One of my all-time favorite vacations was spent in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Most people wouldn't guess that about me.
I do not gamble --- at all. I don't even play the lottery. It is, to me, an unconscionable waste of both time and money. On top of that, I don't care much for the heat, or the beach, or the Southern drawl... Really, Biloxi seemed like about the last place on earth I would enjoy.
But it was summertime, and my husband was teaching a software class at one of the casinos, Isle of Capri, in Biloxi. He would be staying in the casino hotel for a week. My kids were away, and I had the vacation time, so I decided to go with him, rather on lark, as they say.
So I spent a week in Biloxi, on my own all day long, dinners and evenings with my husband. For me, just having the alone time was novel enough to begin with, and something I never can seem to get enough of.
The casinos were situated on barges lining the coastline, all along the one main road, route 90, which ran the length of the beach. There were trolley-style busses, that ran at regular intervals up and down the stretch, but I found I could also pretty much walk a good part of it, in a half hour or so.
The weather that week was warm but not brutally so; skies were clear, every day I think.
Each morning that week I got up, and started the day searching for a drinkable cup of coffee. The coffee was bad. Uniformly bad. I started with room service the first morning: Bad. Tasted like it came from an old boot. Then the next day I tried the hotel restaurant, thinking maybe it would be fresher or something. Not. Other days I wandered down the street to nearby hotels; always the same, and strangely, the same flavor of boot. One morning I even tried the French restaurant down the street at the Beau Rivage, the grandest resort on the stretch. I was certain the coffee there would be great. It was such a pretty restaurant, well decorated, yellow tablecloths and fresh flowers, nice waiters. But no, more eau de old boot. It tasted exactly the same as every other cup of coffee I’d had the whole week. Somehow, instead of being annoyed, it struck me as extremely funny.
I walked through almost every casino there, by myself. Sometimes I would take a break, and stop and look at the people gambling; the gamblers never noticed. But the casino-watchers watched me, I knew, it was kind of funny. I must have seemed out of place.
Certain times of the day, busses would roll in, bringing gamblers. Seems like a lot of them were in wheel-chairs. Seems like a lot of them smoked. Some of them I would see at the same slot machine, morning and evening. It was easy to imagine that they didn't really have the money to spend, a lot of them. I never talked to any of them.
Some afternoons I spent at the hotel pool with a margarita or two. I found the other hotel guests quite amusing. I remember there was a big cigar-smoking mom. And a young couple that I can only describe as hillbilly-esque, and I don't necessarily mean that in a nice way. They probably didn't think much of me either. But I got a tan, one of the few times in my life.
But beyond the casinos, there was more to Biloxi. There was a walkway between the beach and the main road, which I walked every day. They had a small aquarium, in which I spent an afternoon. I love aquariums, and enjoyed this one a lot, partly because I hadn’t expected it to be there. It seemed out of place next to the neon casino signs and hotels. It seemed like an earnest albeit less-than-successful attempt to bring a little science to the shoreline there.
One evening we took a dinner cruise. At 6 pm we boarded a paddle boat, which rode about 30 guests out a short distance from shore, where we enjoyed a very nice dinner, well prepared and presented. I remember the dining room had polished hardwood floors, and there was a jazz ensemble playing, and it was a beautiful evening. At dusk, we walked to the outside deck and watched the lights appear on the shore line.
One of the highlights for me was visiting Beauvoir, Jefferson Davis's home in Biloxi. I spent a whole day there. It was such an interesting historical site; the southern "bayou" architecture, a single story but raised up from the ground. There were historic maps and paintings, furniture, outbuildings, gardens, a little museum where I learned a lot about Jefferson Davis that I'd have never known.
(His first wife, Sarah Knox, was the daughter of President Zachary Taylor. They were evidently quite madly in love --- they eloped; but tragically, after three months of marriage, they both contracted malaria; when he came out of his fever, she was dead. Also, I learned that he was accused of posing as a woman to evade Yankee capture --- an accusation that was disputed. Davis's story was that in the heat of the moment, he'd mistakenly taken his wife's cloak instead of his own.)
On the last day, we checked out of the hotel and walked through the shopping section of the casino next door, and lo and behold, there was a Cinnabon, which somehow I'd missed previously. We got our last cup of coffee in Biloxi, and finally hit the java jackpot. It actually tasted like coffee.
I came away with a real fondness for the place. It wasn’t meant for people like me, so I saw it from a different angle. It seemed endearing in its fond desire to become a gambling city. It didn’t seem like it could ever quite pull it off. The rule of having to put all casinos on barges seemed an absurd limitation to me. But nevertheless, they did it. I don’t think I would have tried, personally.
After Katrina, I checked the web sites of Mississippi news stations to find out how the place fared. It was horrible to see the pictures; the casinos washed up on the shore, what awful devastation. People’s lives and livelihoods wrecked, some beyond repair. I was immensely saddened.
I searched for news on Beauvoir, but didn’t find much, until finally last night I found this:
Beauvoir was protected from high waters from its position on top of an incline, and about 65 percent of the main house still stands. The building has lost its front porch and columns, along with part of the first-floor library.
"We haven't lost it. The fact it's still standing is great news," said Waite Rawls, executive director of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va. "It will be rebuilt. It's just a question of money."
I expect they’ll get the money. Whatever else about the South I might not like, they do love their history.