What makes the Gulf Coast one of the best Mississippi road trips? You could plow along 77-miles on I-10 and not even stop for gas. The superhighway was conceived in 1956, but it was late coming to Mississippi. Up until 1982, travelers had to cross the state on US-90. Now the coastal route is left for people who want to slow down and experience the quaint charm of the Secret Coast.
It’s only four miles longer to take the historic route, where you’ll experience 26 miles of beaches and delightful towns steeped in history and up-and-coming artists. Coastal Mississippi has enough to offer to entice you on an afternoon backroad adventure or anchor a slow travel road trip. You could even pedal across the state on the Mississippi Coastal Heritage Trail. No matter how you choose to explore the path less traveled, it will make all the difference.
Bay St Louis
You’ll find the Infinity Science Center and Mississippi Welcome Center turnoff, two miles from the Louisiana state line. Here’s where your Mississippi Gulf Coast road trip begins. Turn off I-10, and 20-minutes later, you arrive in the historically French town of Bay St Louis.
From a walkable downtown to an extraordinary food scene, you’ll find an exquisite taste of New Orleans without the debauchery or commercialism. Like much of the area, Hurricane Katrina leveled the town in 2005. They rebuilt with modern infrastructure and a true sense of community, which we learned firsthand from Nikki Moon, the owner of the Bay Town Inn B&B.
We wondered why she stayed after Katrina. Not only did the storm destroy the historic Inn, it left her clinging to an ‘Angel Tree’ to keep from washing away. The tree remains as a sculpture, but the Inn had to be completely rebuilt.
She tried to explain the sense of community in Bay St Louis with words, but the message was much more nuanced. Everybody greeted her as we walked through the streets for breakfast and a cup of coffee at the plastic-free Mockingbird Café and strolled through Ruth’s Roots community garden.
At that moment, we understood what Bay St Louis offers to residents and travelers alike. When you’re here, you are family. People are happy to see you, and they show it.
Even if you can’t stay over in Bay St Louis, be sure to stop in for a meal before leaving town. We loved our breakfast at the Mockingbird Café and dinner at the Thorny Oyster, but that’s only the tip of the coastal Mississippi culinary iceberg.
Beach Blvd Scenic Byway
The Beach Blvd Scenic Byway runs north and south through downtown Bay St Louis. Just south of town is the city of Waveland. Known as ‘The Hospitality City,’ it’s the only community of the Gulf Coast that prohibits commercial buildings on its beachfront. Buccaneer State Park is just a little farther south, with 300 campsites and 343 acres of beachfront property. To the north is a scenic drive with bay views that end at the Hollywood Casino.
If you think a scenic byway off a scenic byway is meta, you might be right. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a moment to enjoy the drive (or ride) along the coast. After all, if you were in a hurry, you’d be on I-10.
The 2-mile St Louis Bay Bridge was rebuilt entirely in 2007, courtesy of Hurricane Katrina. It’s an architectural wonder, complete with a separate pedestrian lane across the entire span. On the other side of the bridge sits the village of Pass Christian.
Stop into Pass Harbor for no-frills ocean front takeout at Sea Level or pull into the historic downtown a cup of coffee at Cat Island Coffeehouse. If you’re on a bike or traveling west, you might want to check out the historic homes and views from Scenic Drive. The area’s splendor still shows through despite significant damage from Katrina. This excerpt is from the area’s petition for inclusion on the National Historic Registry-
“Commonly heralded as ‘the Aristocrat of the South’ or ‘the Newport of the South,’ Pass Christian, Mississippi, possesses one of the largest and best-preserved assemblages of noteworthy beachfront houses on the Gulf Coast. Popular with wealthy planters from Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama and with financial barons from New Orleans as an attractive refuge from summer heat and diseases, Pass Christian has flourished as a seasonal resort since the 1830s. The nearly five- mile beachfront district of substantial, and occasionally palatial, ‘cottages’ has survived the vicissitudes of fortune and weather to become architecturally the most complete and significant resort in the region.”
Gulfport is the largest city on the Mississippi coast and the second-largest city in the state; only it didn’t start that way. Gulfport is inextricably linked to Hattiesburg by William H. Hardy, a railroad developer from the late 1800s. Hattiesburg, named after his wife Hattie Lott Hardy, was the railroad’s hub city, and Gulfport was developed as a deep water port.
