Is that a double-decker paddleboat wheeling along the Mississippi Coast?
Yes indeed, it’s the Betsy Ann Riverboat, the newest boat tour in Biloxi and one of many watercraft that can take locals and tourists out on the sparkling water during the day or for a colorful sunset cruise.
Within 2 miles —from the Biloxi Bay Bridge to downtown — it’s possible to find a boat charter that sails on a replica schooner boat, examines sea life that’s under the water, journeys to a barrier island with its own fort, spends a couple of hours or a couple of days fishing, zips across the water on personal watercraft or just floats around. There’s even a boat tour that goes out to spread ashes at sea.
“Biloxi’s going to have a nice maritime offering here for tourists this year,” said Captain Louis Skrmetta, whose Ship Island Excursions will board in the city for the first time since 1986. He left because of the lack of parking and said he’s back because tourism is strong, and because the owners of Margaritaville Resort Biloxi will allow passengers to park at their property.
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“It’s a perfect marriage for our businesses,” he said of Margaritaville, with its family arcade and waterpark. “Fifty percent of our business is families.”
Captain Pete, a 308-passenger boat, will board passengers on the landing just to the west of Margaritaville daily, starting in May. The boat will cruise past Deer Island and the Biloxi Lighthouse before picking up speed for the hour-long trip to Ship Island, with birds and sometimes dolphins spotted along the way. Excursions will leave at 9 a.m. from the dock in Gulfport and 10 a.m. from Biloxi, and the complete schedule will be online.
Skrmetta said he plans a weekly sunset cruise with heavy hors d’ouvres and beer and wine coolers that are allowed in Mississippi.
He was in Key West, Florida, in November and said sunset cruises there are very popular. “Every boat in the harbor was full — all setting out at the same time,” he said.
Another view of the sunset will be from the Betsy Ann, where passengers can order dinner catered by a local restaurant. Those who just want to admire the views without dinner can sit topside, watching the spinning paddlewheel that is the only propulsion for the riverboat, said Michael White, a captain for 24 years.
A new spin on the water
White was harbormaster at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino and operated the Lucky Duck amphibious boat tours for about a year before Hurricane Katrina destroyed the boat.
He spent the last 7 years as a tugboat captain up and down the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Chicago, and on the Ohio River. It’s pretty much the same routes the original Betsy Ann, the first steel hull riverboat on the Mississippi, used to run with mail, cattle and cotton, he said.
He and his wife, Dayna, decided it was time for him to come home and they found the riverboat, a “tribute” to the Betsy Ann. It is Coast Guard certified for 150 passengers, he said, and can accommodate 60 to 80 people for dinner and has seating for 50 topside.
“This will work down here on the Coast,” Michael told his wife. After they purchased the riverboat, Dayna discovered their great-great-great-grandfathers were steamboat captains in Memphis at the same time.
Using much of the same script as he wrote for the Lucky Duck, Michael uses a microphone to talk about the seafood industry, a bit of local folklore and the history of Deer Island. He prefers to stay close to shore so passengers can see St. Michael Church with its distinctive clamshell roof, the Hole in the Oak tree and the Biloxi Lighthouse he points out as they pass.
Snowbirds who are in Biloxi for the winter have discovered the paddlewheeler. “The Valentines cruise was fantastic. We were sold out,” he said. People are celebrating their anniversaries onboard, and the boat hosted its first wedding last weekend. It’s booked for a fundraiser and for local school field trips. People are calling about renting the whole boat and going for a cruise as part of their family reunion in Biloxi, he said.
“Looking for something unique to do? This is it,” White said. Get used to seeing the paddleboat — it’s equipped with heat and air conditioning and will operate all year.
Choose your boat adventure
Biloxi is a beach destination for tourists and it’s also a great place for locals to bring out-of-town guests or their family and explore the water. Check the business websites or call to get schedules for these adventures:
▪ Betsy Ann Riverboat: 119 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, between Margaritaville Resort Biloxi and Golden Nugget Casino Biloxi. Reservations required for dinner cruise and suggested for all cruises.
Times: For March it’s generally sunset tours on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with a sunset dinner cruise Friday; historical and ecological tours are offered most days at 1 p.m. The seven-day schedule begins in April. Beer, soft drinks and snacks can be purchased; tea, coffee and hot chocolate are free.
Cost: Sightseeing tours are $22 for adults, $20 for active military and seniors age 65 and over, and $17 for children ages 4-12. Dinner cruises are $45 for adults, $42 for seniors and military, and $35 for ages 4-12.
Details: Online or 228-229-4270
▪ Biloxi Schooners: Opening date for walk-on sails on the replica sailing schooners Mike Sekul or Glenn L. Swetman is March 12, said Robin Krohn David, director of the Biloxi Maritime and Seafood Museum, which operates the boats. A minimum of 6 passengers is needed for the trip to sail.
Cost: $30 for adults, $15 for children ages 3-12. Charter rates also are available.
▪ Biloxi Shrimping Trip is docked at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor next to Hard Rock Casino Biloxi. Public tours are 70 minutes and are cash only. Reservations are accepted only for groups of 20 or more with one month advance reservation.
Cost: $16 adults, $11 for children ages 4-11, Free for 3 and under with paid adult. 2-hour sunset cruise is $35 all ages. 3-hour fishing trips are $38.50 and include license, rod, bait and sunscreen. Deep sea charters are $135 per person for a minimum of six people. Also available are cremation trips for 10-48 passengers to scatter a loved one’s cremation remains in the Mississippi Sound off the Biloxi Beach. “We do a lot of these,” owner Brandy Moore said.
▪ Ship Island Excursions: Daily trips from Biloxi begin in mid-May. Service from Gulfport will begin as early as mid-March or when repairs from Hurricane Nate are complete on Ship Island. Snacks, and chair and umbrella rentals are available on the island or passengers can carry their own. Credit cards are accepted for excursions, but only cash and travelers checks are accepted on the boats and the island.
Cost: From Biloxi or Gulfport is $32 round trip for adults, $29 for seniors (65 and older) and active military, $22 for children (3-10)
Details: Schedule online or at 228-864-1014
▪ Charter boats
A variety of local businesses rent kayaks and pontoon boats. Fishing boats at the Biloxi marinas can be chartered by small or large groups. Docked at Point Cadet Marina in Biloxi, Chandeleur Islands Fishing Charters offers overnight fishing trips that anchor offshore the grassy Chandeleur Islands and launch 16-foot skiff boats with 25 hp motors that take fishermen inshore to fish around the banks or to the islands to wade fish. The cost is $750 per person with minimum of 10 passengers for a 2-day trip or $850 per person for a 3-day trip.
▪ Beach vendors
For those with less time or a smaller budget, vendors all along the Biloxi beach rent personal watercraft, paddleboards, kayaks and aquacycles that ride like bicycles across the water.
Margaritas not allowed yet
Several of the boats sell beer and wine coolers, but Mississippi law doesn’t allow doesn’t allow alcohol on the cruises.
“We have a big demand for frozen drinks like margaritas and daiquiris and things like that,” said Captain Louis Skrmetta with Ship Island Excursions.
A bill pending in the state Legislature would allow larger boats that carry 150 passengers to get a permit to sell these type of beverages.