Where the USM Eagles roost
Hattiesburg, 80 miles north of Biloxi, is home to the University of Southern Mississippi and proud of it. In recent years, however, Hattiesburg has also become proud of its reputation as a Mississippi boomtown.
Once nearly abandoned, the historic downtown area is being restored building by building: The art deco Saenger Theatre, a former movie house that was renovated in 2000, now mounts commercial theater, opera, and works by local playwrights (201 Forrest St., 601/584-4888, saengeramusements.com). Upscale bars and restaurants have sprouted up, such as the Walnut Circle Grill (115 Walnut St., 601/544-2202) and 206 Front Street (206 W. Front St., 601/545-5677). The former serves pistachio-crusted lamb for $24; the latter, Parmesan-crusted salmon for $16. It's the kind of food you would expect from bigger cities. And residents, many of them USM faculty, are redoing mansions that fell into disrepair during the Depression.
The gentrification isn't complete. Your best bets for accommodations are still highwayside motels like Comfort Inn and Best Western. The remaining rough edges tend to add welcome character. The town's Victorian cemetery, for instance, makes for a nice stroll, as does the public library's Author's Walk, which memorializes Mississippi's many legendary writers.
At the junction of Hardy Street and Highway 49 lies the USM campus, which offers pleasures highbrow and low. Its enormous All-American Rose Garden is a dizzyingly sensual experience, and the McCain Research Library houses the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection, including a fascinating exhibit of early manuscripts of Cinderella and Aesop's Fables. On the rowdier side, USM's diverse student body loves their team sports with full-on southern obsession. Fans paint themselves gold and black and ride around in convertibles prior to and just after games, with music blaring and flags waving. Tickets for all major sports events are usually available even on game days and run about $15 (601/266-5418, ticketmaster.com, enter "Southern Mississippi"). Post-victory crowds gather at St. Elmo's Tavern (1825 Hardy St., 601/543-0659) and the Thirsty Hippo (211 Main St., 601/583-9188, thirstyhippo.com), where there's often live music.
The campus serves as a trailhead for the Long Leaf Trace (mylongleaftrace.com), a 41-mile biking, hiking, and equestrian trail created from paved-over derelict railroad tracks. Just south of the campus on Highway 49, you'll find a place to flex muscles of a different kind: one of the region's best-known discount malls, home of Hudson's Treasure Hunt (5912 Hwy. 49, 601/545-2088). The store raids defunct boutiques and department stores in big coastal cities for leftovers and sells them at mind-blowing savings. As Angela Ball, an English professor at USM, puts it, "There's an awful lot of Mississippians running around in $30 Armani coats because of Hudson's." The town also has a couple of highly rated public golf courses, a small zoo, and lovely public parks.
Ten miles outside of town is Camp Shelby. Normally a National Guard training center, the camp is currently being used by the army to train reservists for service in Iraq. It's also the site of the Camp Shelby Armed Forces Museum (601/558-2757, closed Sunday and Monday, free), which commemorates our troops' sacrifices.