Traveling Around - Biloxi, MS - A Few Hours and Lots of Fun from Destin, FL
Crossing The Bridges That We Came To
We've made the trip from Destin, Fl, to Biloxi, MS, several times over the past few years but this time as we drove across the two long bridges on the way I began wondering what it was like before these bridges were built. One of the bridges crosses the Pensacola Bay in Florida and the other crosses the Mobile Bay in Alabama.
Some research uncovered that the 3 Mile Bridge over the Pensacola Bay was opened in 1960. It replaced an older bridge (The Thomas A Johnson Bridge) that had been a two lane toll bridge that opened in 1931. When the original bridge opened, the toll was $5 a month. After opening the new bridge the older one was turned into a fishing pier and over the years deteriorated until it was completely replaced with a new fishing pier that is visible on the north side of the new bridge as it nears Pensacola. In 1989 the new 3 Mile Bridge was damaged by a barge and was closed for several months. Crossing the bay was done by ferry during that period and caused serious traffic backups on both sides of the bridge. Prior to the 1931 opening of the Thomas A Johnson bridge, ferries were used to cross the Bay.
The second span of interest was the Jubilee Parkway that crosses Mobile Bay. The bridge is 7 1/2 miles long from Spanish Fort to Blakely Island where it connects to the George Wallace Tunnel under the Mobile River. The bridge was opened in 1978 and it currently has two lanes in each direction. There are plans in the works to expand this to four lanes in each direction and plans to add a suspension bridge on the Mobile end of the Parkway to replace the tunnel. The tunnel was opened in 1973 in an effort to alleviate traffic problems at the Bankhead Tunnel which is a short distance north. Now there are major traffic problems at the new tunnel during rush hours. The tunnel is really two separate tunnels with traffic one way in each tube of the tunnel. It was constructed above ground, placed in the graded river bed and then fastened together. The new bridge that is being planned would rise high above the river and be one of the tallest structures in Mobile. The current bridge was intended to help with the traffic on the Battleship Parkway which follows the same path as the current bridge. It was built in 1926 as a series of earthen embankments and concrete bridge spans. It rests near enough to the water that it is very susceptible to flooding and is usually underwater and closed during storm surges. There are fog warning signs posted in several areas of the bridge as a result of a 200 car pileup that occurred in March of 1995. I can't imagine how that tied up traffic.
The entire trip from Destin to Biloxi normally takes us just over 3 hours after we make a stop to pick up some breakfasty food and some snacks for the hotel room.
We normally arrive in Biloxi over the Biloxi Bay Bridge. Another interesting bridge in that it was damaged and closed after Katrina in 2005. It reopened in 2007 as the massively modern structure that it is today. It has six traffic lanes and a 12 foot pedestrian/bicycle lane on the Gulf side of the structure. The bridge is 1.6 miles in length and usually there are several people that are walking to either use the pedestrian walkway for exercise or to get across the Bay.
Stopping At The Palace For Lunch
Turning right at the first street in Biloxi leads to the Palace Resort and we couldn't resist stopping for lunch. It recently became a completely non smoking facility and the atmosphere in the casino is noticeably clearer than in most casinos. It is a rambling white structure that sits on the Back Bay of Biloxi. A lot of small boat activity is happening most of the time.
Parking was and still is a little confusing but we found a spot on the third floor of the parking garage on the south side of the resort. There is an enclosed walkway / ramp that leads from the parking garage to the casino. The hotel registration would be an escalator ride down if a guest parked there and then registered at the hotel. Although we have never used it, there is valet parking on the ground floor near the hotel entrance as well as self parking in that area.
A massive amount of remodeling has occurred since Katrina. All of the hotel rooms have been remodeled and refurbished. The casino used to be on two levels and is now consolidated on one level. The entire facility is non smoking. We arrived on a Tuesday afternoon about 2:30 PM and the place was crowded. Our intent was to eat, look around, and proceed to another hotel where we had reservations. When we went to eat, we found a line for the buffet that contained at least 75 people. We braved it, however, and the line moved pretty smoothly - probably didn't stand around for more than 15 minutes.
The main building is the hotel and it contains 236 rooms and suites in 11 stories. Rack rates start at $59 and there is currently a 10% discount for things like military, AAA, or AARP. The ground floor has been redecorated but is still reminiscent of when it was a combination hotel lobby and a casino. Instead of slot machines that used to occupy the space, there is a comfortable oveerstuffed seating area in front of the registration desk. Off to the north is the gift shop and the spa.
There are probably 500 slot machines in the area outside the casino. Most of them are newer machines that feature video action and are playable for pennies. There is a lot of flash and noise - unlike the bells and clangs of coins that used to be. The casino rewarded us each with $10 free play because we ate in their buffet and so after we gorged ourselves we wandered around slowly trying to digest some of the food. The thought was that if we sat down and played for a while, we'd have a drink before we went on to the next stop. However, we did not see any cocktail persons while we were in the Palace. Just a case of us not being in the right place at the right time perhaps. We examined each of the video poker machines and found none of them would allow us to play the free play we'd been given so we each found a slot to play. I picked one that, as usual, I had to trust the machine to know when I'd won because the symbols and their placement was beyond me. Sharon played a 3 reel machines that actually spun the wheels and she quickly turned her $10 into $78. She cashed hers out and stood looking at me until I turned my $10 into $7.35.
It was probably 4 PM when we headed back to the car, ready to go find our hotel room, and take a quick rest before really trying to beard the lion.
