Ain't no party like a Gulf Coast party

by Brian Jewell 21. February 2012 22:01

Elaborate costumes, screaming crowds and police escorts — this must be what it feels like to be a rock star.

No, I'm not on tour with Lady Gaga. I'm in Biloxi, Mississippi for Mardi Gras, the yearly Fat Tuesday celebration that preceeds Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season. And on this warm, sunny February Tuesday, the people of Mississippi's Gulf Coast are preparing for a giant party.

Mardi Gras parades may be most famous in New Orleans, but the tradition originated in Alabama and has spread to cities all along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida. After New Orleans, Biloxi has one of the biggest Mardi Gras parades in the region, with more than 120 floats and a crowd of more than 100,000 onlookers. And while the idea of Mardi Gras has been tainted by some Big Easy debauchery, the festivities in Biloxi (and most other destionations) are safe and family-friendly.

That doesn't, however, mean that they are boring. Walking around the float staging area today before the parade began, I saw a motley assortment of characters loading up onto colorfully decorated floats. The cast ranged from the elaborately costmed King and Queen of Mardi Gras to pirates, soldiers, Angry Birds, bananas and many more. These folks are all affiliated with the various local businesses and "krewes" (social clubs) that sponsored floats in the Mardi Gras parade. In the hours before the parade began, they loaded untold millions of plastic beads onto their floats (as well as food and drinks), and pumped up music from on-board loudspeakers to help set a festive mood.

The real fun began when the floats took off down the parade route. The Mississippi Gulf Convention and Visitors Bureau enters a float in the parade each year, and invited me to join them and some other journalist as a participant in the parade. So I climed to the top of our double decker float, claimed my spot on the left side, and warmed up my throwing arm.

To describe the experience as exciting would be a severe understatment. From the time our float turned the first corner on the parade route, we were met with the enthusiastic screams of thousands of revelers. Of course, they weren't exactly screaming for us, but for the colorful strands of beads that we tossed out into the crowd. It's amazing how much excitement a strand of beads can stir up in the most unlikely of people. All along the parade route, we passed an endless number of people who eagerly clamored for our beads. The thrill seemed to transcend normal social barriers, uniting people of every age, sex, race and social circle into one giant party.

And so for two hours, I threw my heart out, launching hundreds or thousands of strands of beads into the crowd — in such an energetic atmosphere, it's impossible to keep count. Some parade-goers attracted my throwing attention with interesting costumes and funny signs. Others simply made me take notice with their wild hand-waving and enthusiastic screams. Many times, the person who caught the beads that I threw would shoot me a smile, a wave or a wink of gratitude. It's a fun and rewarding feeling.

At the end of the two-hour parade, my throwing arm was sore, and I wore a permanent smile plastered on my face. If you ever get a chance to ride a Mardi Gras float, you simply must do it. And anyone looking for a great mid-winter party should begin making plans to attend Mardi Gras in 2013.


Revelers loading up a parade float

A line of beads at my throwing station

Visitors check outthe floats before the parade begins

The Gulf Coast's 2012 King of Mardi Gras

Float riders get in to the spirit of Marid Gras

An elaborately decorated Mardi Gras float

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Mississippi Mardi Gras

Katrina who?

by Brian Jewell 20. February 2012 20:41

When Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in 2005, it made its mark on Mississippi's gulf coast. In Gulfport and Biloxi, the storm destroyed casinos, museums, homes and other structures; the nearby town of Bay St. Louis suffered incredible damage. But in the years since, the towns along the Mississippi coastline have rebuilt and renewed themselves, making the most of the story and welcoming visitors to learn about it.

I toured Bay St. Louis and parts of Biloxi today, seeing both evidence of the storm and the rebuilding that has taken place since then. We began in Bay St. Louis, the town that was hit the hardest. Though much of town has been rebuilt, several historic structures further inland survived. These include the Depot, a historic train station that now serves as a visitors center, and St. Rose de Lima Church. Another survivor is 100 Men DBA Hall, a historic music venue that was part of the "Chitlin Circuit" of blues joints throughout Mississippi in the early 20th century. Today the building is preserved as a historic site that groups can visit to learn about the rich African American cultural history of the area.

Downtown, Bay St. Louis has been almost completely rebuilt. Visitors will find numerous art galleries, craft shops and antique stores, which make an afternoon downtown a colorful event. The area also has a number of restaurants that serve seafood fresh from the Gulf, as well as other Southern specialties.

In Biloxi, several landmarks along the coast symbolize the city's resilience and recovery. During the storm, a surge of saltwater flooded inland areas, and many of the area's live oak trees died as a result of soaking in saltwater for eight hours or more. Rather than uproot these trees, locals fired up their chainsaws and carved them into beautiful outdoor sculptures, which both decorate the area and serve to memorialize the events of 2005.

