Facing the Gulf of Mexico on America’s south coast, a seafaring heritage has shaped this Mississippi city. Tuck into Gulfport’s legendary charbroiled oysters, spot dolphins on a sunset cruise, paddle board along the waterways, and learn about the man behind the seaport. There’s also fun for kids, from a waterpark to an activity center.
Although its dolphin shows are controversial, the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies (IMMS) remains a popular day out in Gulfport. The non-profit organization conducts marine research, makes conservation efforts and rehabilitates sick marine mammals. You can interact with dolphins and stingrays as you learn about the creatures and, on certain dates (announced on the IMMS Facebook page), take part in a sea turtle release program. Other animals you’ll see here include alligators, snakes and sea lions.
Hands-on fun for kids is taken to a new level at the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center. Inside a 1915-built converted elementary school are a host of imaginative spaces to spark interactive play. The themed rooms include an art studio, a shrimp fisherman’s port, an 1890s hotel, a grocery store and a veterinary complete with toy animals. A climbing structure acts as a central axis for the rooms, linking up the floors through the full height of the center.
Ride on a train at Mississippi Coast Model Railroad Museum
The Mississippi Coast Model Railroad Museum is the place to go to feel like a kid again. It has 80 running model trains, including some which you can ride, and a railroad display made from two million LEGO pieces. You can also learn about Mississippi’s 200 years of train and railroad history, with trains dating back to the 1800s forming an exhibition.
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The branding alone is enough to pull you into the Chandeleur Island Brewing Company – its cans of beer are colorful works of modern art. Try Lil’ Miss Sour (the white can with a mermaid emblazoned upon it) for a refreshing sour ale brewed with wheat and tangerines. Pull up a stool in the spacious taproom to sip your way through a few of the craft beers, or book a brewery tour, which includes a beer of your choice and a pint glass for keeps.
Half Shell’s charbroiled oysters are legendary in Gulfport – the delicacy is cooked over an open flame with white wine, butter, garlic and herb sauce, then topped with parmesan cheese. However you like your oysters, this restaurant has got you covered, from rockefeller-style (buttery and topped with breadcrumbs) to bienville, featuring mushrooms, crab and shrimp. Also on the classic Southern comfort-food menu are barbecue shrimp and rib-eye steak, served in a cool setting featuring a double-height ceiling and exposed brick.
The biggest waterpark along the Mississippi coast, Gulf Islands Waterpark is a winner with kids. For small children, there’s a lazy river, wave pool and “Little Pelican’s Bay”, a 200sqft (19sqm) wading area with water-play features. Older children will have a scream on the waterslides – they can race each other on the Riptide Racer, plunging head-first down a 45ft-high (14m) slide on mats, or take to a two-person dinghy on the Master Blaster, which funnels you around 500ft (152m) of twists, turns and slopes.
South Mississippi is a great place for stand-up paddle boarding, thanks to its beaches, rivers and creeks. You can hire a board through Wut Sup, who will give you a 15-minute lesson on technique before you take to the water (and a waterproof pouch for your map and phone). The Gulf Coast has seven water trails, which they call Blueways, including the biggest free-flowing waterway in the lower 48 states: Pascagoula River Jackson County Blueway.
Set sail out onto the Gulf of Mexico, on a private charter. Captain Jim is at the helm of this six-passenger sailing yacht, and he’s happy to share his wealth of knowledge as you take in the views. A sunset cruise is the most romantic type of charter – especially as you might see pods of dolphins leaping beside the boat. You can also bring your own refreshments on board, including alcohol, for a toast with the backdrop of an orange sky.
A piece of Italy in Mississippi, Salute Italian Restaurant is a favorite with locals. Grab a shady table on its shrub-lined patio, which overlooks the Gulf (time your meal for sunset for an extra-special view). The menu’s highlights include grilled shrimp skewers, oysters, shrimp scampi bruschetta and blackened seared tuna. There’s also a martini bar, hence the logo of cocktail glass and olive. Treat yourself to the Godiva Truffel-tini – it’s a delicious chocolate martini made with Smirnoff vanilla vodka.
Atop a carved granite plinth is the life-sized bronze statue of Joseph T Jones, facing the harbor the benefactor created. Jones (1842–1916) was an American entrepreneur who co-founded Gulfport, having funded Mississippi’s Gulf and Ship Island Railroad and developed the seaport. On the face of the plinth are a sailboat and steam train, together with the words “vision” and “courage”.
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