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Biloxi offers great getaway on Mississippi Gulf Coast

The Katrina Sculpture Garden contains chainsaw art made from trees destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
The Katrina Sculpture Garden contains chainsaw art made from trees destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Jackie Sheckler Finch

BILOXI, Mississippi - Snow. Sleet. Ice. Grey skies. Coat-huddling cold. Enough already.

The Biloxi Lighthouse is a symbol of resiliency.
Jackie Sheckler Finch

The Mississippi Gulf Coast is the perfect antidote to escape the Midwest winter blahs. It’s the off season now on the coast but Biloxi is still far warmer and it’s a good time to avoid the summer crowds. Although some travelers still haven’t heard the news, America’s Gulf Coast has made an amazing recovery from the catastrophic 2005 Hurricane Katrina. The beaches are pristine, the fishing is bountiful, the seafood is deliciously fresh, folks are friendly and prices are a great bargain.

For a handy home base, we checked into the classy Beau Rivage Casino & Resort in Biloxi. I’m not a casino person but this is more a resort destination than a casino. Originally opened in 1999, this glitzy waterfront resort offers quality, comfort and one of the best locations on the Gulf Coast. Mississippi has 77 miles of shoreline on the Gulf of Mexico – including the world’s longest manmade beach with 26 miles of inviting sun and sand. The Beau Rivage sits about smack in the middle. The name “Beau Rivage” is French for beautiful shore and it certainly is. Be sure to get a room with a water view.

It would be easy to park the car, check into the Beau Rivage and not leave the resort for the whole trip. At 1,740 rooms, the Beau Rivage has a large spa, elaborate pool complex, 12 restaurants, four lounges and bars, 12 retail shops and some fantastic views of the Gulf. At 28 floors, the 346-foot-tall hotel-casino is the tallest hotel in Mississippi and took a major hit from Katrina. However, it reopened a year later in August 2006 even better than before.

We dined at the Beau Rivage buffet (yummy breakfasts), had cosmos in the Coast Bar, browsed through the shops, were pampered in the spa (try the 75-minute Transformation Pedicure, the ultimate relaxation), and lounged by the pool. After all the yucky wintry mess at home, it was a treat just to sit in the lobby atrium with its thousands of plants and flowers.

Biloxi Historic Sites

Biloxi is rich in history so we headed out early in the morning to visit some of the nearby sites, many of which are in walking distance and free. Featured on Mississippi license plates as a symbol of resiliency after the Katrina disaster, the cast-iron Biloxi Lighthouse near the Beau Rivage was built in 1848. The 65-foot-tall landmark has a 57-step spiral staircase with waterlines marking more than 200 years of hurricanes. The view is worth the climb.

Just a stone’s throw from the Gulf of Mexico is Beauvoir, the retirement home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The 51-acre Beauvoir (French for “beautiful view”) is a 51-acre estate that includes a cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Confederate Soldier. After the Civil War, hundreds of Confederate veterans and their wives lived on the estate where Davis penned his memoirs. A guide told me that the elevated house has withstood 18 hurricanes since it was completed in 1852.

Across the street from the Beau Rivage is one of the saddest and most powerful sites – the Hurricane Katrina Memorial. At 12 feet tall – the height of the storm surge during the hurricane, the memorial honors the 170 people who died during the storm on Aug. 29, 2005. The monument is made even more poignant and personal because things in the memorial case were donated by local residents. One of the items is an American flag that was draped over the coffin of a World War II vet when he died in 1977. The owner’s home was destroyed by Katrina but the flag was in the attic and survived.

Established in 1907, St. Michael Catholic Church is also called the “Fisherman’s Church,” because of the scalloped shell roof and the stained-glass windows depicting the 12 apostles pulling in their catch. Ravaged by two of the most powerful hurricanes to ever hit the Gulf of Mexico – Camille in August 1969 and Katrina in August 2005 – St. Michael Church has withstood 200 miles per hour winds and a 28-foot tidal wave. Since Katrina, the lower 15 feet of the of the priceless stained glass windows are now equipped with state-of-the-art pulleys to lift the glass upward out of harm’s way of the rising water and floating debris. All the stained glass has been encased with protective glass for maximum protection.

One important thing I learned on my first visit to Biloxi is that there is far more to see and do than I expected. Already I am planning another trip back. Somehow this Mississippi Gulf Coast town with its sand, sun and fun is an inspirational treasure well worth many visits.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Biloxi, contact the Mississippi Gulf Coast Regional Convention & Visitors Bureau at (888) 467-4853, www.gulfcoast.org or the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino at (888) 750-7111, www.beaurivage.com