The mission to explore our own back yards during times of economic shakiness has provided fresh perspective on more than one Mississippi Gulf Coast city. Taking the spotlight this autumn is a town we just might call an “overachiever.”
Welcome to Gulfport
Gulfport grew, in just 95 years, from a simple railhead community to the second largest city in the state. That’s not exactly overnight success, and much of the growth happened when the city annexed Orange Grove in 1993, but when you look at the ages and sizes of its sister cities, that is light-speed progress.
Consider as well its status as the third largest port among 17 on the Gulf of Mexico. It comes in behind only Houston and New Orleans. That’s cause enough to celebrate the foresight of the founding fathers, railroad man William H. Hardy and lumberman Joseph T. Jones.
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What does this “little city that could” have to offer the close-to-home tourist? Let’s put it this way. Gulfport has a personality and sensibility unlike some of its neighbors, one that reflects its no-nonsense beginnings. It may not be all ruffled petticoats and hair bows, but it loves to eat good food, knows how to have fun and continues to move forward with all kinds of expansion and improvement projects.
It’s almost silly to even talk about finding Gulfport. You’d have to purposely avoid it to miss it, since it lies dead center on the U.S. 90 and Interstate 10 east-west corridors. Multiple exits off I-10 are clearly marked. And from U.S. 90, just keep your eyes on the port at Gulfport, clearly visible from many miles east and west.
In the old downtown of the city, avenues run north-south; streets run east-west. So, yes, it can be confusing: 21st Street? 21st Avenue? Just turn on your car or phone GPS and you’ll be OK. You won’t find an abundance of parking lots and garages downtown, but there’s plenty of on-street parking. Just obey the traffic signs, and all will be well.
In no particular order, you’ll want to take a look at a couple of the following locations.
Ship Island Excursions, 228.864.1014: This 85-year-old ferry is currently operating on its fall schedule through Oct. 31. Only a concession stand and umbrella rentals disrupt the natural beauty of the island. Trips are about one hour each way, which is plenty of time to watch dolphins and maybe even pass a seagoing vessel. Call for times and costs.
Center for Marine Education & Research, 228.896.9182: Here’s where you really can get up close and personal with bottlenose dolphins. The center is north of Bayou Bernard off Cowan-Lorraine Road, but ask for directions when you call, which you’ll have to do to learn times and to make reservations.
Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, 228.897.6039: Mississippi’s premiere children’s museum (opened in 1998) took a beating from Hurricane Katrina, but you’d never know to visit it. Admission is free on Fridays, Oct. 28 and Nov. 25, or go to the website, www.lmdc.org, for a schedule and more detailed information.
Gulfport Dragway, 228.863.4408: King of the Hill and Test&Tune races are just a couple held on this quarter-mile asphalt and concrete strip every evening. Call for details or go to www.gulfportdragway.com/
Swimming in October and November is uncommon but not unheard of. Know that every bit of beach along U.S. 90 is public, except where it isn’t, i.e., where businesses encroach, and areas are reserved for least terns. Otherwise, the sand is yours to enjoy. The Harrison County Sand Beach Authority does have rules; obey them and your visit will be a good one. In a nutshell, no tents, glass, vehicles, animals, weapons, fireworks, bonfires, loud noise, you get the idea; however, the authority (228.896.0055) does issue permits for some activities such as bonfires and music. Call them for details, or visit http://co.harrison.ms.us/departments/sand%20beach/rules.asp.
You’ll find a quite large beach-access parking lot south of U.S. 90 at the foot of Courthouse Road, or use the lengthened and widened parking bays all along the beachfront.
Among other great-outdoors opportunities the city provides are a half-dozen golf courses, including Windance and Great Southern, and the Harrison County Fairgrounds (228.832.0080), where something is happening (horse shows, rodeos, the Highlands and Islands Scottish Games) almost every day.
Every neighborhood has its favorite watering hole, many of them offering music of one sort or another (DJs, karaoke, garage bands). Here are a few that come highly recommended. Keep in mind that menus, entertainment schedules, even hours can change from week to week:
Big Mike’s Speakeasy, 228.265.5472: As the name implies, there’s a ‘20s mobster vibe going on here but in the very nicest way. Ribs and the “Heart Attack on a Plate” are popular, and the menu also includes a venison burger. Views of the Sound and regular entertainment entice fun lovers.
