By Chelsea Brasted / Photographs by Daymon Gardner for The Wall Street Journal
Last updated August 19, 2022
Ocean Springs, Miss., offers its own distinct charm, with modern beach cottages, nature walks along the bayou and a trove of artwork inspired by Mississippi’s ‘magic hour’
Photograph by Daymon Gardner for The Wall Street Journal
BY THE TIME the third course arrived at my table at Vestige, a fine-dining restaurant in the small Mississippi city of Ocean Springs, I was only halfway into one of the more memorable meals I’ve had in a few years. Given that I live in New Orleans, that’s saying something. As the waiter set down kimchi gougères (light-as-air pastries) served with nasturtium butter and local honey, I had already given up all preconceptions about life in this small seaside town.
Souvenir shops packed with T-shirts and floating toys are conspicuously absent. There are no beach bars overflowing with sunburned bodies, and a lunch out doesn’t mean mediocre fish sandwiches and warm beer buckets. Biloxi, with its gaudy, windowless casinos and all the usual beach-town attractions, is just a 10-minute drive away, but in Ocean Springs the scene is quite different. Fern-draped oaks line the small downtown, with its cluster of galleries, vintage clothing and antique stores, restaurants and at least one pet boutique. “Ocean Springs asks people to slow down,” said Mattie Codling, director of collections and exhibitions at the Walter Anderson Museum, also situated in the town’s center.
Like me, the painter Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965) was from New Orleans. He moved to Ocean Springs in 1929 and found inexhaustible inspiration in the natural world in and around the town, but even more so on Horn Island, a slip of a barrier island just off the coast. He memorialized the area’s flora and fauna in his whimsical, often fantastically colorful watercolors, prints, pottery and sculpture. Today, you can’t help but spot his works all over town.
Around the same time Anderson was biking and paddling around Ocean Springs, the landscape was changing dramatically. Throughout the early- to mid-20th century, as Mississippi made a play to increase tourism, local officials cleared the way for what’s often called one of the longest stretches of man-made beaches in the world. For miles along the state’s edge, including here in Ocean Springs, what would be grassy marshland is now a narrow beach. The only natural beaches in the state are on the barrier islands, but visiting typically requires access to a private boat.
Without one, the best way to experience Mississippi’s untouched coastline is to drive just 5 miles from downtown Ocean Springs to the visitors’ center at the National Parks Service’s Davis Bayou. There the natural landscape has been preserved, and short walking trails offer a closer look at the marshy coast.
But on my first day in town, both the beach and the bayou would have to wait. I woke up in my four poster bed at the Inn of Ocean Springs to rumbles of thunder and rain hitting the windows. Eventually, I peeled myself out of bed and spent the morning exploring downtown. With an umbrella in one hand and a latte from Bright Eyed Brew Company in the other, I bounced from shop to shop. At the vintage shop Buddy Row, I imagined the party invites I’d need in order to wear the ’80s sequined dresses, and at Ocean Springs Mercantile, a home décor store with a luxe farmhouse vibe, I scored a gift for my mom.
l sat by the fire pit watching the sun set behind the row of craftsman cottages, the beach just beyond.
As the rain subsided, I walked a bit farther to the Walter Anderson Museum and wandered into a wing blanketed in the artist’s floor-to-ceiling murals. I took a slow spin around the sun-washed room, passing pelicans, seagulls, turtles, palmettos and stars. Another room displays Anderson’s block prints inspired by childhood stories, like “The Pied Piper” and “The Frog Prince,” drawn with exaggerated shapes and often featuring local flora and fauna. “He pulls us into the environment,“ said Ms. Codling, the museum’s curator. “He celebrates awkward birds like pelicans, and alligators swimming through swamps. He transports these classic fairy tales to Mississippi.”
Anderson kept stacks of journals, full of writing and drawings that captured the region’s natural life that’s becoming harder and harder to find. In his studio, which has been rebuilt on the museum’s property, you can spy a sketch of the nearly extinct Mississippi sandhill crane, with its red crown, and a spotted cat known as the ocelot, driven out of town long ago.
The next day, I checked into the Beatnik hotel, a modern cabin complex that opened in 2020 a short walk from Ocean Springs Beach. I spent the day soaking up the sun, swimming in the bathwater-warm Gulf and wandering around the Davis Bayou, where towering trees transition into brushy grasses as the trails take you closer to the shoreline, and the sounds of frogs and insects seem amplified.
That evening, I drifted over to the small bar at the Wilbur hotel and sat outside by the outdoor fire pit. At a table next to me, a trio of women complained about their husbands’ not letting them buy more antiques.
I thought of Anderson again as I waited for the sun to set behind the row of craftsman cottages down the street, the beach just a few blocks beyond them. In one of his journals on display at the museum, Anderson wrote about “the magic hour” just before sunset, “when all things are related, and are organized through color.” I watched that organization happen in real time as the live oaks around me turned to silhouettes.
Ocean Springs is a 30-minute drive from the nearest airport, Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport. Driving, it’s about 90 minutes from New Orleans and 60 minutes from Mobile, Ala.
Inns of Ocean Springs includes two small hotels: the Inn and the Hemingway, which occupies an old bank building. A few blocks away and under the same management, Rain Travel Collection, is the larger Roost, which offers 20 rooms, a small pool, a bar and several porches. Rain Travel Collection also manages the Beatnik, a modern cabin complex with a heated pool. Each cabin has a screened porch and a small courtyard with an outdoor shower and hammock (rooms at all properties from about $210 a night).
Front Beach Cottages offers four cottages a short walk from the beach and just a few blocks from Ocean Springs’ main drag (from about $125 a night).
Chef Alex Perry, an Ocean Springs native, opened Vestige in 2013. His highly inventive five-course tasting menus focus on sustainable sourcing and local ingredients. 715 Washington Ave.
You’ll see Bright Eyed Brew Company coffee at many restaurants in the area but at their own coffee shop you can get their signature cold brew paired with Belgian waffles. 623 Washington Ave.
At Blue Dog Bistro, you can choose from either the healthier “good dog” section of the menu (lettuce leaf tacos, vegan burger) or the more indulgent “bad dog” options (shrimp and grits, grilled cheese pimento sandwich). 1801 Government St., Suite A
Ocean Springs Mercantile sells locally designed t-shirts and upmarket home decor. 700 Washington Ave.
At Buddyrow, browse unique vintage finds, like mid-mod glassware, chain belts, costume jewelry and beaded gowns. 619 Washington Ave.
Descendents of Walter Anderson run Shearwater Pottery, where they sell their own handcrafted mugs, plates and other ceramics. 102 Shearwater Dr.