Gulfport is only 5 miles from the Inner Coastal Waterway and 16 miles from international shipping lanes, and Hardy’s railroad connected it to 75% of the US. This proximity to the open ocean and barrier islands makes it a perfect launching point for nautical adventures, from deep-sea fishing to sunset tours. One of the most popular summer cruises here is the ferry service to Ship Island to visit some of the most beautiful beaches on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast seafood industry lives and breathes in Biloxi. You can visit the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum and learn about the revolutionary shrimp peeling machine that originated from these parts or take a surprisingly educational tour on the Biloxi Shrimping Trip. 70% of America’s shrimp and oysters come from the Gulf Coast region, and you can enjoy fresh-caught seafood all over town from succulent meals at white-glove restaurants to shrimp by the pound at the docks. One hundred years ago, Biloxi was dubbed the Seafood Capital of the World, and that moniker still holds today. You can even go dolphin watching in the Mississippi Sound on a veritable flotilla of leisure crafts from historic riverboats like the Betsy Ann Riverboat to even a floating tiki-bar with Twisted Tiki Tours.
Landlubbers can enjoy touring the The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art or the smorgasbord of entertainment in Biloxi’s eight first-class casino resorts. Enjoy dinner with a view from the Blind Tiger that looks out over the nation’s longest man-made beach that stretches all the way back to Henderson Point and the Bay St Louis Bridge. The heart of old Biloxi still beats in the historic district filled with artsy boutiques, delicious cafes like the Greenhouse or Jacked Up Coffee Bar, and even the historic 1848 Biloxi Lighthouse.
The Biloxi Bay Bridge connects Biloxi to Ocean Springs, a charming little town that restores your faith in the great American road trip. If you never leave US-90, you’ll never know what makes Ocean Springs special, and once you do, you might never want to leave.
Ocean Springs was once Al Capone’s port of entry during prohibition, so it’s only proper to stop in for a cocktail or two. May we suggest a Bushwacker and tapas at Mosaic or a martini and goat cheese torte at Maison de Lu. Of course, if you’re paying homage to big Al, you have to stop at The Wilbur Bar. Behind the sliding bookcase at this brothel-turned speakeasy, you’ll find a wall-size mural of Mr. Capone himself. You’ll also find a distinctive collection of craft cocktails and some of the best burgers we have ever tasted!
If you do partake (or even if you don’t), you’ll love how walkable Ocean Springs is. From your room at the The Roost Boutique Hotel, you can easily stroll into and around downtown boutique shopping and cocktail-sipping to your heart’s (and liver’s) content. In the morning, rise and shine with a well-earned coffee at Bright Eye Coffee before renting a bike at Tri Hard Sports and taking a lap on one of the three loops of the Live Oak Bike Route, named for the town’s many oak-lined avenues.
William Faulkner once said, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” He wrote his second novel, Mosquitoes, and started on his third, The Wild Palms, while staying at a beach cottage in Pascagoula. The town’s beauty moved him so much that he returned for his honeymoon.
I don’t know if I could recommend Pascagoula for a destination honeymoon, but it’s a worthy final stop for a Mississippi Gulf Coast road trip. You find many contradictions here, like the Round Island Lighthouse that no longer shines on the ocean or the Krebs House. Once known as the Old Spanish Fort, the building is neither Spanish nor a fort but the oldest French house in the Mississippi delta.
Perhaps the most intriguing juxtaposition in town is the Pascagoula River Audubon Center. The old Moss Point trolley way leads down to the river’s edge, where you can take a kayak out onto the Pascagoula River Blueway. It’s an ecologically significant estuary as the largest free-flowing river in the contiguous United States. But as you approach the coast, you find the state’s largest shipbuilder and oil refinery.
Wrapping up a Mississippi Gulf Coast Road Trip
Perhaps you’re still pondering Faulkner’s words as you pull back onto I-10 and speed away from the Secret Coast. What does it take to understand Mississippi? He left another clue buried on the pages of Requiem For a Nun – “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
US-90 was the great coastal highway before the completion of the interstate. Now you’ll find art, history, nature, beauty, and destruction along the vestiges of the route. Most of all, you’ll find the people who call this place home. Some have been here for hundreds of years, like the descendants of the Krebs family in Pascagoula, while others, like Vietnamese shrimpers in Biloxi, recently immigrated to seek their fortunes.
It’s hard to pass through these parts and not see the enduring dance between man and nature. Some years, she provides wealth and fortune while others, she reclaims all that man has built. Buried somewhere in these stanzas, you’ll find the one truth of road trips. It’s not how fast you reach your final destination, but the sights you see along the way.
Disclosure: A big thank you to Coastal Mississippi not only for hosting us and setting up a fantastic itinerary! For more travel inspiration check out their Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts.
As always, the views and opinions expressed are entirely our own, and we only recommend brands and destinations that we 100% stand behind.
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