While New Orleans gets all the press and publicity about Mardi Gras there’s an equally fun party occurring in Biloxi Mississippi. It is rare to have a more collective community experience than a Mardi Gras parade and the city of Biloxi on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast certainly knows how to create an annual enormous fun filled, safe and family friendly party. The dates for Mardi Gras vary every year; the main parade is always held on a Tuesday – called “Fat Tuesday”, the day before Ash Wednesday. Biloxi’s first Mardi Gras parade was held over 100 years ago in 1908.
Why all those outstretched and raised arms that line the parade route? Why, for beads of course! It is an amazing feeling to throw beads for three hours straight to thousands of people lined up and down the streets of Biloxi. Its just as an amazing feeling to catch them. Beads are the name of the game in this carnival – and people really want them. By the end of the parade thousands of people are are covered with colorful strands of beads hanging from their necks.
It takes a little more than 3 hours for a float to complete the parade route. The crowds are 10-15 deep in places and include all ages. Even people standing far from the floats are often wearing a significant number of beads. People hold up signs to attract attention “Mardi Gras is on my bucket list”, “Bet you can’t hit ME”, “My first Mardi Gras” etc. Some add some competition for the throwers by holding out basketball nets. College students live it up by dancing in the beds of pickup trucks. There are beads dangling everywhere.
The colors of the beads are significant; Green stands for faith, Gold is for power and Purple stands for justice. Not all beads are created equal. While the majority are small and round some beads have crayfish, special medallions and are odd shaped. Certain beads are limited and highly coveted. These “royal” beads are available only from the King and Queen’s float. If you approach the float prior to the start of the parade, you might be lucky enough to score some of these otherwise hope that one is thrown your way along the parade route.
The Coronation Ball takes place the night before the parade. This event is free to the public and features the unveiling of the Royalty – including King d’Iberville and Queen Ixolib (Biloxi spelled backwards). The Queen is between the age of 18 and 25 while the King is usually much older.
On August 29, 2005 a monster of a hurricane (Katrina) struck land – the eye of the hurricane came ashore at Bay St. Louis. A hurricane of this size hitting land is rare but even more rare was the fact that it struck during the day rather then at night. It also spawned several thousand mini tornadoes in its path which only added to the terrible destruction.
You can find bright colors in certain parts of the south and the buildings along the quaint downtown of Bay St. Louis (about 32 miles west of Biloxi) are testament to this. This was a thriving arts colony pre-hurricane but today the downtown has been rebuilt and a number of art shops, antique galleries and other collectible stores are once again located here.
A unique tree that is a memory to survival is located near the waterfront. The “Angel Tree” is named because it was in the right place at the right time. It saved three individuals who had to swim to this tree after their nearby home started breaking apart during the hurricane. They clung to this tree for survival and ultimately all three survived. Unfortunately it was killed by standing ocean water on its roots – a local woodcarver has since carved Angels into the wood.
One Hundred Men D.B.A. Hall building dates from 1922. This building was excellently restored after Katrina (after it was slated to be torn down) – now it is a venue for small bands and lively parties. Its original heyday was between the 1940s to the 1960’s and was an instrumental stop on the Chitlin circuit (small venues that traditionally supported rhythm and blues music). A number of prominent musicians including Etta James and Big Joe Turner at one time played on their stage.
Biloxi Visitor’s Center & Lighthouse – This lighthouse was a beacon of inspiration as it survived hurricane Katrina – although water came inside high up on the walls – it remained standing. It even avoided the several thousand tornadoes after the hurricane. Today you can climb to the top with a guide arranged through the visitor’s center which is located across the street. A museum inside the impressive building that houses the visitor center highlights the people and history of this part of Mississippi.
Hurricane Katrina Memorial at the Biloxi Town Green was built in part by ABC’s Home Makeover to remember the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The names of those who died are etched in the black marble and a display case shows items that people found and then donated for the memorial after the storm. The height is 12 feet indicating the level of water that was here during the storm.
