Living along the Gulf of Mexico's gorgeous coastline definitely has its perks, but besides the many beachfront opportunities are a wealth of interesting attractions for Memphians visiting the coastal towns for the first time. Here are a few inside tips on where to go and what to see.
Gulf Islands National Seashore
First and foremost, be aware that the entire Gulf Coast is part of this wonderful natural park. Established in 1971 to preserve the barrier islands, salt marshes, wildlife, historic structures and archeological sites found along the Gulf of Mexico, the Seashore stretches eastward 160 miles from Cat Island, Mississippi to the eastern tip of Santa Rosa Island, Florida. It’s rich in natural and cultural resources, with sparkling blue water, magnificent white beaches, and fertile coastal marshes. The barrier islands are an outstanding feature, serving as blockades to ocean waves and violent storms that would otherwise strike the mainland coast with greater force, while the mainlands hosts historic forts and structures built by Spaniards and Americans. Camping is welcome at Fort Pickens, Davis Bayou, and select primitive islands.
Florida and Mississippi, South of Interstate 10
Hurricane Katrina Memorial
Dedicated to the Mississippi Gulf Coast victims who perished in Hurricane Katrina, the Memorial stands 12 feet tall, about the height of the water during Katrina’s storm surge at the Town Green in Biloxi, and contains a tile inlay of a wave, a glass case with items from destroyed buildings, and the names of the 170 victims who perished during the storm. ABC’s Extreme Makeover crew dedicated the memorial on February 15, 2006.
133 Main St., Biloxi Town Green
Beach Boulevard Tree Sculptures
International award-winning artist Dayton Scoggins of Mississippi, award-winning sculptor Marlin Miller of Florida, and Dayle Lewis of Indiana sculpted a variety of marine-life figures out of what were once beautiful live oak trees ruined by the storm waters of Hurricane Katrina. The City of Biloxi spearheaded the campaign for tree-sculpture gardens along scenic Highway 90, beginning a couple of blocks east of the Biloxi Lighthouse. There are now approximately 50 sculptures alongthe Mississippi Gulf Coast with the world’s largest eagle sculpture standing at 17 feet, located on the highway in Pass Christian.
Scenic Highway 90, Biloxi
The tour of the historic 65-foot-tall signature landmark involves climbing a spiral staircase and then an eight-rung ladder topped by a trap door into the light room. Along the way, you can view waterlines from hurricanes dating back more than 100 years. Constructed in 1848, the Biloxi Lighthouse was one of the first cast-iron structures erected in the South.
Highway 90 & Porter Ave., (228)374-3105
Take a ferry for a day trip to Ship Island. The finest beaches on the Mississippi Gulf Coast are located here. Tranquil stretches of barrier island shore warmly invite visitors to picnic, explore, and decompress. The National Park Service provides a designated swim area with lifeguards in summer, and beach chair and umbrella rentals are provided. An easy one-third-mile stroll along the boardwalk will bring you to the popular Gulf of Mexico swim beach on the south side of the island. Tour historic Fort Massachusetts on your own, or on a Park Ranger-guided tour offered after the passenger ferries arrive at the island. Ship Island Excursions offers day trips of varying duration for your convenience. Opens March 24th.
Gulfport Yacht Harbor, Highway 90 at Highway 49, (866)466-7386
Walter Anderson Museum of Art
The museum opened in 1991 to celebrate the works of famed twentieth-century American painter, Walter Inglis Anderson. His brothers, Peter (master potter and founder of Shearwater Pottery) and James (noted painter and ceramist), are also featured artists. Adjacent to the museum is the Ocean Springs Community Center, home of Walter Anderson’s largest mural; though damaged during Hurricane Katrina, the building is being restored. Diverse exhibitions featuring the work of other significant artists occur throughout the year. The prolific artist spent much of the last part of his life at Horn Island, one of a group of barrier islands along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, painting and drawing island vegetation, animals, birds, and insects.
510 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs (228)872-3164
Half Shell Oyster House
A new place with a classic feel, featuring fresh, hand-shucked oysters any way you like alongside seafood, steaks, and po-boys.
2500 13th St. #1, Gulfport, and 125 Lameuse St., Biloxi (228)867-7001
The atmosphere is cozy, the bar is well-stocked, and the seafood is simply the best you’ll find anywhere. Open for dinner Thursday through Saturday.
1608 Bienville Blvd., Ocean Springs (228)875-1925
Mary Mahoney’s Old French House
Built during the French occupation of the coast, the Old French House Restaurant opened in 1964. Popular author John Grisham is known to eat here when in town, and has actually used the locale in multiple novels.
