A PLACE YOU WEREN’T THINKING ABOUT OCEAN SPRINGS, MISSISSIPPI

 

 

“Nature does not like to be anticipated… but loves to surprise; in fact seems to justify itself to man in that way, restoring his youth to him each time — the true fountain of youth.”

Walter Inglis Anderson, May 1959

 

 

 

 

If Ernest Hemingway had not written about the outdoor wonders of the world – human, fish, fauna – from a Key West cottage, he might have been in Ocean Springs.

 

And if Walter Anderson hadn’t been a painter, watercoloring the world as he saw it from Ocean Springs, he might have written about it instead. 

 

And indeed he did write, though he thought only for himself, keeping logs of his adventures and fantasies. Walter’s records include musings of the many times he rowed the fifteen miles from his family’s art compound at Shearwater Pottery across the Mississippi Sound out to Horn Island, now a part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

 

 

Walter’s boat, which hangs in the Walter Anderson Museum

 

 

 

Ocean Springs or its environs has been named one of the state’s most redneck cities and one of the snobbiest by the same publication in back to back years. Not many places in the world have mutually exclusive personalities.

 

But not many places in the world are Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Fact is, there appears to be no other town bearing the name “Ocean Springs” in the entire country. 

 

Front Beach is small, and protected, so there’s no surf, and a visit to the waterfront feels more like strolling through a park than a day at the beach. And the small inner harbor is idyllic, featuring fishing, leisure and shrimp boats that look for all the world as though they were miniatures placed there by hand, just for purposes of arranging the perfect post card setting.

 

 

 

 

Ready for adventure

 

 

Lots of towns boast live music a few nights a week. But Ocean Springs weekends never start later than Thursdays, and often on Wednesdays. So a little asking around is likely to result in landing at a spot on almost any night where someone is holding forth. And in Ocean Springs, everyplace is Cheers.

 

The first time we visited Kwitzky’s Dugout, we went because I had never seen a bar with a “No Smoking” sign out front, and I could tell the owner was a big baseball fan, besides (ergo, the name).

 

We sat down at a table and within minutes a small lady with long grey hair said, “You’re not from here, are you?”

 

She introduced herself as “Ching,” an artist she said, which I wasn’t buying, except, of course, to the extent that everyone you meet in a bar in a coastal town is an artist or a musician. Then, she called over an enormous man whom she introduced as her husband Bob Walters, a retired fighter pilot, retired commercial airline pilot and current nature photographer. They had sailed some several thousand miles together and decided to make Ocean Springs home, their story went.

 

Seated at the bar was Tom, the chicken hypnotist. I wasn’t buying his story either. So, he reached behind me onto the window sill, where resided a framed photograph of a man who appeared to be himself, dressed as an Egyptian pharaoh, with what could only have been a dead or comatose chicken on the table in front of him.

 

I went to the men’s room to collect my thoughts, and on the wall hung a beautifully finished print of a painting of a shorebird. It was signed “Ching.” 

 

Hustling back to my table, I whispered to my wife that they were all telling the truth.

 

A print of a Ching original, an osprey nesting on a navigation buoy, now hangs in my office. Alongside it is a large-format photograph of Ocean Springs inner harbor, canvas wrapped, bearing the name Bob Walters.

 

We’ve been back more than once to watch Tom hypnotize chickens, in character.

 

 

 

 

These live oaks have seen their share of hurricanes

 

 

 

 

Live oaks line the main downtown north/south thoroughfare of Washington Avenue, ruling sentries in a town that doesn’t take kindly to rules. I used to believe the easy explanation that “live oaks” are so named because they are evergreen. Unlike most hardwoods, they do not lose their leaves in the winter. But having seen so much natural destruction on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as a result of hurricanes in my lifetime alone, it now seems to me that we call them live oaks because they are still alive, long after they shouldn’t be. What life cycles are sustained in their canopies, what stories memorialized in their twisted trunks?

 

Anderson himself likely pondered these same mysteries, and his paintings reveal the passion he had for natural life and the obsession he felt about portraying it. Everywhere you look is evidence that this is Walter’s town — the annual “Peter Anderson Festival” each November, named for his potter/sculptor brother, and Mardi Gras and St. Paddy’s celebrations in the pre-spring notwithstanding.

