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“Downtown Reading. That’s a throwback.”
“Is it really?” I asked. I was 21, temping for the summer, and my boss-of-the-week had told me that my own hometown was remarkable.
“It’s something special. You don’t see a lot of towns like that anymore.”
I hadn’t thought of it that way. Growing up in a Massachusetts town founded in 1644, it’s easy to assume that all American towns have a compact, walkable downtown with cute buildings, a common, and several striking churches.
Then once I started traveling through California, Texas, and the southwest, I started realizing that American towns like these are actually quite rare. These days, you’re more likely to find modern layouts and strip malls surrounded by giant parking lots. Want walkability? Head to a mall or shopping center.
And even in my own hometown, new developments are springing up all over the place. A giant drugstore has taken over a series of small storefronts; an enormous complex anchored by a Home Depot and a Jordan’s has become a new prime shopping center. Reasons to visit downtown Reading are fewer and fewer.
That said, in pockets of America, lovely little throwback towns still exist. I found another one in the Deep South — Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Ocean Springs is, as you might guess, right on the coast in Mississippi, a stone’s throw from the Alabama border. The much more well-known Biloxi is just next door. But I liked being based here much more than Biloxi.
What decade was it, again? If it weren’t for the cars, I could have sworn I was in the 1950s or 60s.
There’s not a lot to do in downtown Ocean Springs, but I had a nice stroll and checked out some of the stores.
At Gina’s, an artsy boutique with jewelry and home decor (the kind of place that your mom would love), I was amused to find a necklace made out of Stoke-on-Trent ceramics! Stoke-on-Trent, a city in the Midlands of England, used to be one of the top producers of fine ceramics.
I had a nice chat with the owner about the necklace, my road trip, and how I was headed to Florida next. “You should go to Seaside,” she sighed. “It’s — wonderful.”
She didn’t say a word about what made Seaside so wonderful, but her sigh was so deep and dreamy, I knew immediately that I had to go there.
It ended up being one of the highlights of the trip.
Everywhere you go on the Gulf Coast, there is a palpable sense of “before” and “after.” The event of which people speak, of course, is Hurricane Katrina. It’s hard to imagine a single natural disaster that has impacted a greater swath of the American landscape than this one.
It’s been nearly a decade since Katrina. Development has been slow. Damage is still visible. And no matter how hard the Gulf Coast pulls ahead, it’s still there, bleeding into the present.
Biloxi is the major destination of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, filled with casinos and lengthy beaches. There are a few touches of culture along the landscape, like the Ohr-O’Keefe Art Museum, but Biloxi is known far and wide as a destination for sunshine and letting go.
Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t at its best during my visit. The white sand beaches were dwarfed by heavy gray clouds, making a trip to the beach not the best activity for the day.
But I had to check out at least one of Biloxi’s best restaurants.
Half Shell Oyster House
“Excuse me,” drawls a voice at the table behind me.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say, moving my chair in so she can get by.
“Oh, honey, I meant me. You’re faaaaaaahn.” She smiles. “Your ahhhhhs are beautiful.”
This is a recurring theme of my time in the South — people apologize ahead of time (not unlike the British) and follow-up by complimenting you immediately (quite unlike the British).
Half Shell came highly recommended by Amit from the Country Inn in Ocean Springs. Being a huge oyster fan, I was eager to finally try some Southern-style charbroiled oysters, though I wondered if I would actually enjoy them. I love eating raw oysters with a bit of lemon, horseradish, a drop of tabasco, and plenty of cool, ocean-y water dripping beneath the flesh. Why would you mess with that?
I got the sampler platter: three charbroiled oysters (butter, garlic, herbs, parmesan), three Oysters Bienville (crab, shrimp, bacon, bread crumbs, herbs, parmesan), three Oysters Rockefeller (spinach, cream cheese, herbs, Pernod, parmesan) and three Oysters Orleans (hot Cajun sauce).
OH MY GOD.
THESE OYSTERS. THESE WONDERFUL, WONDERFUL OYSTERS.
These oysters were the best thing I ate on the whole #SouthUSA trip — specifically, the signature charbroiled oysters with the Orleans oysters a distant runner-up.
These oysters were so good, I was scraping the shells with our teeth, eager for all the remnants I could get.
Half Shell is a high-end place — but a plate of 12 fully dressed and charbroiled oysters was only $18. They would go for double that in a high-end seafood restaurant in Boston!
