Teresa Otto shares her experience traveling along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, also known as the Secret Coast, on a three-day road trip. Get ready for beautiful beaches, delicious food and that special Mississippi vibe.
Mississippi’s Secret Coast is lined with miles of white sandy beaches and towering live oak trees. As I drove the 50-mile road trip along Highway 90, on what was called the Old Spanish Trail, I cruised through quaint, Mississippi Gulf coast towns with antebellum mansions and historic buildings that stood when the road opened in the 1920s. Somehow these buildings survived Hurricanes Camille and Katrina that battered the coast in 1969 and 2005.
When it skirts the miles of pristine, manmade beaches along the Gulf of Mexico, the highway widens to allow free parking and easy access to the beach. Nature and all that it offers is never far away.
During my trip, I enjoyed hiking through wildlife preserves in the morning, visiting museums in the afternoon, and capping off the day with a fresh-caught or farm-to-fork meal.
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Three Day Itinerary for a Mississippi Gulf Coast road trip
Traveling east to west, beginning in Pascagoula and ending at Bay Saint Louis, here are my suggestions for things to see and do, restaurants to try, and places to stay during a three-day road trip along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Day 1: Pascagoula, Gautier and Ocean Springs
Pascagoula: visiting historic sites, biking and birdwatching
Pascagoula might be known for its shipbuilding or the UFO sighting and alien abduction of two local men in 1973. This is all recent history in the big picture of life in coastal Mississippi.
Pascagoula and Biloxi tribes were the region’s first inhabitants. European explorers came next, beginning with the Spanish, who landed on the Mississippi coast in the 1500s.
French explorer, Joseph Simon de la Pointe bought land overlooking Lake Catahoula (now Krebs Lake). His son-in-law, Hugo Krebs, built the La Pointe-Krebs House in 1757. It is the oldest home in Mississippi and the Mississippi Valley.
Hurricanes took their toll on the home, but restoration true to its original construction is wrapping up. The museum’s director gives a great overview of the area’s history and home’s unique construction.
If you prefer to sightsee by bicycle, a bike trail leads to La Pointe-Krebs House after touring downtown. The trail passes public murals, historic homes, and the beach.
The well-marked map, designated bike path, and light traffic made it a pleasure to bicycle here. I passed by Jimmy Buffett’s childhood home and a bridge named in his honor – where, incidentally, I watched pelicans dive for their dinners.
For more birdwatching, head to Pascagoula River Audubon Center. Viewing platforms hang over the Pascagoula River (the longest undammed river in the lower 48) and its marshes. I saw pelicans, egrets, and herons.
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You might also spot kites and bald eagles.The Audubon Center rents kayaks by the hour for an up-close view of waterfowl.
A small kiosk near the entrance serves as a museum with historic photos of Pascagoula and a collection of duck decoys. From 1920 to 1971, Pascagoula was one of the biggest producers of these wooden decoys.
Gautier: meeting the Sandhill cranes and learning about military history
The Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge is based near Gautier. An easy 0.8-mile trail passes through pine forests, wetlands, and grassy meadows in search of these endangered, non-migratory birds (as opposed to those who migrate and congregate in Nebraska each spring). Only about 100 Mississippi Sandhill Cranes live in the reserve but conservation efforts will hopefully improve their numbers.
I headed to the nearby GI Museum (in Ocean Springs). Doug and Cheryl Mansfield shared their large collection and told the stories behind their war memorabilia.
Rare artifacts include a complete photography set, civilian gas masks, and a concentration camp dress from World War II. They have vestments from a priest who served in the Vietnam War, WAC uniforms, and a display on the U.S. military’s pigeon post. And this is just the beginning.
Ocean Springs: admiring art followed by a sunset stroll
If you’re looking for a quaint, walkable downtown with shops, art galleries, and an art museum, Ocean Springs has it. If you’re looking for quiet beaches with paved walking paths, it has that, too. With more than three miles of walking paths along the town’s two beaches, I found it to be a great place for a sunset stroll.
Art is a big part of Ocean Springs. The Walter Anderson Museum of Art honors a prolific local artist who not only painted watercolors and woodblock prints but also painted murals in the community center and in his small studio.
Both the community center and studio are now attached to the museum. Anderson’s subjects are nature-based and reflect his frequent excursions to Horn Island in Gulf Islands National Seashore – a barrier island that he rowed to miles off the coast. He called the studio “Eden.” I was mesmerized by his work.
As a historic home enthusiast, I arranged a visit to the beachfront Charnley-Norwood House, designed by Louis Sullivan – the father of the skyscraper and mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Photos document the home’s massive restoration after Hurricane Katrina. Email [email protected] to schedule a tour.
Day 2: Biloxi and Gulfport
Biloxi: exploring a lighthouse and going shrimping
Beyond Biloxi’s casinos, you’ll find a historic lighthouse, art and history museums, fun public art. There are also more beaches – including one where three Civil Rights protests, called the Biloxi wade-ins, occurred between 1959 and 1963.
You can’t miss the Biloxi Lighthouse. It is literally set in the median of Highway 90. Given its sturdy cast iron construction, the lighthouse weathered Hurricanes Camille and Katrina.
Of its six light tenders, half were women. The women’s combined service spanned 75 years. Tours are offered each morning.
Nearby, the Biloxi Visitors Center’s history museum is well worth a visit. I enjoyed a terrific view of the lighthouse, beach, and gulf from the second floor.