 

A small piece of Walter’s expansive mural

The crown jewel of Anderson’s omnipresence is the Ocean Springs Community Center, now a part of the Walter Anderson Museum. Asking only a fee of $1.00 for his efforts, he adorned all four of the Center’s interior walls in 1951 with a watercolor mural of breathtaking scope and spirit, and of a power that forces the observer to stop and breathe and imagine and wish and wonder.

 

Photographs can’t begin to do justice to the work; the mural must be seen all at once before studying its component parts. Anderson portrayed d’Iberville on his 1699 landing in Ocean Springs (with the artist himself in his ubiquitous hat playing boatman for the explorer), possums, foxes, a bear, deer, trees, suns, moons, birds and more birds. The work is the subject of a very fine photographic collection called Walls of Light, still available in print from the University Press of Mississippi.

 

But capturing Anderson’s work in a photograph is taming a will o’ the wisp. The first time viewer is dazzled. The veteran viewer — I have stood in the middle of the room turning slowly many, many times — is still dazzled.

 

 

 

 

IT’S NOT JUST ART…

 

Lest the traveler think Ocean Springs is just for the arts crowd, be assured to the contrary. There’s the food, and the music, and the shopping, and the food, and the water, and the weather, and the food and the festivities.

 

We stay in a studio apartment downtown when we visit Ocean Springs, which is often. If I stood atop the building and looked around, I could see restaurant choices covering the gamut of tastes. Down the way on Government Street is Mediterranean fare at Phoenicia, BBQ at Murky Waters, burgers at Government Street Grocery and The Love Shack (really), donuts at The Tatonut Shop, gyros at Glory Bound, oysters and steaks at Charred, and tapas at MosaicThe Crawfish House is just beyond our line of sight from the roof, and a bit farther down Government.

 

 

Vestige’s Chicken, Shio Kombu Furikake and whipped peanuts***Vestige***

 

 

On Washington, one may choose continental at Vestige (where 2019 James Beard nominated chef Alex Perry cooks each evening — good luck getting a table), pastries at French Kiss (really, again), soda fountain fare at Lovelace Drugs, casual dining at Lancaster’s and fine French and seafood cuisine at Maison de Lu.

 

In fairness, it’s hard to say that I could see Maison de Lu if I was on my roof, since our apartment is situated immediately above the restaurant. It’s also hard to say that I am impartial about Maison de Lu, because I love the proprietress Lu Ann Ellis and the team that works there with her.

 

Oh, and I have eaten way too much of their food.

 

While on Washington Avenue, do not miss the coffee at Bright-Eyed Brew Co. The business started out as an iced coffee cart at the weekend fresh market, and has become a downtown mainstay. I don’t do the named coffees, because I don’t know what the names mean. And I don’t drink cold coffee. But if you like good, hot, locally ground and fresh-brewed coffee, Bright-Eyed is a must stop. And whatever they put in their mini-waffles is something you want to put in your mouth.

 

From my roof, I can’t quite see far enough round the corner onto DeSoto Street, through the trees onto Bellande Street or down Porter Street, but if I could I’d see breakfast being served at Buzzy’s Back Porch (Buzzy is the owner’s dog; the entire town is dog-friendly) on DeSoto, fancy cook-at-home meals at Lola Fleur on Bellande, and gourmet salads and sandwiches a few blocks down Porter at Eat, Drink, Love.

 

 

 

 

The Greenhouse on Porter

 

A little farther down Porter Street, Kait Sukiennik and Jessie Zener are the owners and managers of The Greenhouse on Porter. The establishment is an actual greenhouse, fronted by a little, green house. And it serves the most amazing biscuit creations you can begin to imagine.

 

“Biscuits to get your jam on” they call them. But not all the biscuits are made for jam. Each day, drawing from a seemingly bottomless pool of creativity and taste combinations, the bakers mix up (I don’t think you “whip up” biscuits) both a savory biscuit of the day and a sweet biscuit of the day.

 

 

Where the biscuits are

 

 

 

Entry is through the little, green house, where diners are served their breakfast delights and gravity-brewed coffee, then wind their way back into the greenhouse. Which actually used to be a greenhouse, and still looks like one, though climate controlled, so it’s all comfy.

 

Now, instead of potting trays of baby petunias, it is populated by long rows of tables and benches, flanked by smaller tables and chairs for those not into the breakfast-with-strangers scene, and lined by posters reflecting a wide range of cheeky social, political and cultural thoughts:

 

“You can’t open the gates of Hell just to take a peek.”