When nearly every local tells you that you need to go to a certain barbecue joint, you listen to them. In this case, it was The Shed, a local family-owned barbecue joint that now has its own show on Food Network.
The place looks like it was thrown together out of pieces of garbage — and yes, it actually was thrown together from salvaged objects. But it works in a ramshackle way.
Inside are park benches, and blues bands perform several times a week.
It’s a down-home, very open place. As a Yankee, I was welcomed with open arms by the staff and the fellow customers.
If there was anything that would be a worthy companion for the oysters consumed just 30 minutes before, it was their specialty: the pulled pork sandwich.
Now THAT was good pulled pork! It melted apart perfectly. The sweet potato fries and sweet tea weren’t bad, either.
The Shed has been marketing themselves like crazy — at a shop in Ocean Springs, I noticed that they had at least a dozen kinds of barbecue sauces for sale, along with a wide variety of merchandise. This could end up being the next major barbecue franchise.
Interestingly, I noticed that a few signs inside made it clear that racist language was not acceptable at The Shed. Usually, that’s the case for everywhere — but that’s not the kind of thing you need to put on a sign, much less multiple signs.
It made me wonder just how much racist language you’ll typically hear on a typical night out in Mississippi or elsewhere in the South.
Like the legacy of Katrina, could this ugliness be bleeding beneath the surface at all times?
Where I Stayed — Country Inn and Suites, Ocean Springs
It had been a long day of heading to the airport to pick up the car, getting the hang of driving again, driving to Oak Alley Plantation, heading back to New Orleans, then in heavy traffic into Mississippi — but there’s no way better to relax than in an in-room jacuzzi.
The Country Inn in Ocean Springs is right off the highway and a short drive from the downtown area and the ocean. Biloxi is about a 10-minute drive away; The Shed is about 10-15 minutes away. Like the other Country Inns, the beds were comfy, the breakfast was hot, and the service top-notch. Rates start at around $66 per night.
But the real highlight of this Country Inn was Amit, one of the front desk employees, who went above and beyond in making sure I had a fantastic stay. He’s a Mississippi native and was brimming with ideas of things to do. And if it hadn’t been for him, I never would have discovered those life-changing oysters at Half Shell. And he was an ardent advocate of The Shed as well!
If you get a chance to stay here and chat with Amit, rest assured — he will make sure you have the most delicious time possible.
The #SouthUSA campaign is brought to you by Country Inns and Suites by Carlson and Holiday Autos. All opinions, as always, are my own.
34 thoughts on “Cruising Through Coastal Mississippi”
It’s funny your reaction to the sign about language at The Shed. As someone who grew up in the south, my thought was “wow, good for them, that’s really progressive!”. I think that minds are changing and some parts of the south are making a lot more progress than many people think, but there are still many barriers to overcome. Racism exists everywhere, but it has historically been more overt in the south, and that includes the use of hurtful and offensive language. It sounds the The Shed is doing its part to help change that locally. I’ll have to be sure to stop by the next time I’m making the I-10 trip!
Mary, I just started reading about the book American Nations, which goes into why the South is the way it is today, racist attitudes included. Really, really fascinating stuff. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0143122029/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0143122029&linkCode=as2&tag=advkatasolfem-20
I picked a bad day to skip lunch…now I’m super hungry.
Those oysters look INCREDIBLE. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Gulf area, but never Ocean Springs…will have to check it out!
I love visiting small towns in the US. I lived in one growing up and underestimated it until I moved around to cities. It is a different pace and the people are so friendly and willing to help out.
What an incredible trip through Mississippi! I have got to go there – it looks so charming but the food seems to be a real pull!
I love towns with older, walkable downtown areas – it definitely bums me out that things like that seem to be falling by the wayside. I’d never heard of Ocean Springs, but it sounds really lovely!
Kate these places look amazing, your trip across the States has definitely made me want to explore more – I’ve only been to WA. You’re totally right about us Brits though; we’ll apologise in advance (even for something we haven’t done!) but won’t follow it up with a compliment. Maybe I should start a trend for that, London would be a nicer place 🙂
If you started doing that, Londoners would make every effort to hide themselves from you!
I really enjoyed this post. I LOVE Ocean Springs!!! I visited it for the first time in 2010 so when I knew I was meeting a friend in New Orleans this past winter I deliberately flew down to Mississippi a few days before to revisit. I based myself in Biloxi for a cheap rate at one of the casino hotels and I enjoyed a beautiful day walking around Biloxi , which I love. You had bad weather? I had worse! The coast virtually shut down and the Biloxi Bay Bridge closed so there went my time in Ocean Springs that I had been looking forward to. Why oh why didn’t I go over the first day….. So disappointing . Next time I go (NOT in the winter) I will definitely check out that barbeque place and perhaps base myself in Ocean Springs.
