1Bay Saint Louis, 50 miles west of Biloxi, is home to Bay Town Inn, perched like a toy on the edge of the coast next to an enormous oak tree. The rooms here, overlooking the bay’s gleaming white sands and unbelievably blue water, are nothing short of breathtaking.

The inn was built as an act of the most fervent optimism imaginable. When Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi in 2005, the original hotel literally disintegrated around owner Nikki Moon, who managed to avoid being swept out to sea with it by sitting in the limbs of that same oak tree. Later, after much debate, she decided to rebuild.

“This place isn’t like any other spot in the world,” she explained as we sat in nearby Mockingbird Café. Bay Saint Louis, like much of the state’s coastline, has long catered to eccentrics and artists, many of whom show their work at the café. “That’s why I love it here. That’s why people come here once and then keep coming back.”

It’s the first of many times the Mississippi coast will amaze me over the course of a three-day trip here with my sister—my first. Going in, I knew that you could drive to Biloxi from Houston in around seven hours, and that there are plenty of casinos there, but I had no idea how beautiful the surrounding area is, or what else it had in store.

The region, originally inhabited by the Biloxi tribe, was colonized by the French in the 17th century, eventually growing into today’s network of fishing villages and towns, each with its own unique identity. While Bay Saint Louis is an upscale hippie beach town, Biloxi is a commercial fishery port with a heavy Southern influence. Tourists can visit the residence where Confederate president Jefferson Davis finished out his days, but we decide to skip it, instead opting to take in the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum, home to an enormous sailboat around which the museum is constructed, like a ship in a bottle.

Downtown Ocean Springs

Image: Fred Salinas

The neighboring Ohr-O’Keefe Museum is full of works by artist George Ohr—the “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” who spent his life creating unheard-of shapes and figures out of the red Mississippi clay. His pottery is so unusual, he barely sold any pieces before his death in 1918, but today his work is celebrated as a precursor to the American Abstract Expressionism Movement. Most of it is housed in this strange-looking museum, a set of buildings as twisted as the artist’s creations. Ohr had a sharp sense of humor, as shown by his delicate, beautifully rendered, decidedly obscene brothel tokens emblazoned with naughty puns. “Okay,” I whisper to my sister as we stare at them in their case, “I am officially surprised by Mississippi.”

We motor along the coast, enjoying the beauty of the bone-white sands and waving grasses before passing back through Biloxi, over the Biloxi Bay Bridge, and, minutes later, into Ocean Springs, whose downtown, complete with oak-lined boulevards and brick-paved sidewalks, looks like some hometown fantasy created on a Hollywood backlot for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. “This looks like Gilmore Girls,” my sister says. “Are you sure we’re not in, like, Connecticut?”

We stop for a glass of wine before a visit to the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, which pays homage to its namesake artist and writer, who was known as just another of the town’s crazy artists when he lived here a century ago but has since gained renown. A mural Anderson painted for the auditorium of Ocean Springs Community Center is on view, and it’s gasp-inducingly beautiful, filled with gentle renderings of coastal people, flora, and fauna. We leave grateful that Ocean Springs finally recognized Anderson by building this museum back in the 1990s.

We take in the town’s sparkling waters and white sands before dinner at New American restaurant Vestige, whose chef/owner, Alex Perry, studied chemistry before learning to cook. Everything, from the carefully curated wine list to the delicate greens and the succulent pork chop that tastes like a poem, is perfect. As we consider our dessert options, I have to say it again: “Okay, I now am officially surprised by Mississippi.” 

Traveler's Tips

The hanger steak at Vestige in Ocean Springs, a must-visit.

Eat

  • Coffeeshop, bakery, bar, diner, and community gathering spot, Mockingbird Café in Bay Saint Louis is never a bad idea.
  • At Greenhouse on Porter in Ocean Springs, the creations that are so modestly dubbed “biscuits” must be tasted to be believed.
  • You really cannot miss Vestige, also in Ocean Springs. It’s on the pricy side but worth it.

Stay

  • Bay Town Inn in Bay Saint Louis is an excellent choice. Between owner Nikki Moon’s hospitality, the softness of those beds, and the magnificent views, you won’t regret it. Rooms from $149.

The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum showcases work by the "Mad Potter of Biloxi."

Do

Three more Mississippi destinations for those open to being surprised:

Pass Christian

Across the water from Bay Saint Louis lies this quaint town. With its glittering harbor full of yachts and sailboats and its white-trimmed, brightly painted houses, the place feels more East Coast than Gulf Coast. Pop into Cat Island Café and Pass Christian Books for excellent coffee and an even better bookstore selection. Spending the night? Get a room with a view at Hotel Pass Christian.

Ocean Springs

Next time we visit this quaint town just east of Biloxi, we’ll book a room at The Roost, a lovely boutique hotel whose bar, the Wilbur Bar, was hailed by no less an authority than Architectural Digest as the “most beautifully designed bar in Mississippi.” 

Pascagoula

The Pascagoula River flows through this town of the same name, and that river is the main reason to make the half-hour drive east of Biloxi for a visit. Take one of the river or swamp tours run by the Pascagoula River Audobon Center and, with a little luck, you’ll see birds and other wildlife that reside nowhere else in the world.

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