TUNICA RESORTS, Miss. -- All golfers sing the blues from time to time. But in the Mississippi Delta, it simply goes with the territory.
Blues artists like Robert Johnson, who, according to legend, sold his soul to the devil some 80 years ago at the crossroads of U.S. highways 49 and 61, certainly never envisioned nine casino-hotels, fancy restaurants and championship golf courses just north of Clarksdale on the Mississippi River. But in the past 15 years, the scene in northwest Mississippi has changed rapidly.
Gaming has replaced cotton as the biggest money maker in the region. Golf and gambling -- not fishing and hunting -- rank as its most popular recreational activities.
With gaming came prosperity. And instead of marking the hard times, the blues are celebrated with museums, retro clubs and a trail that outlining the birthplaces and gravesites of many of America's most influential blues artists.
Fifteen years ago, cotton remained king in these parts, among the poorest in the nation. But when the local powers decided to bring in gaming, that all changed. Now, its more than 14,000 slots and 400 game tables earned Tunica the title of the South's casino capital.
Furthermore, the nine casino-hotels from companies such as Harrah's and MGM/Mirage provide more than 6,300 first-class hotel rooms and suites, many of which underwent recent renovations. There are also more than 40 restaurants, and if you're thinking most are buffets, think again.
For example, '37 at Harrah's (named for the year Harrah's opened its first casino) offers a fine-dining experience you'd more expect in Las Vegas than on the Mississippi Delta. The menu ranges from surf and turf to lamb rib roast with an extensive wine list. Of course, Harrah's also includes a buffet, endorsed by Southern chef extraordinaire Paula Deen, featuring many of her recipes and a facsimile of her kitchen and home.
The resorts also draw plenty of big-name entertainment, from Vince Gill and Eddie Money to Bill Cosby and Chris Rock.
Tunica Resorts sits in an ideal location, just a 30-minute drive from Memphis International Airport. And starting in May 2010, AirTran began offering nonstop service at reasonable fares from Atlanta to Tunica. The area attracts more than 10 million visitors a year, infusing approximately $12 billion in revenue, according to Bill Cantor, director of sales and marketing for the Tunica Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
"Tunica is a great value," Cantor said. "Not cheap, mind you, (but) a great value. During the week, you can get a really nice room for $59, and the food here is very reasonable. It's a great two- or three-day stay."
Whether you book a golf package or simply show up with your sticks, you'll find reasonably priced golf in Tunica Resorts and the surrounding area. During the week, it's common to pay $50 or less for a green fee at the three very enjoyable golf courses within a short drive of the casinos.
The newest, Tunica National Golf and Tennis, perennially hosts the state's top amateur events, PGA section tournaments and a Hooters Tour event. With water on all but two holes, this heavily bunkered 7,200-yard par 72, a Mark McCumber design, often plays in the wind to set up a stern test. Champion Bermuda greens and zoysia fairways help make for an enjoyable layout at Tunica National.
The Links at Cottonwoods Golf Course at Harrah's Casino has an interesting history. The original owner decided to add hundreds of trees to the links course design. After Harrah's acquired the property a few years ago, new ownership removed and sold the trees, restoring the intentions of designer Hale Irwin. At more than 7,000 yards, it challenges good players but allows the novice to experience plenty of fun, too.
And finally, there's River Bend Links at Casino Strip Resorts. The golf course has entered a unique partnership between Tunica Resorts and the casinos to offer packages. Designed by Clyde Johnston, River Bend features something of a Scottish links feel with its knolls and bunkers; however, there is water lurking around most every corner, making it imperative to miss in the right spots.
Of course, every complete trip to the Mississippi Delta must include exploration of the birthplace of the blues, considered the roots of American jazz and rock 'n roll.
Tunica sits in the middle of the Mississippi Blues Trail, with markers throughout the region that denote the birthplaces. For more information, visit www.msbluestrail.org.
A drive of about a half-hour south of Tunica, Clarksdale serve as the real hotbed of blues. It's a town that spawned such greats as Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Son House and W.C. Handy, to name a few. In 1999, the Delta Blues Museum opened in a restored train depot in Clarksdale. Inside you'll find guitars from the greats and even a museum recreation of the log cabin that once stood on Stovall Plantation, where Muddy Waters worked and lived. A likeness of Waters stands in the cabin as a video shows various rock and blues artists paying tribute to their inspiration. In fact, throughout the museum, you'll find messages from other contemporary artists, including a plaque of every Led Zeppelin album dedicated to the museum by the group's lead singer, Robert Plant.
Today, music lovers of all backgrounds visit the blues clubs of Clarksdale, in addition to the casino venues, as Mississippi revels in its blues roots. Clarksdale features several vintage clubs, including
Ground Zero Blues Club, which is packed every weekend as blues legends and newcomers alike perform. Actor Morgan Freeman owns a portion of Ground Zero, by the way, with attorney Bill Luckett and Memphis entertainment executive Howard Stovall. The club got its name from Clarksdale's historical moniker as Ground Zero for the blues.
Another retro location to celebrate the area's heritage, the Hopson Plantation, sits outside of Clarksdale. The plantation, birthplace of the modern-day cotton picker in 1944, was converted into a cool juke joint and barbeque pit. Stop by to hear authentic blues while enjoying a wide variety of beers and spirits. If you really want to appreciate the history of the property, though, book a night or two at the plantation's Shack Up Inn, a series of six renovated sharecropper's shacks. Complete with running water and electricity. They're clean and comfortable but look no different than something from 50 years ago.
Finally, recent prosperity spawned the Tunica RiverPark and Museum on the Mississippi River. Opened in 2004, the facility recounts the history of the region through a variety of media.
It opens with a film narrated by actor James Earl Jones, who has roots in the area. He enlightens viewers on the might of the river and the industry and disasters that have surrounded it. The museum offers a variety of exhibits, including a large aquarium that features the indigenous wildlife of the river, plus artifacts from significant historical events surrounding it.
Situated atop of the museum's unique architecture, a large observation deck overlooks the mile-wide river and the dock for the Tunica Queen, a riverboat that features daily voyages and dinner cruises. For more information on the RiverPark, visit www.tunicariverpark.com.
May 13, 2010