One of the guiding principles at the founding of this publication (and, yes, we were a printed publication that ran into a black, greasy wall of oil left in the wake of the BP spill) is that the Gulf Coast is a most fascinating and diverse place.
Unlike the West Coast where there was a commonality of cultures, or the East Coast where freedom from tyranny and England were the uniting factors, the Gulf Coast was actually an amalgamation of different European influences, nuanced by this continent’s new tenants to the north, the Americans.
The Gulf Coast was all pretty much touched by the same cultural influences during our colonial period, stretching from south Louisiana to the Florida panhandle, but then again, we were quite different. No community in our area ever rebelled against a distant monarchy, unless you include Jean Lafitte and his group of pirates who had no use for the English. Nor did we promulgate Declarations against those foreign powers that were still overseeing our safety, populating new towns, and enriching our ports.
But this same and sanguine attitude shared by the Gulf Coast inhabitants was soon splintered among our communities as events in Europe impacted developing lifestyles, our cultures, our cuisines and our relationship to each other. The common enemy was England, but they were also an influence and a presence. Spain and France had an uneasy alliance, with Spain being happy to work with France to assist in the securing of the communities along the Gulf Coast as long as France did not militarily charge to the south into Latin, Central and South America.
In short, the development of our area proceeded quite differently from the other North American coasts. We still reflect this history within each Gulf Coast community and area.
Tucked into the southeast corner of the Mississippi Coast is a most charming community, Ocean Springs. Often overlooked, thanks to an Interstate Highway that zooms by about 8 miles outside of town, the residents of this old community are happy the six-lane bustle is just to the north.
Founded by the explorer, Pierre LeMoyne d”Iberville, on assignment from the same king, Louis XIV, and traveling in the same area as his brother, New Orleans founder Jean Baptiste LeMoyne de Bienville, the original settlement, predecessor of Ocean Springs, Fort Maurepas, was established in 1699.
Fort Maurepas, also known as Fort Bilocci, the French expression for Biloxi, was the capital of the French territory of Louisiana, twice, both before and after a stint in Mobile, and well before the seat of government migrated to New Orleans in 1722. This first permanent French outpost in all of the vast lands of Louisiana was actually a statement from France to discourage Spain’s encroachments into the territory.
A replica of Fort Maurepas was constructed in the 20th century in an historic park setting at the original site but Hurricane Katrina wiped it away.
By the mid-1800s, there had been the discovery of mineral springs in the area, and it appeared that Fort Maurepas would add tourism to its existing industries of timber and saw mills, port-related activities, and trading posts.
In 1853, Dr. William G. Austin of New Orleans constructed a large resort property, the Ocean Springs Hotel. The following year the entire town took its name from the hotel.
Today’s visitor to Ocean Springs will immediately feel the pace of life slow down. Just being here has to add years to your life. Your heart and mind know the tempo is different from just a few miles away. This is truly Old South, and right on the Gulf, which is an odd sight at first, but then quite normal. There are not many vestiges of Ocean Springs’ long history, but there are not many modern, brick and glass intrusions into the scene either. The tall Las Vegas-style casinos are a few miles to the west in Biloxi and Gulfport. Not here.
Many islands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore are offshore, but the Davis Bayou Area, a part of this two-state Federal natural-preserve protectorate, is on the outskirts of town. Drive up, and suddenly you find yourself surrounded by wetlands, bayous, flora that flourishes in such climes, and face to face with an alligator or two, or more. All from the safe vantage point of a two-mile long trail with portions covered by a raised walkway that allows you to view, but not be too involved.
There is also fishing, picnicking, bird watching and ranger-led activities. The Colmer Visitor Center (3500 Park Road, Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-875-2358) serves as a first-stop with an orientation film, a view of local exhibits, and shop the store for practical and souvenir items.
