Biloxi, where casinos and golf courses meet the wide, wide Gulf

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

BILOXI, Miss - When Jimmy Buffett wrote his song about Biloxi, he sang about "pretty girls dancing in the sea," but if he had gotten here after the casinos arrived, he might be singing a different tune. Maybe "slot machine zombies hocking their wrist watches."

The casinos began arriving in the early 1990s and turned a hard-working seaport town, which also doubled as a warm weather retreat for wealthy northerners - thus it's nickname "playground of the South" - into what marketers like to call an "emerging destination."

Locals are ambivalent about the arrival of the casinos, as locals usually are in such situations, raving about rising wages, but griping about rising housing costs and such. "I like it now," said Lori Slater, a bartender and native of the area. "I guess."

The stretch of coastal Mississippi, with Biloxi and Gulfport as the epicenter, has 26 miles of man-made beaches from Ocean Springs to Bay St. Louis. It has a lot going for it, even if the tourism people are overly sensitive about image.

That's probably because of the general conception of Mississippi as a whole. The state is the poorest in the nation - though it was the fifth-richest in the Union before the Civil War.

Nor does it exactly have a great history of race relations, with tens of thousands of blacks leaving in the 1940s. Vestiges of those days remain - the trial of reputed Ku Klux Klansman Edgar Ray Killen, charged with the killings of three civil rights workers, is due to start in April, for example.

And Mississippi schools have consistently lagged behind. Still, there have been inroads in both areas: Governor Haley Barbour recently signed legislation renaming highways in honor of victims of civil rights slayings. The state has also successfully courted light industry in the hope of improving its economy.

This little coastal stretch has its own colorful history. The casinos that now line the coast had some lively, if slightly illegal, predecessors in earlier days. One of which, the Isle of Caprice built in the 1920s during Prohibition offshore on the Dog Islands, disappeared mysteriously in a fire in 1931.

One fairly recent tourism thrust is geared to golf. The Mississippi Golf Coast doesn't like to market itself as a trail, but in fact the 300 holes or so of golf along the 1-10 and U.S. 90 corridors are mostly within easy driving distance of each other and the casinos. The area doesn't have any courses with national reputations that can pull in golfers, like a Myrtle Beach or Las Vegas, but it does have some good courses with big-name designers like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

It also has mild weather and low green fees for the budget-minded - it's difficult to find a course with rates more than $100 even in the high season. The area has 17,000 rooms in every conceivable type of lodging, those miles of sandy beaches and, of course, the casinos, which have brought surprisingly little casino-related crime. It's a safe place to walk the streets.

If you want to combine a little gambling, both on the course and off, and get a sun tan, Biloxi will raise your ante and your expectations.

Must Plays

Shell Landing in Gautier calls itself the coast's premier golf course and it is indeed an impressive track. It was designed by Davis Love, a top-20 player on the PGA Tour and an architect gaining a reputation for traditional designs that follow the natural contours of the land.

Here, it follows bayous and marsh, framed by tall pines. The course was picked by the National Golf Course Owners Association as the course of the year for 2004, though that award has more to do with ownerships and contributions to the community and the game of golf than for the quality of the course.

Still, Golf Digest ranked it the sixth-best course in the state at one point. "I don't think you'll find any other courses this good in the area," said Manny Perez, playing it for the first time.

Great Southern is the birthplace of golf in Mississippi, and it reeks of history, from its small, difficult Donald Ross-designed greens to the old clubhouse which is in the process of being restored.

The course measures only 6,236 yards from the back tees, but Ross has his usual assortment of refined tricks, including the inevitable bunkers in all the right - or wrong - places. And the greens are reminiscent of Pinehurst No. 2.

"You're going to see some greens out here you've probably never seen before," said Iowan Ben Flan, playing with buddy and Gulfport veteran Pete Wherble. "They can be brutal."

Its length makes this a good course for women. The conditioning is a little rough in spots - the course hosts more than 30,000 rounds a year - but hey, the green fees are only in the $55-$70 range, cart fee included, for playing this little Ross gem.

The attraction of Grand Bear is its location - off the beaten track of the trail. It's a 30- to 40-minute drive from the beach casinos. With the DeSoto National Forest as a backdrop, it has nary a house, condo or villa on it. This is a great walk in the woods, golf or not.

Nicklaus designed the course, which opened in 1999, and though it isn't a particularly difficult course, it can be tough from the back tees at 7,204 yards. Women and seniors should enjoy this course - it has wide-open fairways for the most part, a trademark of Nicklaus, who loves the open courses of Scotland. The packed pine-needle rough is easy to extricate yourself from, should you really be off the mark and miss the fairways.

Some golfers have complained about the green fees, which are relatively high for the area. Locals can play for $99 on weekdays and $109 weekends. Guests at one of the two Grand Casinos get various discounts.

Solid Seconds

The Bridges has bridges for sure - 21 of them and all told, they span nearly a mile, taking you from high point to high point - golf holes, technically - that slither through the marshes and wetlands flowing from and into Mississippi's Jourdan River. The Bridges is not as well-maintained as another resort course with which it is sometimes compared, Grand Bear.

