PGA.com’s T.J. Auclair took a destination golf trip to the Biloxi area on Mississippi’s beautiful Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina devastated the area eight years ago. As Auclair saw firsthand, while there are still eerie reminders of the destruction left by Mother Nature, Biloxi and its surrounding cities and towns have bounced back in a big way. In this five-part travel series, Auclair opens up his personal journal from his 3 ½-day trip that included magnificent hotel accommodations, spectacular food and incredible golf. This is the first installment.
BILOXI, Miss. -- In August of 2005, the Mississippi Gulf Coast was devastated by the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. Houses, boats, businesses, casinos, golf courses and two major bridges -- the Bay St. Louis Pass Christian bridge, and the Biloxi Ocean Springs bridge -- were destroyed.
Because it sits just 20 feet above sea level directly on the Mississippi Sound, with barrier islands scattered off the coast and into the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina crushed Biloxi.
PART II: Playing The Grand Bear Golf Course 
PART III: Playing The Shell Landing Golf Club 
PART IV: Playing The Preserve Golf Club 
PART V: What it’s like to play Fallen Oak Golf Club with Rocco Mediate 
Known as, “The Playground of the South,” because of its vibrant nightlife with casinos and first-class restaurants, Biloxi and adjoining Gulfport looked far from it in the aftermath of Katrina.
In the middle of March 2013, nearly eight years after Katrina, I paid a visit to the Gulf Coast. While signs of the storm’s vengeance remain visible -- the most glaring examples being rundown homes still boarded up and abandoned, as well as discolored vegetation because of the damage caused by saltwater -- the overriding theme of this trip could be summed up in one word: resilience.
Hurricane Katrina may have been the mother of all sucker punches to the people of the Gulf Coast, but they’ve bounced back bigger, better and more beautiful than ever.
SETTING UP BASE IN BILOXI
On the first day of my trip, I checked into the IP Casino Resort Spa , formerly known as Imperial Palace.
With nearly 1,100 guest rooms, the towering IP Casino Resort Spa is the first thing you see on the Mississippi Gulf Coast as you drive along Interstate 110 coming from the refreshingly quaint Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.
The IP was the first casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to reopen after Hurricane Katrina on Dec. 22, 2005. Walking through the doors of the IP, you’d never know it had been hit so hard. The place was plush, gorgeous, hip and clearly a popular destination based on the scores of people either checking in, or heading to the casino floor.
If you’re there to gamble, the IP offers two floors covering 70,000 square feet of gaming. There are over 1,900 slots, 60+ table games and a 13-table, non-smoking poker room featuring personalized service. You can choose from slots, video poker, table games, poker, high-limit gaming and tournaments.
Upon checking into my room, a spa suite, I quickly noticed the amenities were fit for a king and queen. Room rates can vary widely depending on season and promotions. General range is as low as $70 and into the mid-hundreds per night. But check here for the most current rates .
You’re probably thinking: Who cares about the amenities in the room at a casino? You’re not going to spend much time in the room anyway.
Well, believe me, if you saw this room you’d understand just how hard it might be to leave.
A massive flat-screen TV was hung on the wall in front of the most comfortable king-sized bed this body has ever sunk into. A window overlooked the gorgeous Mississippi Sound (which featured a breathtaking sunset later in the day). There was a bar in the middle of the luxurious and modern-style room. The enormous bathroom included the largest walk-in shower I’d ever seen, complete with one of those splendid rainfall showerheads.
Just outside the walk-in shower was a large, water-jet tub, positioned perfectly so you could watch a TV hung on the wall above the tub from either the tub, or the walk-in shower.
Following the longest, most refreshing shower of my life, I joined a group for dinner on the IP’s lobby level.
The purpose of this trip was to bring in several golf and travel journalists to see firsthand just how much the Gulf Coast is thriving after the devastation of Katrina.
After a couple of cocktails and appetizers over a little meet and greet, we took our seats at IP Casino’s Italian-themed restaurant Costa Cucina.
If I’m being honest, I was a little skeptical about Italian dining on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Italian food is my favorite. And, being from the Northeast and enjoying the likes of Boston’s North End and Providence, Rhode Island’s Federal Hill – my mouth waters just thinking of Federal Hill – I wasn’t sure I’d be a huge fan.
Boy, was I pleasantly surprised. The food was so good, I thought I was back home (which, if you’ve ever been, Rhode Islanders would have you convinced our Italian food on Federal Hill is better than anything you can find in Italy). Everything from the appetizers, which included Calamari Fritti, Bruschetta, Gulf Coast Bread (lightly toasted Italian loaf topped with blue crab, shrimp, and mozzarella cheese) to my entrée of Chicken Picatta to the never-ending flow of desserts – our group tried them all – like Cannoli, Tiramisu, Spumoni, Italian pastries and, my favorite, the Cioccolato di Lava.
Stuffed, I returned to the beautiful spa suite and collapsed into the king bed in a satisfying food coma, ready to dream about the great golf that was in store.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair .