Finding history and culture on a quirky stretch of the Gulf Coast
Leaving New Orleans, my friend Owen scans the FM dial for some road music. He stops on the final bars of a Scott Joplin tune. "What makes ragtime unique to this region," the DJ chimes in, "is its blending of cultures: European and African. On top of that add a heavy dose of John Philip Sousa." So begins our parade along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, a stretch of country where the echoes of history never bothered to fade.
After we've gone 20 minutes on Highway 90, the urban sprawl dissipates. We're on a small finger of land, water on both sides. The warm air smells of pine forest and ocean. Hand-painted signs announce live shrimp.
Our first stop in Mississippi is Bay St. Louis, a small town known for its antiques shops. Along Main Street, Victorian houses take shade beneath enormous oaks. Trapani's Eatery, an upscale diner whose walls are covered with the colorful likenesses of fish and fishermen, is just a few steps from the shore. We eat gumbo and catfish po'boys. The beach sand here is soft and buttermilk white, the water a few degrees below bath temperature.
Were it not for its name, the Summerland Magickal Shoppe might have slipped past us in the quaint pastiche of shops on Main Street. We enter hoping to interrupt a Black Mass, but are greeted by a sign that reads, rituals should be done with positive purpose only. I wonder what positive purpose Hot Foot Powder serves. Next, we drop by folk artist Alice Moseley's house on Bookter Street. Alice, 88, started painting at age 60. Her favorite piece is Until Today I Thought I Was Folks. It's dedicated to the memory of her bird dog, Joe, who discovers when he dies that he's off to "pet heaven," instead of "folks heaven."
In the next town east, Pass Christian, gorgeous antebellum mansions line the water, on Scenic Drive. They're a dazzling remnant of what the whole coast must have looked like before Hurricane Camille punished the area in 1969.
In Long Beach, we stop at the University of Southern Mississippi, home of a most remarkable tree. It seems impossible that the 150-foot-long boughs of the Friendship Oak, more than 500 years old, could have withstood Camille's fury. Local lore has it that those who step into the tree's shadow remain friends for life.
Our friendship secured, Owen and I continue to Biloxi. Beauvoir, the last residence of the Confederacy's president, Jefferson Davis, is now a museum in his honor. Davis wrote his memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, in a cottage on the grounds. Just outside Beauvoir's somber walls, a half-dozen eyesore casinos rise from the waterfront. We speed past them to Biloxi's Mardi Gras Museum, a five-room house filled with lavish carnival costumes. "Our Mardi Gras isn't nearly as sleazy as the one in New Orleans," the receptionist assures us. "It's more of a society event."
Built around 1826, the Green Oaks Bed & Breakfast is the oldest surviving house on the Mississippi coast. Our jaws drop in tandem at the sight of the nine-foot-tall full-tester beds of hand-carved mahogany. It's four o'clock and we're just in time for tea. Beneath a canopy of oaks we drink Chardonnay and eat puff pastry with mushroom stuffing while gazing out at the full-sailed schooners passing by. The appetizers say to stay for chef Jim Bremer's seven-course dinner, featuring lump blue crab, poached oysters, speckled trout fillet, roast leg of lamb. A high point of the trip.
The next morning we're all set to take the daily boat out to Ship Island, but the weather isn't cooperating. Heavy rain and rough seas. Our Green Oaks hostess Jennifer Diaz arranges a tour of the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation. Dusti, who died in 1993, was Mississippi's first Modernist painter. In her studio, hundreds of paintings piled in stacks make you feel that you've stumbled upon an overlooked archaeological site.
We push on to Ocean Springs, where it seems as if every house has a porch equipped with a rocking chair. At one intersection I actually have to slow the car so a turtle can finish crossing the road. First stop: the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. Andy Warhol collected Anderson's colorful paintings and ceramics, stylized depictions of the wildlife of the Gulf Coast. The museum's displays include a mural-covered room transplanted from Anderson's house. After focaccia sandwiches at the Bayview Gourmet, we visit Shearwater Pottery, founded by Walter Anderson's brother Peter in 1928. The shop sells the family's gorgeous handmade prints, plates, and vases. At nearby Gulf Islands National Seashore, where Anderson found inspiration, we follow a boardwalk out into a swamp and spy alligators napping on the muddy banks.
By late afternoon, Highway 90 deposits us in Mobile. We check into the Malaga Inn, a pleasant 39-room hotel built around a large courtyard overflowing with azaleas, and near our day's final cultural stop-- the National African-American Archives Museum. Humble but earnest, the museum is housed in the old "colored library." Hometown heroes like Hank Aaron are memorialized, along with costumes from "colored carnival." Blacks were forbidden to take part in Mobile's official Mardi Gras celebrations until the 1940's, and to this day they hold their own festival. "We're still overcoming," our guide says, smiling.
