Fun on land, sea in Biloxi

Biloxi, Miss., may be best known for its casino glitz. But you don’t have to dig too deep underneath the proverbial pile of gambling chips to see what else this Gulf Coast city has to offer. Family-themed attractions, arts and culture, hidden beach gems and more make Biloxi a summer vacation alternative.

“Funambula”

What Evel Knievel did for Las Vegas, daredevil circus clown Bello Nock is doing for Biloxi. Instead of wearing a red, white and blue jumpsuit, Nock defies death with his trademark foot-tall ’do at full mast.

Last summer Nock grabbed headlines by completing Mississippi’s first ever tightrope walk 360 feet in the air on top of the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. This summer Beau Rivage moves Nock’s high wire skills indoors as the marquee name in the cirque-style production “Funambula,” which recently premiered.

The show’s name is inspired by the Latin word for rope dancer. And one of the first things you see is Nock performing a sky walk high above the audience.

“This is what people know him for,” said Mary Cracchiolo Spain, the regional director of public relations for Beau Rivage Resort & Casino. “So the idea was to have him do a sky walk every night without a net, without a harness, without wires.”

Cracchiolo Spain said the show is all about both physical balance and the balance of life, and how strength and agility play their respective parts. These illustrations spring to life courtesy of a fleet of international performers, from tightrope walkers to aerialists. At one point during the 80-minute production a group of trampoline jumpers catch serious air. The eyes of some audience members often widen when a pair of contortionists somehow stuff their bodies into a small glass cube.

It’s Nock, however, who’s arguably helping fill most of the seats. On June 6 his return to Biloxi came in a burst of daredevil razzle dazzle with a stunt to promote the opening of “Funambula.” Simply dangling by an ankle from a trapeze attached to the bottom of a helicopter, Nock successfully held on as the aircraft buzzed approximately 500 feet above the ground around the Biloxi area.

Yet, the powers-that-be at Beau Rivage aren’t just using the showmanship of Nock and company to sell tickets. The price point is shockingly low. A family of four can get into “Funambula” for $10 each, which is less than a ticket to many first-run movies. Cracchiolo Spain said it’s the resort’s gift to the community and an effort to draw more vacationing families to Biloxi.

“Funambula” room and show packages start at $149, which includes a pair of tickets and one night deluxe accommodations. The resort’s shopping promenade and onsite restaurants are offering discount and food and drink specials during the show’s run.

7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 3 and 7 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through August 11. $12.95-$24.95, $40 family of four package (mention the code WIRE). Beau Rivage, 875 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, Miss. 888-566-7469, www.beaurivage.com.

Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art

Architecture enthusiasts may be content simply experiencing the outdoor setting of the 27,000-square-foot campus of the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. The imaginative deconstructed building designs of celebrity architect Frank Gehry are enough to keep the eyes working overtime. It’s all amid a grove of live oak overlooking the flowing waters of the Mississippi Sound.

Inside the buildings visitors explore art galleries, watch pottery demonstrations and engage in art classes. George Edgar Ohr, the museum’s co-namesake, earned the title of “the Mad Potter of Biloxi” for his early modernist work in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Examples of Ohr’s creations share museum real estate with rotating exhibits blending both traditional and contemporary art representing a variety of mediums.

Professional potters hone their craft on site, and wannabe artists of all ages have the opportunity to learn themselves. While parents are kayaking or hitting the casino, the museum can keep kids busy. Its summer camps, available for ages 6 to 18, last two hours per day for four days per session. Camps cost $100 to $120 per child.

Gehry’s unorthodox structures are adjacent to the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center. This reconstructed version of the Reed home shows how a particular African-American family dealt with the challenges of segregationist laws in early twentieth century Biloxi.

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. $10; $8 ages 60 and older, military and AAA members with valid ID; $5 students; free ages 5 and younger. Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, 386 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, Miss. 228-374-5547, www.georgeohr.org.

