Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Ocean Springs Odyssey

Story & Photographs Carmen K. Sisson

It’s late afternoon on Front Beach, and time is unraveling from its skein, sliding into the tepid, salty Gulf, curling around the setting sun, and sinking into the depths.

A little boy sneaks up on his sister and slips a fiddler crab down her striped tank top. She squeals and dashes into the surf, grabbing a fistful of sand and throwing it to the wind like maritime confetti. Two girls peer over the edge of their magazines, window-shopping the local rakes, who ­— oblivious they’re being watched — gather driftwood for a bonfire. A mother slathers sunscreen on a chubby toddler. Harry, a mutt of indiscernible heritage, stares at the sky, certain this time he’ll catch that laughing gull.

Ocean Springs has a way of convincing a person he can do anything, from snagging the one that got away to getting away from the ties that snag.

Billed as the “City of Discovery,” it is still in many ways a city waiting to be discovered. Unlike its glitz and glam neighbor, Biloxi, Ocean Springs is not so much a destination as an état d’esprit.

Whatever you need is whatever it becomes, and every trip is different. Like oysters on the half-shell, one time you’ll slurp it down and thirst for more, and the next time, you’ll take it in slowly, letting the taste linger on your tongue.

Front Beach is a good place to begin your sojourn. Easily one of the prettiest — and least populous — beaches on the coast, it’s unique.

For one thing, leashed dogs are welcome here, and cleanup stations keep things pleasant. Alcohol is also allowed, but the local police are vigilant, and most of the coast’s rowdiest denizens take their parties across the bridge, maintaining the family-friendly atmosphere. The street is often closed to traffic, making it bicycle-friendly as well.

Another thing that makes Front Beach unique is that it lines a high bluff that constitutes Fort Maurepas Park. Strewn with live oaks and history, it’s worth the drive just to sit on the hill and watch the sun set. Or, better yet, make an appointment with the sunrise.

This is where history began in Ocean Springs, back in 1699 when French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville (whose statue overlooks the park) set up his colony.

Let your mind wander to a time when exploration and discovery were paramount to survival. Imagine the colonists busily loading gunpowder, ammunition and livestock. Remember Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed Fort Maurepas Park, as well as much of Ocean Springs. Marvel at the tenacity and courage these shores have witnessed.

Hang out on the beach and relax by the bonfire. Catch a game of night volleyball. Light some sparklers and write your name in the sky. 

Then, go to The Shed, a bonafide Q joint drenched in bayou and smoked in hickory.

It’s the kind of place where you can show up in flip-flops and shorts, sand still clinging to your toes, and feel at home. It’s also the kind of place where you can find good barbecued brisket, 100 kinds of beer, enough sweet tea to send you into a coma and smoky blues.

Start your day at Tato-Nut Donut Shop. There’s a reason people line up outside this tiny yellow building downtown. The doughnuts are that good. During Mardi Gras season, they even have a King Cake doughnut.

When you’re finished eating, wander the business district. Washington Avenue is an amazing coastal treasure. Shaded by moss-draped live oaks and flanked with upscale boutiques and off-kilter shops, it is what Boston’s Harvard Square would be if you compressed it into a few blocks and doused it in Southern charm.

Whether you’re looking for a rhinestone dog collar, a seashell wind chime, an oil painting or a vintage necklace, you’ll find it and more.

Wear your walking shoes, and be sure to venture onto the side streets. Some of the most nondescript buildings have been remarkably transformed by colorful, intricate murals, many of which tell the town’s history — from the glory of its founding to the sadness of Katrina to the joyful rebirth of recent years. Bring your camera. You’ll want to take pictures.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

It’s impossible to ignore the arts influence here. Ocean Springs is known as somewhat of an artists’ colony, an element that has only grown stronger since Katrina.

The Ocean Springs Art Association boasts a staggering roster of 400 local artists, and on the first Saturday of every month you can find several dozen of them plying their wares — most with a nautical theme — on the lawn of the Mary C. O’Keefe Cultural Center.