The Dock Bar & Grill, 228.276.1500: You’ll find this popular spot off Seaway Road overlooking Gulfport Lake. Despite many amenities of a sports bar, it’s more than that. Attractions include live entertainment, game day specials and a multi-taste take on Buffalo wings.
Vintage Station, 228.896.4420: If your adult beverage of choice is wine, you will want to investigate this spot, where the obvious benefits of a fine wine bar (cheese, fruit, bread) are illuminated by events involving music and art. And on the menu? Escargot, please.
We’ve said it before; it bears repeating. Favorite restaurants are highly personal things. We mention a few we like here and list a few more. There are so many others. Google Gulfport restaurants.
The Lookout Steakhouse, 228.248-0555: Situated inside one of downtown’s many restored buildings, The Lookout has a tantalizing menu, our favorite item of which is duck and tasso gumbo. Next visit, we’re going to try the fried green tomato BLT. The Kobe beef and Certified Angus Beef menu as long as your leg leaves you spoiled for choice. Call for details or go here,/www.lookoutsteakhouse.com/.
Blow Fly Inn, 228.896.9812: You can reach this place by car or boat, since it overlooks Bayou Bernard. Don’t miss the crawfish and pickles appetizer, and from the grill, choose among myriad cuts of beef, even pork chops. A bountiful menu offers traditional red beans, rice and sausage, but also veal hollandaise or any of a number of seafood and pasta dishes. And the wine list is good, too. Call for directions.
Vrazel’s, 228.863.2229: This longtime favorite has an enviable location, on the beachfront and shaded by oaks. Among house specialties are the whole stuffed Gulf flounder, Veal Beauvoir with seafood and cheese sauce and grilled rack of lamb with roasted root vegetables. Call or go to www.vrazels.com/.
Latitude 30, 228.276.1500: Jazz brunch is a draw, and the smoked Gouda mac-n-cheese is killer.
The Chimneys, 228.863.7604: Start with calamari then try the seared tuna or grilled lobster.
Half Shell Oyster House, 228.867.7001: Oysters a half-dozen different ways, seafood potpie, chicken Marsala.
Gulfport Premium Outlets, formerly Prime Outlets of Gulfport, comprises nearly 75 shops and eateries such as Banana Republic factory store, BCBG Max Azria, Chico’s, J Crew and Tommy Hilfiger.
Just a bit farther up U.S. 49, you’ll find Crossroads Shopping Mall where 600,000-square-feet of space houses retailers such as Office Depot, Circuit City and Barnes & Noble.
There’s also plenty of boutique shopping along Courthouse Road.
You won’t find block after block of tiny artsy shops in Gulfport, but if you are a fan of antiques and collectibles, we have a couple of suggestions for you: Martin Miazza Gifts, 228.863.1252, carries The Original Mississippi Groceries, exclusive Mississippi keepsakes and an assortment of McCarty pottery. Circa 1909 Antiques on East Pass Road 228.897.7744 offers an array of antique furniture and collectibles as well as new collectibles, gifts, quilts. Alston’s Antiques is just south of Pass Road on 25th Avenue/U.S. 49. Look for the big green awning and expect to browse antiques, collectibles and gifts. Heritage House, 228.897.7644, off Courthouse Road, offers unique gifts for bridal showers and other occasions and includes a number of Mississippi-made items. While you’re there, don’t miss nearby S.F. Alman, which offers men’s and women’s clothing, shoes and accessories, including brands like The North Face and Vineyard Vines.
Oct. 21 and Nov. 18 Paint for Paws, 6-9 p.m., the Humane Society of South Mississippi, admission charged and reservations required; call 228.822.3803 for details. Experienced instructors teach, while “students” paint and enjoy light hors d’oeuvres and non-alcoholic beverages, all to benefit the HSSM.
Ghosts, Goblins & Chariots Open Fall Car Show, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Oct. 29, Hardy Court Shopping Center, car entry fee, spectators free. Details: Jim and Mary Currie, 228.388.1880.
Second annual Gobblepalooza, afternoon and evening of Nov. 19, downtown Gulfport near Hancock Plaza. Local and regional bands TBA, admission TBA. Proceeds will benefit Feed My Sheep. To volunteer, call 228.223.2223.
59th annual Mississippi Gulf Coast Camellia Show, 2-6 p.m., Nov. 19, Lyman/Orange Grove Community Center, free admission. Oceans of camellias, a plant raffle, demonstrations on waxing blooms for displays and Camellia of the Year. Details: 228.872,0908