Ocean Springs has always been a very artistic community. It was the home of noted artist, Walter Anderson, 1903-1965, who with his brother, Peter, created works of art in many forms, including oil paintings, watercolors, pen and ink drawings, pottery, carved linoleum blocks and prints, ceramics, pencil drawings, and even furniture items. His work can be seen at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art (510 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-872-3164)
In 1928, Peter Anderson founded Shearwater Pottery (102 Shearwater Drive, Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-875-7320), and today it is a cultural treasure, still in operation, in Ocean Springs. The pottery is crafted using two distinct clay bodies, and the artistic result is a unique piece, intricately reflecting earth tones and native shapes and designs.
Lodging in Ocean Springs consists of the usual American road “chains,” all comfortable, but when you are staying in a place with so much culture and style, you really should consider an inn or bed and breakfast.
The Inn at Ocean Springs (623 Washington Avenue, Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-875-4499) is located right downtown, and always achieves a high-ranking from guests who have enjoyed the hospitality and the convenience of being in the center.
Front Beach Cottages (207 Dewey Ave., Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-215-0969) are just steps from the sandy beaches of the Gulf. Each cottage interior and furnishings reflects an owner’s favorite destination, from Key West to New Orleans to Ocean Springs herself in the starring role.
The Wilson House Inn (6312 Allen Road, Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-875-4499) was originally located north of Gulfport, 20 miles to the east. The Wilsons decided it belonged here, and so here it is. The Wilsons also had a passion for gardening, and they were truly Old South. This place reflects all of that love and beauty. Guests gather in the living room in the afternoon for a low-key social, and in the morning a large Southern breakfast is always served.
You cannot head to this part of the world and not expect to enjoy excellent cuisine. Raw ingredients, taken from right at your doorstep in the Gulf, are prepared by creative and trained culinary professionals. Their talents are on full display, and they bring enthusiasm to their efforts. You will be the fortunate recipient of artistry and craft. Excellence is the order of the day.
Understanding where you are, let’s twist things up a bit. The Phoenicia (1223 Government St., Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-875-0603) serves a memorable breakfast. It’s a great way to wake up your senses to different experiences right at the top of the day. And then, in the evening, the Greek and Middle Eastern-themed menu will have you wondering at what point does this gourmet-driven establishment stop surprising?
The Phoenicia is homey, but it takes you and your taste buds for quite a delightful ride. Be patient. The service will be quite deliberate. And bring your own adult beverage.
Hard to believe that in a small community any popular restaurant would be difficult to find. But Anthony’s Under the Oaks (don’t you love it already?) (1217 Washington St., Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-872-4564) is a bit hidden (directly behind Aunt Jenny’s Restaurant) and worth a few wrong turns. The menu is fine Coastal Dining, steaks, seafood, specials that are fresh off the boat, but the bonus is the view of Fort Bayou, facing west for nature’s floor show, grand sunsets.
Jocelyn’s (1608 Bienville Blvd.; Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228-875-1925) is only open Friday and Saturday, and in just about all respects, it is a local joint. The key to getting attention and a fine dining experience is to be nice to Miss Jocelyn. She’s 80. She will probably take your order, and then check back at the table pretty frequently during your meal. The place is small so avoiding anyone in here is quite impossible. The food is simply amazing.
Fine gumbo, crab-stuffed mushrooms, broiled oysters, and beautiful steaks, prepared with love and care. You will notice that right off.
Oh, there are no credit cards accepted, and reservations are not taken either. And, whatever you do, when you see Miss Jocelyn at the grocery store stocking up on items for tonight’s dinner, tell her “hello.”
An historic community, small enough that you will be acclimated immediately, located on the Gulf, and offering a real brand of Southern Hospitality. That’s Ocean Springs, Mississippi. If travel is supposed to broaden one’s horizons, why not take a step back in time?
Additional photo credits (from top to bottom): mshomesandproperty.com, 2011; Gulf Coast Trails. Org, Gulf Coast Heritage Trails Partnership, 2010; The Green Cottage, 2000