Any beach town worth its salt promises a day basking in the sun, playing in the sand and crashing in the water. But sometimes the difference that really sets one of these destinations apart from another is what happens when it’s time to get off the beach.
The landside attractions and the character of the town itself contribute mightily to the measure of a well-rounded getaway.
I knew that the neighboring towns of Biloxi and Ocean Springs would cover the basics, offering beaches within easy day-trip distance of southeast Louisiana. But what was striking about a Saturday I spent shuttling between the two Mississippi towns was how, with their close proximity to each other, they worked like one destination with a dual identity. The added bonus of extraordinary art attractions close by in each town made the outing feel like much more than a day at the beach, too.
Biloxi and Ocean Springs are on two peninsulas linked by the broad, high sweep of the Biloxi Bay Bridge, part of Gulf-hugging U.S. 90. The bridge extends about a mile and a half, though in some ways the towns it connects can seem a world apart.
Just about everything for visitors in Biloxi is on the beach, starting with its collection of nine large casinos. Between the high-dollar sparkle of their hotel towers, gaming floors and parking garages, the waterfront is lined like a sandy midway with mini golf, arcades and restaurants. A gigantic shark’s mouth frames the entrance to one sprawling souvenir store painted in coral pink, and it does not look out of place.
Meanwhile, across the bay, a spin through downtown Ocean Springs can feel like a vignette of small town Americana, albeit one inclined toward sandals and seersucker. A highly-walkable cluster of shops and restaurants sits under a deep, shading canopy of oaks and merges block by block into densely-settled neighborhoods before reaching the beach. A stroll through town is just as much a part of this trip as a stretch on the beach.
What these towns do share is easy access to the water. Just a few minutes after exiting the interstate, I had parked directly beside the beach in Biloxi and waded into warm, calm waters sheltered by barrier islands in the near distance.
A squadron of blue herons sailed past overhead, small waves undulated in and a pair of shrimp boats made for their docks with nets flung in the air.
The city streets I’d left that morning felt much farther away than the miles I just logged would suggest.
It was a similar scene in Ocean Springs. Here, a low sea wall traces a curving, scenic path along the Front Beach waterfront, which is whipped into a series of short jetties like a succession of small, discrete booths of beach where families frolicked and larger groups convened for parties.
On this bright day, the sand, water, sky and clouds each striped the Ocean Springs vista with their own bands of soft color.
I was dazzled by how these patterns were repeated, and reinterpreted in mesmerizing fashion, inside the Walter Anderson Museum of Art (510 Washington St., Ocean Springs, 228-872-3164; walterandersonmuseum.org), a cool, calming, modern sanctuary downtown.
The museum is devoted to the idiosyncratic local artist Walter Anderson (1903-1965), whose prolific and varied work chronicles the natural splendor of the Gulf Coast.
Known as a recluse in his later years, Anderson would row a small skiff across the Mississippi Sound for prolonged sojourns on Horn Island to live very simply amid the subject that so inspired him.
The museum encompasses mural-sized paintings and smaller watercolors on typing paper, pottery, block prints and other pieces.
A narrow doorway leads to “the Little Room,” a chamber transplanted here from the artist’s former cottage where he had covered every inch of wall and ceiling with renderings. The museum also connects to the Ocean Springs Community Center, a civic meeting hall where the four walls serve as frames for a mural lushly evoking Anderson’s vision of life along the coast through the ages. Experiencing this work so close to its source material just outside the museum’s doors made this visit feel especially immersive and intimate.
Across the bridge, the big art attraction in Biloxi initially seemed startlingly foreign, though this impression quickly changed once I began exploring its many parts. Set back just a block from the beach, the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art (386 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, 228-374-5547; georgeohr.org) is a six-building campus designed by acclaimed architect Frank Gehry.
With sinuously curving brickwork, sharp angles and an eye-catching quartet of egg-shaped gallery “pods” sheathed in stainless steel, the main buildings bring to mind Gehry’s famous Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, more than any traditional Gulf Coast design.
First opened in 2010, portions of the museum are still under development (those remarkable pods, officially the John S. and James L. Knight Gallery, should debut this fall). What’s open now includes a visitor center and store with a tree fortlike observation tower; an interpretative center on local history told through the lens of one African-American family; a gallery for changing contemporary art exhibits, another devoted to African-American art and a centerpiece showcase on the work of ceramic artist George Ohr (1857-1918).
The self-proclaimed “mad potter of Biloxi,” Ohr looked the part with a wild mustache and eccentric flair and created abstract, sculptural pottery that raised eyebrows at the time and is now regarded as groundbreaking. Today, the museum named in his honor (and for local businessman and benefactor Jerry O’Keefe) meanders amid a grove of towering live oaks, timeless local totems that seem to become part of the assertively modern design.
Perking up at sundown
Beach towns can feel busiest at sunset, as the transition from sun worshipping to suppertime puts everything in motion like the set change of a theater production. There are places to go, decisions to be made.
In Ocean Springs, as the beach emptied for the day the downtown hub began to fill in. People pushed baby strollers into the courtyard at Leo’s Wood Fired Pizza (1107 Government St., 228-872-7283), settled in for slightly more elegant meals on the patio at Maison de Lu (626 Washington St., 228-875-0032) or grabbed a beer and checked a baseball score at Kwitzky’s Dug Out (1025 Government St., 228-875-7827; kwitzkysdugout.com).
I’d already eaten lunch on the beach in Ocean Springs, courtesy of a take-out order of excellent fried shrimp and okra from the Funky Chicken (720 Bellande St., Ocean Springs, 228-217-7197), a colorful walk-up cafe that, I later learned, delivers to the beach. So for dinner I headed across the bridge once more to Biloxi as the casino signs began to illuminate the night sky.
I wound up at Shaggy’s (1763 Beach Blvd, Biloxi, 228-432-5005; shaggys.biz), an enormous, very casual beachfront restaurant that extends over a number of buildings, decks and outdoor bars connected by wooden walkways. If the Swiss Family Robinson had gotten into the beach bar business they might’ve built something like this.
The dinner rush was well underway when I arrived, and there was a wait for seating. But instead of moping around by the hostess stand, people here simply proceeded to the true front of the restaurant, the side that faces the Gulf, and passed the time with another romp through the sand. Some even waded into the shallow water.
It turns out, whatever else might be happening along the waterfront, the elemental appeal of time spent on the beach still holds the strongest draw.
More art in Ocean Springs
Art abounds around Ocean Springs in galleries and shops. Fans of Walter Anderson’s work should visit Realizations (1000 Washington St., Ocean Springs, 228-875-0503; walteringlisanderson.com), a store run by the artist’s family with products based on his designs.
The Anderson family art legacy is also alive and well at Shearwater Pottery (102 Shearwater Dr., Ocean Springs, 228-875-7320; shearwaterpottery.com), a pottery studio and store founded by Walter’s brother Peter Anderson in 1928 and run today by his descendants.
From downtown, the short trip to Shearwater Pottery will take you through town, past a small fishing harbor and along a winding dirt road and makes an interesting excursion in its own right. Don’t worry if you miss a turn. Getting lost in this charming town is a good way to experience it too.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.