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Pride Journey: Coastal Mississippi

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Photo courtesy of Joey Amato
Photo courtesy of Joey Amato

Every now and then, I visit a destination I know absolutely nothing about. That happened a few years ago when I visited Oklahoma City and I fell in love with it. This time around, that destination was Coastal Mississippi, more specifically Biloxi, Gulfport, and Ocean Springs.

In fact, the only thing I knew about Biloxi was the hotel I stayed at, Beau Rivage. I knew it was owned by MGM Resorts, but that was about it. The rest of the journey was going to be a surprise.

For this particular trip, I wanted to focus on health and wellness, and luckily, Beau Rivage's most recent renovation included two floors full of Stay Well rooms, as well as an updated spa. Also, my Gulf-view room came complete with an aromatherapy machine, ultra high-end linens, and memory foam mattress and pillows, as well as a vitamin C dispenser hooked up to my shower. I had never seen one of those before, so I had to ask what it was!

Photo courtesy of Joey Amato  

After an early check-in, I departed for Ocean Springs, a quaint town just east of the hotel. My first stop was a place called Shearwater Pottery. Apparently, it is very well known to everyone but me — after posting pictures on social media, I received numerous comments from friends wanting to visit. Shearwater was founded in 1928 by Peter Anderson, and from the 1920s through the present day, it has produced art pottery, utilitarian ware, figurines, decorative tiles, and other pieces.

I had the opportunity to meet with Margie Ashley, Anderson's daughter, who told me about her family's legacy in Ocean Springs. At that time, Coastal Mississippi was known for fishing and not so much for the arts, so her family was viewed as outcasts. Margie told me people used to called them "the crazy Andersons." But they eventually had the last laugh, as the family name has become as much of Coastal Mississippi culture as seafood gumbo.

A few minutes up the road from there is the Walter Anderson Museum of Art. Walter was the brother of Peter Anderson and equally as talented, creating thousands of works throughout his lifetime. Many of Walter's paintings, drawings, murals, block prints, sculpture, carvings, and writings are on display at the museum.

The pièce de résistance is the Community Center, the site of Walter Anderson's monumental, 3,000-square-foot murals, which depict the historic discovery of the Mississippi Coast and its diverse climates. The city commissioned Anderson in 1950 for a fee of $1.00, and the project took 16 months to complete.

For dinner, head to Vestige, a farm-to-table restaurant in Ocean Springs helmed by head chefs Alex Perry and his wife, Kumi Omori, who were recently nominated for a James Beard Award. Vestige offers a prix fixe menu that changes on a regular basis and contains only the freshest local ingredients. And if it's not local, they fly it in from its land of origin to ensure its freshness.

We began our meal with sashimi of hamachi, complete with a foie gras emulsion, rose, purple sweet potato, and magnolia flower kombucha veil. Yes, that was one dish and just an appetizer, but probably my favorite item on the menu.

After three more courses — from a piece of perfectly cooked fish to charcoal grilled Wagyu beef — the meal came to an end with a delectable strawberry Bavarian, with cacao-mint genoise, grapefruit lemon curd, and pecan-ginger shortbread. This wasn't just a meal; it was an experience worthy of a James Beard nomination and definitely the award for Best Chef: South!

You'll need the rest of the night to recover from a food coma, so head back to Beau Rivage for some much-needed rest, or hit the casino if your heart desires.

Head out the next morning to the recently opened Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport, about 15 minutes west of Biloxi. The state-of-the-art facility is home to a variety of sea life and is one of the crown jewels of the area.

I can never see enough animals, so next on the agenda was the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies, located at Ocean Adventures Marine Park. Guests can get up close and personal with stingrays, sea lions, and dolphins. I had the opportunity to interact with a beautiful male dolphin: rubbing his belly, giving him commands, and feeding him some delicious fish. For my — I mean his — hard work, I got a kiss from one of my favorite animals.

Photo courtesy of Joey Amato  

More food!
On the way back to your hotel, stop by Coastal Roast Coffee for an afternoon pick-me-up before dinner at White Pillars. I wasn't sure what to expect there. The bar was set really high at Vestige the night before, but I was in for another treat. We began our meal with a bowl of oyster and artichoke soup. I was a bit hesitant to order this at first, as I didn't want to start with something heavy, but it turned out to be one of the best soups I've had in a long time. It was light and fragrant, consisting of Gulf oysters, fennel, and oyster mushrooms in a coconut milk broth. Since we were dining near the coast, we thought to try the Gulf Seafood Tower, two tiers of fresh oysters, mahi crudo, smoked fish dip, and amberjack ceviche.

And those were just the starters! For my main course, I ordered the duck ramen prepared with a duck leg confit, collards, togarashi, duck crackling, and a traditional soft-boiled egg. In fact, the egg was the only thing traditional about the dish, which was rich and delicious. The duck was cooked to perfection, and the broth was fantastic.

Queer community
The area is home to two LGBTQ bars, Sipp's in Gulfport and Just Us Lounge, located within walking distance of Beau Rivage. The crowd at Just Us was a melting pot of the area's Queer community, extremely diverse and welcoming. One thing to note is that smoking is still legal inside bars there, so if that bothers you, there is a large outdoor space you can use.

I know I said I wanted to focus on health and wellness during this trip, but I seemed to have detoured from my mission somewhere in Ocean Springs. One can't resist the food in Coastal Mississippi, so screw the diet for one more day and head to the Roasted Bean in the lobby of Beau Rivage and ask for an order of beignets. These are not listed anywhere in plain sight and are the best-kept secret of the hotel (I received a tip from the captain of the Biloxi shrimping trip I went on the morning prior). The powdered sugar pastries where the best I've ever had: light, airy, and simply delicious. They couldn't have had that many calories, right?

End your stay in Coastal Mississippi with a relaxing CBD massage at the the Spa at Beau Rivage. The 80-minute session uses CBD body oils, as well as a Moor Mud treatment, to soothe tired muscles and back pain. Playing with dolphins, eating oysters, and savoring beignets all weekend was quite stressful!

If you are looking for a relaxed seaside vacation, put Coastal Mississippi on your radar. There are many unique experiences that will make your stay truly memorable.

Visit https://www.coastalmississippi.com for more information about the destination.