I may have discovered the best and most beautiful small town in America. And quite by accident.
Like an explorer who went looking for a trade route and stumbled onto a civilization, I went looking for a beach getaway along the gentle arc of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and stumbled onto Ocean Springs. I knew there’d be natural gifts: slender stretches of white sand mirrored by five delicate and pristine barrier islands, quiet bayous, snowy egrets and brown pelicans. I did not know that nestled among those gifts would be a remarkable little town with great food, terrific galleries, cool shopping, and plenty of festivals that celebrate everything from high art to low-bush blueberries.
Ocean Springs was not only an ideal getaway, but I quickly decided it was also a place I now wanted to live. Less than twenty-four hours after my first delighted pass down its main street lined with live oaks and old-fashioned storefronts, I was already eyeing small fishing cottages in the historic district and dreaming of a new life in a small Mississippi town. A life where I could walk to top-quality museums and down to the beach at Biloxi Bay, where there was a farmers market every Saturday and a top-shelf cooking school at the town’s cultural center. Where no commercial development marred the shoreline, but instead, family homes flanked a new public park, with jungle gyms for clambering kids and a boardwalk for strolling seniors. Where I could get succulent pulled pork with a local brew, delicate blue crab salad with an artisan cocktail, a supremely fresh dragon roll, and a sloppy killer burger. Where the local doughnut place didn’t run on Dunkin’, but was a beloved institution calling itself Tato-Nut, proudly making its doughnuts from potatoes for fifty-four years.
The delights here were all the dearer when recalling that Ocean Springs had been pulled up by the roots, flooded, and flattened by the vicious landfall of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One of the oldest settlements on the coast (established in 1699 by the French), a longtime fishing port, and later a Victorian summer getaway, this historic little town had survived its share of hurricanes. Now, in the devastating wake of Katrina, Ocean Springs had managed to rebuild and rejuvenate in less than a decade. I saw no more bittersweet evidence than while strolling the shaded, sandy paths at Shearwater Pottery, a coastal cluster of rustic cottages—workshops, studios, and a showroom—that was the artistic heart of Ocean Springs.
Bought as a summer retreat in 1908 by Annette McConnell Anderson, a New Orleans socialite with bohemian tendencies, what began as a tiny art colony was developed by 1928 into a family business showcasing the pottery of all three of her sons, but particularly Peter. (Son Walter Anderson would emerge as a nationally renowned painter, whose turbulent life spawned work profoundly connected to the natural world of coastal Mississippi. His imprint on Ocean Springs is everywhere—vibrant community murals, a charming shop called Realizations that sells his prints, and the intimate and stunning Walter Anderson Museum of Art in downtown Ocean Springs.)
Over the years, Shearwater Pottery had become not only a destination for collectors who prized its delicate glazes on tableware, decorative items, and figurines, but had served as the wellspring of this remarkable clan of artists and craftspeople. When waters whipped by Katrina rose twenty-five feet and destroyed seventeen of Shearwater’s nineteen buildings, the family’s homes and workplaces were destroyed and an archive of Anderson pottery was taken by the mud. Beth Ashley, Peter’s granddaughter, walked the paths with me on a cool morning, stopping to toe the sandy soil. “There were pieces of pottery everywhere,” she said. “The showroom had been destroyed. We were never a big business, and we wondered how we’d ever get back in business quick enough to survive.”
But immediately, locals and far-away collectors showed up, offering to search the grounds and help rebuild. “They offered to buy anything that we had, to keep things going,” she said. What’s here now is both historic and new—Shearwater’s original brick kiln; pottery wheels encrusted with layers of fine, Mississippi mud; and a bright new showroom that displays historic Anderson pieces claimed by calamity and found again by friends. It is also filled with Shearwater’s newest pieces, including a small ceramic bowl with a glazed swirl at its bottom.
It’s called the Katrina Bowl. The eye of that storm, once so destructive, was now captured by Shearwater and made into art. I spied a line of cardboard boxes along the showroom office floor, each one emblazoned with large names inked in black. “Those are our brides,” Ashley said, laughing. What a fitting bridal registry for Ocean Springs—artistically minded, low-key, and making do with what materials were at hand.
I found this offbeat and resolute spirit everywhere I wandered in Ocean Springs. While the Mississippi coast teems with casino development, this town has said “no” to gambling so many times that the gaming companies no longer even ask. The downtown was devoid of chains stores of any kind, so what I found was a stimulating cohabitation of old-style businesses with fashion-forward start-ups. Within a few short blocks, I could have a root beer float at Lovelace Drugs’ soda fountain counter, which has been pulling soda since 1951, or spend the evening in the hands of young chef Alex Perry, whose farm-to-table creations at his new restaurant, Vestige, are drawing diners from throughout the region. Meanwhile, there was no better biscuit to be found in Mississippi than at Bayview Gourmet, the kind of old-fashioned spot that fills with families after church, and which will make you a breakfast cocktail to go with your crabmeat omelet, even on the Lord’s Day. And it felt much like a religious pilgrimage to drive to the town’s outskirts on Fort Bayou, to a sprawling chaos of bars and dining rooms and patios called The Shed, for transformative barbecue plated on metal cafeteria trays that look like they were made for the local prison.
That same lively experiment in old and new infused the shopping in town. In Paige Riley’s Hillyer House, I found a consummately curated gallery of pottery, fine art, glassworks, and artistic jewelry with thoughtfully written descriptions of each artist, making the shopping experience more like a cocktail party—with artistic benefits. Riley works with more than four hundred artists nationwide and was fiercely proud of the nearly fifty local artists she shows here, many of whose businesses she has helped grow into full-time, self-supporting endeavors. (“The governor of Mississippi named 2014 the year of the creative economy,” Riley said. “We think it’s the decade of the creative economy.”) At the other end of town, Linda Rosetti’s Pink Rooster Gallery bursts with paintings as well as the opulent, up-cycled vintage pieces of Mississippi jeweler Mia Kaye. And between the two sits a tiny, red cottage called the Art House run by a co-op of local artists offering hundreds of works—many remarkable, many remarkably inexpensive. Yet another Ocean Springs discovery.
But that seemed to be the theme every hour I was there. From discovering a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house in town in the midst of renovation, to finding the town’s shrimp fleet tucked away in an inner harbor, to standing in emotional awe at the wild seabirds that Walter Anderson painted all over the walls of his studio at Shearwater Pottery—I never ceased discovering this remarkable little town. I counted myself the luckiest of explorers and plotted my inevitable return.
BEDDING DOWN IN OCEAN SPRINGS
One of the charms of Ocean Springs is that the big hotel chains lie on its outskirts on a main commercial strip. To fully inhabit the joys of the place, choose between two options. Front Beach Cottages, a shabby-chic enclave of restored fishing cottages, is about five minutes’ walk from the shore. In the center of town, the Inn at Ocean Springs offers just two rooms; but they are glorious, luxurious, and feature the works of local artists.
Details. Details. Details.
Walter Anderson Museum of Art
Lovelace Drug Store
The Shed Barbeque & Blues Joint
Pink Rooster Gallery
Mia Kaye Designs
The Art House
Front Beach Cottages
The Inn at Ocean Springs