|Gulf Coast Jambalaya|
2: Entering the silt-rich molasses of the north Gulf.
By Tim Clark — October 2001
We had realized soon after departing Pensacola that this is a region in transition, with contrasts growing between unpolished fishing ports, sedate generations-old vacation enclaves, and recent large-scale tourist developments. We enjoyed a certain stealthy satisfaction in outflanking the high-rise hotels of Gulf Shores, Alabama, by way of the ICW, where we cruised past countless grassy sugar-sand islets, long stretches of pristine woodlands and marshes, and dispersed ranks of modest shore-side cottages, each with a tin-roofed, latticework gazebo perched at the end of a narrow dock–air conditioning Gulf-style.
It was during this run that we left behind the transparent water of the Florida Panhandle and entered into the silt-rich molasses of the north Gulf, which at first seemed at odds with the still snow-white beaches. Here Cajun influence becomes more conspicuous, as if the changed water marks a cultural boundary.
Among the most satisfying contrasts was the one we ourselves presented aboard the Pacific Mariner. The unconventional charms of tough steel shrimpers, towering oil tankers, and sluggish barges are more vividly appreciated from a luxurious motoryacht cruising at 21 knots. As testament to the 65’s comforts, recall that we were five men onboard, yet all contentedly accommodated, with only photographer Norman and I sharing a stateroom. Underway, there was plenty of room to spread out for solitude, or the lot of us could comfortably congregate on the flying bridge or in the raised pilothouse, where two men ensconced in Stidd seats at the helm would keep us on course while a couple of others relaxed at the dinette and a fifth, invariably, threw together a sandwich in the galley. It was a particularly convivial layout that galoots like us spanned with jokes, jibes, and conversation.
One feature of the 65 that I came to value as much as any other was the davit we used with such ease to launch and load the Novurania RIB that Westport Yacht Sales, Pacific Mariner’s East Coast rep, had lent us. We first launched the tender once we’d tied up at Grand Mariner Marina on the Dog River, off Mobile Bay. Holmes had stopped in the last time he’d run the coast, and he warmly remembered the marina’s laid-back atmosphere and quiet setting. With the 65 secure at the marina, Norman, Osborne, and I skiffed miles up Dog River to explore its feeders—Rattlesnake Bayou and Robinson Bayou—which were lined with large homes set back in the shade of trees hung with Spanish moss.
In the days ahead we would put down the RIB again and again. Early one morning after a night in Biloxi (which included a modest loss at Beau Rivage, the city’s newest casino, just a five-minute walk from our berth at Biloxi Small Craft Harbor), we ran a dozen miles due south and anchored the 65 in the lee of Ship Island. Thanks to the tender, for two full hours before the first tourist boat from Gulfport arrived, we had the island’s 1859 fort, restored wooden lighthouse, and miles of empty beaches entirely to ourselves.
We enjoyed the disparate allures of salt-encrusted fishing towns, glitzy gambling ports, and deserted barrier islands, but upon reaching Pass Christian, it was pleasant to encounter the coast’s range of attractions in a soothing blend. Its Small Craft Harbor sheltered workboats and pleasure craft side-by-side at the center of a quiet seaside resort with all the antebellum gentility of Biloxi and none of its garishness. A short walk from the harbor, we found a handful of restaurants, galleries, and antiques shops. To the east and west along highway 90, stately 19th-century homes adorned miles of inviting beaches. At Trapani’s Eatery in nearby Bay St. Louis, I had a boiled-shrimp po’ boy piled so high I couldn’t close it to get a bite, and the gumbo was so good we took a gallon with us.
Later, a half-day short of New Orleans and anchored in the Rigolets—an inlet between Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain—that gumbo-to-go was a lifesaver. After helpings at a variety of satisfying dockside restaurants along our route, I’d become gumbo-dependent on a boat where—let me be honest—not one of us could cook to save his life. Amid the broad expanse of wild, tranquil marshes surrounding our anchorage, one doleful bowlful tided me over until we reached New Orleans Municipal Yacht Harbor, on the south shore of Pontchartrain, the next afternoon.
We’d learned along the coast not to let a place be defined by any one thing, and so we gave Bourbon Street and its atmosphere of stale beer and Disney short shrift. By evening, with plans to hear Charmaine Neville at a club in the Faubourg Marginy appropriately called Snug Harbor, we were west of the Garden District’s shaded mansions, at ramshackle Elm Street’s Jaques Imo’s Café, before a dizzying spread of Cajun cuisine.
How do I describe the tureen of deep red jambalaya? The roux was as rich as Dog River mud; the sausage was as hot as the craps table at Beau Rivage; the shrimp was as fresh a salt breeze on Ship Island; and the crab would have placed first at the races in Bayou La Batre.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.