Biloxi, driven by casinos and golf, rebuilding pretty much on its own

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

Lead by casinos and golf courses, the tourism industry in Biloxi has taken the bull by the horns in rebuilding after Katrina. Fallen Oak, The Preserve Golf Club, Grand Bear, Shell Landing and The Bridges are among the area's best.

Katrina's Destruction along Highway 90
Signs of Katrina's destruction still remain along Highway 90.
Katrina's Destruction along Highway 90The Preserve Golf CourseFallen Oak - Tom Fazio Design
If you go

BILOXI, Miss. - Biloxi is certainly no New Orleans. Never has been, probably never will be.

New Orleans was one of the country's most historic and eccentric cities. Whether it will be again is up to the various governments trying to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina, and to the people themselves.

This is one area where Biloxi and New Orleans differ. The savage storm is a common denominator with the two areas, but whereas most people in New Orleans seem to be waiting endlessly, and in many cases hopelessly, for the bureaucracies to fork over relief money, those on Mississippi's Gulf Coast have used their own chain saws and hammers to try and re-build their lives.

Mississippians sometimes complain that the New Orleans has gotten the bulk of the post-Katrina sympathy coverage from the media. While they would certainly not turn down relief aid, for the most part, they've gone about the business of putting their lives back in order on their own, out of the spotlight.

No one would say Biloxi is back to pre-storm normalcy. From Biloxi west to Bay St. Louis, Katrina damage is still evident and reconstruction is ongoing, despite high insurance woes.

Many of the area's historic mansions, those along U.S. Highway 90 directly across from the Gulf of Mexico, were blown away, some lost forever. And there are certainly other problems: some residents are angry at neighborhood re-building plans by government agencies; the huge port in Gulfport is taking much too long to recover and there is suspicion over what direction it will take.

Reluctant insurance companies continue to be a source of frustration and, of course, federal relief money is in ridiculously short supply. The U.S. 90 bridges are still out.

Still, going on two years after the storm hit in August of 2005, the Gulf Coast, particularly Biloxi, has made tremendous strides to returning to pre-Katrina tourist levels. Two of the driving forces behind the economic recovery have been the casinos and the golf courses.

Most of the casinos have returned - helped by Mississippi legislators who gave the okay to build on dry land - and some new ones have opened, providing desperately-needed rooms for tourists.

All of the golf courses that were here before Katrina have re-opened, and two new ones have opened. New condo construction has been underway, promising more places for golfers to stay.

A Biloxi golf trip has always been a good option, and it may be even better now, in terms of the golf itself. In terms of lodging, call ahead to make sure you have a room.

Biloxi golf: Must plays

Fallen Oak: Fallen Oak is the newest golf course in the Biloxi area, and it is a humdinger, a big, bold, even spectacular course by one of the country's most well-known architects, Tom Fazio.

Fallen Oak elevates golf in Biloxi, literally and figuratively. It's one of the few courses in coastal Mississippi with substantial elevation changes, and its mere presence will attract golfers to a place that needs visiting golfers badly. It's that good.

The Preserve: The Preserve Golf Club is the other new course, surrounded by more than 1,800 acres of preserve, the Sandhill Crane Refuge and Conservancy. Old Fort Bayou flows at the eastern edge of the course.

This is basically wilderness with golf clubs, and it isn't unusual to see deer, hawks and, of course, cranes, since they have standing reservations. The Preserve is a beautiful course that matches its surroundings tit for tat. Service is excellent, even at a time when other Biloxi-area clubs are operating a bare-bones operation to make ends meet.

Grand Bear: One of Jack Nicklaus' better, more playable designs. Bordered by the DeSoto National Forest, Grand Bear tips out at 7,204 yards and is a grand walk in one of the more scenic areas in the Biloxi area, with no homes or condos and the lovely Biloxi River making cameo appearances from time to time.

Grand Bear suffered its share of hurricane damage, but bounced back well, though it is still closed Mondays. The owners gave Nicklaus 1,800 acres to choose from, and Nicklaus picked his terrain exceedingly well.

Shell Landing: This is one of the Biloxi area's top courses, close to the casinos and Gulf. Easy to get there, not so easy to get around with anything resembling a personal best.

It's an aesthetically pleasing course that plays through the marshes and bayous typical of the area, with big greens that can make you contemplate three different clubs, depending on pin placement and weather conditions.

Once there, you'll be facing some very nice undulation that Davis Love III installed. Not to mention the deep, penal bunkers and nearly 7,000 yards from the back tees.

The Bridges: The Bridges was one of my favorite courses in the Biloxi area when I played it two years ago, and I couldn't tell much difference when I played the course again recently in February.

The fairways still roll and tumble, the same interesting variety of holes is still there, and the greens are still large and contoured. The conditioning, even if a hurricane had never hit, is very good.

Biloxi golf: Solid seconds

Mississippi National: Those playing the golf course for the first time would probably never know it was battered by a historic storm, unless they were shown photos of pre-Katrina. It remains one of the better courses in this part of the state, and a joy for anyone who enjoys the short game.

The Oaks: There are those who claim that many of the Biloxi area courses are in better shape than before Hurricane Katrina hit, and the Oaks can definitely make that claim.

It may have as much to do with a new superintendent and new management as the storm, but the course is immeasurably better than two years ago.

Gulf Hills: The greens are back to normal as well as most of the rest of the course. It still has some subtle elevation changes, especially on the front nine, and enough big oaks remain to give it a shady, walk-in-the-park feel.

Biloxi hotels

• Beau Rivage: The Beau Rivage is the biggest and wealthiest of the Biloxi casinos, probably the only casino here that could pump as much obvious money into a golf course like Fallen Oak.

It's always crowded, even at a time when Biloxi wants and needs visitors. It's a huge place, 32 stories high, with granite and other expensive flourishes everywhere you look.

• Island View: The Island View has one of the best views in Gulfport, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico and Cat Island, part of an expansive national park.

• Hollywood Casino: If you're looking to get away from the casino madness of Biloxi, but still want to golf and gamble, the Hollywood Casino is 20 miles west of Biloxi. You can walk away from the slot machines at the casino, formerly known as Casino Magic, directly to the golf course.

• Palace Casino: The Palace Casino is right where it was before and when Katrina hit - on the water. The casino overlooks the Biloxi Back Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, daring Mother Nature.

There are two excellent restaurants, including Mignon, which has a superb selection of wines, and serves steak and fresh seafood. The Palace Buffet is a smorgasbord of Italian, Southern, Asian and barbecue food.

• Isle of Capri: The Isle of Capri was the first floating casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast when it opened in 1992. It re-opened in December, 2005, still on the water, with more than 700 rooms and 200 suites, with views of the Gulf.

Biloxi restaurants

In Biloxi, try Jazeppi's, Mary Mahoney's or the Old Biloxi Schooner. In Gulfport, try the Port City Café, Triplett-Day or Blow Fly Inn.

Biloxi charter fishing and more

The Mississippi Gulf Coast isn't just golf and gambling. Fishing is big here, with all the creeks, lakes and bayous, not to mention deep-sea fishing in the Gulf. Charter boats are easy to find.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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