When you talk about gaming destinations in the U.S. the first two places that people mention are Las Vegas and Atlantic City – and with good reason. But there are many other places to visit in this great country if you have a hankering for games of chance and good old Mississippi – the third largest gaming destination in the U.S. – is right up there with the best of them.
Since joining the Casino City team almost two years ago, I have spent my fair share of time in Las Vegas. But last week I ventured to the Mississippi Gulf Coast for the first time. And while I found that it's an entirely different experience than Sin City, it's a trip that provides plenty to do for all kinds of people – particularly those who like to gamble, listen to live music, golf and eat.
So as my colleague Dan Igo did last month after his first trip to Atlantic City, here are my Top-10 first impressions of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Judging from the above description of available activities, I'm sure you'll be stunned to hear that I thoroughly enjoyed my trip.
10. The weather provides for year-round outside activity
Like most of the southeast states that border the Gulf of Mexico, the weather can be unpredictable and wet at times in the Gulfport. But for the most part, you can take advantage of the great golf courses and all of the other outdoor activities here on a year-round basis. The coldest months are December and January, but even then the average temperature is in the 60s.
9. 'The Beau' provides a taste of Vegas
Steve Wynn designed and built the Beau Rivage Hotel & Casino in Biloxi – or "The Beau" as they call it down here – and it is owned by MGM Mirage Resorts, so you'd expect the building to provide a little bit of Las Vegas flavor. From the outside it even looks like a mini-Bellagio – except there are no dancing water fountains out front – and the fresh flowers that fill the lobby with an invigorating scent only add to the Bellagio theme.
The 16-table, two-tiered poker room here is the best that I saw while in town and it is also home to both the Spring Break Poker Classic and the WPT's Southern Poker Championship. By the way, Beau Rivage means "beautiful shore" in French, a description that certainly fits the bill here.
The Beau Rivage in Biloxi has the look and feel of the Bellagio in Las Vegas. (photo courtesy of MGM Mirage)
8. The rooms at the Hard Rock Casino Biloxi rock!
For music lovers, there is no better place to visit than one of the Hard Rock Hotels that can be found worldwide. And the ocean-side Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Biloxi edition
is no different, thanks to its usual décor and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-caliber memorabilia. But if you end up spending some time in your room, you won't be disappointed thanks to a 42-inch flat screen TV mounted on the wall, a Bose stereo system, iPod docking station, coffee machine and a bathroom that features dual sinks and a three-headed shower, complete with a rainfall nozzle directly over your head. Another great courtesy that is provided free of charge is WiFi in all of the rooms, something you certainly won't find in Las Vegas.
7. It's more than just a gambling destination
As much as I like to play poker and blackjack, there is much more to do here than simply try your hand at the tables. Golfers, fishers and concertgoers will be in heaven, while there are also plenty of great restaurants, beaches, museums and shopping venues. And the two hotels I stayed at – The Beau Rivage and the Hard Rock– both have resort-style pools that sit on the ocean. In addition, there are plenty of unique events that come to the Gulfport on an annual basis that you can plan your trip around. I happened to catch the end of the 5th Annual Smokin' the Sound speed boat races and it was a sight (and sound) I have never experienced before. For a complete list of the events coming to the area visit the official site of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
6. The after-effects of Katrina are still palpable
This doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who calls the Gulf Coast home, but even though Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf area nearly four years ago, there are still reminders of just how brutal of a storm it was. There is a lot of talk about "pre-Katrina" and you can still see some of the affects from the storm. However, considering it was the most devastating storm in modern history, it's amazing how incredibly well the area and the people who call it home have rebounded from it.
5. Music is king
In addition to all of the music-themed action at the Hard Rock, the options for live music are aplenty in the Gulfport. Mississippi is best-known as the home of blues music so if that's what gets your groove on, you are in the right place as there are a plethora of spots – both large and small –offering bona fide blues music. The Hard Rock, Imperial Palace and Beau Rivage draw big names on a regular basis. And if you are a child of the '70s you will most certainly find the concert menu in the area to your liking. I saw billboards hyping the appearances of Hall & Oates, Grand Funk Railroad and Chicago.
4. The variety and quality of golf courses is outstanding
The Nicklaus-designed Grand Bear is an amenity of Harrah's Grand Biloxi Casino and is a classic public course with a private club feel. Featuring pristine conditions, the course – which was ranked No. 33 on Golfweek's 2008 Top 100 Resort Courses – is carved into the bowels of the DeSoto National Forest and the log-cabin-like clubhouse is spectacular. Davis Love III's Shell Landing made Golfweek's 2009 list of the "Best Courses You Can Play" and with five sets of tees in a setting that overlooks the marshland, it's both scenic and playable.
