Pick a perfect Gulf Coast day and spend it on an unspoiled island paradise. You can do that at Ship Island, one of America’s last barrier islands. Start your day with a soothing 11-mile boat ride from Gulfport Harbor to the island, courtesy of the Skrmetta family, who has been part of the island attraction for three generations.
Your boat trip will take about an hour — you’ll enjoy calm, sheltered seas, clear water and awesome views. Standing at the prow, or front of the modern sightseeing shuttle, delight in panoramic views of Gulfport and Biloxi, Cat Island, Ship Island and other barrier islands. You’re almost guaranteed close up dolphin sightings — usually, the dolphins play at the stern, or rear of the boat, jumping over the foamy wake. Photo opportunities abound before you even set foot on the island.
French explorers named Ship Island in 1699. It’s now controlled by the National Park Service but was once a major seaport for French-controlled Louisiana. Imagine, thousands of colonists got their first site of America at Ship Island, sometimes called the “Plymouth Rock” of the Gulf Coast. You can follow their footsteps.
Step off the gangplank into another world. No streets, no traffic, no noise. You’re greeted by the sound of gulls, wind and lapping Gulf surf. Feast your senses on white sugar sand beaches lining both sides of the island. You’re surrounded by native tropical plants and turquoise water. A boardwalk spans the island. There’s a lighthouse at one end and historic Fort Massachusetts, built in 1859, at the other. Ranger guided tours are available.
The fort withstood the Civil War, the War of 1812, and wild times of bootleg bars and rum-running smugglers through the years.
It survived 200 miles per hour winds and 20-foot waves from Katrina and Camille. Still it stands, solidly built by hundreds of civilian craftspeople under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers. Steep yourself in American history as you climb a spiral staircase to the sod covered roof and see for miles, as soldiers did — British, French and American. Confederate and Union.
Three years ago, Ship Island was devastated, but all of the concession buildings are being reconstructed and the fort is undergoing restoration. The beaches are, in a word, perfect.
Plan a day. Bring a cooler and some snacks. There are restroom facilities and a ranger station. Remember, Gulf sunshine is strong; don’t forget sunscreen. The ferry ride costs $24 for adults and $14 for children. For information, call (228) 864-1014 or visit www.msshipisland.com.