There is a lot to love about New Orleans: The stories, the food, the celebrations. Every once in a while, though, it’s nice to see something outside the parish lines. But where? NOLA can lack some easy access to green spaces and is surrounded mostly by swamps on three sides. Here’s a guide to help you find the hidden gems and plan the perfect getaway weekend that won’t break the bank.
Just 11 miles off the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi, Ship Island is one of a few barrier islands and mainland beaches that comprise the Gulf Islands National Seashore. It is a fascinating mix of beautiful sand beaches and freshwater swamp with a historic 19th century fort to boot. As a nationally protected beach that is well within striking distance from New Orleans, it is the perfect destination for a quick summer trip. Me and my significant other decided we needed some serious beach time but wanted to stick to a very tight budget. Here is how we had a great beach weekend for two for only $125.
How To Get There & Camping
Biloxi is a straight shot on I-10 East for about 90 minutes. To arrive on Ship Island, you have to take the ferry. We bought our tickets in advance from Ship Island Excursions for $30 per person. You can find round-trip tickets from either Gulfport or Biloxi, and each trip takes about an hour. You do not have to pay any additional national park entrance fee once arriving on the island.
We saved some money by camping Friday and Saturday night at the Davis Bayou Campground in Ocean Springs, just 15 minutes away from the Biloxi ferry launch ($20 per night tent camping). Both Biloxi and Gulfport have a number of quality Airbnbs to check out if that is more your style. With Biloxi being a casino hot spot, we found hotel options to be outside of our budget. Anything under $50 had lousy ratings, too.
The ferry departed promptly and the ride was smooth. Lots of our fellow travelers cracked beers along the way. You can bring your own alcohol/drinks onto Ship Island, but cans only!
We docked and grabbed our gear. The island has NO natural shade. You can pay $25 for a spot on the beach that has a large umbrella and two beach chairs, but we borrowed a friend’s umbrella. A lot of folks were showing up with fishing gear to try their luck landing flounder and red drum. All we saw were anglers pulling up catfish.
If you want this type of beach trip, you can easily make it happen:
But this is what we were all about. A little spot to ourselves where all we could hear were the waves:
Once we jumped in the ocean, we discovered the real value of getting off the coast. The water was significantly clearer and we didn’t have to look at high-rise apartments, billboards, or flashy casino signs that dotted the beaches on the mainland. Almost immediately we spied a pod of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins about 100 yards away. They were happily chasing fish around the shallow water and their fins broke the surface every few seconds.
Dolphins weren’t the only wildlife we spotted. We took a short walk on the beach near a large tidal pool. I was looking at minnows along the pool’s edge and walked within about 8 feet of a baby alligator! There are a few that make the inland marsh their home. As a bonus, we also saw an osprey hunting for small fish and a humongous horseshoe crab.
We admired Fort Massachusetts from the outside, but you can also poke around yourself or join a free guided tour that happens every afternoon.
The ferry returned to Biloxi at 3:30 p.m., plenty of time to get back to camp and start cooking dinner. Although we came for Ship Island, Davis Bayou is a gorgeous slice of coastal wetlands itself.
Biloxi to NOLA is a quick and easy drive, we were back home in well under two hours.
Ship Island is a great destination for families, friends, couples, or solo travelers who want a beautiful beach experience without straying all the way to Alabama or Florida. Although we made a weekend out of it, Ship Island is definitely manageable as a day trip and I know quite a few folks who swear by the one-day turnaround.
– Sunscreen is a must-have, cannot stress this enough.
– Pack a small lunch. There is a snack bar, but not the highest quality. If you have access to a cooler, a few cold drinks enhance the experience (cans only).
– Borrow a beach umbrella if you can or budget the extra $25 to rent while you are there.
– Bring a book and a small speaker for beach tunes! (Here’s a bunch of books by NOLA authors)
Get out there on the water and let us know what you thought of Ship Island!