The jovial crowd boarding the Captain Pete Ferry politely jockeyed for a seat near the back of the boat for the hour-long ride to West Ship Island, 12 miles off the coast of Gulfport, Mississippi. In part they want to be in position to be the first off of the ship and onto the sandy beaches of the island, but seasoned passengers know that the best part of the day will very likely show itself within just a few minutes of the Captain Pete setting sail.
That's when a dozen or more Atlantic bottlenose dolphins begin to splash and play in the foaming, bubbly wake of the ship, entertaining passengers as much as they entertain themselves. This is the beauty of the Ship Island experience and why it's such an amazing place to visit.
The dolphins are among many of nature's treats on a day spent on West Ship Island, one of a dozen of barrier islands in the Gulf Islands National Seashore, with islands in Florida and Mississippi. West Ship Island is actually half of what had been just Ship Island, an 11 mile long strip of land that Hurricane Camille cut in half in 1969. Now there are East and West Ship Islands, but the park service headquarters and facilities are on West Ship Island.
That's also the location of Fort Massachusetts, a military defense begun in 1859. The fort was occupied by both Confederate and Union troops, the latter completing much of the fort's presence. Despite Hurricane Camille cutting Ship Island in two and Hurricane Katrina covering the island in 30 feet of water, Fort Massachusetts still stands, nary a brick out of place.
But most people don't make the journey for a history lesson. They come to perfect their tans, their body surfing skills, and to take a lazy nap protected from the sun by a bright blue beach umbrella.
The island is only about three miles long, so a casual stroll from end to end with toes tickling the surf is another way to enjoy the day. Some people fish from the 400 foot long pier and others picnic under the shelter adjacent to the snack bar. The snack bar offers basic hamburger, hot dogs, nachos, and soft drinks, along with beer and margaritas. Pack a cooler if you want something else or just want to save some money.
From early spring through Mother's Day weekend, the Captain Pete makes its once daily journey to the island at 9 a.m., returning to the mainland at 5 p.m. Then from Mother's Day until late August, the family-owned ferry service makes two trips, carrying as many as 400 people a day out for an unfettered view of the Gulf of Mexico.
Several Gulfport area hotels and condominiums offer packages that include ferry transportation to Ship Island. They are listed on the MS Ship Island website and can save you as much as $70 on your spring break getaway to the Gulf Coast.
Although the beach on West Ship Island is fabulous, so are the beaches that run for almost 70 unbroken miles on Mississippi's Gulf. You can park there for free and be just steps away from your car.
And a couple of the little towns are just so much fun, like Bay St. Louis. It's kind of edgy like Key West, but with a distinct mojo from the rest of Mississippi. If you can, coordinate your trip to be in Bay St. Louis the second Saturday of any month. That's when the community hosts its monthly art walk and the recently restored 100 Men DBA Hall hosts musical events. The Hall is on the Mississippi Blues Trail, a place where Fats Domino, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Big Joe Turner once rocked the wooden floors here.
Just 30 miles east of Bay St. Louis is Biloxi, famous for its lighthouse standing in the middle of Highway 90 and the Frank Geary-designed art museum. Inspired by the works of Biloxi's "mad potter," George Ohr, the museum includes a gallery featuring African-American art of Mississippi.
If you want to climb the easy 55 steps to the top of the Biloxi lighthouse on one of the morning-only tours, you'll need to buy tickets ($5) at the nearby visitor's center. The climb is easy, the view spectacular.
In fact, the view looking south out into the Gulf is spectacular everywhere on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Low cost, off-the-beaten path, and just a lot of fun. What else do you need for a beach getaway?
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A Midwest farm girl at heart, Diana Lambdin Meyer caught the roaming bug early in life. Diana married well - to a photographer who also has the travel bug and whose work in still and video complements her words. Now based in the Kansas City area, Diana is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers who makes a full-time living on the road and at the keyboard. Read about Diana's adventures on her blog, Mojotraveler or follow her on Twitter or Google Plus.
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