By Rachel Stern
– As summer approaches, many travelers are making plans to flock to festive New Orleans. If you’re one of them, or are lucky enough to call NOLA home, consider traveling further along the Gulf Coast — which is also richly lined with history, culture and charm.
Two cities in particular caught my eye on a recent road trip through the Deep South: Mobile, Alabama and Biloxi, Mississippi, both situated within a two hour’s drive (or three-hour Megabus trip) from New Orleans.
It’s easy to assume that Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans. But it actually has its roots in Mobile, Alabama — the original capital of French Louisiana. Sure enough, the colorful celebration has taken place in Mobile since 1704, fifteen years before New Orleans was even founded.
First started as a masked ball, now a myriad of costumed parades sprout up around town every January and February until Fat Tuesday on February 12. Learn more about the tradition, put on hold in Mobile only a few times for war, at the artifact-rich Mobile Carnival Museum.
Present-day Mobile has an easygoing yet culturally rich feel to it. Even with a typical mild summer drizzle, my friendly Couchsurfing hosts and I biked around the historic district, stopping by antiquated mansions that lined the wide, worn sidewalks. Especially worth stopping at is the Oakleigh Historic Complex — a group of buildings that contain a former slave quarters, working class cottage, and a majestic home, built by brick mason James W. Roper in 1833.
We also paid a visit to the impressive Bragg-Mitchell Mansion, which offers daily tours through its now-public premises. The large white home was originally constructed in 1855 by Judge John Bragg so that his family could enjoy Mobile’s social season, which stretched from Thanksgiving to Mardi Gras. Nearby is the ornate French-built Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, laced on the inside and out with shiny white pillars and gold rimming.
We topped off our historic monument hopping with a refueling pit stop at Carpe Diem Coffee & Tea Company, a charming coffee shop housed in a two-story, 100 year-old Victorian home. For those looking for heftier dining options, check out the original Wintzell’s Oyster House, serving heaping portions of Gulf Coast seafood in downtown Mobile. For a unique Southern seafood-infused Vietnamese restaurant, visit Yen Restaurant.
I also received a look at other sea (and swamp) creatures with a visit to Alligator Alley — where the large, rescued reptiles lurk in their natural habitat — in the nearby town of Summerdale. Upon walking on the wooden viewing platform, I enthusiastically reached for a camera at my first ‘gator spotting, only to discover it was a very realistic statue. Still, the real deal did emerge from the swampy waters later, along with other local residents such as turtles, ospreys and a croaking bullfrog.
When I first arrived in Mississippi, I assumed that mud pie — a classic Southern slice of gooey chocolate coupled with ice cream — would be as ubiquitous as deep-dish pizza is in Chicago or cheesecake is in New York.
But to my surprise, “Y’all can’t find that ‘round here anymore,” a waitress at a dinner in Jackson told my friend and I as we drove from place to place, searching for the coveted dessert.
The exception was in the seaside town of Biloxi, about 90 miles from New Orleans, which seemed the quintessentially Southern spot in many ways — from rustic old Victorians to hospitable mom and pop restaurants.
Take Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, a Biloxi institution built in 1737 by French settler Louis Frasier. Shaped by high ceilings reminiscent of the Vieux Carré apartments in New Orleans, it also serves classic Creole and Southern items, from a heaping and decadent mud pie to “Lump Crabmeat Roumoulade.” Outside are lush, floral gardens and an elegant fountain.
The entire city abounds with historical gems, a prime example being its centerpiece, the Biloxi Lighthouse, which was erected in 1848. The cast iron monument, listed on the National Monument of Historic Places since 1973, has withstood many storms over the years. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina took a toll on the bricks lining the tower and broke many of the windows, but it reopened in 2010 for public tours.
Hop on the open-air Biloxi Tour Train (or the Shrimp Train as locals affectionately dub it) as it takes a 90-minute tour through Biloxi’s historic district. You’ll pass by the ornate, turn of the century City Hall, old shrimp fishing boats, and the Jefferson Davis Home (called Beauvoir), the house of the president of the Confederate States of America until his death in 1889.
Fast forward to modern-day Biloxi, which has become a gambling hub, with nine flashy casino resorts lining the coast. The largest and flashiest, greeting visitors as they roll into town, is the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. If you like Biloxi and Mobile so much that you want to stay an extra day, check into the fancy yet affordable Grand Biloxi Casino, Hotel and Spa, stepping outside into the warm sand as the sun sets.
Rachel is a San Francisco-based journalist and travel writer who also blogs for HuffPo Travel. Her reporting projects have taken her across the U.S. and globe, from Buenos Aires to Berlin. She enjoys being outdoors and active, tracking down quirky historical monuments, and discovering good food.