Tifton Gazette

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December 9, 2012

Mississippi Gulf Coast

First in a series.

Next: Bay St. Louis, Infinity science center at the NASA Stennis Space Center, dolphin encounters, Ocean Springs

In 2013: The Jefferson Davis Presidential Library

Go to Biloxi to find Lady Luck if you like, but I barely went indoors on a four-night five-day jaunt to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Casinos are inside kind of places.

So much blue sky, open water and art. So many boats to hop aboard with sailors and tour guides fascinated with their estuaries and river, birds and fishes. Fine shrimping too.

Broad boulevards and walking paths parallel the 62 miles of coastline. I skirted those dozen casinos filled with fun-lovers embracing a style different from mine, and I kept the Gulf in sight.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, watched those waters too from 1877 until his death in 1889 when he made his home at Beauvoir.

Beautiful view, the previous owner Sarah Dorsey named this home, and that remains so today. Tour the exquisitely-furnished home, stroll the grounds, rock on the porch gazing to the Mississippi Sound, and plan to return next year.

That’s when the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library opens. I took a hard-hat tour with construction almost completed, design elements loaded with symbolism put in place and visions of how to tell the full story of his life swirling.

“All the things you don’t know about Jefferson Davis, all the details how he became who he was will fuel the Library’s exhibitions,” his great-great grandson Bertram Hayes-Davis told me.

He’s executive director, bringing to the task acumen to oversee the 51-acre historic site and passion to initiate big visions.

“People visited constantly when Jefferson and Varina lived at Beauvoir,” Hayes-Davis says, “ as we too receive visitors today.”   

Mostly that means tourists, historians, scholars.

Also means the family. Some 500 descendants gathered at Rosemont, Davis’s childhood home in Kentucky for a recent reunion.

 Beauvoir visitors can follow the water to the art museum that also celebrates people with big visions: this place focuses on artist George Ohr and architect Frank Gehry.

From the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi easily keep an eye on the water since it’s a collection of buildings, balconies, brick plaza and grassy connecting spaces.

Not just any buildings; these are Frank Gehry designed. Fine design with art and cuisine that’s both fine and fun abound along this coast.

First challenge for me was learning the community names and personalities to shape my exploration vacation.

Learn Gautier first just to speak properly. Go-shay is the way to say it, and Kathy and Jeff Wilkinson’s Eco Tours of South Mississippi on the Pascagoula River is the choice to make.

Details soon. Theirs is one of several excellent opportunities on the water. In Biloxi dedicate an afternoon or sunset for sailing on the replica oyster schooner operated by the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.

This captain is Ron Reiter, age 81 and sailing all his life, starting way north on the Great Lakes. Authentic voices I found all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Sharp contrast for me, taking the wheel of the schooner under Reiter’s careful eye, seeing a shrimp boat pass in front of the enormous Beau Rivage casino.

Devote part of the next day to the Biloxi Shrimping Trip for local color and info with husband and wife Coast Guard-certified captains Brandy and Mike Moore.  Gulf Coast natives.

Theirs is a wooden boat too, flat bottom, 42-feet long and 10 feet wide and they call her the Sail Fish.

Mike trawls as you glide and he’ll put you eye-to-eye with wild Mississippi shrimp; back in the water they go with anything else in his net. This is observation, not fishing.

Consider spending the other half of the day with them for deep-sea fishing or a history tour on their 19-passenger bus.

This Gulf Coast is easy to traverse, connecting along Beach Boulevard. The shrimping tour launches from the harbor next to Beau Rivage casino.

The Maritime Museum oyster schooner sails across the Boulevard from the Museum of Art. I watched it from one of their balconies one afternoon, sailed the next.

Gehry said those museum balconies mattered for visitors to dance with the trees. Look into their tops and through their graceful branches to the water.

Live oaks abound on this campus of five Gehry-designed buildings, fewer trees than pre-Hurricane Katrina, graceful and lovely.

“Mad potter of Biloxi” is the way local people describe George Ohr; 1857-1918 were his years and practical pottery he shaped first.

Then his visions emerged as he declared, “Shapes come to the potter as verses to the poet.

“Clay follows the fingers and the fingers follow the mind,” Ohr said.

Take a look now at his visionary work but see even more as the four sculptural pod buildings are completed, fulfilling architecture reflecting Ohr’s twisting pottery shapes.

Along with experiencing the Mad Potter of Biloxi, enjoy the just-opened exhibitions of Dusti Bonge and Lydia Thompson which remain into June, 2013.

I like that Mississippi Gulf Coast style: close and connected, easy to access, somewhat walkable.

Five miles I think it was, my walk from this neighborhood along the beach to my hotel, the South Beach Biloxi.

Along the way I admired the lighthouse and popped in the Visitor Welcome Center, an iconic Southern home with rocking chair porch, sweeping stairway and a fine history and information exhibition.

That’s where I learned about families Greek and Italian, Vietnamese, Irish and Yugoslavian all settling here.

Sat on benches to gaze at the Gulf, listened to a few tunes in the Hard Rock Café casino, alternated walking in sand or paved pathway and occasionally strolled the Beach Boulevard grassy median to be closer to abundant wood sculpture.

Seems Marlin Miller used his chain saw to carve dozens of dolphin, pelicans and eagles from trees battered by Katrina.

“Most generations in Mississippi go eight or nine generations deep,” he explains.

“When these people lost a giant tree, it wasn’t just theirs. It was something that their great-great-great grandparents played under as children.”

Miller carved for three years, for free. Quite a show, appreciated by me much better on foot than through car window.

Sand hill cranes might be among his carvings because they have a refuge here. Jeff Wilkinson told me on his eco tour on the Pascagoula River that Mississippi sand hill cranes don’t migrate, just stay.

He’ll take you close and show you nests of osprey and bald eagles on the way to the swamp.

“Flowing, not stagnant,” he says pointing out oxbow lakes and musing about the changing flow of the river in increments of hundreds and thousands of years.

Buzzard Lake and Whiskey Bayou are favorite spots and Wilkerson knows the vegetation and wildlife intimately.

Ask about Eco Tours’ flat-bottom motorboat or kayaks, maybe a trip to the barrier islands. Adventuresome? Wilkinson has an overnighting cabin in the swamps. Sleeps six. Electricity, TV, well for water.

“If you come to South Mississippi,” he says, and can’t find something you like to do, you must not like to do much of anything.”

My first visit tells me he’s right.

 

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