A week before the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA) kicked off its new tourism marketing campaign, “Mississippi … It`s Your State … Go See It,” I took MDA tourism director Craig Ray`s advice and toured the Magnolia Sate with fresh eyes, traversing it from the Gulf Coast to Tunica via Jackson.
The week began by floating the Okatoma in my hometown. It had been a quarter-century since I ventured into the river that had licked the steps of Seminary Baptist Church in the Easter 1979 flood. Back then, my high school sweetheart and I had borrowed his dad`s old green fishing boat and navigated the narrow channel of dark waters with heavy wooden oars. I remembered seeing snakes coiled around sprawling oak branches overhead and praying they wouldn`t drop into our boat.
Since then, Stacey Revette has built Seminary Canoe Rental into an outdoor adventure center featuring water sports and rental cabins in a park-like setting that could rival the Nantahala Outdoor Centers in Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. The river is wider now and the water is clear. A few years ago, when folks new to canoeing asked Revette about snakes, he said tongue-in-cheek: “No problem with snakes. The alligators eat them all.” To coax them back into the river, he hastily explained why alligators could not make their home in the fast-flowing waters.
Even though the eight-mile stretch of the river doesn`t feature the churning whitewater rapids found in the mountains, the Okatoma does have some whitewater – three fun-filled falls – and it`s almost impossible not to turn over at least once. Every Saturday from March to November, more than 100 people float the river, a boon to a small town with a population of about 340.
On the beach at the Beau
Touring the opulent $675-million Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino in Biloxi offered a stark contrast to the rugged and natural environment in Covington County. Even though I had visited Beau Rivage years ago to watch the Cirque de Soleil performance troupe – and to lose a few dollars on video poker machines – I had missed the best amenities. Check-in was a breeze, and within 15 minutes, I was in a comfortable room on the 23rd floor overlooking the Mississippi Sound.
After a quick lunch at The Buffet, where Gail Pittman pottery was prominently displayed in the retail store Impulse across the carpet, it was time to hit the casino floor and, once again, lose a few bucks on slot machines. The cashless “cash-out” system made it tempting to spend the entire $20 rather than face a long line at the redemption counter, but the wait was short and the service was quick. I was happy that I had only lost $4 after 30 minutes of playing time. OK, make that $8.
By mid-afternoon, the pool was already buzzing with activity, even in early April. Flicking the red flag on the back of the chaise lounge for table service was quite a treat, especially on the veranda overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and the 31-slip marina, home to 200-foot yachts.
This was not the Gulf Coast that I remembered visiting every summer as a child. Back then, the now sadly fading Broadwater Beach Hotel was the place to stay and the line outside the long-defunct Baricev`s seafood restaurant snaked around a corner of the building from five o’clock on.
Even though Gulf Coast casinos have drawn impressive headliners over the years, Beau Rivage continues to raise the bar. In the last two weeks, Earth Wind & Fire and Chicago have played there. By June 18, The Beach Boys, LeAnn Rimes, Vince Gill and Patti LaBelle will have dropped by. Plenty of people packed into the Beau Rivage Theatre for a mid-week performance of Taganai, which ends its five-month run May 30. The nearly two-hour show, moderately priced at $19.95 and $24.95 per person, features an eclectic cast of contortionists, gymnasts, aerialists, clowns, jugglers and dancers. More than once, I heard an audience member gasp, ‘How did they do that?’
The Memphis Q, with oversized gleaming copper kettles as a backdrop, was a splendid after-theater venue, where barbeque, steaks and fried Delta catfish are served. Caf