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A road trip to see lighthouses spotlights Coastal Mississippi’s maritime heritage

The Biloxi Lighthouse became a symbol of the city’s resolve after Hurricane Katrina.  | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi The Biloxi Lighthouse became a symbol of the city’s resolve after Hurricane Katrina. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Dating to as early as 280 BC, lighthouses warned mariners of dangers and guided them home, but technological advances in radar and GPS have made many of these navigational landmarks obsolete. Those that remain in Mississippi now serve a different purpose—illuminating the history of these once-vital beacons and the coastal communities they once served.

Along Coastal Mississippi’s 62 miles of scenic shoreline, 4 beautifully preserved relics and replications stand tall, offering road-trippers an opportunity to explore from land what boats and ships once relied upon for safe return while navigating inland from the Gulf of Mexico. These lofty monuments will guide your way on an intriguing historical road trip.

Round Island Lighthouse

Restored following hurricanes Georges and Katrina, Round Island Lighthouse welcomes visitors. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Restored following hurricanes Georges and Katrina, Round Island Lighthouse welcomes visitors. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Start your itinerary on the eastern end of the coast and work your way west. Built in 1859, Round Island Lighthouse originally stood 4 miles south of Pascagoula, but it was pummeled by Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Yet more than a third of the structure remained intact, and remnants—including its lighting gallery—were eventually salvaged.

In 2010, the city relocated the lighthouse to the foot of the Pascagoula River Bridge on US 90 entering downtown. It opened to the public in 2015 after a massive restoration. Tour the interior of the landmark as well as its grounds while learning about the region’s maritime history—with a few pirate stories in the mix.

Explore more history in Pascagoula at the LaPointe-Krebs House, Mississippi’s oldest building. Built in 1757 and originally serving as a fortified home when Spain controlled the Mississippi territory, the house now showcases its rich history and that of the diverse people who have inhabited the area since its earliest days.

Named by its native Choctaw people, pascagoula means “bread eater,” so go ahead and eat some bread like a local at Bozo’s Grocery, where po’boys are on the ready at the quick-serve counter.

Savor a shrimp po’boy at Bozo’s Grocery in Pascagoula. | Photo courtesy Bozo’s Grocery

Savor a shrimp po’boy at Bozo’s Grocery in Pascagoula. | Photo courtesy Bozo’s Grocery

Or head over to Jack’s By The Tracks, a contemporary juke joint serving Southern sushi, tacos, tapas, salads and po’boys, along with a full bar menu and free live music.

Stop in during your own version of “The Pascagoula Run,” a bar-hopping song about Pascagoula penned by native son Jimmy Buffett. (Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.)

There may not be a lighthouse in the next town over, but you’ll be enlightened in Ocean Springs. Start at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art to admire some of this American master’s paintings, drawings, and block prints that capture coastal plants, animals, landscapes, and people. Anderson spent a great deal of time on nearby Horn Island and was influenced by the Mississippi island’s wilderness.

On the other side of town, the Bridge Mosaic Mural also depicts the Gulf Coast’s natural beauty and includes a panel with a lighthouse. At 120 feet, it’s Mississippi’s longest mosaic.

Ocean Springs is a convenient overnight stop. The Beatnik exudes a 1950s and ’60s vibe in 4 modern cabins that feature wet bars and private outdoor showers. Rates start at $169. And you’ll find comfortable rooms accented with salvaged wood at The Roost Boutique Hotel. Rates start at $149.

For dinner, chef Alex Perry, a James Beard Foundation semifinalist, presents the area’s farmers and sustainable fishermen in the very best light at Vestige. Don’t miss the fresh bread baked by his wife, Kumi Omori.

Biloxi Lighthouse

Built in 1848, the Biloxi Lighthouse is one of the South’s first cast-iron lighthouses. | Photo by Sean Pavone/stock.adobe.com

Built in 1848, the Biloxi Lighthouse is one of the South’s first cast-iron lighthouses. | Photo by Sean Pavone/stock.adobe.com

After crossing the Biloxi Bay Bridge into Biloxi, you’ll spy one of the first cast-iron lighthouses in the South. Erected in 1848 and now located in the median of US 90 at Porter Avenue, the 64-foot-tall Biloxi Lighthouse is one of the coast’s most photographed spots. After Hurricane Katrina, it became a symbol of the city’s resolve and resilience.

In operation until 1939, the lighthouse is well-known for several female lightkeepers, including Maria Younghans, who tended the light for 53 years. In fact, when a fierce hurricane battered the coast in 1893, Younghans didn’t leave her post. According to U.S. Coast Guard records, the New Orleans Daily Picayune reported that “Mrs. Younghans, the plucky woman who was in charge of the light, kept a light going through the storm notwithstanding the fact that there were several feet of water in the room where she lived.”

Deeded to the city in 1968, the lighthouse eventually opened for guided tours, which are offered 9–10 a.m. daily via the nearby Biloxi Visitors Center. Admission is $5 for ages 12 and up. The tour is part of the Coastal Mississippi Attractions Pass ($37 for adults), which includes entry to 10 area museums.

