Mississippi, the state that is such fun for elementary school students to learn to spell, is also fun for adults to explore. The Magnolia State is an interesting — some would say peculiar — place. Its high point at Woodall Mountain in the far northeast corner is a whopping 807 feet above sea level, and its lowest elevation, of course, is the Gulf of Mexico, almost 375 miles away.
In between are the see-to-the-horizon fields of the Mississippi Delta, plenty of pine trees and something in the air or water that produced international figures such as William Faulkner, the Muppets’ Jim Henson, blues legend Robert Johnson, Elvis Presley, “Father of Country Music” Jimmie Rodgers, Eudora Welty, Willie Morris, B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Those folks already are in history books, but the list of living legends of Mississippi barely gets started with James Earl Jones, John Grisham, Jimmy Buffett, Charley Pride, Morgan Freeman and Oprah Winfrey.
Yes, there is much that is special throughout Mississippi — astounding music, great literature, seafood and more seafood, casinos, preserved and adaptively used architecture, Civil War history, civil rights history, sunsets over the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, and coastal breezes among them. Building group itineraries is easy, especially if you want to build more than one.
Biloxi Shrimping Tour
Shrimp always have been big business — catching, processing and eating — in Biloxi, and the 70-minute on-the-water Biloxi Shrimping Trip explains it all. The crew drops its nets and delivers shrimp, crabs, flounder, squid and other treasures of the sea for inspection and explanation. Complement that experience with a tour and a group meal at the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum.
Elvis in Tupelo
Tupelo has a lot going for it — great food, the headquarters and visitor center of the Natchez Trace Parkway, Civil War history, the exhibit center of the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area — oh, and that fellow named Elvis. Visiting the Elvis Presley birthplace, seeing where he got his first guitar and getting a group photo with the Elvis Presley Homecoming Statue are sure-fire hits.
Mississippi Blues Trail
You’ll see historical markers for the Mississippi Blues Trail throughout Mississippi, and the Delta town of Clarksdale, known to fans around the world as Ground Zero for the blues, is a great tour itinerary focal point. Learn about this American musical genre at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, the B.B. King Museum in Indianola and the Grammy Museum in Cleveland, and be sure to get the musical experience at Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club.
Gaming, the kind with green felt tables and flashy machines displaying rows of whirling cherries and lemons, remains a big draw in Mississippi. The state’s first casino opened in 1992 in Biloxi. The Gulf Coast is the hot spot, and other wagering opportunities await you in Tunica, Vicksburg, Natchez, Greenville and the Pearl River Resort near Philadelphia. Expect good food, showroom entertainment and a chance to beat the house.
Up and Coming
The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience, abbreviated to The Max, opened in 2018 with a gigantic challenge: to tell the story of the almost unbelievable array of Mississippians who have influenced the world. Interactive exhibits, programs and performances in the $14 million facility spotlight Faulkner, Freeman, Grisham, Henson, King, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buffett, Sela Ward, Winfrey and on and on and on.
Ready to make a big splash in 2020 is the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport. It will have more than 80,000 square feet of exhibits, tanks holding a million gallons of saltwater and freshwater, and lots of animals to observe. There will be cute ones such as otters and dolphins, plus not-so-cuddly ones such as alligators and gars. The perspective is on all of Mississippi, from the Delta to the Gulf of Mexico.
Two Jackson Museums
Plan on extended stays at the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson. The museums, which share an entrance, opened in late 2017 and immediately began captivating visitors with state history that is told interestingly and with civil rights history that is told starkly and powerfully. They complement each other and warrant enough time to absorb their messages.
Numerous Mississippi breweries and distilleries offer tours or at least a tippling opportunity. The Lazy Magnolia Brewery became the state’s first since Prohibition in 2003. Its favorites include Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale. It’s at Kiln, just north of Gulfport. Find some harder stuff just up the road at the Crittenden Distillery. Ease up to Hattiesburg to sample Southern Prohibition’s brews, including Mississippi Fire Ant, an imperial red ale.
The 95-room Cotton House in Cleveland works well as a home base while exploring the Delta region’s attractions such as the Grammy Museum right there in Cleveland, the Delta Blues Museum up Highway 61 in Clarksdale and the B.B. King Museum in Indianola. The Cotton House is part of Cleveland’s Cotton Row, a neighborhood of brick-paved sidewalks, shops and restaurants.
The Graduate Oxford, one in a collection of boutique properties deeply influenced by universities, is just a mile from the Ole Miss campus and all its traditions. It’s also just a mile from Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s home. The hotel is right on the Square, the hub of downtown Oxford. Get a great view at the Coop, the hotel’s terrace lounge.
Dunleith, a 22-room mansion, will reopen this year for smaller groups after an ownership change. Built in 1856, it is Mississippi’s only example of an antebellum home with a fully encircling colonnade. The 40-acre estate is a National Historic Landmark in the Natchez historic district. Of note is the Castle Restaurant and Pub in a building dating to 1790. Another Natchez target: the 30-room Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens.
Gulfport claims the coast’s biggest new resort: the 48-acre Centennial Plaza, which opened in 2019, putting a collection of century-old buildings to modern uses. The complex was built to celebrate the 1917 state centennial, but World War I intruded. Facilities in the Spanish-architecture structures now include a 152-room family hotel, a 63-room boutique hotel, two restaurants and a dancing fountain.
It would be a challenge to do better than Walnut Hills in Vicksburg for down-home Southern cooking, sometimes with modern twists. Sit inside a house built in 1880 to enjoy fried oysters, Mississippi tamales, house-made pimento cheese with Cajun sausage, red fish almandine, pecan praline pie and fried chicken that chief cook Miss Herdcine has been perfecting for more than 30 years.
Folks around Meridian have been dining at Weidmann’s, a handsome brick-walled restaurant that features elegant lunches and dinners, since 1870. Some recipes date to the restaurant’s origins, but expect modern touches and presentation. A favorite: fried green tomatoes with Comeback dressing — you know, the kind that makes you want to come back. The Felix Room and the 1870 Room are excellent for groups.
Drago’s, adjacent to the group-friendly Hilton Jackson, is the sibling of four Louisiana restaurants, and visitors to Jackson celebrate the seafood emphasis it brought to town. The item that brings it special fame is charbroiled oysters, prepared with great showmanship in an open kitchen. Enjoy the show — and the garlic.
The Wine Room at Patio 44 in Gulfport is a memorable setting for a group meal, even before you start considering crawfish nachos, blackened catfish, crab cakes and pasta jambalaya. The view from the patio is good, too. There are sister Patio 44 locations in Biloxi and Hattiesburg.