As for The Preserve Golf Club, it markets itself as "pure golf" and after playing it you won't get an argument from this corner. The course was designed by Pate, who won the 1976 U.S. Open at the Highlands Course at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Pate used the 18th hole at the Highlands Course as an inspiration for the dog-leg left, 462-yard, par-4 finishing hole at The Preserve. There are many memorable holes on this impressive layout that is surrounded by 1,800 acres of dedicated natural preserve, especially the 225-yard, par-3, 16th that just so happens to be the No. 1 handicap hole on the course.
For a look at all of the courses in the area and the special package deals that are offered, check out
Golf and gaming go hand-and-hand and the Mississippi Gulf Coast has plenty of both options. In addition to eight casinos in the Biloxi area there are also more than 20 golf courses. It's not very often that on the same short golf trip you can hit courses designed by the likes of Jack Nicklaus, Davis Love III, Jerry Pate and Tom Fazio but that's exactly what was accomplished during my brief trip.
The majestic 19th Hole clubhouse at Fallen Oak overlooks the 18th hole. (photo courtesy of MGM Mirage)
3. The Fallen Oak experience is unforgettable
Let's face it: Any time that your golf day begins with a limo ride to the course, you know you're in for a deluxe experience. And that's exactly what happens when you stay at the Beau Rivage and receive exclusive access to the stunning Fall Oak golf course, a creation of the renowned Tom Fazio. Fallen Oak is a "sister" course to Shadow Creek in Las Vegas as both are MGM Mirage Resort properties.
While the course is the main draw here (just last week it landed at No. 19 on Golf Digest's list of "America's Greatest Public Golf Courses"), the entire experience is what makes this day of golf truly unique. From the limo ride to the course, to the locker room service that cleans your clubs and re-spikes your shoes to the outstanding practice game area to the superb caddy service (ask for Vince), a day of golf at Fallen Oak is something you won't soon forget.
Depending on when you visit, a golf package that includes a night at the Beau Rivage and a round of golf can be had for anywhere between $119 and $249. Visit the the Beau Rivage Web site for details and rates.
2. These people know how to eat
I must admit that food is a driving force in my life. I love to eat and I'll try nearly anything. With that said, my taste palate and I were blown away by what we chowed down on during this trip. And while nearly everything I sampled was excellent, here are a few of the highlights.
- Bloody Mary at Fallen Oak: The clubhouse at Fallen Oak was named one of the best 19th Holes in the country by Golf Digest and there is no better way to enjoy a seat at the sunken bar and the panoramic view of the fabulous 18th hole by sipping on a Bloody Mary. Before this concoction hits the chilled glass with three speared green olives as a garnish, the vodka has been infused for at least five days in a mixture of peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes and other herbs and spices. By far, the best "Bloody" this longtime Bloody Mary fan has ever tasted. And if you need something to snack on with your drink, go with the Kobe beef sliders and mini burgers. Simply delicious.
- Filet Mignon at the Hard Rock Casino's Vibe: I was told that the filet at Vibe was just as good -- if not better -- than the one served down the hall at the Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and I was not steered wrong. What's more, the atmosphere inside Vibe is much like the rest of the hotel. Hip and happening, for sure.
- Blackened Catfish at the Memphis Q Smokehouse and Barbeque at the Beau Rivage: There was no way I wasn't going eat authentic while in Mississippi so a barbeque meal at some point was a given. The appetizers alone are worth the trip to this casino-side restaurant, but the highlight of my meal was the scrumptious catfish that was cooked to perfection.
- Bread Pudding at Lookout 49: Speaking of authentic cuisine, you can't do much better than a meal at Lookout 49, located on Highway 49 in Gulfport. If you like to eat where locals eat when you go on a trip, book this place on your itinerary right now. This was the first restaurant in the area to offer a full menu following Katrina and while the Amberjack fish I ordered for a main entry rivaled the catfish from Memphis Q and every appetizer on the menu was mouth-watering, the most-talked about part of the meal here may have been the bread pudding dripping with Jack Daniels whiskey sauce. If there's a better desert out there anywhere, please let me know…immediately.
1. The term 'southern hospitality' rings true
Needless to say, when a women said to me "Y'all come back real soon now, you hear?" as I was checking out of my hotel, I immediately smiled back with an affirmative nod. I will most certainly return. My insatiable appetite for gaming, golf and good eats would never forgive me if I didn't.
It can sometimes become a cliché, but the fact that the people in this part of the country are more hospitable that most places makes a trip to the Gulfport that much more enjoyable. Maybe it's because I come from the Northeast, where you are more likely to get a sneer from a stranger in an elevator instead of a genuine smile. But either way it was refreshing to be around people who are both helpful and friendly and proud of their heritage and background.