For a deeper dive into the history of Coastal Mississippi’s lighthouses and its seafaring heritage, explore the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum. Exhibits include wooden boats, commercial fishing equipment, and the Fresnel lens from the Ship Island Lighthouse. The lens was crushed during Hurricane Katrina, but museum staff dug in the mud and muck around the museum grounds for months to find every single prism and beautifully restored it.

Exhibits at the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum include wooden boats, fishing equipment, and the lens from the Ship Island lighthouse. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Exhibits at the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum include wooden boats, fishing equipment, and the lens from the Ship Island lighthouse. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Shrimp boats were some of the vessels for which lighthouses shone the way. Hop aboard the Sailfish and watch the crew drop a 16-foot trawl to drag the bottom of the Mississippi Sound for shrimp and other delicacies. The experience is part of the Biloxi Shrimping Trip ($20 for adults, cash only), which gives an up-close look at the harvesting process.

While Biloxi is known for casinos, the city’s nightlife also includes plenty of great restaurants that celebrate the Gulf’s bounty. Just across the road from the Mississippi Sound at White Pillars Restaurant and Lounge, chef Austin Sumrall—crowned King of American Seafood in the 2021 Great American Seafood Cook-Off—says he sources his seafood “literally from across the street.”

After dinner, head to Ground Zero Blues Club, owned in part by actor Morgan Freeman, for authentic blues music.

Ship Island Lighthouse

Admire a replica of the Ship Island Lighthouse in Gulfport’s Jones Park. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Admire a replica of the Ship Island Lighthouse in Gulfport’s Jones Park. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Between the cities of Biloxi and Pass Christian, stroll along 26 miles of coastline on one of America’s longest stretches of man-made beach. Along the way, the 60-acre Jones Park in Gulfport boasts a replica of the Ship Island Lighthouse. While there is no public access to the lighthouse’s interior, you can view it by land and by sea.

Ship Island Excursions offers daily ferry service to Ship Island, a barrier island where the Civil War–era Fort Massachusetts once helped protect the coast. About an hour each way, the cruise presents a different vantage point of the lighthouse and an opportunity for dolphin sightings. Pack a picnic and soak up some rays on the island’s beach, but also leave time to tour the fort prior to heading back.

Soak up the sun on Ship Island, which is also home to a Civil War-era fort. | Photo by Laura Grier

Soak up the sun on Ship Island, which is also home to a Civil War-era fort. | Photo by Laura Grier

You can tour the barrier islands and Mississippi coastline year-round with North Star Sailing Charters, weather permitting; Captain Ron’s Charters offers a full range of guided fishing trips. Both depart from the Gulfport Harbor in Jones Park.

Waveland Lighthouse

The Waveland Lighthouse overlooks the beach in this community known as “the hospitality city.” | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

The Waveland Lighthouse overlooks the beach in this community known as “the hospitality city.” | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Sunsets aboard the charter boats are always a treat, but to enjoy the spectacle beachside, head to the final lighthouse stop, in Waveland.

Known as “the hospitality city,” Waveland is the state’s only coastal community that prohibits commercial development on its beachfront. So, in 2019 the city erected a 70-foot-tall lighthouse as a focal point, complete with restrooms and showers at its base for those long days at the beach.

Lighthouses often are no match for powerful hurricane-force winds, and Coastal Mississippi has been pounded by its fair share of major storms. Visit Waveland’s Ground Zero Hurricane Museum to see a tribute to the strength and beauty of the human spirit through art and exhibits. Admission to the museum, open Tuesday through Saturday, is free.

At the end of your journey, don’t miss Bay St. Louis, located just east of Waveland. If you time your visit right, you can catch a musical performance or a history program at the 100 Men Hall, restored in part with grant money after Hurricane Katrina.

A vibrant mural helps tell the story of the 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

A vibrant mural helps tell the story of the 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis. | Photo courtesy Coastal Mississippi

Founded in 1894, the hall became a stop on the “Chitlin Circuit,” a network of performance spaces that welcomed traveling Black blues performers such as Etta James, Sam Cooke, and B.B. King during the time of segregation. On the Mississippi Blues Trail, this revered space continues to resonate with music. If visiting during an off time, enjoy the colorful mural that pays homage to its history on the hall’s exterior.

In Bay St. Louis, sample more seafood at the Thorny Oyster, where chef Jeffrey Hansell spotlights raw-bar specialties and modern takes on classic dishes. The restaurant is in the stylish Pearl Hotel (rates start at $129), which also features Hansell’s Smoke BBQ restaurant and a plush cocktail bar, Hinge.

Sip libations on an outdoor patio where the salty breezes carry reminders of the Gulf Coast’s long history of seafarers, storms, and the rays of lights that once shone in the darkness.

Melissa Corbin is a contributor from Clarksville, Tennessee.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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