The growth of Biloxi and Gulfport as a thriving casino and tourism mecca was dealt a blow by the flooding and devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Massive amounts of debris from the largest natural disaster in U.S. history were removed, and more than US$1 billion was invested to rebuild casinos alone.
Although most of the city's waterfront antebellum homes and other historic buildings did not survive Katrina, the natural beauty of the Coast remains, and efforts are ongoing to restore the remaining buildings. Although one of the aftereffects of the storm was a substantial drop in the city's population, the event also offered a rare chance for a new beginning—Biloxi is working to redevelop in ways that promote pedestrian-friendly, walkable, mixed-use developments in the tradition of New Urbanism.
As different as Biloxi and Gulfport are, it is impossible to separate them. Together they create a virtual playground for enjoying the beaches, exploring the fragile barrier islands that make up the Gulf Islands National Seashore, golfing on one of the many courses, fishing for mackerel or red snapper off the coast and dining at one of the many restaurants. In Biloxi, you can take a sailing trip on the replica historic Biloxi schooners or see the fascinating variety of marine life that lies below the water's surface by enjoying the Biloxi Shrimping Trip. For the evening, you can catch a show at one of the casino-resorts, or choose from a large variety of dining options.
Tourism and gambling will be essential to helping Biloxi and Gulfport rebuild, but visitors should be aware that the area is still devastated and recovery efforts are taking some time. The casinos are sparkling and new, but they are often situated next to piles of debris and widespread devastation. In some spots—all clearly marked—access to the beach is closed off, but many public beaches are open. Slowly but surely, the cleanup process is giving way to a construction boom, with high-rises being built up and down the coast.
Biloxi is built on a narrow east-west peninsula bordered on the south by the Mississippi Sound and on the north by the Back Bay of Biloxi. The Sound reaches to the barrier islands about 12 mi/19 km offshore that make up part of Gulf Islands National Seashore (http://www.nps.gov/guis), with the sparkling waters of the Gulf of Mexico south of the islands. The beach-hugging highway leads to the museums, shops and many of the area's main sights. Streetlights are numbered on the main roads, making locations easy to find.
The central part of town is made up of Vieux Marche (Old Market), the historic downtown shopping area where most buildings survived Hurricane Katrina. At the foot of the Interstate 110 bridge leading south from I-10 is the luxurious Beau Rivage Resort and Casino, which underwent complete renovation after Hurricane Katrina. A post-Katrina addition to the downtown waterfront is the Hard Rock Casino.
Some 2 mi/3 km farther east on Beach Boulevard (Highway 90) is Casino Row, the collective name for Grand Casino Biloxi, the Isle of Capri and Pascagoula native Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Casino and Resort. This is on the easternmost tip of Biloxi in the neighborhood of Point Cadet.
There is more to Biloxi and Gulfport than Beach Boulevard, however, although many visitors don't venture far off that road. Take Oak Street, next to Grand Casino, north from Highway 90 to Bayview Avenue, which runs along Back Bay of Biloxi, and travel west past seafood processing plants and harbors for the shrimp-boat fleet. It will take you to the two Back Bay casino resorts, Boomtown and IP. The entire eastern portion of Biloxi went underwater with Hurricane Katrina, and although progress has been made, there are still many signs of Katrina's devastation, including large numbers of residents living in FEMA trailers while rebuilding their homes.
Biloxi was one of the earliest European settlements in what is now the U.S. In 1689, France sent Canadian-born Pierre LeMoyne, Sieur d'Iberville, to enforce an earlier claim to the Louisiana Territory made by Rene La Salle in 1682. Ship Island, 12 mi/19 km south of the mainland, offered a deepwater harbor from which d'Iberville launched his explorations. The French settlers arrived at Ship Island early in February 1699 and came ashore in Biloxi three days later.
The name "Biloxi" is a corruption of "Bilocchy," one of the first Native American tribes that the French encountered there. The tribe moved west of the Mississippi River in 1763 when France lost its American holdings at the close of the European Seven Years War (French & Indian Wars in America). During the remaining years of the colonial period, Biloxi pledged allegiance successively to the crowns of England (British West Florida, 1763-83), Spain (Spanish West Florida, 1783-1810), and to the Republic of West Florida (1810-11). The U.S. flag was first unfurled at Biloxi on 9 January 1811.