Frank Gehry designed the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. The George Ohr pottery collection and “City Within a City: The African American Culture in Biloxi” are permanent exhibits. Temporary exhibits are housed in the other free-standing, pod-like galleries. To me, the building itself is a work of art.
The Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum offers a comprehensive look at Mississippi’s connection with the Gulf of Mexico. Nydia, a fully restored sailboat built in Biloxi in 1898, shrimping equipment, and an in-depth look at hurricanes are must-see exhibits.
Armed with my new-found knowledge of shrimping, I joined the Biloxi Shrimping Trip. I not only learned about the industry firsthand but got to watch seabirds and dolphins. It was a highlight of my trip. They also offer fishing charters.
For a more active Biloxi tour, grab a historic walking or bicycle tour brochure from the visitor’s center. The walking tour begins with the Katrina Memorial and continues with historic downtown buildings.
The bike tour is divided into East and West Tours. Both trails traverse level ground and hit the city’s highlights.
Gulfport: petting sea creatures or playing in a cockpit
Gulfport is the second-largest city in Mississippi, with a population of about 72,000. Where Biloxi ends and Gulfport begins was hard for me to know, as I drove along Highway 90 admiring the view of the beach and gulf.
Within the city, two attractions captured my attention. The Mississippi Aquarium’s impressive three-story tank steals the show. A ‘petting zoo’ with rays and other sea creatures is definitely a grandkid-friendly exhibit.
The Mississippi Aviation Heritage Museum is also a very hands-on place with flight simulators and cockpits to climb into. The museum pays tribute to Mississippi pilots, particularly John C. Robinson, an African American pilot from Mississippi who was one of the Tuskegee Airmen.
For an excursion to Ship Island, an island belonging to Gulf Islands National Seashore, catch the ferry at Gulfport. An old fort, plenty of sandy beaches, and abundant marine life make for a pleasant day.
Day 3: Pass Christian and Bay St. Louis
Pass Christian: touring the historic beachfront homes
The small town of Pass Christian offers one of the best looks at the area’s historic and very grand beachfront homes, all while driving beneath the canopy of live oak trees. I could only imagine the labor of love that went into restoring them after Hurricane Katrina and the more recent Hurricane Zeta. A driving tour points out the places on the National Registry.
Bay Saint Louis: admiring murals on a walking tour
Bay Saint Louis has cute boutiques, art galleries, and lots of restaurants along its beach. The visitor’s center in the old L & N train depot is a good place to start. It’s home to the history, Mardi Gras, and Alice Mosely Folk Art museums. While I was at the depot, I picked up a walking tour map to explore this historical and community-minded town on foot.
Across the tracks from the depot, I saw the 100 Men Hall. It opened as a community center for African Americans in 1894. It morphed into a venue for famous musicians such as Etta James and BB King who would play in New Orleans one night and here the next.
A mural on the outside of the hall commemorates these artists. A comprehensive list inside reminds visitors of all the talent that’s set foot upon the stage.
Close to Bay Saint Louis’s downtown shopping, I found Ruth’s Roots. It’s a combo community garden, farm, petting zoo, and artsy oasis.
Ruth’s hens supply eggs to King’s Kitchen – a nonprofit that feeds the homeless. The fence surrounding the garden and murals within were created by local artists.
Where to Eat on the Mississippi Coast
With fresh fish and seafood, farm-to-fork meat, and locally-sourced vegetables, the Secret Coast has its share of good restaurants serving delicious food with Southern hospitality. Here are some cafes and restaurants I recommend:
Family-run Bozos Seafood Grocery and Grill ranks among the best seafood dives in America.
Maison De Lu offers French-inspired dishes and outdoor dining. It serves lunch and dinner.
Vestige prepares New American and Japanese-inspired meals. It’s open for dinner with a new tasting menu each night.
Mosaic serves tapas, salads, sandwiches, and burgers. It has live entertainment and an extensive cocktail and beer selection.
The Ole Biloxi Fillin’ Station, housed in an old gas station, serves gumbo, po-boys, and wraps. They’ll cook what you catch on your fishing charter, too.
Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar offers casual dining with beautiful views of the gulf.
Whiskey Prime serves steak, seafood, and the best grits I’ve ever tasted.
Bay Saint Louis
For breakfast and lunch, visit the Mockingbird Café and admire the work of a featured local artist.
For casual, beachfront dining, eat at The Blind Tiger. I recommend the Royal Red Shrimp.
Across from the beach, 200 North Beach Restaurant is located in a historic building and serves fine food and drink in a rustic setting.
Where to Stay on Mississippi’s Secret Coast
Any of these Mississippi coastal towns can be home base for your three-day coastal road trip.
The Roost Boutique Hotel in Ocean Springs has 11 suites with distinctive artwork, reclaimed wood accents, and unique furnishings. The adjoining speakeasy-style Wilbur Bar is a nice place to unwind.
Gulfport’s historic Grand Centennial Hotel began as a World War I training site. Inside the striking Spanish -style whitewashed buildings are fully renovated and modern rooms with every convenience. If you happen to be traveling with your grandchildren, the onsite water playground will be a big hit.
The Bay Town Inn in Bay Saint Louis is just across from the beach. Its well-appointed suites have a separate sitting area, kitchenette, and bedroom. The homemade breakfast, inviting pool, and beautiful gardens are all added bonuses.
Extend your Mississippi road trip
If 3 days in MS aren’t enough, here are a couple of road trip itineraries to extend your trip.
Visit the Mississippi Delta on a foodie road trip that’s filled with delicious eating.
Keep on driving east to explore the Alabama Gulf Coast.