Biloxi Shrimping Trip

Shrimp don’t magically appear on the Captain’s Platter at the corner seafood joint in Biloxi. They likely come out of the Mississippi Sound courtesy of a shrimping boat and its massive net. This enduring 70-minute cruise —part nature lesson, part day-in-the-life experience— has been hitting the water since 1955. It puts one of these boats in action, giving guests a crash course on the marine life swimming in the Gulf of Mexico.

Visitors climb aboard the Sailfish, a shrimping boat located in Biloxi’s Small Craft Harbor. As the Sailfish hits open water, a crew member narrates the process, and the boat drags its net along the bottom of the Gulf. Locals are quick to point out that the nearby barrier islands cause the tranquility of the Mississippi Sound. This makes it a fertile breeding ground for fish and other animals, and the net will snag whatever is in its path.

After a few moments the crew heave the net back on deck. No trip is ever the same, and the net may reveal squid, sting ray, flounder, pufferfish, blue crabs and other aquatic bounty. The trip guide dishes out facts and trivial nuggets pertaining to the creatures, and guests get an up-close-and-personal view of the catch. While most of the animals are tossed back into the water, flocks of sea birds swoop in for a quick snack.

The crew suggests arriving early, because seats on the boat are on a first-come, first-serve basis. Make sure and check the weather before heading to the marina. Tickets are cash only.

10:30 a.m., 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. through Aug. 6; 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Aug. 7-Nov. 25. $15; $10 ages 4-11; free ages 3 and younger with paying adult. Small Craft Harbor, 693 Beach Blvd., Biloxi. 228-392-8645, www.biloxishrimpingtrip.com.

Ship Island

Critics of beachfront Biloxi often focus on the darker water in the Mississippi Sound. Many are surprised to learn of the undeveloped Ship Island, its ivory sand, the surrounding aquamarine gulf waters and other natural treasures found approximately 11 miles off the Mississippi Coast.

The five barrier islands in the Gulf Islands National Seashore (Horn, Deer, Cat, Petit Bois and Ship), are known for being the first top tier beaches you’ll find east of New Orleans. Ship Island continues attracting locals and tourists. While some reach the beach via privately owned boats, others rely on Ship Island Excursions and its regular ferry service.

In the summer months the ferry departs daily from the Gulfport Yacht Harbor, a 25-minute drive west of Biloxi. The boat trip takes 45 minutes to an hour, and dolphins are known to follow the craft along the way.

The ferry docks at the pier on West Ship Island. Guests take a short walk along a boardwalk to the island’s south side, home of the designated Gulf of Mexico swim beach. During the summer lifeguards keep an eye on swimmers, snorkelers and bodyboarders as they take to the water. Kids and adults scour for shells, and sun worshipers kick back in the sand.

Visitors can rent chairs and umbrellas on the island ($5 and $15, respectively). Food, drinks and beach accessories are for sale at the Ship Island snack bar. They only accept cash and travelers checks.

Due to space limitations ferry travelers are asked to pack conservatively, only bringing things that can be stored underneath the seats on the boat. Items including small coolers, umbrellas and folding chairs are allowed, and details are available on the ferry website.

The day trip can include a tour of Fort Massachusetts. Park rangers often guide guests around the circular brick structure that not only withstood military action, but has held fast despite hammering hurricanes.

Restrooms, showers and a shaded picnic area make up most of the additional development you’ll find on Ship Island. This means shade is limited. So lather up on sunscreen, bring a hat and guzzle plenty of water.

Weather permitting, the summer ferry departures take place twice daily at 9 a.m. and noon. Return trips to Gulfport set sail at 2:30 and 5 p.m. This schedule lasts through August 20. Check the Ship Island Excursions Website for its fall schedule.

$27; $25 ages 62 and older and active military with ID; $17 ages 3-10; free ages 2 and younger. Gulfport Yacht Harbor, located at the intersection of Highways 49 and 90, Gulfport, Miss. 228-864-1014, www.msshipisland.com.

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