110 Rue Magnolia, Biloxi (228)374-0163
Completed in 1834, Fort Morgan was active during the Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World Wars I and II. The stronghold is most famous for its role in the Civil War’s Battle of Mobile Bay, and pays tribute to the skilled masons, most of whom were enslaved African Americans who constructed the fort with more than 40 million bricks. As the “Guardian of Mobile Bay,” the park features a living history program that portrays all applicable military periods spanning from 1814 to 1945. Fort Morgan has also been designated one of “One Hundred Globally Important Bird Areas” by the American Bird Conservancy.
51 State Highway 180 W., Gulf Shores (251)540-7125
Indian and Sea Museum
This attraction showcases artifacts and memorabilia relating to the Native-American and fishing heritage of Orange Beach. Families of early fisherman, mindful of the challenges and achievements in the town’s early days, have donated supplies and collectibles. Admission is free.
25805 John Snook Dr., Orange Beach (251) 981-8545
Plan on lots of walking at this enormous outlet mall, but it’ll be well worth it for the amazing bargains, not to mention looking good on the beach. Among the incredible designer offerings are stores like Coach, Juicy Couture, BCBG, Michael Kors, and American Eagle. A short drive from either Orange Beach or Gulf Shores, the shopping center also has a carousel and playground area for kids. Log on to its website at tangeroutlet.com/foley for coupons to earn even better deals.
2601 S. McKenzie St., Foley (336)292-3010
Famous seafood gumbo, homemade tortilla chips, Mahi tacos, and burgers made with all-natural beef from White Oak Pastures in southwest Georgia.
200 East 25th Ave., Gulf Shores (251)967-5858
The freshest seafood, USDA choice beef, authentic Greek-style dishes and much more, all served in a casually elegant setting. Live dance music featured nightly.
1140 Gulf Shores Pkwy., Gulf Shores (251)948-2111
Grayton Beach State Park
A favorite beach among locals, Grayton consistently ranks among the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the United States. The nearly 2,000 acres that make up the park are an idyllic setting for swimming, sunbathing, and surf fishing, featuring a boat ramp with access to the lake waters. A nature trail winds through the coastal forest of scrub oaks and magnolias. Options for overnight stays include modern cabins and a full-facility campground.
357 Main Park Rd., Santa Rosa Beach (850)267-8300
Joe Patti’s Seafood Company
For more 75 years this popular fish market has been known for variety. Amberjack, flounder, grouper, snapper, mahi mahi, catfish, salmon, swordfish, tuna, tilapia, and scamp arrive fresh on a daily basis. Anna and Joe Patti started selling fish from their front porch on Devillier’s Street in Pensacola in the early 1930s and Captain Joe developed a reputation for being hard to please. In the late 1990s the family expanded the store, opening a gourmet delicatessen, sushi bar, and wine shop. Oils and vinegars, meats and cheeses, fresh-baked breads, and caviars and pates are now sold at the well-loved establishment.
524 South B St., Pensacola (850)226-5212
National Naval Aviation Museum
One of the world’s largest aviation museums is located at the Naval Air Station Pensacola. The museum boasts more than 150 beautifully restored aircraft, exhibits, and more than 4,000 artifacts representing Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard aviation. Watch the Blue Angels at air shows from March through November or take a ride in a TOPGUN Air Combat simulator. Free admission is an added bonus.
1750 Radford Blvd., Pensacola (850)453-2389
Formerly known as the Scenic 30-A Bike Path, this trail in Walton County meanders through popular beach towns along the “Emerald Coast,” as the area is popularly known, from Dune Allen to Rosemary Beach. Pick up the path anywhere along Scenic Highway 30-A to get amazing views of the Gulf, marsh lakes, and sand dunes. Named after Timpoochee Kinnard, the most influential Indian Chief of the Euchee Indians, the trail is a great, little-known opportunity for biking, hiking, or picnicking, parallel to the sugar-sand beaches and beautiful waters of the Gulf.
Scenic Highway 30A
The Fish House & Deck
Upscale, dockside dining overlooking Pensacola Bay and Seville Harbor. Steak, seafood, sushi, an extensive wine list of more than 300 selections, and Sunday brunch. There’s also a bandstand, fire pit, and happy hour seven days a week.
600 S. Barracks St., Pensacola (850)470-0003
The concept for this restaurant is borrowed from the tapas and chocolate shops of Madrid and Barcelona, an attempt to create an inexpensive place to linger with friends and enjoy fantastic flavors. The concept works!
38 Main St., Rosemary Beach (850)624-4121
Get a great cup of coffee right across from the beach. It’s also a good place to grab a muffin in the morning or ice cream in the hot afternoon.
45 Town Center Loop, Santa Rosa Beach, FL (850)267-2522
Come in off the beach and sit outside on the expansive terrace for a fine meal in a fabulous setting known for great presentation and a spectacular view from any table. Entrees are specially prepared by Executive Chef Giovanni Filippone from Hell’s Kitchen.
4801 W. Co. Hwy. 30A, Santa Rosa Beach (850)267-2305