TRAVEL; getting off the Interstate is the first step! I got off I-10 at the Ocean Springs, Mississippi, exit with one main goal; to ask many questions about people, art, food, and travel. After driving past this area for years, I realized how much it has grown…and just how much the ever-changing coastal towns of Mississippi are yearning to be explored and appreciated.
Socializing and Sweet Tea
Ocean Springs is called the “City of Discovery” and I was delighted to discover that folks in this friendly town love socializing (yes, that does include answering questions) over a cup of strong coffee or a glass of sweet tea. Courtney Carter at the Chamber of Commerce made sure I got plenty of pamphlets as she told me they had won a “Great American Main Street” award. We talked about people, history, culture, and curiosity. She summed it up beautifully this way, “Food, art, and travel are the essence of being, so life would be stagnant without them.”
At the nearby Love Shack Bar & Grill, I tried crunchy coconut shrimp as manager Jason Prince talked of the local art festivals and parades. He was explaining his love of sports when a local high school ball team came in to celebrate a big victory. Across the street at Murky Waters Blues & BBQ, manager Iris Byrd provided pulled pork and perfect beer-battered onion rings while talking about famous Mississippi musicians such as BB King, Elvis Presley, Jimmy Buffett, and Muddy Waters. Iris proved to be the first in a long line of terrific huggers in Mississippi.
Shopping in Ocean Springs is both fun and educational if you ask the right questions. I bought a t-shirt at the Twisted Anchor Tattoo and Fine Art Gallery as the cashier chatted about the local impact of artist Walter Anderson and how shop owner Matt Stebley, his great grandson, carries on the lauded family tradition. Paige Riley, owner of the award-winning Hillyer House Gallery and another excellent hugger, chatted about the area’s natural beauty, coastal lifestyle, and hospitality. Her store manager, Susannah Snyder, is a travel lover who has been to Italy and wants to visit France. Paige would like to visit both Australia and Africa.
There were two other things I absolutely had to do before leaving Ocean Springs. The first was to take a gift to my dear friend Nina Hearn Bartusiak who was recovering from a hip replacement. The second was to breathe in the fresh yet salty smell of the shrimp boats at the harbor while listening to the high-pitched laughing sounds of the seagulls.
Graciousness and Gambling
Biloxi, Mississippi, has undergone many changes due to hurricanes and the growth of the gaming industry. The beachfront view of magnificent mansions had been mostly replaced by casinos and tourist attractions. Perfect spots to walk along the shore and capture pictures of the sunset are still easy to find. The Biloxi Lighthouse has stood strong and steady since 1847 as a local symbol of resurgence and hope. Thankfully, the genuine goodness and graciousness of the residents has endured every storm of life.
Gina, a server at Harrah’s Gulf Coast Hotel and Casino, served me crabmeat au gratin. She shared stories of her life with the sweetest Southern accent. Across the way at The Blind Tiger, both Scott and Olivia discussed the great quality of life, low cost of living, and the kindness of the people. Scott talked about places he would love to travel, including Portugal. When Olivia presented a huge shrimp basket, we all three agreed that food should be considered as something of an art form. This topic continued to arise many times during the trip.
I must encourage anyone who visits Biloxi to meet with Mr. Charles Gillis. He is the epitome of a classic Southern gentleman. He served as a medic in Korea, raised a fine family, worked hard and retired. After the death of his beloved wife Willa (“who never used profanity”), he decided to start an online business…at the age of 87. He sells novelty items imprinted with his trademarked slogan: “Mississippi, More than just a River”. He tremendously enjoys the art of a rich and lengthy conversation. He also enjoys an award-winning catfish po-boy like the one he treated me to at Taranto and Son Seafood. While this place is hard to find and looks plain on the outside, the mouthwatering flavor of their food makes the effort all worthwhile.
Charm and Charity
Gulfport is the second largest city in Mississippi. This thriving town of about 71,000 is full of ancient live oaks, magnolias, and excitement. The compassionate and competent residents have a healthy respect for history and the power of nature. There are an astonishing number of nonprofit organizations (over 500) in Gulfport, which cover advocacy, aide, disaster preparedness, and specialized focus such as veterans or visual arts. As one local businessman said, “Storms may tear down our buildings, but will never destroy our spirit”.
Local artist Mary Ann Currie opened her home to me and regaled me with stories of the two artists who had inspired her. One was her late husband John Currie and the other was her Hungarian grandmother Rosa Fazekas Sharpe. Mary Ann explained the old “verso” art form in which she paints on the back of glass. She also enjoys abstracts and using colored pencil. She is quite humble and often donates her work for local charity benefits. She said her biggest strength is her imagination.
Anthony “Andy” W. Kalberg, a Gulfport native, is a true treasure of the Mississippi Coast. With his gift of gab and knowledge of the intangible local cultural heritage, he is both an entertaining storyteller and a factual historian. He is a writer, encourager, and a lover of the creative process. In theater, Andy is a singer, actor, set designer, set dresser, and director. He will soon realize his dream of directing “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and his evident enthusiasm is endearing.
Quaint and Quirky
The small town of Long Beach is nicknamed “The Friendly City” because of the Friendship Oak that is registered as being over 500 years old. Long Beach revolves around faith and family with most activity at a church, school, or library. They also have the first Wheel Way, rubber mats that provide wheelchair access to the beach and can be removed for impending storms.
Undoubtedly the most memorable character in town is “Papa D” who can be found at Darwell’s Café during special events. You’ll probably find him playing harmonica or drawing caricatures. If he takes a liking to you, he will sit at your table and share his unique philosophical ideas on faith “Everything is a miracle”, on people “You gotta have pizzazz”, and on the local area “Both a magical feeling and tranquility are right here”.
Art and Heart
Bay St. Louis is the fastest growing small town in Mississippi. Historic preservation coexists with vibrant art and energy. Most of the businesses are in beautifully restored buildings and filled with antiques and new local creative expressions.
Alicein Wonderland Schwabacher owns the Mockingbird Café which opened in 2006 in a historic home built in 1868. This eclectic location has been called the living room of the town. Here you can eat delicious muffins, browse rooms filled with local art, and even go upstairs for a yoga class.
Di Fillhart owns the Starfish Café where “hospitality is what we are and wellness is what we do”. All the food here is fresh and healthy and there are many gluten-free options. Di pays careful attention to artful plating because “you decide if you like it with your eyes first”. The most surprising aspect of this café is that patrons pay what they feel like paying. Seriously, on the way out they can drop any amount they see fit into the bucket. This café, like the town itself, is completely overflowing with happiness and the most positive vibe ever.
Happy Answers and Happy Endings
Getting off the Interstate and asking questions proved to be the perfect formula for discovery and adventure in Mississippi. This trip proved to be an exhilarating experience, not just because of the art or food. It was because of the people. I listened to much more than just words…listened to the heart and soul of resilient residents of the Mississippi Coast.