In the 1820s, Biloxi became a regular stop for the steamboat packet between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, and was set on its course toward an industry in tourism. The town became a favorite watering place for the wealthy of New Orleans and inland plantation owners.
On 9 January 1861, Mississippi became the second state to secede from the Union. The local Confederate attempt to hold Ship Island failed, and by April 1862, Ship Island was a Yankee stronghold with 18,000 troops and an armada of warships. Biloxi barely existed through the duration of the war as a no-man's land between New Orleans and Mobile.
Reconstruction in Biloxi was easier than in upper Mississippi, where the economy had been dependent on slave labor. In 1871, the new railroad connecting New Orleans and Mobile expanded tourism and sparked Biloxi's biggest industry, the exportation of seafood. By the early 1900s, Biloxi was calling itself the "Seafood Capitol of the World." During World War I, Biloxi continued its maritime tradition as shipyards supplied the federal government with deepwater, trans-Atlantic merchant schooners. During World War II, Biloxi's shipyards again supplied military watercraft.
On 17 August 1969, Hurricane Camille's Category 5 winds, in excess of 200 mph/322 kph, brought Biloxi to its knees. Then, on 29 August 2005, the Gulf Coast was hit by Katrina, the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Although wind speeds (145 mph/233 kph) were lower than Camille's, the slower-moving Katrina was much larger in diameter and carried a 30-ft/9-m tidal surge.
Katrina dealt a blow to the Gulf Coast that shocked the world. The storm took 53 lives in Biloxi alone, and reduced many neighborhoods and much of the city's historic architecture to rubble. But Katrina could not destroy Biloxi's unique history and culture, or the spirit of its people. As they had done many other times since the first recorded hurricane in 1720, Biloxians rolled up their sleeves and began rebuilding.
Even if you're lured to Biloxi for the gambling, find time to explore some of the other attractions. The city is one of the country's oldest communities (established in 1699), and some of the historic houses and buildings off the beachfront survived Katrina. An excellent walking tour begins downtown. The 1847 Biloxi Lighthouse has long been an important symbol of the city's maritime history. After Katrina, the lighthouse became even more valuable to local residents as a symbol of hope, because it withstood the hurricane's massive devastation.
Farther west in Biloxi from Beach Boulevard, you can see reconstruction work proceeding on Beauvoir, the last home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Beauvoir was heavily damaged but will be rebuilt. An adjoining cemetery contains the graves of more than 700 Confederate soldiers as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier.
Biloxi was once known as "The Seafood Capital of the World." The Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum at Point Cadet that detailed that history was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, and the Gulf Coast's seafood industry suffered a huge blow. Plans are being made to rebuild the museum, and the seafood industry has rebounded and remains a vital part of the local economy. During shrimp season, tourists can visit with local fishermen and purchase fresh shrimp directly off the boats, which are moored in Biloxi harbors on Beach Boulevard and the Back Bay.
After the casinos were built, Biloxi's late-night scene began to sprout nightclubs and comedy clubs. Some of the most popular casino nightclubs are Coast or Eight75 (in the Beau Rivage), Club IP (in the IP Casino), and Vibe or Rise in the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. A longtime local favorite is Upstairs Downstairs in downtown Biloxi.
If you are searching for more than just casino fare, you won't be disappointed by the offerings in Biloxi and Gulfport. Seafood, of course, is abundant and popular—and you can always be sure is fresh. If you want to try a few local dishes, you'll find that the Biloxi po'boy differs greatly from its New Orleans' cousin. Although the Biloxi version also is served on French bread, it often comes "dressed and pressed" (accented with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise, then squeezed with a sandwich press).
After many Biloxi restaurants were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, the number of restaurants and bars in Ocean Springs greatly increased, and there are now several sushi restaurants there. Most are located on Washington Avenue, Government Street and Highway 90.
At breakfast, keep in mind that Biloxi bacon doesn't come from a Mississippi pig. It's the local term for smoked mullet. At lunch, you'll want to try local pizza—it comes with French dressing. The locals will tell you it's the only way to eat a pizza, and after a bite, you may just agree.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; and $$$$ = more than US$50.
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