Spend an affordable, family weekend along the quiet, cozy, and charming Mississippi Coast.
The unsung “Third Coast” (that is the Gulf Coast) continues to make its lively resurgence following the unfortunate devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and Mississippi’s coastline is no exception. My family and I frequently find ourselves on the Mississippi coast, whether it’s a quick trip from New Orleans or a stopover while traveling to Florida. And with three rambunctious boys, our family vacations are centered around outdoor activities that let them burn off all that pent-up energy after traveling. So the opportunity to discover a unique, less-traveled location along the Mississippi Coast was enticing, and its affordability was an added bonus. Outdoor barbecue? A pristine barrier island? A kids’ discovery center? You had us at barbecue.
KidTripster Tip: Mississippi heat boils over in mid-summer, so plan to visit in the late spring or early summer for the best outdoor experience.
Where to eat?
I find there are two types of Southern barbecue enthusiasts: those that insist on one technique and except no alternatives and those that revel in its diverse regional styles. Despite my family's Texas roots and bias, The Shed Barbecue & Blues Joint (7501 MS-57, Ocean Springs) has us convinced of Mississippi’s extensive, barbecue fluency. We were knocked over with stunning pulled pork and chicken, mouth-watering, tender brisket, and the appropriately named Championship Ribs. Despite our past barbecue experiences, we had never witnessed the delight of pig wings before, and we all but missed the opportunity as my middle child (the meat eater in the family) attempted to gobble them all down himself! Somehow, we still managed to top all that off with an amazing pecan cobbler and a couple Mississippi Mud and strawberry shortcake ice cream bowls from local Quakes Ice Creamery (1922 Bienville Blvd., Ocean Springs).
KidTripster Tip: In the rear of the parking lot, there’s a pier where locals will dock their boats and then get a bite to eat. My oldest enjoyed spotting a water snake while checking out the bayou.
My husband considers himself an avid, home baker, so Tato-Nut Donut Shop (1114 Government St., Ocean Springs) ranked high on his list of places to try out. This family-owned institution’s dedication to glazed perfection and friendly customer service explains why it's been in business for over 40 years. Donuts are hand-crafted fresh every morning, and at the end of the day, any surplus is donated to the local food bank. Watch through the glass windows as the hardworking crew gets your donuts ready to go.
KidTripster Tip: Arrive between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m. for the shortest line and full range of fresh selections, as these donuts fly off the shelves.
Summertime in the south is hot, so Pop Brothers' (1501 25th Ave., Gulfport) artican popsicles were a natural choice to help us cool down after a sunny, coastal day. It took us a good ten minutes of parsing the menu to make a decision due to the myriad of alluring options. Our kids immediately went for the cookies and cream, but I ventured out with a watermelon mint, and my husband went even further with Guanabana, a creamy textured tropical fruit with a flavor like pineapple and strawberry. Nothing disappointed!
KidTripster Tip: Traveling with the family pup in tow? Pop Brothers has a Pooch Pop, featuring organic chicken broth, sage, fresh mint, green beans, and beef jerk.
What to do?
Along the coast in Gulfport, the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center (246 Dolan Ave., Gulfport) delivers excellent exploratory attractions for the 10 and under crowd. A two-story, indoor climbing structure is surrounded by tons of activities that include something for everyone. Within a span of three hours, my kids strolled through a mock grocery market, got behind the wheel of a genuine safari jeep, and even tried out a round of wheelchair basketball. The interview studio with live cameras and video monitors was a huge hit with my older boys, as they dressed up and discussed our family’s latest “news.” Cost: $10/person; discounts on weekdays after 3 p.m. ($3) and Sundays ($6). The last Friday of every month is free from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
KidTripster Tip: For a wider age range of kids and attractions, I recommend investing in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Attractions Pass. The $35 pass provides entry to the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center along with six additional attractions: Biloxi Lighthouse, Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, Beauvoir, Pascagoula River Audubon Center, and Infinity Science Center.
Pick up some sand dollars, search for starfish or just take a swim at our recommended beach, Ship Island. This quiet barrier island boasts enticing, blue water, white sand, and absolutely no crowds. Chairs and canopies are a must and available for rent ($25), as there's no shelter available on the beach. A concession stand offers standard hamburger and hot dog fare, but I advise taking a cooler stocked with your kids’ favorite beach snacks. The most affordable option for getting to the island is Ship Island Excursions (1040 23rd Ave., Gulfport) which offers a 50-minute ferry ride that also just happens to have bottle-nosed dolphins popping up along the way. Cost: Youth $19; Adult $29.
KidTripster Tip: Bring cash for the concession stands on the ferry and on the island.
Where to stay?
With three kids in tow, The Roost at Ocean Springs (604 Porter Ave., Ocean Springs) won over our hearts as the best place to stay. Located just a few blocks away from the eclectic, downtown district, this exquisitely-appointed, boutique hotel features six suites. It was recently renovated using indigenous plants and wood from the original 1890s house. A full kitchen and comfortable, cozy living room are just a few of the highlights of this coastal nest. A shared living space right outside our door with a balcony and rocking chairs gave our kids the chance to trade fun, adventure stories with neighboring kids.
Conveniently located downstairs from the suite, you’ll find Eat Drink Love, a restaurant with fresh, local organic ingredients. Grab a few sandwiches as you head off on your coastal excursions.
KidTripster Tip: Skip the nearby beach, despite its proximity; the water is murky, and beach sand is sparse. Concentrate your efforts on heading out to Ship Island for a superior beach experience.
I also highly recommend The Inn at Ocean Springs (623 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs), where we stayed in the Vancleave Suite (1212 Bowen Ave., Ocean Springs). This gorgeous, stand-alone house offers an idyllic, southern home experience just one block from downtown. We were well within walking distance of every restaurant or shop of interest. An added bonus? Roosters and chickens roam freely in the backyard. The kids got a kick out of watching them strut. A true southern experience! (Earplugs are provided, if the natural morning wake-up call isn’t your thing.)
The major towns along the Mississippi Coast for visitors are Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs; they’re all a little over an hour’s drive from New Orleans, a 2-hour drive from Pensacola, and a 6-hour drive from Houston.
Raised in a Texas beach town, writer Carla Reed loves discovering hidden coastal gems with her husband and three sons.