Another symolic structure is the 1848 lighthouse that stands outside of Biloxi's visitors center. This white metal lighthouse has been an icon of the city for years, and locals and visitors alike were thrilled to see that the lighthouse survived the storm. Today, groups can take a tour of the small lighthouse, clmibing the circular stairway to the top for a look at the historic lamp and magnification lens, as well as a great view of Biloxi and the coastline.

Groups should also make time to visit Biloxi's Hurricane Katrina Memorial. Constructed by the crew of TV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," this monument combines a colletion of items found scattered around town after the storm with a stately monument honoring those who lost their lives in the hurricane. The monument also has live oak that was masterfully carved and painted to create a tribute sculpture.

A tour of the Katrina sites in the area gives visitors an understanding of the storm and the damage it created in the community. But more moving than that lesson in history is the beauty of the communities that have reemerged, stronger and prouder than ever.


100 Men DBA Hall is part of Mississippi's Blues Trail

Clay Creations is one of sevral art galleries in Bay St. Louis

A colorful gift shop in downtown Bay St. Louis

Biloxi's 1848 lighthouse

Found objects on display at Biloxi's Hurricane Katrina Memorial

Museum for a 'Mad Potter'

by Brian Jewell 19. February 2012 22:53

Most coastal destinations are known more for their beaches and resorts than for art and architecture. But in Biloxi, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum is one of the region's cheif attractions, showcasing the work of a famous local artist in an architectural setting that is an acheivement in itself.

I'm spending a few days on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to celebrate Mardi Gras. While the big festivities are still a couple of days away, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau staff is showing me and some other journalists around the area, beginning with a reception and tour of the Ohr-O'keefe Museum.

The museum highlights the work of George Ohr, a local artist who billed himself as the "Mad Potter of Biloxi." Ohr's "madness" was probably more of a marketing ploy than a real mental illness, but the artwork he produced was brilliant nonetheless. The museum displays numerous pieces of Oh'rs pottery inside a star-shaped gallery, which also features some funny Orh quotes painted on the walls.

The unusual shape of the gallery is part of its architectural design. World-renowned architect Frank Ghery designed the museum, adding a touch of high architecture to the Gulf Coast skyline. Rather than creating one large museum building, Ghery designed the museum as a campus of several small gallery buildings, seperated by landscaped outdoor areas. Passing from one gallery to the next, visitors get a great view of beach, which sits just across the highway from the museum.

In addition to Ohr's pottery, the museum has a gallery with a wonderful collection of African American art. A changing exhibit gallery hosts two different exhibitinos each year, which can feature painting, sculpture and other works by area artists. The museum also has a great visitors center and gift shop, as well as a re-creation of a cabin built by a Biloxi African American family in the 1880s.

Ongoing work at the museum is repairing damage from Hurricane Katrina and opening new buildings that will enable the staff to expand exhibition space.


The museum's African American art gallery


Orh pottery displayed in the star-shaped gallery

A George Ohr quote


Inside the museum's Pleasant Reed House, a re-created 1880s home

Just go for it!

by Eliza Myers 18. February 2012 01:18

“Drivers in India like to play the game of chicken,” said Anil Bahal, my India tour guide with Globus, as we watched cars weave through traffic. “They like to drive at you until the last second. Driving in India may not be half the fun, but it is half of the experience.”

Watching the cars moving haphazardly through the traffic near Agra, India, I felt very thankful to have an experienced Indian driver at the steering wheel. Just looking out the window, I saw four people on a motorcycle, cows wandering beside the road and about 20 people sitting on the roof of a moving bus, since there was apparently no room inside.

India is an exotic destination, no question. It is a total culture shock to most Americans, who aren’t used to seeing cows walking down main street or giant monkey-shaped statues next to places of worship. I was clearly out of my comfort zone, and I loved every minute of it.

I tried to soak up everything about the fascinating country while I was there. I shopped at a local market, tried flavorful menu options and even danced in a wedding procession outside my hotel.

I hate to think of all the fun memories I would have lost if I had felt too fearful of the unknown to go. People who know little about current events told me that it’s too dangerous to go to countries like India. I received similar warnings about Israel, Jordan and Mexico, and had extremely safe and culturally profound experiences in each of those countries.

Choosing the more alien destinations over the familiar favorites can end up being a worthwhile decision. Sure you can always go to your favorite beach for relaxation, but it shouldn’t be the only traveling you do. Travel to exotic destinations can teach you not only about those places but also about yourself and your culture by comparison.