Be sure to go inside the Center, too. Built in 1927 as a school, it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was restored in 1998. The sprawling building is itself a work of art. The paintings on the walls are a bonus.

Save the rest of the afternoon to explore the world of artist Walter Anderson, for it is to his talented family that Ocean Springs owes its cultural pedigree.

In 1914, Walter’s mother, Annette Anderson, purchased a tract of land to create an art colony. She wanted her three sons, Walter, Peter and Mac, to be artists. She got her wish, and you can see the fruits of their labor sprinkled throughout town.

The family business, Shearwater Pottery, was founded in 1948 and remains open today. Set deep in the woods along a winding gravel trail, it’s a perfect place for quiet reflection. In the mornings, you will catch resident potters throwing clay. In the show house, you can see some of Walter Anderson’s work that was saved from the waters of Katrina.

If you visit the nearby Walter Anderson Museum, you can see even more of his work — nearly 1,000 pieces. Douglas Myatt, director of collections and exhibitions, says he’s surprised more people don’t know about Anderson, whom he likens to a Mississippi Matisse or Cezanne.

“He’s largely an undiscovered genius,” Myatt says. “Widely collected and widely respected, but not well-known. He got more attention for being eccentric than for his art.”

Many of Anderson’s paintings focus on his favorite place, nearby Horn Island, where he lived in relative seclusion, especially towards the end of his life. The paintings are joyful, but tinged in sadness.

“The museum is a very calm, almost spiritual space,” Myatt says. “You become immersed. You’re almost inside the artwork.”

Go with an open mind. Prepare to get lost. Take your time. Ocean Springs will wait.

Head back downtown. In the summertime, street festivals are plentiful, and if you’re lucky, you may catch a reggae band performing on Washington Avenue. It’s a happening place where music spills into the street and smells of every kind of food imaginable abound.

If you want to go where the locals go though, stop at Government Street Grocery. It’s a dive, but it’s also an institution. The food is standard pub fare, though the Grocery Burger consistently wins “Best Burger” contests around the Gulf, and the muffaletta wins high marks if for no other reason than a good, New Orleans-style muffaletta is hard to find in Mississippi.

If you feel adventurous, order Grocery fries and a Redneck Vacation (A bottle of PBR with a lime slice). There’s usually a live band playing oldies, and sitting on the patio, with string lights twinkling and a warm breeze blowing, is the epitome of chill.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

Photographed by Carmen K. Sisson.

You’re not going to want to leave. It’s okay. There’s no rush. Drink in some sun, laze on the beach or grab a snow cone at The Snow Shack, where they offer more than 100 varieties of flavored ice. A personal favorite is the root beer and cinnamon, but the most requested flavor is wedding cake. Also popular: The Hurricane Katrina, described by the owner as “A little bit of blue and a whole lot of sour.”

If you’re hungry, grab a shrimp po’ boy from Fayard’s BP. The novelty of eating seafood from a gas station may not charm you, but the sight of golden brown shrimp spilling over French bread will.

On your way out of town, stop at Quakes Ice Creamery. Chocolate is always a safe bet, but locals give praise to the cheesecake mixed with M&Ms, too. It sounds kind of quirky, but that’s the spirit of Ocean Springs.

People here walk to their own creative beat. From artists to musicians to fishermen to tourists, it’s a melting pot of culture and easily the best-kept secret on the Gulf Coast.

If you have time, cross the bridge in Ocean Springs and take Scenic 90 from Biloxi to Bay St. Louis. Roll the windows down. Breathe deeply. Gaze out at the Gulf of Mexico and drink in the beauty that is the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Don’t worry about the new things you’ll inevitably want to explore. You’ll be back.

That’s the coast for you. It weaves a siren song that, once heard, isn’t easily forgotten. What more could you ask of the perfect vacation weekend?