Coastal Mississippi Is Back–And Now's The Time To Visit These Beautiful Towns
Here's what many people don't know, or at least don't recall, about Hurricane Katrina: While the first hurricane landfall caused deadly flooding in New Orleans and South Louisiana, the second virtually erased Mississippi's beachfront, battering coastal communities with winds topping 100 miles per hour and a storm surge of over 20 feet. That was in 2005.
Today, visit any of the communities from Ocean Springs, D'Iberville, and Pascagoula on the east end to Bay St. Louis and Waveland on the west, and you'll see that the Mississippi Gulf Coast didn't just come back—it revitalized its future.
Once again, the shipyards in Pascagoula are humming, artists are flocking to creative hot spots like Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs, and the restaurant scene is exploding, with young guns joining stalwarts to create enough delicious food to keep your treadmill in overdrive.
Boutique hotels are appearing in waterfront towns that were once dependent on chain lodging if they had any at all. Popular MGM Park and the new Mississippi Aquarium have joined other landmark attractions like the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art and Walter Anderson Museum of Art to attract more and more tourists. Opened last year, the sleek and modern Hotel Legends overlooks the water in Biloxi near crown jewel Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. The Gulfport Harbor is a gathering spot, featuring a marina and an amphitheater at Jones Park. And Bay St. Louis got its first municipal marina. How did it happen?
Planning for The Future
"I've kind of lived Hurricane Katrina almost every day since it made landfall," says Ashley Edwards, president and CEO of the Gulf Coast Business Council. Edwards worked on recovery under two governors before heading the council. Job one after Katrina, he said, was to heed the lessons that were learned from this coast's previous storm of record, Hurricane Camille (1969): Plan before you build.
By 2006, after strategically engaging the community as well as experts from around the world, the coast had charted its course but still faced more disasters, including a recession, the BP oil spill, and algae. Ever optimistic, locals point to billions of dollars that have flowed into their towns because of the hardships. "We have about $2 billion in funds that will come to the Mississippi Gulf Coast over the next 10 years as a result of the 2010 oil spill, a lot of which has not yet been spent," Edwards says. "With that in mind, we have more new investment coming than just about any other region in the country."
Add to that investment the area's great diversity—Black, Hispanic, Slavonian, Croatian, French, Italian, and Vietnamese communities are all part of its cultural fabric—and you have a string of unified but not homogeneous towns. "The coast is just unlike the rest of the state," says Anita Lee, a longtime staff writer for the Sun Herald in Biloxi. "I say that as someone who grew up in the other part of Mississippi. We've kind of got our own little world down here."
Three key GPS coordinates in this little world lead you to Ocean Springs, Pass Christian, and Bay St. Louis.
Turning a Visit Into Forever
Ted and Roxy Condrey moved to Ocean Springs for a real estate project and found the coastal village overflowing with great art, interesting galleries and shops, and people who loved living here. "Within a year, we'd decided that we'd stay a little longer," Roxy remembers, "and then 'a little longer' turned into 13 years. Now I have no intention of going anywhere."
The Condreys first opened the two-room Inn at Ocean Springs downtown. Next came The Roost, a beauty of a boutique property, which the Condreys and some business partners debuted in 2017 on Porter Avenue and continue to expand. Last year, the couple completed The Beatnik, with four modern cabins, two of which are outfitted with bunk beds for families. Next comes the Ocean Springs Collective, a 3-acre property across the street from The Beatnik. It will include an independent bookstore, a gym, and a nanobrewery along with restaurants, a garden, a market, and space for live music. An efficiency motel is also in the works.
New development complements what was already there—a lovely coastal town rich with artists, shops, good food, and community spirit.
Building a Family Business
Jourdan Nicaud is probably very tired of explaining why he tossed his med-school plans to open Bacchus on the Beach restaurant in 2011—but he's far too polite to say so. At least now, the Pass Christian native can just point to an explanation: He has six restaurants and counting, from Bay St. Louis to Ocean Springs; the Hotel Pass Christian has successfully opened; plus there's more lodging in the works. And he's still a long way from turning 40. Nicaud and his brother/business partner, Field, have built a thriving food-and-hospitality company together.
"Field and I grew up on the Gulf Coast," Nicaud explains. "We've always really loved food, and we've traveled a lot. Our goal was to take everything that we've experienced back to the Gulf and help bring out its local flavors as well."
The Nicaud Restaurant Group has a diversified portfolio, including Bacchus in Pass Christian, Field's Steak & Oyster Bar in Bay St. Louis, two Fill-Up with Billups diners on the coast, and Field's Flights (another steak-and-oyster place, opening in downtown Biloxi's former Magnolia Hotel).
The brothers have been staying busy adding four hotel rooms to their Rooftop Taco & Tequila Bar in Ocean Springs, converting the old Josette's costume store in downtown Biloxi into new apartments, and generally following their instincts and their vision to keep creating all kinds of new properties that make sense for their community.
Bursting with Local Pride
It's no secret that the farther west you travel along the Mississippi coast, the stronger you'll hear the call of New Orleans. Once you hit the waterfront in Old Town Bay St. Louis, you might as well be in the French Quarter. Many locals here have New Orleans roots, and this little burg is all about letting those bons temps rouler. It's artsy, funky, and quirky yet still peaceful and relaxing, with the unhurried, y'all-come-on-in attitude of a small Southern town: NOLA, meet Mayberry.
Steve Barney, executive director of The Arts, Hancock County believes this village has even more creative residents now than before Katrina. "Not only did the artists who were displaced by the storm come back, but there are also hundreds of people like me who have found that this is the place to move," Barney says.
The Bay St. Louis Creative Arts Center Barney oversees is part of the revitalization of the Depot District, which will become an active stop again after Amtrak's return, set for 2022. But there's more.
"We now have this magnificent harbor where you can literally get off your boat and you're in town," says Nikki Moon, owner of the Bay Town Inn Bed & Breakfast in Old Town. "The harbor was a huge start to bringing our beachfront back."
Moon's neighbor and friend Sarah Cure Clark is a third-generation member of a Gulf Coast oystering family. Seeing the need for a hotel in Bay St. Louis, they built one, which opened in 2020 and overlooks the downtown and marina. The boutique property is appropriately named the Pearl Hotel, with a bar called Hinge and two restaurants, Smoke and Thorny Oyster (both owned by Amy and Jeff Hansell, who are general manager and chef, respectively). Curated visuals throughout the Pearl tell the fascinating story of the Cure family's oystering heritage.
Local pride is huge down here. So is cooperation. "You know, a storm has a funny effect in that it pulls people together," says Blake Kaplan, executive editor of the Sun Herald. "Right after a storm, you may not know your neighbors, but in a time of crisis, you meet them and swap a cup of sugar for some propane or something like that. It's like a team-building exercise under the worst circumstances. But we've come back strong—and better, I think—and we're looking forward to the future."