More Serious Activity at Harrah's Gulf Coast
Harrah's Gulf Coast is only a few blocks away from the Palace. When viewed from the east, it appears to be a parking garage which is what it was before Katrina and the changes in state law that made it legal for the casinos to be on solid ground. The western end of the parking facility was converted to a hotel / casino and the parking structure remains around it to the north and to the east.
Several years ago we discovered that it was easiest to access the hotel lobby by driving to the north side of the parking ramp and entering. Then, by driving up and parking on the 3rd level, there is direct access to the hotel lobby and the casino. The normal rack rate for the hotel starts at $69 but Total Rewards club members can easily find much better rates. We had a comped room for two nights and at check in it appeared that there would be no resort fee. After getting up to our room we read through some info there and found that there is no resort fee for our comp unless I activated wifi and then there would be a $9.99 charge. We took the computers back out to the car and forgot them for the duration.
Settled in, took a nap, showered, and went down to explore. Although we had been there many times over the past few years, this was our first visit since the refurbishing of "everything". When we looked out towards the gulf while waiting for the elevator, we could see that on the south side of the road between the highway and the gulf, there no longer was skeletal remains of started and stopped construction. It had been cleared away and there was a grassy area that is now known as Harrah's Gulf Coast Amphitheater. During the summer months, plans are to make it a concert venue.
As we passed through the hotel lobby I noticed that the snack bar remained the same but that the bar in the lobby has changed dramatically. Now named "Mix and Mingle", it is decorated in lighter colors and offers not only a happy hour drink menu but light food during most of its open hours. Around the corner and past the gift shop through some security doors and into the casino.
It has been rearranged dramatically. The walkway past the Diamond lounge into the casino area has been widened and although there was still slot machines on the left as we entered, they didn't seem as obtrusive. The area to the right has been opened up and is spacious. As in the past, there were table games in this area but now they were open. I don't believe I had ever seen them open on weekdays previously but they were open and busy most of the times that we passed by. All of the games were specialty games such as Let It Ride and Flop Poker. The high limit area is still located between these tables and the bar but it, too, has been opened up and is more spacious looking.
When the raised level is reached, it also has a sense of space and light that didn't used to be there. The layout is generally the same with the buffet on the left but a good portion of the slot area has been sacrificed to a Steak and Shake Restaurant. The table games are still located centrally on the floor and this is where I found the blackjack, craps, and roulette games. I really would have liked to play some blackjack but there was only one table open in my price range and it was full. I checked every time I went by and it never had an empty seat and a second table was never opened although there were empty tables available.
At the end of the double row of tables I did find a multiple player craps machine and I did sit and play there for quite a while. It had a $3 minimum on it and I had a lot of fun once I adjusted to taking the correct amount for odds bets. You did accumulate slot club points on the craps machine but it was at a rate of $200 per point. I did not accumulate very many points on the machine but I did win a few dollars.
It appeared to me that all of the machines on the floor were new. It used to be that between the entrance and the buffet there was a bank of 10 or so ancient video poker machines for nickels, dimes, and quarters and a bank of 5 older video poker machines at the $1 level. Then there were groups of machines that were a little more modern and featured various video poker games such as Quick Quads, Ultimate X, and multi-hand machines at various coin levels. All of the old machines had been replaced and the layout has changed dramatically so that video poker claims almost the entire west end of the casino (about 1/5 of the floor space). Quick Quads is still there and at the 25 cent level does offer full pay on part of its games. Jacks or better is 9/6 and there is bonus poker on the quick quads at 8/5. The payoffs change dramatically on the lower levels such as 5 cents or when you change to machines that are not the specialty game.
Since the payoffs were so gross, we decided to content ourselves with playing at the nickel level on bad payoff machines. Although we were in a reasonably heavy traffic area, we saw only one cocktail waitress working the entire casino. There may have been one on the other side of the tables but there was a real crowd and one person could not possibly have been successful at handling the load. We had to practically shanghai her to get a drink and I tipped her pretty good, expecting that would bring her back by regularly but we didn't see her again. Every once in a whie I'd check the blackjack table to no avail. We played for about an hour or so and wound up with Sharon a few dollars ahead and me a few dollars behind before we called it a night.
Wednesday we were up an at them reasonably early as we had some non casino activity that would take up a good portion of our daytime. While Sharon was preparing to meet the world, I played some more nickels to about the same result as the evening before.
We got back to Harrah's from our outside business and ate our main meal of the day at the buffet. They'd changed slightly for January and were serving a glass of wine with the meal. The buffet was just as we remembered it. At the time we were there (about 3 PM), there were only about 10 people seated and it didn't get any busier before we left. Made for a very relaxed meal for us. There are some five hot stations and the soup and salad bar in the center. At one end is the dessert bar. (Both the Palace and Harrah's had exceptionally good bread pudding.)
Sharon called it a day after eating and I decided to play. I checked out the full blackjack table and then drifted to the craps machine that I'd found. Settled in and had a couple decent run of numbers. One of them was 15 and one was 12 so I wound up a few dollars to the good on the game. Decided that what I really wanted to do was play the 25 cent Quick Quads - partly because it was the only full pay I'd seen and partly because I truly enjoy the game. I put a $100 bill in the machine and played for about 2 hours. I kept track of the number of quick quads that I hit and there were 9 of them. Plenty enough that I cashed out $300 when I got tired and decided to quit.
It wound up being one of my better days in a casino recently and with no more gambling than we'd done on Tuesday, it wound up being one of my better trips, also.
Thursday morning we were up and on the way back to Destin by about 8 AM. It was raining and rained all the way across Mississippi, Alabama, and through Florida. Stopped just about the time we got to the apartment complex.