Luxury for less the Gulf Coast way: High-end hotels, golf courses with mid-range rates

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

With steals like the Kiva Dunes and Shell Landing golf courses, the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Alabama Gulf Shores are prime destinations for golfers looking to live large on vacation.

Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
The Hard Rock is a great example of the gulf's luxury-for-less atmosphere.
Hard Rock Hotel & CasinoKiva Dunes Golf ClubShell Landing Golf Course
If you go

BILOXI, Miss. - It looks like something straight out of MTV's Cribs. You have a stylish living room with a 42-inch plasma TV. There's a bar of course and a nice dining room table. But the real tricked out feature is the floor to ceiling windows that wrap around the entire suite, giving you a view down at a happening pool scene on one end and the Gulf of Mexico on the other.

You're living large for sure. This Hard Rock Hotel & Casino suite is fit for any high roller.

Only any middle class golfer could afford it. Welcome to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This - and its neighboring Alabama Gulf Shores - are the rare spots in today's high-thread-count-chasing world where you can get luxury for less.

Real luxury. We're talking digs worthy of the ones featured in those high-falutin glossy magazines about fine living. Only in Mississippi and Alabama, people are too focused on substance to make a big deal out of the style all around them.

"Nah, that suite's not that big," Kevin Drum, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Gulf Association, said when someone joked that he felt like he'd been given the presidential suite. "Those are the standard corner suites. They have four on every floor."

Golfers who've been to Scottsdale, Las Vegas, Hilton Head, Hawaii or any of the dozens of other golf destinations geared for luxury retreats know better. That same Hard Rock Biloxi suite would be $600 a night easy in most high-end places.

Here, it's around $259 a night. That's for the plush corner suite. You can get nice standard king rooms with a 42-inch plasma (the corner suite actually has two) at the Hard Rock Biloxi for as low as $109.

Is this Mississippi or 1988?

"My friends back home in Michigan don't believe it," Biloxi transplant Nicole DiNunzio said. "They can't get these room prices at the Detroit casinos, which are weak."

That's what sets the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Alabama Gulf Shores apart. A lot of places tout their cheap golf vacations, where you stay in barebones hotels and play mediocre golf. On the gulf, you get reasonable luxury instead. The accommodations are plush, and the golf's high end. Only the prices are out of whack with everything you've probably come to expect in 2008.

It's caviar on a hamburger man's budget.

Consider that Kiva Dunes - arguably the best of Alabama's golf courses, a seaside links track with a secluded feel - maxes out at a $98 greens fee. Or that you can stay in the Beau View Condos - huge, brand-new three-bedroom, three-bath units with gleaming countertops and trendy stainless steel refrigerators right across the street from the Gulf of Mexico's waves - for $105 per golfer per night in packages that sometimes include a day's greens fee too.

This is the golf and hotel equivalent of getting a Mercedes for a Honda Accord's price.

"I think some people still think of us as the Redneck Rivera," Kiva Dunes General Manager Mark Stillings said. "And I don't even like to use that term because it's so removed from reality. People who come here and experience the atmosphere in our area realize that right away.

"This is a place where you can have a great meal, enjoy a nice bottle of wine and be on a beautiful beach when you're not on the golf course."

While saving major dollars. Sure, you enjoy the finer things. But that doesn't mean you always feel the need to blow the budget to pay for them.

Warren Buffett would get a kick out of the Gulf Coast. It turns out there is a place left in America which appreciates the value of someone else's dollar.

Not everything is cheaper on Mississippi's Gulf Coast and Alabama's Gulf Shores. A meal at a nice restaurant costs what a nice meal costs most places. (Though there are plenty of good seafood shacks and even gas stations selling surprisingly decent Po-Boys if you want to go that route). Hiring a boat to take you and your buddies out fishing in the region's great spots costs several hundred dollars a head.

The savings on golf and lodging gives you more money to actually enjoy your vacation though. Go ahead and splurge on a dinner at Biloxi institution Mary Mahoney's. You're only paying $99 weekdays high season to play Shell Landing Golf Club - a big, wide Davis Love III design that would be $150 easy even in Myrtle Beach.

"We're not seeing as many of the golf-only groups," Craft Farms Resort General Manager Grant Brown said. "Instead, it's more of guys golfing with their wives or two or three couples golfing together or a family trip where everyone, including the kids and maybe the grandparents, will play some golf.

"Those type of vacations have to offer other activities for people to do besides the golf. That really ends up helping us with everything there is to offer around here. The amenities are a major component of that as well."

If you're kicking back with your buddies in the big community lounge at the Beau View that looks out on the pool, the hot tub and the IHOP next door, you'll be digging the unique, affordable luxury setting.

Hurricane Katrina forced the casino hotels and ocean-front condo complexes to rebuild, often from scratch, and one of the results is that the tourist accommodations are largely top notch modern and filled with the latest gadgets.

At first, it's a little hard to come to grips with the fact that you're benefiting from so many others' pain.

But the truth is, the people here want you to enjoy rolling the dice in the new Hard Rock casino floor and going back to your view and plasmas.

Sure, you may feel like a sudden VIP. Don't worry though. Nobody's going to ask if you really belong. Luxury for less never hurt anyone.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin 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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