Always encourage yourself to try new destinations, even if you may feel uneasy about it at first. The security of traveling with a group can help people explore regions of the world they wouldn’t have dreamed of going on their own. In the end, I always have the fondest memories for the more adventurous trips like the one to India.

The traffic in my hometown was oddly quiet once I returned.

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Travel Thoughts

The King himself would have loved this party

by Mac Lacy 13. February 2012 23:05

Graceland is an iconic stop for Elvis fans the world over


During our BankTravel event at Graceland on February 7, Memphis CVB president Kevin Kane told me that he personally escorts rock and roll dignitaries to this mecca for musicians.  For instance, he brought Elvis Costello over here and said that Costello removed his hat and sunglasses when he approached Presley's grave and bowed his head in reverence for a few moments.  It's that kind of place.

Kane and all his associates from the convention bureau outdid themselves for our prestigious group of bank travel industry members.  Not only did more than 175 bankers attend, but more than three dozen major tour operators as well.  Banks have become such a qualified source of business for these tour companies that not only do they attend, but many sponsor events or seminars in order to highlight their services to this group.

At Graceland, we enjoyed Corky's barbecue, rock and roll music from Memphis native Andy Childs and his band, lots of beverages including a wonderful setup at Presley's automobile museum across the street, and, of course, home tours of Graceland itself.  I made it up to the home late in the evening and one of our tour guides told me they'd already had more than 350 delegates tour the house.  As it turned out, well over 400 made the pilgrimage to Presley's beloved residence.  And I don't know how many delegates I saw buying Elvis merchandise in the gift shops.

As I told attendees during our remarks that evening, Memphis is one of America's iconic cities.  When you hit this town, you can feel the spirits of musicians and sharecroppers, bluesmen and barge workers.  This is a blue collar town with a blue-blooded geneology.  Any town that inspires Paul Simon's best work and calls Al Green back to the pulpit, has earned the right to be the King's final resting place.

Kudos to Memphis and all their partners and a special shout out to Lisa Catron, who personally oversaw much of the host city's very special attention to our group.


Lisa Catron, left, was key to the success of the event in Memphis

More than 400 delegates took the time to tour Presley's beloved Graceland


Presley's grave is onsite and draws rock and roll dignitaries each year


Andy Childs, a Memphis native, brought his band and played for an appreciative crowd at the event

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2012 BankTravel Conference

Big Bend

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:07

One of the country’s most “off-the-beaten-track” scenic treasures is Big Bend National Park in Texas. Unlike many park service units, Big Bend is not a place that one can just “stop by” along the way to another destination. It’s just not “on the way” to anywhere else, but isolated in rugged West Texas along 118 miles of the northern banks of the Rio Grande, where it makes a “big bend” roughly 325 miles southeast of El Paso. 

Across the river is the even more remote and forbidding desert wilderness along the northern borders of the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila. Covering more than 800,000 acres, Big Bend is the eighth largest national park in the “lower 48” states, and fifteenth in size when including the massive parklands in Alaska.

As the National Park Service puts it, “Here, you can explore one of the last remaining wild corners of the United States, and experience unmatched sights, sounds, and solitude.” This is a park for hikers, for birders, for river runners, for photographers, for lovers of all things natural. Many easy and moderate trails are available, as are more challenging desert treks and mountain climbs.

Over 450 bird species have been spotted here, as well as countless varieties of cacti, wildflowers and other annual plants that have become particularly acclimated to harsh desert climes. Animals native to the region include the kangaroo rat, jackrabbits, roadrunners and coyotes. As elevations rise towards the Chisos Mountain in the center of the park, plant life includes pinyon pines, small oaks and junipers, while Douglas fir, quaking aspen, bigtooth maple and Arizona cypress make their homes in the mountains themselves, the highest of which is Emory Peak, at 7,832 feet.

Spectacular sights include the great Santa Elena and Boquillos Canyons, the rugged Chisos Mountains and “The Window,” through which the incredible desert expanse below can be viewed near the Chisos Basin Visitor Center. Also at Chisos Basin is the Chisos Mountain Lodge, offering spectacularly-located accommodations and dining to both individual and group travelers. One could do far worse than just to relax and enjoy the peace, quiet and views from the lodge for a couple of days. I spent a full week in my motor home at Rio Grande Village Campground on the east side of the park, which had to be the quietest place I’ve ever spent a New Year’s Eve, but one which offered the opportunity for unobstructed (virtually no ambient light) night sky views, which put an exclamation point on the incredible splendor of the universe. Beautiful weather throughout my stay and fascinating ranger-led programs completed an exceptional experience.

