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Meridian, MS: fun on a budget

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Meridian, Mississippi is a place of surprises. Only a 150-mile drive from Birmingham, Mississippi's sixth largest city currently displays 50 stunning carousel horses, each one created by a local artist and with its own theme and story. These magnificent creatures are scattered all over the city as part of the Around Town Carousels Abound project benefiting Hope Village for Children.

The carousel theme is certainly understandable since Meridian is home to Highland Park's 1909 Dentzel Carousel, a National Historic Landmark and the world's only two-row stationary Dentzel menagerie known to be in existence. The carousel continues in operation, with July hours of 1-5pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Rides are 50 cents per person.

Highland Park is also where you'll find the Jimmie Rodgers Museum. Rodgers, often referred to as the "Father of Country Music" or the "Singing Brakeman," was born in and grew up around Meridian and the museum honors his life and career. The Beatles' George Harrison stated that it was listening to Rodgers' 1933 hit, "Waiting for a Train," that inspired him to learn to play the guitar. Museum highlights include Rodgers' original guitar as well as railroad equipment from the steam engine era. Hours of operation: Tuesday through Thursday from 10am to 4pm. Admission is $5 or adults; free for children under 10. Tours can also be arranged by appointment. Phone: (601) 458-1808.

Other stops to consider: the Riley Center for Education & Performing Arts; Hamasa Shrine Temple Theater, which houses one of only two known Robert Morton 778-pipe organs; Merrehope, a 20-room Victorian mansion; and the Peavey Visitors Center with displays of Peavey Electronics' early and most current guitars, amps, and keyboards.

Places to shop. For your best experience of the local flavor, check out the downtown area where you'll find everything from trendy boutiques to antiques. If mall shopping calls to you, there are two to consider: Bonita Lakes, anchored by Sears, Dillard's, Penney's, and Belk; and Meridian Crossroads with LifeWay, Rue 21, Maurice's, Best Buy, and more.

Places to eat. Speaking of local flavor, eateries run the gamut from chain restaurants to home-style diners and ethnic cuisine like Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Italian, and Mexican. One hot spot is Nick and Al's New York Style Pizzeria on Highway 19 North. Luigi's Super Combo is a topping-packed pizza and a don't-miss dessert is Frankie's Chocolate and Peanut Butter Calzone. Their paninis and pastas are tasty, too.

If you want to go native for your dining experience, put Okatibbee Creek Fish Camp on your list. This less-than-elegant diner is only open Thursday through Saturday evenings, takes cash only, and serves a scrumptious but limited menu of catfish, chicken, steak, and shrimp. Diners are seated at six outdoor picnic tables, so singles, couples, or small groups may end up sharing their table and meeting new friends. Phone: (601) 737-2051. Another catfish joint, Chunky Shoals Fish Camp in nearby Chunky, draws crowds from far and wide. Both these spots are well worth the trouble it make take to find them. Phone: (601) 655-8311.

Places to stay. Along with a host of familiar chain hotels, Meridian boasts several campgrounds and a couple of noteworthy B&Bs:

Century House B&B on Ninth Street is a 1902 neoclassical beauty in the heart of downtown. With 12-foot ceilings and six guest rooms, prices are an impressively reasonable $110-$150 per night. Phone: (601) 482-2345.

The Lion and Harp on States Boulevard is a lovely Victorian era home, originally constructed in 1890 and later disassembled and moved to its current location. Each of the three guest rooms goes for $75 a night (room only, single occupancy) or $90 with breakfast included; there's a $10 added tariff for a second guest in a room.

The top two campgrounds: (1) Benchmark RV Park in nearby Marion. Full hookups are only $25 a night and include cable TV and wi-fi. Phone: (601) 483-7999. And (2) the Meridian East/Toomsuba KOA offers RV and tent sites, as well as one- and two-room camping cabins, along with family-friendly amenities like a pool and waterslide. Phone: (800) KOA-4202.

Another good spot to consider is Okatibbee Water Park, part of the Pat Harrison Waterway District, a state agency operating eight different water parks. Okatibbee features RV and tent campsites, cabins, and a 25-room motel, alongside a 3,800-acre reservoir where fishing and water skiing are popular pastimes. The park's Splashdown Country features adult and kiddie size water slides. Phone: (800) 748-9403.

More info. To learn about Meridian and Lauderdale County, visit www.VisitMeridian.com or www.MeridianMS.org.

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