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Ship Island: The Gulfport Gem Perfect For a Day Trip
Five years ago, I learned that my husband was holding out on one of the best-kept “secrets” of the Gulf Coast. He told me about Ship Island Excursions and how it was one of their favorite places to go as a kid. Well, I am never one to turn down an adventure and I quickly booked a trip to check it out. Ever since the first time we went in 2017, it immediately rose to the top of my list for “best beach” within a short driving distance from New Orleans. After their dock got demolished from a hurricane in 2020, and then the setbacks from Covid, I was more than thrilled to be able to book our first trip back on Memorial Day weekend.
Ship Island Excursions, A Family Run Business
Ship Island Excursions is not just part of Gulf Islands National Park, it is also a family-run business that has been around for 100 years. Everyone you interact with on the phone, through their Facebook, or once you get there is beyond friendly and helpful. They greet you like you’re part of the family and are always looking to make your experience everything you want it to be.
Booking your tickets is super user-friendly, you just head to their website and choose which type of trip you want to go on. They run 7 days a week during the summer and offer a variety of different excursions that you can choose from.
- You can choose from a Dolphin Watching Cruise that runs Wednesday – Friday from 4:30-6 PM in the summer. They also have these on Saturdays & Sundays at 1 PM during the spring and fall. I have never personally done this particular excursion, but I can tell you that we have seen dolphins either running along the side of the boat or off the shore every time we have gone. It is always a special treat and my kids (and me, let’s be honest) get so excited.
- If you are on an adult weekend, they also offer a 21+ Sunset Cocktail cruise every Friday & Saturday night from 7-9 PM. Snacks, soft drinks, and a full bar are on board for your trip along the Mississippi Sound along with a DJ.
- They also offer a Gulfport Fireworks Cruise for the Fourth of July which sounds pretty amazing, and you can also rent as a private charter for a personal or corporate event.
The most popular cruise is what I want to talk about, as that is the one most families will choose for a beach day. Over 5.5 million people visited the Gulf Islands National Seashore last year according to the NPS, making it the 9th most visited National Park in the country – and I can see why!
Day Cruises, Perfect for Every Family
The day cruises to the island are sized for every family. If you go during the week right now, they have a family special that includes 4 tickets, 2 chairs, and an umbrella at a discounted price (Hello, less stuff to carry!). You can choose to leave at two different times, either 9 AM or noon. You then pick your departing trip of either 2:30 or 5 PM. The 11-mile ferry ride does take about an hour so you will need to factor that into your schedule for the day. We always choose to 9-5 because your time actually ends up being about 10:30-4 when all is said and done. You are allowed to bring chairs, an umbrella, sand toys, and a reasonably sized cooler (check the website for actual sizing, you cannot bring a huge one for space-saving purposes aboard the ferry). NO wagons, keep this in mind if you are used to bringing one.
Once you get to the dock in Gulfport, you can purchase chairs and umbrellas for the island that will be all set up for you at a reasonable price. They also sell any essentials you may have forgotten from swimsuits to sunblock, to goggles and sand toys. Don’t worry if you don’t grab them there though, they also have a full snack bar and gift shop on the island as well. They sell blown-up rafts and tubes as well once you are out there. Want to know what the best part is? Nothing is overpriced. Delicious burgers for $6, $1 popsicles for the kids, $4 White Claws for Mom. I was so impressed with that as most destinations love to overcharge when they know they can. It really shows the family side of the business coming through, they want it to be accessible and affordable for everyone.
Family Photos, Too!
Before you embark, they offer family photos that you can pick up after your trip. You get on the boat and the friendly crew will store all of your items for you while you find a seat. After the beautiful ride across (look for those dolphins in the wake y’all!) you will get to the dock. They have the system down to a science and you are quickly on your way.
You will take the walk down the dock, passing through historical Fort Morgan. They offer guided tours from a park ranger, which is a must-do at least once. The fort itself is in impressive condition after so many years and hurricanes, my kids love going to explore and see the cannon.
After a quick 15-minute walk through the protected marsh, you will be on the other side of the island that looks out into the Gulf. The sand is smooth and still black as you make your way to the shore. If you purchased chairs you will find the attendant and pick a spot. If you have brought your own gear, you can set it up wherever you want (there are no rules regarding sitting behind the purchased chairs which I adore, that is the worst rule ever). They have multiple lifeguards on duty all day long keeping an eye out for peace of mind.
The water this past weekend was SO clear, my husband and kids snorkeled all day. The island is always full of shells and is great for finding big intact ones. Bird watching is also another favorite past-time for Ship Island goers as the park is full of them. Dolphins played off the coast all day on Saturday and the weather was absolutely perfect. If you are lucky you might even see a manta ray! My kids made friends with two other families that were from Chalmette & Covington, it’s never hard to find a friendly local face to chat with while you are there. I walked away with a new Facebook Mom friend myself, finding out we had a bunch of mutual people in common, and our children had a blast together.
Once it’s time to pack up, you grab your things (and ALL of your trash, please, they provide trash bags at the foot of the dock for your convenience – there is no excuse – leave NO TRACE!) and head back for the boat to depart. Once you are back and settled on the ship, it’s the perfect time to hit the boat snack bar for the ride back. Pro tip: Don’t sit on the side of the boat that will be getting the sun, you will regret it about 20 minutes in. Once you depart on the other side, don’t forget the picture you snapped while boarding, they will have them all printed out on a display to the right of the gate.
If it sounds like a long but great day – it is! But that drive back can feel ominous after a day in the sun. We will sometimes make a weekend out of it, going to Gulf Islands Waterpark the next day. There are some awesome little hotels in Gulfport too if you don’t feel like the hassle and rates of Biloxi, putting you ten minutes to both places.
Ship Island has stolen my heart, and I promise it will steal yours too! Make sure to check them out this summer – it is the best beach Mississippi has to offer in my book.
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