I hope you enjoy your next trip, Laurie!
I love small town America and you really have done a good job in promoting such towns down in the South. I love oysters French-style but I sure am eager to try American Southern-style charbroiled oysters instead. They look delicious!
I’d love to visit Mississippi one of these days and when I do “The Shed” will be on my radar!
Love your post!
mmm pulled pork sandwiches! In my time in the south, I saw a decent amount of racism. It was quite sad even in Charlotte NC where I lived for a year it was very present. Looks like your road trip was lots of fun!
Ocean Springs is a total stand-in for Bluebell from The Hart of Dixie. And that oyster house is just like Rammer Jammer! I dont even like oysters and this place made me want to have some.
Definitely on my list to see the south and to have the oysters. Interesting that they have to advertise ‘not’ to be racist. Loved the photos
Love this. I think we forget sometimes how interesting and foreign cities in our own country can be. I couldn’t believe how much damage from Katrina is still visible even now, 9 years later.
This is exactly the kind of town I want to visit when I do set foot in South USA. Quaint, historic and picturesque!
I really love towns like this! Thanks for sharing some of your favorites with us.
I want to eat that pulled-pork sandwich so bad. Looks delicious. Good writing as always Kate 🙂
I have lived in Ocean Springs for 10+ years. I love the historic downtown area, quaint library, and Front Beach. Train runs through there too, and the Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridge was built with a walking track on it. There are 10+ casinos in the area including Hard Rock and Beau Rivage and Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, which is expanding soon. There are many venues here and many things to do. I have lived in many places but found this to be where I plan to keep a home base. I was happy to read about your travel here and glad you found some good food. I wish I could have seen you but I am sure your itinerary was full.
Thanks, Karen! I would have loved to meet up, too, but we only had one night in Ocean Springs — the shortest stop of the trip!
I lived in a small town in New England and defintely didn’t realize that not all of America has that quaintness of little parks and old churchs everywhere. Makes home feel better.
Honestly I don’t love going down south because last time I was there I heard the N word dropped so many times as well as a lot of slurs towards same-sex couples. It was really horrible. I’m from a pretty liberal area of New England and I just honestly have no patience for that.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t hear anything like that on my trip through the South — not even during Mardi Gras.
Oh my gosh…some of the pictures are so charming! Ocean Springs looks so dainty!
Wow this is delightful; what a charming town. I’ve always wanted to visit down south; someday! 🙂
That pulled pork sandwich looks amazing, and The Shed looks like exactly the kind of place I’d go crazy over. And those oysters…I’m thinking I may need to hit up Mississippi when I’m next in the USA. The food sounds divine, and Ocean Springs’ downtown looks absolutely darling.
Love the charming small towns. It must have been so much fun exploring this region that gets so little attention as a tourist destination. Despite being more of a raw oyster lover myself, I enjoyed the baked oyster dishes in New Orleans and in the Gulf region as well.
Loved this article and just reading about your trip across the South in general. The pictures of the cute small town have certainly made me want to visit the South of the states next time I’m there 🙂
Absolutely love small towns like this! When I’m back home in Washington D.C. I often find myself wandering “old townes” or searching for them, like Old Town Alexandria. Also, having friends in rural Pennsylvania, you discover once-upon-a-time boom towns trapped in the past — all vintage stores and thrift shops, quaint boutiques, barber shops, and cozy pubs. All brick and civil war era. My favorite places in the United States!
That place is so charming! It looks like a great weekend spot, and those oysters YUMM!!
Thanks for all these posts about your southern roadtrip. I’m in NOLA and headed toward the FL panhandle tomorrow, and your suggestions are so helpful and make me excited for the journey ahead! I’m definitely trying those oysters now. 🙂
Enjoy every bite for me! I miss them!
I’m late on this, was just searching for information on Ocean Springs, and was VERY impressed by your article. I love the open mind you have on the American South. I know as someone that relocated to Texas from Washington, DC last year, and love it here – I live in The Woodlands, a huge heavily forested community with tons of trails and parks that I never would have known existed if I would have written off Texas as a place to move.
Apologies for the tangent, very impressed by your post. Thanks
I’m glad you liked it, Christopher! The South is great. I just got back from Florida today.