The Gulf Coast Road Trip, Part 2: Coastal Mississippi

Publisher’s note: This is a continuation of Spring Break 2022: “The Gulf Coast Road Trip”

… There was no golf for me on our travel day to Coastal Mississippi and it was incredibly inclement. With rain and sustained winds over 25 mph, drone flying would have been impossible and playing would probably have been miserable

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The strong winds and storms continued throughout our drive from Gulf Shores to Gulfport, making us a little nervous about our time in Mississippi. We could tell from the drive in that the area has a lot to offer travelers in the way of beautiful beaches and charming coastal towns, but would we get to enjoy it?

Coastal Mississippi is a very different vacation destination when compared to Gulf Shores. It’s much more laid back, and the attractions are more spread out.

Coastal Mississippi comprises 12 towns and 62 total miles of coastline from Waveland in the west to Pascagoula and Moss Point in the east with nine other unique coastal communities in between.

Map of the Coastal Mississippi region

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While Biloxi gets the majority of attention because of its high-rise casino district, we found Gulfport, Ocean Springs and Bay St. Louis to also be wonderful spots to visit in the area.

We set up shop in Gulfport during our trip, staying at the Courtyard by Marriott – Gulfport Beachfront. Centrally located within the region, Gulfport features plenty to do for a family like ours’, and we took full advantage during our three-day stay.

Everything we planned and did in the area was accessed via the same route – a scenic east/west drive down Highway 90 along the Gulf of Mexico. White sand beaches are everywhere, and long views over the water are highlighted by massive cargo ships coming and going from the region’s largest dockyard in Gulfport.

The water was warm, around 75 degrees, but the ocean was unfortunately unswimmable throughout our stay as the beaches flew red flags signifying dangerous conditions. The kids and I found plenty of time to enjoy the sand, though, both across the street from our hotel and behind Shaggy’s Biloxi Beach.

Our daytime excursions were awesome, and were ideally planned to keep the kids entertained and expend some of their limitless energy. The aquarium was probably my favorite. I’ve had an affinity for aquatic life for 35+ years and was really impressed with the quality of their facilities.

Like Gulf Shores, the Coastal Mississippi area has undergone significant recent redevelopment, much of which has been funded by the hundreds of millions of dollars provided by the BP settlement following their disastrous 2010 oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico. Some of these funds are being spent on initiatives to transform its tourism industry through upgraded facilities and infrastructure, and the efforts are noticeable even to visitors new to the area.

Remarkable new facilities like the Mississippi Aquarium are shining examples of this redevelopment, and more will come soon in the way of both infrastructure and programming.

The state is actively financing the development of oyster farms, for example, to promote new entrants into the space. They are not only educating folks on how to sustainably harvest these mollusks, but are going the extra mile to help set them up with the farms their new businesses will require.

Mississippi is a state on the up-and-up, and Coastal Mississippi – I mean, shhhh, the “Secret Coast” – is delivering its “Hello World.”

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Golf

I played just one round of golf while in Mississippi, at Shell Landing Golf Club with the Gautier property’s CEO, Kenny Hughes.

Gautier was a 25-minute drive east on 90 before taking the bridge to Ocean Springs and then one town over.

I arrived at Shell Landing early on Wednesday morning, and had my Mavic 2 in the air by 6:30 am behind the 12th green – the northwesternmost hole on the course. This location afforded me the longest vantage points of the property from the sky during the golden hour.

Shell Landing was everything and more that I’d hoped for in a highly ranked Mississippi golf course. With scenic marshlands and broad vistas out to the Gulf of Mexico from above, the playing experience was even better.

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Hughes and his team have removed tens of thousands of trees over the past 20 years, producing great width and angles on this Davis Love III designed golf course, and the recently completed bunker renovations by Nathan Crace have it looking spectacular.

I couldn’t have enjoyed my time with Kenny more. He is a tremendous person and an incredibly talented, former competitive player who is now a standout advocate of golf and for modern course architecture. It was a breath of fresh air for a guy like me to hear his thoughts on course design and the way they treat Shell Landing as a living, breathing organism that requires care and foresight. This place is truly special already and will only get better with time.

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Dining

Like Gulf Shores, the Secret Coast features incredible (and more affordable) dining, headlined of course by off-the-boat-fresh seafood and Cajun cuisine that varies slightly from town to town.

We had some fantastic dinners while in Mississippi, starting with dinner at Patio 44 in Gulfport (a trendy and upscale steak and seafood experience with massive portions and an impressive wine list), followed by a more casual dinner at Shaggy’s Biloxi Beach (there was also a Shaggy’s several blocks from our hotel in Gulfport), and then the coup de grace: One of my favorite meals I can ever remember enjoying (minus the kids getting a little crazy at times, of course), at The Blind Tiger in Biloxi.