The best way to play the Arnold Palmer layout is to get a package. They run from $84-$158, depending on the season, and include accommodations, golf and other discounts on things like food and clothing and the spa.

The course was given four stars in Golf Digest's Places to Play. The magazine also ranked it No. 1 on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and among the top 10 in the state.

Gulf Hills started in 1927, making it the second-oldest golf club in the Biloxi area after Great Southern, and it's full of cultural history: they say Elvis used to golf here, for example, and there are stories of the Chicago mobsters who bought homes along the course, and the feds who followed them.

The thing that sets Gulf Hills apart is the elevation changes, which is rare and maybe unique for this part of the country. "There's not many of them on the coast got this kind of elevation," member Arnold Verhoeven said. "Some of them move earth around, but all this is natural."

The greens of Diamondhead Country Club's Pine course were in rough shape in mid-March, and there are too many houses pushing in on the course, but with a slope of 138, it's one of the more challenging courses in the area.

It's in a gated, residential community and stands apart for friendliness in an area known for its southern hospitality. The other course, the Cardinal, was ranked by Golf Digest at one time as the sixth-best in the state.

Mississippi National, one of four public courses on the coast, measures 6,983 yards from the back tees. It, too, has a few too many homes too close for comfort, but it's an interesting layout, particularly No. 1. The par-5 first hole has two creeks running across the fairway, and you must decide whether to lay up or try to carry both.

The Oaks is another course having problems with its greens, thanks to some weird November weather - first unseasonably hot weather, which destroyed the overseeding, then 10 inches of rain. But, it's a scenic course, meandering through old oaks. It's easier from the forward tees and harder from the back than most courses.

Off Course

What, aside from the golf and casinos? Well, it's a coastal area with wide beaches, so there's always lollygagging on the beach, where there always seems to be plenty of room for lollygagging.

Biloxi is full of history and you can see much of it, like Beauvoir - where Jefferson Davis wrote his memoirs and passed away his final days - the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, the Seabee Memorial Museum and the Biloxi Lighthouse, which opened in 1848. You can take the Old Biloxi Tour Train or sail the Mississippi Sound on a replica schooner.

There's an arts community with the Little Theater and the Mad Potter Museum, among others. If you want to live in the here and now, your best bet may be chartering a fishing boat for deep sea or near-shore fishing.

As far as casino entertainment, don't expect Las Vegas acts. You may have to settle for Paul Anka, whose features have morphed into an exact replica of Al Michaels, Bobby Vinton, or Lee Ann Womack.

As for nightlife, there are a number of bar and lounges, like Dock of the Bay in Bay St. Louis, or Double Deuce, the Mardi Gras Lounge and Sapphires in Biloxi.

Places to eat

There are two non-casino restaurants you must try while on the Mississippi coast: Roosters, owned by the Favre family - that's as in Brett Favre, quarterback of the Green Bay Packers - and the Shed, a ramshackle barbecue joint off Interstate-10 that has some of the best barbecue this side of Memphis. So good in fact it has won national barbecue awards - bet you didn't know they had that sort of thing.

Casino Magic has five restaurants: the Jourdan River Grille - the snapper almandine is magnifico - Bienville's Bay Buffet and Tuscany Steaks and Seafood are the three main eateries. Jackpot Java is a small place where you can get a bite to sustain you through epic gambling binges and the clubhouse has a grill.

The Isle of Capri's Calypso Restaurant has breakfast buffets and dinners with Dungeness crab, baked salmon, fresh-baked bread and pizza. Tradewinds Marketplace has 24-hour service with six different eateries, including muffeletas and po' boys. Farraddays has coconut shrimp, Angus steaks, sautéed salmon and Tuscan Chicken Rimini and fried strawberries, among other exotic stuff.

Places to stay

The Casino Magic Casino and Golf Resort is a stationary boat casino, but don't worry, you'll never feel the wakes of passing boats. It has nearly 40,000 square feet of gambling space - more than 1,000 slots and 38 game tables for your gambling habit.

The Bay Tower Hotel, a 14-story, 291-room hotel, is the Mississippi Gulf's newest casino resort hotel. It has more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space. There's a private boardroom, pool, jacuzzi, spa, salon and fitness center.

The Isle of Capri is one of the bigger casino resorts in Biloxi, built on a floating foundation that ebbs and flows with the Gulf of Mexico tides. It's the first legal gaming operation to open in the South, a $90 million, 45,000 square-foot, multi-level facility with three full-service restaurants and a lounge.

There's 24-hour gambling with more than 1,100 slot machines, video poker and 28 game tables offering craps, roulette, blackjack and mini-baccarat, among other games of chance.

U.S. 90 from Gautier north to Bay St. Louis is chock full of every kind of accommodation, from small mom-and-pop motels to big resorts. Some are right on the beach, others are across the busy street. For an affordable place right on the beach and near golf and nightlife, try the Quality Inn Emerald Beach and its hot breakfast buffet.

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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