I am a dyed in the wool Yankee; a native New Yorker who embraces this wonderful city and all it has to offer and one who truly believes that down time is wasted time so it should be no surprise that my favorite vacation spots are places that are the exact opposite of my beloved New York. Sleepy villages in New England, hamlets in upstate New York, tiny towns that time forgot in Sicily and politics notwithstanding, most recently, a few southern gems that dot our eastern shores.
For most of my life my experience with the south was only literary… from the classic, genteel south in ‘Gone with the Wind’ to Pat Conroy’s low country tales to the scandal of ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’. I admit that the latter is what drew me to Savannah but it is not why I keep going back. There are many who say the ‘The Book’ as they refer to it, put Savannah on the map but once you set foot in the historical center of the city, you realize that ‘The Book’ just scratched the surface of this marvelous place.
In 1955, the very center of the city was suffering the same fate as many old American cities have faced…tear it down and make way for the new. In fact, the demand for and high value of Savannah Grey Brick was so high that buildings were being razed just for the brick alone. That was the year that seven tough southern ladies formed the Historic Savannah Foundation and set out to save the history of this wonderful city. To say they succeeded would be an understatement. The Savannah College of Art and Design also got involved and today many of the buildings are restored with the help of its students. In 1966 the efforts were rewarded when the historic district was granted National Historic Landmark status.
If you read ‘The Book’ you already know that Jim Williams, the accused murderer featured in it, was a fixture in Savannah society, but he was not always so; born to middle class parents, he charmed his way into the right circles-dashingly handsome, well mannered, well read, and quietly gay. Williams made his fortune as an antique dealer but his real claim to fame, other than being the only person in Georgia to ever be tried four times for the same crime, was being the consummate restorer of old forgotten homes. Over a 35-year period he restored more than 50 houses in Savannah and the low country of Georgia and South Carolina. His masterpiece was Mercer House, still occupied by his sister, which not only was his private residence but also the scene of the infamous crime. It can be said that through his restorations and his alleged crime, he singlehandedly created the ‘tourist’ Savannah we know today thanks in part to the many wonderful buildings that take you back in time. You can visit Mercer house as well as many other restored houses when touring the city center.
If shopping is your thing, hit City Market where you will find trendy 5th Avenue style shops next to kitchy Savannah specialty shops, and a stone’s throw away on River Street are two of the most ridiculous candy shops (in a good way of course)… DO NOT LEAVE without buying the pralines!!! If going too far from a mall causes you to slip into shopping withdrawal try nearby Oglethorpe Mall.
Into people watching? The city squares offer instant respite from the hot southern sun and a great place to watch locals and tourists strolling by…you will be jealous of the locals by the time you leave. Savannah is one of the country’s only planned cities and it was designed around 22 squares and Forsyth Park (Savannah’s version of NY’s Central Park). The squares and park are lined with Live Oaks and Magnolias dripping with Spanish Moss and dotted with monuments dating back to the revolutionary and civil wars as well as more contemporary sculptures and working fountains.
Take a trolley tour to get the lay of the land then come back and explore on your own; plenty of parking both on the street with meters and in lots around the city. Most of the trolley options offer on/off so you can spend the whole day visiting different points of interest for one price.
Although it does not have the same ‘foodie’ city reputation as nearby Charleston, Savannah has its share of very good places to eat including some very beachy places on Tybee Island (only 18 miles outside the city) and a couple of gems in between. Our faves were: feasting on oysters-raw and fried, crab bisques & stews and boiled shrimp in the dozen or so places that dot River Street-try the beignets at Huey’s on the River and you will think you are in New Orleans. Marlin Monroe’s is perched on a sand dune overlooking the Atlantic on Tybee. It offered the casual beach atmosphere, giant cocktails and great seafood. Take the ride to Wilmington Island and visit Lili’s, a real treasure about halfway between Savannah and Tybee; a tiny 40-seat place that offers an eclectic menu of southern and European with interesting touches. Finally, if you are into meat and lots of it, try Wiley’s in East Savannah on a Friday night for the ‘Flintstone Rib’ a beef BBQ rib that defies description as it arrives on a 14- inch long platter, roasted to perfection with a blend of their award winning BBQ sauces.
Bar-Hopping on your must have list? Savannah is one of the only cities in the US where there is no open carry law so you can grab a cocktail at one place and stroll to the next place drink in hand.
The riverfront is lined with quality hotels set right into the middle of the action but I am a water child so I prefer to stay at Tybee Island, where you get a laid back beach vacation with the culture of the city a short car ride away. Wake up to the gentle lap of the ocean waves and the smell of salt in the air, then head into town to see the sights and finish the day in the shadow of the Tybee lighthouse.
Sweet, Sweet Savannah….a trip worth taking!
Savannah Sound Bites
- ‘All Y’ All’ is southern for ‘all the members of your group’ as in “all Y’ all’s table is ready”.
- Boiled green peanuts are not green, however fried green tomatoes are…both are delicious.
- Spanish Moss is not moss at all and by the way don’t pull live moss off a tree unless you are looking for a major rash and before collecting a clump on the ground be wary of the possibility of small rat snakes that love to live in it.
- It might surprise you that sleepy little Savannah is among the top ten busiest shipping ports in the US; it is in close competition to sister city Charleston. Last year Savannah processed over 3 million 20-foot import/export containers. Chill out on River Street to watch the mammoth container ships glide by only feet away from the dock! Take a river boat cruise up and down the river that gets you into the heart of the shipping docks for a closer view of the port in action.
- September in the ‘Tropical South’ is like July and August in New York…hot, humid with a dew point approaching the high 70’s- my heat rash had a heat rash!!! Throw in the occasional tropical storm or hurricane and you can get very wet!!!
- Johnny Mercer never lived in Mercer house, in fact, no Mercer ever did, however you can find them all in Bonaventure Cemetery. If you go, notice that all the Civil War soldiers are buried with their heads facing south not north. Oh and don’t look for the iconic young girl statue that graces the book jacket of ‘Midnight in the Garden…” that started out marking a child’s grave in Bonaventure; her family consented to move the statue to the museum to protect it from the curious. BTW, that statue had absolutely NOTHING to do with the story in the book. Oh and one last thing, do not wear flip flops when visiting any of the city’s cemeteries unless you think you might enjoy a close encounter with a Georgia native fire ant!
- If dolphins are your thing, take a dolphin tour although they don’t guarantee a sighting, they often deliver.
- Oh and one last thing. Get used to hearing the name Oglethorpe; he founded the city and streets and stores and boats and roads and bridges are all named for him….
Ann Boutcher has a knack for finding insights and humor in everyday moments. Until now, her published writing has been limited to work, but now, thanks to this wonderful opportunity as a guest editor, the world will get to witness firsthand her humor, life experiences and the gift of gab she brings to the pages of The Three Tomatoes.