcade games, a 48-foot rock climbing wall, ropes course, and virtual sports simulators. And guests can grab a bite at one of the resort's restaurants, also open to the public.
This adventure takes guests on a shrimping expedition on a real shrimp boat. The guides take visitors through the entire process of shrimping, from the casting of the net to the actual retrieval of the shrimp (and whatever else is caught!). The boat's guides are friendly, and keep kids entertained with humor and the opportunity to touch the sea life.
This museum tells the history of the industry in the area. The boat-lover in your group will delight in seeing authentic replicas of Biloxi Schooners. And when it's time for the kids to run and play after visiting the museum, there is a playground and splash pad within walking distance at Point Cadet Plaza, located on the Biloxi Bay.
Fresh seafood is a staple of the Gulf Coast region, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is no exception. The seafood at Shaggy's exceeded expectations. And the beachfront atmosphere and ocean breezes just made the place feel like a beach vacation.
Located just across the Biloxi Bay is the eclectic arts community of Ocean Springs. The city was home to celebrated artist Walter Anderson, who, according to the museum, was an American master, "whose depictions of the plants, animals, and people of the Gulf Coast have placed him among the forefront of American painters of the Twentieth Century." This museum was a captivating and, admittedly, unexpected delight. Be sure to see the "Little Room," Anderson's sanctuary during the latter years of his life, and prepare to be awed. For a full appreciation of the art and Anderson's life, try to book a tour.
While visiting Ocean Springs, be sure to explore the shops and galleries located downtown, within walking distance of the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. Front Beach in Ocean Springs is off the beaten path, making it even less crowded and perfect for families.
The biscuit breakfast at The Greenhouse on Porter in Ocean Springs is truly worth a mention. The restaurant is literally located in a greenhouse and features swoon-worthy biscuits. Restaurant patrons can choose a sweet or savory biscuit, or choose to have one of each. The biscuits are made fresh daily, with recipes that also change daily.
Where we stayed:
Doubletree by Hilton Biloxi. The Doubletree by Hilton is located across from Biloxi Beach and is walking distance to some of Biloxi's major casinos. The rooms are spacious and can accommodate a family comfortably. The hotel has a full restaurant and bar, as well as a pool and fitness equipment. The staff was extremely friendly and accommodating.
Like to gamble?
Casinos are a major draw to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. There are 12 casinos that offer 24-hour gaming, as well as entertainment. From time to time, the casinos offer family-friendly shows. We were able to catch the gravity-defying CIRCOVIA show at Beau Rivage in Biloxi before it concluded in early August. Check listings for family shows offered at casinos.
We didn't have time to visit all the family-friendly stops in the region. More ideas for your family-friendly itinerary: the Infinity Science Center, any (or all!) of the three water parks in the area, and the Pascagoula River Audubon Center.
On a final note, most residents that I encountered spoke of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in terms of pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. Hurricane Katrina ravaged the area in August 2005, and some businesses and homes never fully recovered. A driving tour of the area will reveal a number of markers that indicate where buildings once stood. The area's resilience is evidenced in the number of attractions and businesses that rebuilt and reopened.
There's much to see and do on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I hope you have a chance to discover it for yourself!
The author received complimentary accommodations, meals, and entry to featured attractions/show tickets for the purpose of facilitating this review. Opinions expressed, however, are hers alone.