Kelly and me enjoying Patio 44 in Gulfport, MS

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We had fabulous seafood everywhere we went, including fresh fish, oysters, clams, crawfish, lobster, shrimps – this area boasts the world-famous Royal Red shrimps – scallops and mussels. Kelly and I both got the Royal Red Low Country Boil, a deep tray with a full pound of headless Royal Reds, corn on the cob, andouille sausage, potatoes and drawn butter. At just $21, this was probably the least expensive meal we had the entire trip, and also the one I’ll never forget. I literally finished the entire meal, what was left of Kelly’s and still considered eating more. It was phenomenal.

Kelly and me before enjoying the Royal Red Low Country Boil at The Blind Tiger in Biloxi, MS
Quinn’s new pal at the Blind Tiger
Charlie settled down with a tablet
The family with our new friend and Gulf Coast PR rep, Anna

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So the dining in Coastal Mississippi is terrific, but what else is there to do with the wife and kids during non-golfing days?

Family activities

We had no problems finding plenty to do with the family, especially having a ton of fun with Charlie and Quinn at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center and Mississippi Aquarium.

The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center

The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, located just down the street from our hotel in Gulfport, was the perfect way to get our kids out and active on a day that was otherwise a tad too windy for the beach or pool (our hotel had an outdoor pool only, which was not heated and very cold).

A colorful old schoolhouse, the LMDC is a children’s museum and activities center that’s sure to keep your young ones busy and engaged, both inside and out-of-doors.

Climbing the indoor rope bridges
Lots of cool treehouses
Charlie the construction worker

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An enclosed property, Lynn Meadows Discovery Center has numerous tree houses outside for kids [and their parents] to play in, and overlooks the coastline. Inside, it’s a world of wonder, urging children to explore and play creatively.

Train depot ticket-taker
Future veterinarians

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Charlie loves anything having to do with transportation, for example, and couldn’t get enough of the train. Both kids had a blast playing “Ticket Seller” at the station, and later spent 15 minutes pretending they were flying the space shuttle.

There’s also a safe, fully enclosed climbing area that goes from the ground floor to the top. We spent almost an hour watching them get energy out in there.

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The Mississippi Aquarium

Along with golf, one of my lifelong passions has always been sea life. I got PADI certified at the age of 11 and SCUBA diving was our main family hobby growing up. While that’s unfortunately gone away since us “kids” all started having families, I’ve always loved the ocean, marine life and aquariums, and I was really impressed with the Mississippi Aquarium.

The Mississippi Aquarium
The Mississippi Aquarium boardwalk

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Only a year and a half old, the Mississippi Aquarium is a 5.8-acre property with some fantastic exhibits. While it would be impossible to choose a favorite, my top three certainly include the full 360-degree viewable tunnel (and the same tank’s glass wall further down the walk), the three-story tall central swirl tank and the outdoor freshwater river exhibit (with huge sturgeon, catfish, alligator gars, paddlefish, bass and others).

The main aquarium wall
Dolphins
Sea otters
I could stare at this all day – 3-story swirl tank at the Mississippi Aquarium

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Like the Gulf Coast Zoo in Gulf Shores, the Mississippi Aquarium provides the perfect combination of unique animals, exhibits and interaction, an enjoyable walk and the ability to see it all in a comfortable time frame. Also like at the Gulf Coast Zoo, they have a really quality dining option on-site in the Pelican Pointe Cafe, which serves up burgers and sandwiches, salads and tasty treats. At both places, having good food onsite allows you to stay longer and not have to worry about getting out of there at lunch time, allowing you to adjust your arrival and departure times without dictation by meals.

As an added bonus, we grabbed breakfast and coffee at Boozer’s Brew before the aquarium opened. This place was awesome and a great stop for any coffee enthusiast visiting Gulfport.

Boozer’s Brew in Gulfport, MS
The kids enjoying breakfast

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Their 2022 season didn’t start until April 8, but we otherwise would have loved to take in a Biloxi Shuckers game while in Mississippi. The Double-A affiliate of our Milwaukee Brewers, the Shuckers play their home games at MGM Park off the main drag of Highway 90.

While Coastal Mississippi was a great change of pace destination with the kids, Kelly and I agreed it would be an awesome spot to visit as a couple, especially each time we drove by the Beau Rivage, Hard Rock, Golden Nugget and other massive casino resorts on the coast in Biloxi. The town has eight casinos in all (12 total in the Coastal Mississippi region), which serve as a key draw for tourists to the area.

Coastal Mississippi is a great up-and-coming vacation destination, and for a golf enthusiast like me it’s a hidden gem with beautiful courses like Shell Landing, The Preserve, Oaks and Diamondhead inside the region, and the nationally ranked Grand Bear (associated with Harrah’s Gulf Coast) and Fallen Oak (associated with the Beau Rivage) within a 35-minute drive of the region’s center.

I’d love to get back someday and play them all.

If the Secret Coast is still a secret to you, give this deep south destination a deeper look. It’s a charming area that leaves visitors feeling welcomed and like they’re getting terrific value, and would make for a fun and unique vacation experience as a buddies’ golf trip, couples getaway or family vacation.

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