I was trying to pronounce the strange and enigmatic names of the towns and rivers listed on the signs along I-10: Pascagoula, Escatawpa, Gautier, Tchoutacabouffa, D’Iberville, Biloxi, when I began to wonder if I had managed to take a wrong turn and cross into some previously unknown foreign country at the Alabama/Mississippi state line. But we hadn’t. We were still in the good ol’ U.S. of A., driving through the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where such names are par for the course. During our several day stay here, we would come to realize that it is more than just place names that make this a unique corner of the country. Quite a lot more.
I’ve been told that Louisiana is the only foreign country that American citizens do not need a passport to visit, but this adage falls short. The same could be said for the state of Mississippi, and for all the same reasons, especially the three county region that makes up the state’s stretch of the Gulf Coast. The area has known a multitude of claimants ranging from Native Indians, the French, the Spanish and both the United and Confederate States of America. Each successive culture has left traces of its uniqueness on the region, leaving behind a potpourri of influences that have managed to congeal into an identity unlike any other.
Although the far more popular tourist locale on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is Biloxi, we opted to skip the casinos and air-brushed t-shirt vendors for a quieter stay in a little seaside hamlet called Old Towne Bay St. Louis. It is a town that has received numerous accolades in recent years: it was named one of the top ten small beach towns in the country by Coastal Living Magazine in 2014 and one of the “Coolest Small Towns in America” by Budget Travel Magazine in 2013. And all of this represents a massive achievement when you consider the fact that Bay St. Louis is where Hurricane Katrina made landfall just a few short years ago in 2005. The storm actually came ashore right here, threatening to wipe the town clean off the map. Locals say the entire county was completely underwater.
Today, its waters are calm and sailed by crabbers and fishermen. In times past, they have been sailed by everyone from conquistadors to pirates to German U-boats. In an area so profoundly tied to the water, a place where rivers and bayous meet the ocean, generations of locals can be seen fishing from the piers or climbing into boats at dawn to see what their traps have caught. And its restaurants serve up regional delicacies like fresh crawfish etouffee, catfish po’boys and seafood gumbo. Needless to say, an iodine allergy can limit your options in a place like this.
The beach itself is a man-made marvel and a string of barrier islands out on the horizon block the waves that most beach-goers are accustomed to. The beaches are very quiet and don’t really get too crowded. This isn’t the kind of place you come for your college Spring Break. There are no high-rise hotels and no malls to shop, just a handful of restaurants, bars and artisanal shops. This is the kind of place you come to get away from the hustle and bustle of everything, the kind of place where you come to relax. Sit back and enjoy it.