Mexican Blue Jay

Sotol Vista

Santa Elena Canyon


Three Southwestern National Parks

Guadalupe Mountains

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:05

I decided to make an overnight stop at Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which, although authorized by Congress back in 1964, is still one of our least known parks. In fact, my motor home was the only one there that night, although a few more hardy souls than I were camped out in their tents nearby, braving a cold winter night (daytime was quite pleasant, as desert areas warm up substantially after the sun rises).  

Although this is primarily a hiking park for those interested in exploring this splendid mountain wilderness on foot, there are several features and short walks available to groups that make this a very worthwhile stop for groups traveling from El Paso to Carlsbad Caverns. In addition to very scenic views of the Guadalupe Mountains themselves, both along U.S. Highway 62/180 and at the Pine Springs park headquarters area, there is an excellent movie and small museum at the Visitor Center, plus restrooms and picnic facilities in an area where few visitor amenities can be found.

I would recommend exploring the park beyond the Visitor Center, however, as there are several points of interest that are very convenient to the highway. At “The Pinery,” one can visit the ruins of a mid-1800s Butterfield Stagecoach Station, while just up the road is the Frijole Ranch History Museum, a complex including an original ranch house, springhouse, schoolhouse, bunkhouse and barn which tells the story of the pioneers who settled in the Guadalupe Mountains area. 

I’d also suggest taking the short (.4 mile round trip) trail, which is wheelchair accessible, from the Frijole Ranch to scenic Manzanita Spring, unless your group has the time and stamina for the more moderate (2.3 miles round-trip) Manzanita/Smith Spring Loop Trail, which I enjoyed immensely, capping off a beautiful morning.

Frijole Ranch Cultural Museum

Manzanita Spring

Desert landscape from Smith Spring Trail

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Three Southwestern National Parks

Carlsbad Caverns

by Bob Hoelscher 1. February 2012 19:03

In January, I decided to visit some of the lesser-known, but truly outstanding national parks in the Southwest. One of these is the world-famous Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, via a scenic seven-mile spur road from U.S. 62/180 at White’s City. By far, the most popular tour here for group visitors is the self-guided route through the spectacular Big Room, which is included in the standard park entrance fee. 

Rental of individual “Audio Guide” units are an additional $3 per person. This 1.25-mile round-trip, which begins and concludes with an elevator ride to and from the Underground Rest Area, follows a paved, mostly level trail, although there are a couple of hills which are short but relatively steep. Even individuals who tend towards claustrophobia will not be upset by their visit to the massive, eight-acre Big Room, which has a 255-foot ceiling and is filled with beautiful, delicate formations, as well as huge columns, stalactites and stalagmites. 

Highlights along the route itself, include the Lion’s Tail, Hall of Giants, Bottomless Pit and the Rock of Ages.  Exhibits, a restaurant, book store and gift shop are also available on site. Quality group accommodations can easily be found in the town of Carlsbad, which is 27 miles northeast of the Visitor Center. I would no longer recommend staying in the motel units at nearby White’s City, which seems to have fallen on hard times during recent years.        

Groups interested in more extensive cave exploration certainly have a lot to choose from at Carlsbad Caverns. I enjoyed taking the self-guided (and no extra cost) route through the Natural Entrance many years ago, which is a 1.25-mile trip to the Big Room through a steep, roughly 800-foot descent from the surface. Guided tours are available for an additional charge of from $7 to $20 per person over the general park admission, and last from 1½ to 4 hours. Most require strenuous climbs and negotiation of ladders and/or dirt trails that may be rocky or slippery.

Two “Wild Caving” adventures are also offered, which both involve “climbing and crawling, tight squeezes, drop-offs” and a promise that participants “will get dirty.” Finally, in mid-summer, early-rising visitors can participate in the unique “Carlsbad Caverns Bat Flight Breakfast,” featuring the bats’ awe-inspiring return flight to the Natural Entrance at dawn.

Bob Hoelscher, CTC, CTP, MCC, CTIE, is a longtime travel industry executive who has sold his tour company, bought a motorhome and is traveling the highways and byways of America.  He is a former chairman of NTA, and was a founding member of Travel Alliance Partners (TAP).

Well-known in the industry as both a baseball and symphony aficionado, Bob is also one of the country’s biggest fans of our national parks, both large and small.  He has already visited more than 325 NPS sites and has several dozen yet to see.  He is currently traveling the country to visit as many of those parks as possible.  His blog, “Travels with Bob,” appears periodically on The Group Travel Leader’s blogsite, “Are We There Yet”. 

Bob is available for contractual work in the industry and may be reached at or by calling (435) 590-1553.


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Three Southwestern National Parks

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