We dine at Justine's, a downtown bistro. Not bad, but neither the turtle soup nor the grilled ostrich tastes as good as chicken. After dinner we walk to the Port City Brewery and sample a few microbrews.
In the morning we pick up a brochure from the visitors' center and take a walking tour of the Church Street Historic District. Greek Revival, Italianate, and Federal houses serenade us with 19th- century charm.
Forty minutes down the eastern shore of Mobile Bay lies Fairhope, a resort town since the turn of the century. Fairhope Avenue, the dogwood-lined main shopping street, slopes down to a lovely deserted beach. The bay is quiet, calm, and warm, a perfect saltwater pool. For lunch we sit out on the sunny patio at Old Bay Steamer to feast on local oysters and a huge platter of Royal Red shrimp.
Five miles farther on Scenic 98, we find a roadside gem-- Ye Olde Post Office Antiques & Militaria. Owner Jim Mitchell has an eclectic selection, including Spanish doubloons and the Bible that the abolitionist John Brown held beneath his arm when he was hanged in 1859.
An hour later we reach Fort Morgan. Completed in 1834, it sits on the westernmost tip of an isthmus jutting 21 miles into Mobile Bay. The flags of France, Spain, Great Britain, and the Confederacy, all of which controlled the region, fly at its gates. Just offshore, Admiral David Farragut shouted his legendary command, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" During the 35-minute ferry ride to Dauphin Island, dolphins jump by the bow, and pelicans circle, dive, and surface with beaks full of fish.
Heading back to New Orleans, Owen switches over to the AM dial, that bellwether of local culture. We intercept an evangelist in full-throated yell, imploring the Holy Ghost to cure a caller's acne.
DAVID KNOWLES is the author of the novel The Secrets of the Camera Obscura (Chronicle Books).
The Gulf Coast Drive
Total miles for the trip: 380
Take Highway 90 east out of New Orleans to Bay St. Louis (50 miles). Turn right at Main Street, and follow it to the beach. Alice Moseley's house is three blocks south of Main on Bookter Street. Back on Highway 90, go six miles to Pass Christian. Turn left onto Scenic Drive for its antebellum mansions. In Long Beach (seven miles down Highway 90), take a left at the sign for the University of Southern Mississippi. As you enter the campus you'll see the Friendship Oak. Fifteen miles along Highway 90, you'll hit Biloxi. Past the lighthouse, on your left, is a sign for Beauvoir. After another mile, park at Mary Mahoney's restaurant and walk up Rue Magnolia to the Mardi Gras Museum. Two more minutes down 90 there's a small sign for the Green Oaks Bed & Breakfast.
In Ocean Springs, take a right off Highway 90 at Washington Street toward the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. On Washington, follow signs to Shearwater Pottery. Back on 90, turn right on Hanley Road to Gulf Islands National Seashore. It's about 50 miles to Mobile on 90. The National African-American Archives Museum is on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
Cross Mobile Bay and take Highway 98 south to Scenic 98; follow it into Fairhope (40 miles). Continue on Scenic 98 five miles to Ye Olde Post Office Antiques & Militaria. Stay with Scenic 98, turn right on Route 59 to Gulf Shores (20 miles). Turn right onto Route 180, drive 21 miles to Fort Morgan and the car ferry for Dauphin Island. Take Bienville Boulevard to the Dauphin Island Bridge, cross over, and follow Cedar Point Road 10 miles to Route 188, which takes you to I-10 west, back to New Orleans.The Facts
Green Oaks Bed & Breakfast 580 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, Miss.; 888/436-6257; doubles $90-$150 with full breakfast.
Malaga Inn 359 Church St., Mobile, Ala.; 800/235-1586; doubles $79.
Trapani's Eatery 116 N. Beach Blvd., Bay St. Louis, Miss.; 228/467-8570; lunch for two $20.
Bayview Gourmet 1210 Government St., Ocean Springs, Miss.; 228/875-4252; lunch for two $15.
Justine's Courtyard & Carriageway 80 Saint Michael St., Mobile, Ala.; 334/438-4535;
dinner for two $65.
Port City Brewery 225 Dauphin St., Mobile, Ala.; 334/438-2739; dinner for two $20.
Old Bay Steamer 312 Fairhope Ave., Fairhope, Ala.; 334/928-5714; lunch for two $15.
Prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.