 

“If you are gonna be dumb, you gotta be tough.”

 

“It’s user friendly if you know how to use it.”

 

“You can’t do right wrong and you can’t do wrong right.”

 

 

 

 

LITTLE LIBRARIES AND LOVELY CHURCHES

 

The town is a walker’s delight, with pleasant surprises to see block after block. While the energetic might take the 1.7 mile power walk over the high rise bridge that spans Biloxi Bay from Ocean Springs to Biloxi, a more casual and pastoral experience is to be had just for the walk around town.

 

Need a book? Take a book

And before too many steps are taken, the visitor will be struck by the number of “Little Free Libraries” in this little town. I’ve since learned that Little Libraries are kind of a thing in communities around the nation, but since they only work in walking towns, and since I live in a largely rural area outside municipal limits in my real house, I hadn’t experienced the delight of neighbors sharing books in birdhouse-sized boxes outside their homes for those who care to stroll by and have a look through.


They’re everywhere in Ocean Springs, and very cool. Though here my inner nerd surely emerges, because as much as I love to loan out books from my personal library, I can’t imagine leaving them outside in the weather, even covered. Humidity is “down” on the Gulf Coast when it is below 95%, so anything made of paper left outdoors will show the effects before very long.

 

Ocean Springs presents as a smaller, cleaner, more family-friendly New Orleans. And in keeping with the traditions of its larger neighbor 100 miles to the west, Ocean Springs bristles with church steeples. Lovely little structures, many built in the nineteenth century, house congregations today, and add to the sense of peace and soundness in the beach hamlet they occupy.

 

Consistent with its French heritage, the town is home to significant Catholic congregations in impressive buildings, but Presbyterians, Baptists and Episcopalians all have their places downtown, too.

 

Free public parking, though plentiful throughout the downtown area, fills up on Saturday evenings early, including in the lots of the several churches in town. But by Sunday morning, parishioners find their lots open and available, and perhaps only some worse for wear for a few unwelcome leftover empties from the night before.

 

And if Ocean Springs is unique for anything, it certainly must rank on a very short list of small towns whose First Baptist Church is right across the street from a sign that sometimes reads, “All you can drink draft, $15.”

 

Ocean Springs is a place you have to see. I’m telling the truth.

 

 

 

St. John’s Episcopal Church, built in the 1890s

 

 

 

 

IF YOU GO

 

Perhaps because Ocean Springs is part art enclave and part sleepy fishing village, its overnight accommodations have not yet caught up with its growing reputation as an entertainment destination. But there are some wonderful stay-over spots, including a surprise or two.

 

On Washington Avenue, in the epicenter of downtown action, is the Inn at Ocean Springs, which is as charming and well-appointed as the name suggests. The rooms available are limited, and often spoken-for well in advance, but always check to see whether you might be able to sneak in for a night or two, particularly on weeknights. www.oceanspringsinn.com

 

 

Avenue Suite at The Inn

 

 

The newly opened and very hip spaces down Porter Street at The Roost will make you think you have been teleported in a time and space continuum that somehow landed you in a luxury Caribbean hideaway, at half the fare. Be sure to ask for one of the suites that features access to a private balcony space, but even the common outdoor space feels private and allows for engaging other guests or for private conversation, as mood and circumstances dictate. Lodgers at The Roost have the added benefit of being upstairs from refreshments at The Wilbur, an Al Capone-style speakeasy with a hidden room behind the bookcase. www.roostoceansprings.com

 

 

Shearwater Suite at The Roost

 

 

Front Beach Cottages on Dewey Avenue aren’t actually on the beach, and they’re a few blocks’ walk from the heart of downtown, but you really should stay there for the experience anyway.  The NOLA Cottage and the Key West Cabana reflect the decor and feel their names imply, and the Bellande Cottage has two bedrooms and can sleep 6. Some of the cottages have (private) outdoor showers, and all of them have a cool factor off the charts. www.frontbeachcottages.com

 

 

The Key West cabana, which welcomes “well-behaved dogs that do not bark constantly”

 

 

For the traveler looking for more glitz than character, and who doesn’t mind staying out of town, many very large, full service casino hotels are available starting just on the west side of the Biloxi Bay bridge, only a couple of miles away.