Coolest Small Town in America – Bay St. Louis
Little did we know when we decided to stay in Bay St. Louis, that in 2013, it had been named the “Coolest Small Town in America” by Budget Travel Magazine and that Coastal Magazine named it one of the top ten beach towns in the country in 2010! To us, it was just a stop off place on our way to New Orleans to visit friends. Who knew that it held all of these titles!
Our stay in the coolest small town started off with a bang or perhaps the more appropriate word would be a feast! When we checked in at Hollywood Casino RV Park, we were informed that there was a Southern Comforts buffet that normally is $13.99 but every Wednesday, it is 50% off for anyone over 55 with a Player’s Club card. Woo hoo – we qualify (well, almost we needed the card but that was easy to do)! We had heard about the buffets at casinos (and on cruise ships) but since we had never been to one recently we weren’t sure what to expect.
On other nights, they have a Steak Night (Mondays, $20.99), an Oyster Extravaganza (Tuesdays, $20.99). a Coastal Surf & Turf (Thursdays, $24.99), a Seafood Steamer buffet (Fridays, $24.99) plus daily luncheon buffets and breakfast buffets on Saturday and Sundays ($9.99).
Around 6 pm, we caught the shuttle van over to the casino where we immediately went to the service desk to get a Player’s Club card for each of us. Once that was done, we made our way to the 2nd floor.
Guess other people thought it was a good deal too because there was a line (the 55+ group sure know a good deal when they see it)! The good news was that it moved pretty quickly and before we knew it we were at the cashier with our Player’s Club card and our licenses (need to prove we were over 55) and then escorted to a table, fairly close to the buffet tables.
Once our waitress came over, we decided to peruse each of the buffet tables just to see what they were offering. OMG, I’ve never seen so much food in my life! Where to start?
I can’t possibly remember everything but I know there was a huge tray of boiled shrimp, fried catfish, fried flounder, fried chicken, oyster pasta, pizza, baked potatoes, and assorted veggies. Next to that was a BBQ/Grill section with ham, smoked turkey, barbecued chicken, pot roast, pork steaks, and smoked & regular sausage.
Moving on down the line there were more Southern specialties – crayfish corn bread, gumbo, dirty rice and probably more that I can’t remember.
And if you couldn’t find anything you liked there, there were the made to order sections where you could order fresh pasta – simply fill out a slip specifying what type of pasta, whether you wanted meat, poultry or seafood, what kind of sauce, seasonings, the add on options, and whether you wanted a small or large portion. Or perhaps you would prefer a made to order single or double hamburger? Perhaps with cheese or bacon? Simply fill out your slip and give it to your waitress and voilà it would appear at your table.
If that wasn’t enough, there was a huge salad bar which we skipped (after all, you can get lettuce anywhere) and a never ending dessert table with pies, cakes, cupcakes, assorted varieties of puddings/jellos. Oh, my!
Our strategy was to just try a little of “this” and a little of “that” but the problem was that there were too many varieties of “this” and “that” so before we knew it we had consumed way too much food and were totally stuffed. I didn’t feel too bad, our plates looked empty compared to others which were overflowing with food.
After we waddled out of there, vowing to never eat another morsel of food EVER, taking a look around at the casino itself, we decided that instead of catching the van back to the campground, we really, really needed to make the 10 minute walk back to the hacienda where we slumped into a food overdose stupor!
Amazingly the next day we had recovered from the big pigout and despite our vows of never eating again we were even watching ads on TV for restaurants in the area with interest so we decided to see what Bay St. Louis had to offer. As we took a ride along Bay St. Louis and through the neighboring town of Waveland, there were many empty foundations, a sign that the town has never fully recovered from the devastation of Katrina in 2005. A storm surge of over 30 feet killed 12 people, severely damaged the Bay St. Louis Bridge on US Highway 90 and the train bridge (only a few pilings remained), and destroyed half of the homes and public buildings in the town.
The destroyed vehicle bridge was replaced by a new St. Louis Bay Bridge in 2007 and has a pedestrian bridge with an art walk featuring the works of local artists. Many people have left the area and many couldn’t afford to rebuild. But there are those who have stayed and have rebuilt new homes which sit on minimum 20′ tall stilts made of concrete to comply with new building codes and hopefully place them above the next storm surge.
After a few turns we found ourselves in the historic section of town. The original settlement was established in 1699 by the French explorers d’Iberville and Bienville. After going through several name changes, it was incorporated as Bay St. Louis in 1818 when it was slated to become the state capital, eventually losing the title to Natchez and then to Jackson.
But today according to one of it’s brochures, the town “has grown into a center for arts, recreation and a bon vivant lifestyle”. Eventually we found our way to “The Depot” which was a two story mission style train depot, built in 1928. This building once served as a set in the 1965 movie starring Natalie Wood, This Property is Condemned. Today it is the Visitor Center and the Hancock County Tourism Development Bureau.
We decided to go in – boy were we pleasantly surprised! Not only is it the Visitor Center but it is now a Mardi Gras Museum. As we walked in, there were displays of gorgeous, very elegant Mardi Gras costumes. We’ve seen them on TV but never up close. What an assortment of bright colors, beads and feathers. WOW! I can’t imagine what it must be like to walk in a parade in one of these garbs! With all the beads and feathers they must weigh a lot and must be brutal if the weather is hot.
While we were walking around, we were greeted by a very friendly woman who welcomed us to Bay St. Louis. After we chatted for a minute, she said that even though Mardi Gras was over, we needed to be in the spirit of it so out came the very colorful and very long strands of blue, green and gold beads. And she told me I didn’t need to bare anything to get them! Whew, what a relief that was! She suggested we take the elevator upstairs to the Alice Moseley Folk Art & Antique Museum.
As we walked off the elevator we were greeted by a woman who told us the story of “Miss Alice”, an acclaimed folk artist who died in 2004 at the age of 94. Rather than my regurgitating her life history, you can read about her life on their website (click the link above) but there are a couple of facts that I found particularly interesting. She started painting when she was 60 to help her deal with caring for her mother who had Alzheimer’s. At the age of 80, she came to Bay St. Louis for an art show, instantly feel in love with the area, and much to the surprise of her son, Tim, bought the small, blue house featured in several of her paintings and moved there without knowing anyone. Imagine doing that at the age of 80! That small, blue house is still there, located across the street from the museum and can be rented.
Her paintings which were done on anything she could find: slabs of wood, driftwood, shingles, old saws as well as canvas were quite captivating and reminded us a little bit of Norman Rockwell, all depicting everyday life and showing a bit of humor. As an example, she painted her little blue house and titled it “The House is Blue, But the Old Lady Ain’t”. In addition to her paintings, the antique section of the museum contains a 35-year collection owned by her son, Tim, of majolica, art pottery, art glass and a wide range of collectible Americana.
After spending an hour or so looking at every thing, we finally left the museum. When we saw the sign for the Visitor Center, we certainly didn’t expect such a treasure trove!
Since we had picked up some brochures, including a historic walking & biking tour map, we decided to take a ride around the town again. This time we would know what we were looking at. Many of the streets are lined with Creole cottages which, according to the Hancock County Historical Society “may have originated in the West Indies and been introduced to New Orleans by refugees from Haiti, were popular in the city from about 1790 to 1850.” Some of these homes are on the National Register.
Besides the Creole cottages, there is a lot of history in Bay St. Louis as indicated in the photos below.
Alice Moseley’s art work is beyond amazing. I enjoyed seeing them through your photos.
The Mardi Gras costumes were beauties.