Not surprisingly, spending several days with my wife, Wendy, last week on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and a few more in the heart of Louisiana’s Cajun Country was – to say the least – a blast.
In Mississippi, we stayed in a nice little cottage near the beach in Gulfport, and took full advantage of our close proximity to the wonderful, historic coastal city of Biloxi.
Among other things, we got sand between our toes walking on the beach, went for a ride on “The Sailfish” (a shrimp boat that dragged a trawl net along the bottom of the Mississippi Sound and pulled up numerous examples of the area’s aquatic species), took a self-guided walking tour among the amazing collection of historic buildings in downtown Biloxi (many of which represent beautiful examples of a bye-gone architectural age) and ate plenty of top-notch local shrimp and other seafood.
We also met some friends of Wendy’s (who came from nearby Moss Point, Miss., and Mobile, Ala.) for a nice lunch at McElroy’s on Biloxi’s Small Craft Harbor and had the eye-opening experience of observing dozens upon dozens of empty lots along the coast highway leftover from devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. All the while, we hit the jackpot on the weather, with temperatures at about 80 every day and little to no humidity.
After we changed locations to Henderson, La., (near Lafayette), we slept in a more standard motel setting, but continued to enjoy things completely foreign to life in the Ozarks.
We visited the picturesque downtown portion of Breaux Bridge (“The Crawfish Capital of the World”), sampled gator nuggets at Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant (on the banks of Bayou Amy in Henderson) and were captivated by the thick Cajun accents we heard when long-time residents spoke.
But our time in Louisiana also produced what we now consider the highlights of the entire week: Visiting swamps.
I have for quite some time envisioned being on a boat as it maneuvered through stands of cypress trees or tall sawgrass, and I figured it would exciting and fascinating. I was by no means disappointed – in fact the real thing exceeded all my expectations.
Inside our Beachview Vacation Cottages accommodations in Gulfport, the owner (a friendly, personable man named Barney who we got to know fairly well in a short time), had left a pile of brochures describing a variety of attractions in the area. One was a pamphlet for “Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours” along the Pearl River near Slidell (not far northeast of New Orleans). The photos in the brochure looked great, so we purposed to stop there on the way to Cajun Country.
Words can’t do justice to the beauty we witnessed. After we and about 25 other people boarded one of several the outfit’s dual outboard flat-bottom boats (that were lined with benches on the port and starboard and sides and shaded by canvas awnings), our guide, Captain Charlie, steered the craft into the river and we whizzed downstream at about 30 knots for a few miles, passing acres of deep southern forest and a few colonies of “fish camps” (waterfront cabins accessible only by boat).
Then, Charlie turned the boat west and we entered another world. Having literally grown up on the Pearl and lived in the area most of his life, the man at the helm was well equipped to deliver spot-on descriptions of the Honey Island Swamp’s characteristics, wildlife and history, and listening to him was like hearing a book being read by its author.
Only this author had a cool – albeit not thick – accent.
Before returning to base after about a two-hour jaunt, we saw everything from blooming wild irises, to awesome cypress trees bearing branches draped with Spanish moss, raccoons that liked eating marshmallows (and knew they were going to get one when the boat showed up) and even wild boars and their incredibly cute babies. And oh yeah, alligators.
One gator Charlie showed us was an 8-foot, one-eyed female in a canal lined with big, expensive homes that he said had lost an eye in a confrontation with a great blue heron (which Charlie called “vicious” birds that were not to be messed with). He said the big reptile spent most of her time in that vicinity, and was even known to hang out on a dock behind one of the homes, along with – for real – two dogs owned by the man who lived there.
We also saw a 5-footer lying on a log with its mouth wide open. Charlie explained the gator was panting, which is their form of bodily air conditioning, like a dog.
The next day, we took the advice of a local resident of Henderson and took a ride on an airboat on the Atchafalaya River Basin out of Basin Landing and Marina just outside of town (in the Atchafalaya National Heritage Area).
The woman who helped us there gave us the choice of using either earplugs or noise-reducing headsets on our trip, because the boat we would be on was “loud.” That turned out to be 100-percent true, as the boat’s four front-facing bench seats were only a matter of feet away from a 540-horsepower engine that turned the craft’s rear-mounted propeller and sounded like the motor in souped-up drag racer.
But the loudness did nothing to diminish the experience, as the astonishing beauty of the cypress swamp we traveled through could only be called breathtaking. And oh yeah, there were gators.
Our guide was once again a born-and-raised local, and he stopped the boat now and then to talk about our surroundings. At one point, he pulled up near a large gator that looked almost fake as it lay motionless on a log, and said (in an flowing Cajun dialect), “the boss lady told me to find a place to put dis stuffed gator, and I told her ‘I’ve got the perfect spot.’”
About half way through our hour-and-a-half trip, rain began to fall hard, so (at my wife’s suggestion) our captain pulled the boat underneath the eastbound section of the approximately 18-mile long parallel bridges that allow vehicles to cross the Atchafalaya Basin on Interstate 10. Once the rain backed off, we moved on, crossing a large area of open water on Lake Bigeaux and then passing numerous houseboats docked along outer edge of the basin (below the gigantic levee that lines the its boundary).
In the midst of one of the houseboat “neighborhoods,” we floated close to a 9-foot gator that was hanging out on top of a floating pile of wood and other junk (I called him the “junk gator”).
After we docked, Wendy and I talked for an extended time with Mike and Graig (yep, Graig), a pair of local men hanging around outside Turtle’s Bar (an establishment at the marina complex). They were both friendly and amiable, and seemed to enjoy talking with the Missourians as much as the Missourians liked conversing with the Cajuns. We couldn’t get enough of their beautiful Cajun vocal delivery.
Prior to leaving Henderson, we came across an absolutely fantastic art gallery, called the Cajun Palette, inside (of all places) a seafood restaurant. We were amazed as we explored several rooms where owner Anne S. Logan displays and sells world-class paintings and other artwork produced by many local artisans – including herself.
We also enjoyed a lengthy talk with Ms. Logan, who was yet another locally-produced piece of artwork in her own right.
I would venture to say that this southern outing went about as well as it could have, and I highly recommend the swamp tour idea.
It’s hard to argue that vacationing in a place you’ve never been before is always a good way to learn and create lasting memories. But it’s also a somewhat tiring challenge, and I think it’s safe to say there’s one part of every vacation that’s near the top of the list: Coming home.
Here’s a link to a gallery of photos Wendy and I took on our trip:
Online links to cool stuff on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in Louisiana swamp country:
Atchafalaya National Heritage Area: http://www.atchafalaya.org/
Atchafalaya Basin Landing & Marina: http://www.basinlanding.com/
Cajun Palette Art Gallery: https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Cajun-Palette-Art-Gallery/437422849712979
Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours: http://www.honeyislandswamp.com/
Gulfport, Miss.: http://www.gulfport-ms.gov/
Biloxi Shrimping Trip Aboard the Sailfish: http://www.biloxishrimpingtrip.com/ordereze/Content/3/Summary.aspx
Shaggy’s Biloxi Beach Restaurant: http://shaggys.biz/locations/shaggys-biloxi-beach/
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.