The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art celebrates the work of Biloxi’s “mad potter” George Ohr as well as local artists. George Ohr was a prolific area potter who lost much of his work in a devastating fire. Many of his pieces were rediscovered in later years and this museum has the foremost collection of his work. The Museum was designed by well known architect Frank Gehry. Visit: www.georgeohr.org/
There are a number of casinos in the area that offer non stop gambling as well as accommodation. It is recommended to reserve hotels in Biloxi and Gulfport at least a month in advance of Mardi Gras – as hotel rooms are at a premium during this time. Two places we are familiar with are highlighted below.
Four Points Sheraton is conveniently located across from the beach near highway 90 in Biloxi and is near a number of major casinos. The rooms are comfortable and include free WiFi. A large pool is located in front of the hotel. Visit: www.fourpoints.com/Biloxi
Chateau Blessey Bed & Breakfast was purchased in 1987 by Walter and Katherine Blessey. They spent many years lovingly restoring each and every room. Then disaster struck in late August 2005 in the form of the deadliest hurricane to hit US soil ever – Katrina. The home itself is situated on a small hill which is what helped “save” the home during the hurricane. However Katrina spawned several thousand tornadoes, some of which touched down on the property.
Less than a dozen classic beach front homes survived Katrina in all of Biloxi. Chateau Blessey, although severely damaged was able to be restored. This was the only home along the entire beach in this area to have survived this horrific storm. Walter reminds one of the author, Clive Cussler. He is a jack of all trades, loves sailing, exploring the world and has impeccably restored the B&B. He is also a long time chef and built several restaurant quality kitchens in the home during the restoration.
Today Chateau Blessey has three rooms – all accessible via their own entrances. One, called the Governor’s suite is named after former Mississippi Governor Ronnie Musgrove who is a personal friend of the Blesseys. The name of the suite comes from the fact that the governor stayed in that room a number of times. The house is in an excellent location – right across Beach Blvd from the Gulf and the long white sandy beach – and just down the street from the visitor’s center. Currently this is the only B&B in all of Biloxi. Visit: www.chateaublessey.com
Half Shell Oyster House – make a beeline for this restaurant when you get into town especially if you love the fruits of the sea. Some of their primary highlights are the appetizers. With a name that incorporates “oysters” you don’t have to look far on the menu for these delicious morsels. Half Shell is fairly well known locally for its charbroiled oysters. You are in the “gulf” – if you enjoy shrimp order up some Royal Red Shrimp – a delicious indigenous shrimp harvested from the deep waters of the gulf. These are juicier, sweeter and bigger than the normal Gulf Coast shrimp. Locally caught fish forms the backbone to some of their entrees. They also boast a superb selection of specialty martinis and mixed drinks. Visit: www.halfshelloysterhouse.com
Harbor View Cafe is located in the small town of Long Beach just west of Gulfport. Like so many buildings along the coast that were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina the original Harbor View restaurant was also destroyed. The owners, the Hirsch family, re-opened their “new” restaurant further from the beach. For a small restaurant they have a large diversity of items on the menu for both breakfast and lunch. Southern style food – lots of omelets. A nice selection of seafood items.
The staff is very friendly. Visit: www.harborviewcafe.net
When you walk into Mignon Steak & Seafood on the second floor of the Palace Casino you immediately realize that this is a restaurant that understands wine. Glass display cases of fine wines from around the world greet you at the entrance. Mignon is the only restaurant in the entire state of Mississippi to receive the Wine Enthusiast 2009 Best Wine Menu award and has been distinguished for a number of years by both the Wine Enthusiast and the Wine Spectator. The quality of the food stands up to the quality of the wine! They offer an excellent selection of both seafood and steak. Visit: Palace Casino Resort
Bay St. Louis Old Town: www.baystlouisoldtown.com
Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport: www.flygpt.com
Mississippi Gulf Coast official tourism site: www.gulfcoast.org
I miss standing in the floats throwing beads to hungry bead collectors.