Gulf Coast shows off its post-Katrina beauty

The 18th hole at Fallen Oak.

The 18th hole at Fallen Oak.

BILOXI, Miss. -- Maybe I should have stayed at the buffet.

It’s 9 o’clock on a Thursday night at the bustling Hard Rock Casino, prime time for gamblers possessing at least an adequate skill set. Just look around: A fortysomething in a tailored suit gleefully rakes in chips at the craps table; an elderly woman, somewhere north of 80, taps the “replay bet” button on the penny slots, mumbling to herself when the sevens don’t align; and a middle-aged waitress in a too-short skirt offers me a fruity cocktail.

But listen, lady, this is no time for distractions – I’m about to play blackjack for the first time. Call it participatory journalism.

Sadly – no, pathetically – my Great Gambling Experiment didn’t last for hours and won’t someday be turned into a feature film starring Kevin Spacey. No, it’s more of a cautionary tale: The dealer hit blackjack, or 21, on five consecutive hands, all but vanquishing my limited supply of chips, and four minutes later my first blackjack experience was unceremoniously cut short, to the bemusement (and, later, the amusement) of my table mates. Great time.

So I thanked the dealer for the unintended, yet very public, humiliation and meandered through the rows of state-of-the-art slot machines, back through the lobby, out the front door and onto the lively main strip. Ah, yes, the vibrant heart of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the starting point for this golf-and-gaming bender. Not too long ago, it was utter destruction.

• • •

Reminders are everywhere on U.S. Route 90. Vacant lots overlooking the Mississippi Sound are for sale.

Old, beautiful oaks are bent awkwardly, away from the beachline. Foundations and chimneys stand alone in a grassy field. Though New Orleans garnered much of the national attention in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many locals think the worst damage was sustained here, in Biloxi.

How bad was it? The Hard Rock Casino – the very one in which I lost my daily stipend in four minutes – was scheduled to open Aug. 29, 2005, to much fanfare. But locals remember that date for an entirely different reason: It’s the day Katrina hit. Indeed, when the Category-5 hurricane made landfall, all of the windows at the Hard Rock were blown out, the walls crumbled and the only structure still upright was the iconic, 112-foot-tall guitar. The Hard Rock wouldn’t open for nearly two more years.

A few hundred yards down the strip, a 24-foot storm surge ravaged the glamorous Beau Rivage. Kandie Logan was waitressing at The Buffet. She remembers thousand-pound slot machines being uprooted like dandelions. She remembers poker tables floating out the front entrance and across the street. She remembers, as a volunteer for FEMA, seeing dead bodies and feeling helpless and crying for hours at the end of the day.

“Everything was wiped out, just complete disaster,” Logan said. “You didn’t know where anything was. Heck, you didn’t even know where the people were.”

Yet from ruins have emerged two world-class resorts, the Palace Casino and Beau Rivage, that will appeal to even the most insatiable consumer. Overlooking Biloxi Bay, The Palace, with its recent upgrades that include a spa, steakhouse and the state’s only non-smoking casino, mixes luxury with a cool, coastal vibe. And after a $550 million renovation, the Beau, ranked annually as one of the country’s top resorts, boasts a 1,550-seat theater that has drawn such shows as Cirque du Soleil and The Beach Boys; a night club, upscale sushi joint, italian eatery and sports bar; and, yes, an 85,000-square-foot casino with 94 table games, 2,056 slot machines and 16-table poker room.

A slice of gamblers’ heaven.

Remarkably, the Beau reopened a year to the day after Katrina slammed the Gulf, a turnaround that was critical not only for business but symbolically as well.

“We were putting people back to work,” said Mary Cracchiolo Spain, public-relations director at Beau Rivage. “We were trying to establish some sense of normalcy here.”

• • •

“Where, exactly, do I aim?”

There’s no sense of normalcy here on the elevated 18th hole at Fallen Oak. The testy finisher is played down the side of a ravine, with a grand oak along the right rough line, marsh down the left, those devilish Tom Fazio bunkers straight ahead and . . . excuse me, is this a 493-yard par 4?

Fallen Oak is No. 1 among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Mississippi and the No. 2-ranked casino course nationally, but actually playing well at this spectacular track proved a unique challenge.

This was the final, and most impressive, stop on a six-day expedition along the Gulf Coast – or, as it was known in the early 20th century, the Golf Coast. During my visit, I stayed in three casino resorts and played six of the state’s top-10 courses, all on a single tank of gas.

“Coming to the Gulf Coast gives you the Vegas feel, but it’s different,” said David Stinson, general manager at Fallen Oak. “You can golf. You can gamble. You can fish. And you get the Southern hospitality. There aren’t a lot of travel destinations out there that can give you that.”

Fallen Oak is the crown jewel of the area, no doubt, but more adrenaline rushes can be found at celestial Grand Bear, in Saucier. The six-mile drive to the clubhouse that weaves through the DeSoto National Forest only heightens the suspense, and the layout doesn’t disappoint. The Golden Bear himself, Jack Nicklaus, claims in the yardage book that “I don’t believe in a golf course with just one signature hole . . . we’ve built 18 signature holes,” and that may in fact be true, for each hole at Grand Bear flows effortlessly into the next without any tricked-up features or unnatural elements.

A similar aesthetic can be found less than an hour away at The Preserve, with the property’s entire southern border surrounded by 1,800 acres of natural conservatory. Visually intimidating off the tee – unless you welcome the sight of Southern cypress swamps, marshy wetlands and pitcher plant bogs – The Preserve’s tagline is “Golf . . . the way nature intended,” which is to say stunning, tranquil, uninterrupted.

Continue to appease your most primal instincts by overindulging at The Shed, a can’t-miss barbecue joint, located a few miles from The Preserve. Take note of the junk, too: the vanity license plates, the Mardi Gras beads, the cowbells. Dollar bills – thousands of them – hang from the walls and ceiling like moss clinging to a live oak. This correspondent, for strictly research purposes, ordered the Shed Sampler platter, a coma-inducing combination of all six meats (spare ribs, baby back ribs, pulled pork, brisket, sausage, chicken) and three sides (corn on the cob, beans, coleslaw), washed down with a frosty pint of Lazy Magnolia Golden Ale. Sorry, no room for dessert . . . but rest assured, other appetites were satisfied elsewhere.

A billboard on Interstate 10 raves that the Hollywood Casino, in nearby Bay St. Louis, is “where fortunes are made,” though my apparent lack of gambling savvy, even on the most simplistic games, proved that claim wholly inaccurate. Nonetheless, the resort itself is quite pleasant, and its proximity to the Arnold Palmer-designed Bridges, a fun course along the bay, makes it an ideal overnighter.

What else can you experience on your Gulf Coast adventure? Make a day trip to Gautier and play Shell Landing or drive inland to 36-hole Dancing Rabbit, all rollicking tests. Eat at the Half Shell Oyster House, sinking your teeth into scrumptious red shrimp. Rent Sea-Doos and zip down the coastline, enjoy a boat ride out to Ship Island or waste away for a few hours on a Biloxi shrimping trip. And, sure, try your luck in one of the numerous casinos.

But one friendly tip, if I may: Try online blackjack first.

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