GULFPORT, Mississippi — Riding the passenger ferry to West Ship Island, 10 miles offshore, I had a strong feeling of moving not just through space, but through time. We were leaving behind the glitz and kitsch, the casinos and busy beaches and traffic of the mainland, for a quieter and more natural side of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

West Ship Island is part of Gulf Islands National Seashore, a National Park Service site spread across 170 miles of Mississippi and Florida coastline. The park, established in 1971, preserves barrier islands and some wild coastal marshes and forests on the mainland and is divided into Mississippi and Florida areas.

The West Ship Island ferry is the only way for visitors to explore a Mississippi barrier island — unless they take their own boat or charter a special trip.

During the trip, several persistent gulls followed the ferry, gliding effortlessly behind. They could have been children’s kites tied to the rail, except they veered off as we passed the halfway point, probably to head back for easier pickings on the mainland. But a small flock of red-winged blackbirds, flying in from the island, took their place, trilling and begging, mostly unsuccessfully, for handouts from passengers. They were the loudest inhabitants I would encounter.

At the end of the 60-minute trip, the ferry docked at the island in what was once the only deep-water harbor between Mobile, Alabama, and Galveston, Texas. (Other modern ports, like the one in Gulfport, are the result of dredging.)

As we unloaded, many island visitors carried beach gear, small coolers, bird-watching equipment or whatever else they thought they might need on the uninhabited island.

When the ferry is running, a small snack bar also operates on the island selling hot dogs and sandwiches and drinks — including, I can report from first-hand experience, beer.

The island also is home to perhaps the finest, and certainly one of the least crowded, beaches in Mississippi. A concession near the snack bar rents beach chairs and umbrellas to guests who prefer not to lug their own gear on the ferry. Visitors also will find restrooms, showers and changing rooms and a large covered picnic pavilion.

The first stop for me and many other ferry passengers, however, was Fort Massachusetts, a historic structure that stands almost directly at the end of the 400-foot pier where we docked.

A National Park Service volunteer was waiting to lead us through the massive fort and tell us about the island’s military history.

Because of the deep-water harbor, the island had been used by British forces during the War of 1812 as a staging area before their unsuccessful attack on New Orleans.

In 1855, future Confederate President Jefferson Davis, then U.S. secretary of war, was a strong advocate of building a fort on the island to protect the harbor and the Mississippi coast.

Construction began just before the start of the Civil War. The uncompleted fort was seized by Confederates during the war, but taken back by Union forces, who continued with construction. The fort was not completed until after the war’s end, but the island did serve as a prisoner-of-war camp for captured Confederate soldiers and as a base for some Union units, including some of the first African-American troops to fight in the war.

After the tour, most of the visitors headed to the beach. I decided to walk the mile out to the western tip of the island. The way was dotted with marshy tidal ponds where I spotted many birds, including ospreys, brown pelicans, a variety of gulls and terns and wading birds such as willets and clapper rails, but almost no other humans.

My hike was pleasant, with a breeze keeping me cool and driving away most pesky insects. At the end of the island, I doffed my shoes and proceeded back along the sand, accompanied only by the cry of the seabirds and the sound of the waves lapping at my ankles.

After availing myself of a hot dog and a couple of beverages at the snack bar, I found an empty bit of beach nearby — not a hard thing to do — spread my beach towel, pulled my hat over my eyes, and engaged in my favorite travel activity: Doing nothing at all in the warm sun.

The five hours on the island elapsed quickly, and it was time to return.

One or two ferries make round-trips each day to West Ship Island from Gulfport through the summer months, with limited departures in the fall. A once-a-day ferry also runs from Biloxi beginning in mid-May.

Visitors who choose not make the trip to the island can still enjoy a more natural side of the Gulf Coast at the Davis Bayou area, part of the national seashore located on the mainland in Ocean Springs.

Davis Bayou protects several hundred acres of marsh and bayou, and houses campgrounds and a visitor center with exhibits about the barrier islands and coastal areas and their unique habitats and history.

Several trails run through the Davis Bayou area. From one trail I spotted a large alligator happily sunning himself at the edge of a large marsh.

After a day exploring the quieter side of coastal Mississippi, I knew exactly how he felt.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at sstephens@dispatch.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.