From paddleboard yoga to island cruises, there’s endless fun to be had on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The best place to spend hot summer days (or any days at all, really) is on the water. And the best place in Mississippi to be out on the water is on the Gulf Coast, where sea breezes abound and opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors are endless. From hiking to paddle boarding and from golfing to boating, the Coast is always a good idea.
Coastal cities are a unique mix of tourist destinations and quaint hometowns. While the casinos bring world-class restaurants and entertainment, locals and tourists alike frequent small Coastal shopping and dining districts, where fabulous family-owned stores and local restaurants can be found.
While excellent entertainment and amenities draw many visitors to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the real stars of the area are the outdoor attractions, which are more varied and accessible than you could ever imagine.
Of course, the obvious choice for recreation is the beach! With 26 miles of white sand beaches, the coast has plenty of space for a game of beach volleyball or a stroll collecting shells. Beach walks are regular activities for locals and visitors alike, all of whom can enjoy wide sidewalks and boardwalks along the beach, as well as beautiful views from the top of the breezy Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge. Also available all along the beach are paddleboats, floating beach bikes, and jet skis to rent by the hour.
While the Coastal beach has some excellent offerings, some say that the islands are even better. The barrier islands lie just off shore, but have much to offer in wildlife and scenery. Horn and Deer Islands are both popular spots and are accessible by boat. Another popular destination is Ship Island, which is accessible by the ferry. The quick hour-long ride takes riders from the Gulfport Ferry Pier to Ship Island, where visitors can take the boardwalk across the island to the south beach. This side of the island is open to the Gulf of Mexico and enjoys beautiful water and larger waves than you’ll find on the mainland’s beach. While on Ship Island, visitors can rent chairs and umbrellas, purchase snacks, and tour historic Fort Massachusetts.
Visitors with an interest in boating will find no shortcomings in the local options, but might find a challenge in selecting from the available possibilities. For those interested in a relaxing voyage along the coastline, a trip with T&J Island Cruises might be the perfect thing. “We’re strictly a leisure charter,”says owner Ted Pattison. “We do dinner and sunset cruises and half and full day cruises to Horn Island. When the weather’s nice, it’s just so beautiful being out on the water. There’s a lot of wildlife: birds and dolphins are easy to see from the boat.” For those interested in seeing dolphins, the best times to visit are spring and summer. Visitors seeking relaxation might also be interested in a sail in a replica wooden oyster schooner with the Biloxi Schooners. These boats were built in 1986 to educate visitors on the way oysters were harvested in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies, when Biloxi was the seafood capital of the world. “It’s like taking a step back in time,”says Executive Director Robin David. The Biloxi Schooners are available for chartered trips and also offer 2 hour walk-on sails for small groups throughout the week. Says Robin, “The 6 o’clock sunset sail is just really pretty. It’s a unique way of experiencing how they used to harvest seafood and a very relaxing way to see the Coast.”
Paddle boarding is also a great way to see the Coast from the water, and to get in a great workout at the same time! Amanda Mayar-Schmidt owns Paddles Up in Ocean Springs and thinks that everyone should give paddle boarding a try. “It’s a lot easier than it looks,”she says. “Anybody can do it! You only need minimal balance, and it’s low impact, so it’s great for any age. It’s like taking a stroll on the water on the paddle board!” Amanda’s most unusual offering is a class called SUP Yoga, where participants take a yoga class on paddle boards anchored offshore. “The board is like the yoga mat. I work with a certified yoga teacher who leads the class, and we weight the boards in the water so they don’t float away. It’s a lot of fun!”
The Biloxi Shrimping Trip is yet another one-of-a-kind boat trip. This educational cruise takes kids of all ages out to troll the ocean floor for shrimp and other bottom-dwelling creatures. During the trip, Captains Brandy and Mike teach visitors about shrimping and actually bring up a catch in the nets, which they then examine and explain. “The best part for us,” says Captain Brandy Moore, “is educating visitors about our local culture and the importance of the shrimping industry on the Gulf Coast. Also we love the to see our guests’ faces light up when we bring in a catch of several different species from the Mississippi Sound waters.”
While the creatures living on the ocean floor make for some good eating, there are other creatures that might interest visitors to the Coast. The Gulf Coast Gator Ranch offers visitors a chance to get up close and personal with local flora and fauna. “We offer a walking tour, where you can see small, medium and large gators,” says guide Eva Philip. “We take a gator out for you to hold, if you’d like. You can also buy cups of food if you’d like to feed them.”Also offered on the ranch are airboat tours. “An airboat is a flat-bottomed boat with a big fan on the back,” says Eva. “It’s an awesome way to get around! The swamp is a place most people don’t get to go because it’s so shallow. With an airboat you can go, because it skims over the top. You can see flowers and wildlife – we’ll see beavers, otters, alligators and fish. The Gulf Coast offers a great natural habitat.”
Mozart Dedeaux, director of Conservation Education for Audubon Mississippi, also lauds the local ecosystem. He works at the Pascagoula River Audubon Center, which is opening a new facility in fall 2015. “Our main focus is on the river,”he says. “We consider ourselves the gateway for people to explore the Pascagoula River. It’s the largest free-flowing rives in the lower 48 states, meaning that it has no dams and no changes of course in the river. It floods naturally, like a river system is supposed to do. Because of that, there’s a huge biodiversity in plant life, which creates the start of a great food chain.” The River Center’s main attraction is a 2 hour swamp and river tour, where visitors can learn about vegetation, animals, Native American history, and the use of the river. The River Center is also great for birdwatchers. “It’s great for birdwatchers because the river is a migratory highway for birds during spring and fall migration.”
Visitors interested in winged wildlife can also visit the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, where they can view exhibits and the wet pine savannah habitat from the visitor center or take a hike along one of the trails. Hiking trails are also available at the Mississippi District office of the Gulf Coast National Seashore, a part of the National Park Service. Visitors to the National Seashore can enjoy hiking, biking, picnicking and ranger-led programs, as well as access to great on-shore fishing spots.
More great fishing can be found out on the barrier islands with folks like Bryan Cuevas with Mega Bite Fishing Charters. Mega Bite provides a variety of options for chartered trips, and the Coast provide a large variety of fish and wildlife. “When you fish in the saltwater in the Sound and the Gulf,” says Bryan, “you never know what you’re going to hook. It could be something totally unexpected. Most of the people that come here are very successful. On a typical day during spring, summer, and fall, we normally box anywhere from 60-80 fish.”
It’s impossible to discuss leisure activities on the Coast without including its world-class golf offerings. Many of the courses are owned and operated by casinos but allow any visitors to play, making them well-kept and accessible amenities. One such course is the Preserve, where Chris Champaign is the resident golf pro. “We have several high-quality golf courses in such a small area,” he says, explaining the golf offerings of the Gulf Coast. “The care and quality is great, and we cater to all different types of clientele. There’s not a whole lot of other areas that have this many courses by top designers all in one place.” A quick list of designers from Chris includes names like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Mark McCumber and Davis Love III, to name a few. “Each designer brings a different style of course,”says Chris. “There’s great value and variety.”
While the Mississippi Gulf Coast isn’t too far away from our Jackson home, its beach activity offerings are anything but ordinary, and there are so many more things to do than any one person could ever accomplish. It’s unfortunate that you can’t do everything in one weekend, but maybe not so bad to have a need for return trips. I, for one, will be planning my weekend escape very soon. Does anyone want to pet a gator with me?