The high cost of travel and tighter budgets have many families dreaming of a beach vacation this summer, but considering a “staycation” instead. A visit to the Mississippi Gulf Coast could be the beach vacation your family wants with an affordable price tag to match. With 62 miles of shoreline bordering the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has something for every member of your family. From beaches and sunbathing to space exploration and children’s museums, a vacation on the Gulf Coast is sure to create lasting memories and keep your pocketbook happy.
Mississippi Barrier Islands
Approximately 12 miles south of the Mississippi Gulf Coast lies the five barrier islands that separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi Sound. Spanning across eighty miles of coastline, the five islands — Petit Bois, Horn, East and West Ship Islands, and Cat Island — feature sugar white beaches and clear blue waters, towering sand dunes and grassy meadows, dense maritime forests, secret lagoons, and fertile marshes.
With the exception of a few privately owned acres on Cat Island, the barrier islands became part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore under the National Park Service in 1971. The islands themselves have been protected from commercial development, providing vacationers with a one-of-a kind opportunity to enjoy pristine, untouched beaches. In addition to swimming and sunbathing, the islands are a prime location for fishing, bird watching, and hiking. Speckled trout, redfish, flounder, mullet, and Spanish mackerel are among some of the varieties fishermen can expect to catch along the coastline. The islands are also a refuge for resident and migrating birds such as ospreys, bald eagles, herons, loons, and seagulls. Dolphins are a common site around the barrier islands. West Ship Island is also home to Fort Massachusetts. Built shortly after the War of 1812, the brick fort has withstood war, disease, and two major hurricanes.
Tent camping is allowed on Horn, Petit Bois, East Ship Island, and the public section on Cat Island year round. Most of the barrier islands are only accessible by private or chartered boat. West Ship Island is also accessible through a privately owned passenger ferry departing from the Gulfport Yacht Harbor.
Infinity Science Center
Dedicated in April 2012, the 72,000-square-foot Infinity Science Center is a state-of-the-art educational facility affiliated with NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. The center combines science, space exploration and fun as visitors learn about space exploration through the decades, into the future, and across Mississippi.
As soon as visitors walk through the door, they are catapulted into the world of outer space. Mississippi Gulf Coast native and Apollo 13 astronaut Fred Haise has been instrumental in making the center a reality and greets guests in a special welcome video. Indoor and outdoor exhibits include a 4,000 square-foot maze that encompasses an interactive, multimedia journey from early sea explorations to space travel; a nearly six-foot revolving animated view of the Earth and the solar system, showcasing geography, weather patterns, seismic patterns and more; a full-sized International Space Station module; and a chance to get up close to a real H-1 Rocket Engine.
Visitors also have the opportunity to enjoy a free 30-minute guided bus tour of Stennis Space Center — America’s largest rocket engine test facility. The tour takes guests behind the scenes of the 14,000 acre facility where they will view the enormous structures used to test the rocket engines that have been sending us into outer space for over 50 years.
Lynn Meadows Discovery Center
Named one of the Top 50 Children’s Museums in the United States by Parents Magazine, The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center offers 15,000 square-feet of indoor exhibit space and another six acres of outdoor play space. As the first children’s museum in Mississippi, the LMDC encourages children to explore, pretend, play, climb, and touch.
Visitors can take a stroll down Kids Street, a kid-sized subdivision outfitted with gas lamps and paved roads; stop in and buy a few groceries at Winn-Dixie Morning Market, a recreation of a Mississippi grocery store; work behind the scenes or in front of the camera at WLMDC-TV; or hop aboard the Outback Express at the Dolan Avenue Depot. Outside kids can play hide-and-seek in the Tree House Village or visit Bear Creek complete with rustic wood cabin, babbling brook and a child-sized wooden train.
Center for Marine Education and Research
Located within the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, the newly constructed Center for Marine Education and Research is the first educational and research facility devoted to dolphin rescue and rehabilitation for Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. In addition to a veterinary clinic and pools large enough to contain an animal during any stage of rehabilitation, the twelve acre site also features an interactive museum and “touch pool” where visitors can experience underwater creatures such as horseshoe crabs, fish, blue crabs, sea stars, and sea urchins. Guests can also learn about tropical birds and reptiles during the museum’s animal presentations or search for a souvenir shark’s tooth in the fossil dig.
The center is also home to Bo and Buster – two Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins. Through the Dolphin Encounter Program, guests have the opportunity to feed, touch, and interact with a dolphin face-to-face. Better yet, swim alongside the dolphins with the Take a Dip with the Dolphin Program.
The center is open to the public on a limited basis and reservations are required. Morning and afternoon sessions are available, in addition to weekday and weekend appointments.
Live Oaks Bicycle Route
If your family enjoys sports and physical activities, consider renting a bike for the day and exploring all or part of the 15.5 mile, round-trip, Live Oaks Bicycle Route. The route takes riders along the seashore and across the new Biloxi Bay Bridge where one can enjoy expansive views of the Gulf of Mexico and the barrier islands.
The path continues through Ocean Springs to Davis Bayou Park, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Once there, families can enjoy a picnic, hike a nature trail, or enjoy the view. Live Oaks Bicycling Route maps are available at the Gulf Islands Visitor Contact Station and the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce.