And, now for something completely different: Savannah.
Author: Ann DeMart
Had your fill of golf and beach? Been to the outlet malls twice this week? For a true change of pace, take S.C. Route 170 and the impressive Talmadge Memorial Bridge over the Savannah River, exit on Oglethorpe Street and swoop right into historic downtown Savannah. The city is just over the state line, about 20 miles away from the Hilton Head area, but it’s a whole different world.
I first saw Savannah when I was a kid from upstate New York down here to visit my Southern cousins, whose accents gave me the giggles. To someone from a suburban 20th-century neighborhood with neatly trimmed lawns, maple trees and flowers that only bloomed from about mid-May (when they broke up the ice on Lake Erie) to about the end of August (when you caught your first whiff of autumn in the air), Savannah’s palm trees, Live Oaks, azaleas the height of houses and enveloping heat was truly exotic.
It still is. Luckily, the best parts of Savannah haven’t changed. Established in 1733, according to the city’s understated tag line, this city shows its colonial roots and influences to a tee in the historic district. Landmark 18th- and 19th-century buildings surround 20-some lush green park-like squares filled with fountains and statues. River Street still has old cotton exchange buildings and cobblestone streets. Horse-drawn carriages, fascinating antique shops and riverboats await you. No wonder General Sherman spared this gem. And, unlike its more formal coastal cousin, Charleston, S.C., Savannah is delightfully off-beat. Its eccentric vibe and quirky people were brought to national attention and well-portrayed by the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, written by John Berendt and made into a movie by Clint Eastwood.
But there’s a lot more to this town than historic buildings, gorgeous greenery and slightly crazy folk. A vibrant creative culture is thriving here, furthered by city development efforts and the major presence of the Savannah College of Art and Design, which has restored many landmark buildings for its campus. That burgeoning creativity has brought with it an exciting new crop of shops, galleries, and diverse dining. The Telfair Museum of Art has sprouted a bright new contemporary branch, the Jepson Art Center. Savannah hosts major music, art and film festivals. The old Lucas Theater has been restored to its architectural splendor and shows independent and classic films.
You can sample all of these different facets of Savannah in one day, without even having to move the car; just take your time and enjoy a long walk. But first, take my advice. Wear lightweight clothes and comfortable shoes, and bring along a light jacket or sweater for the air-conditioned indoors. Stop frequently for cool drinks. If you’re from Northern or West Coast climes, you’ll quickly develop a healthy respect for this Southern city’s heat and humidity—and the dramatic temperature change indoors. You’ll no longer wonder why the belles with layers of petticoats and profound lack of air conditioning had “sinkin” spells. In fact, you’ll wonder why they didn’t spontaneously combust.
A visit to River Street, up and down Broughton Street and along side streets to Oglethorpe and Liberty will take you through both historic and trendy places. River Street’s festivals, clubs and restaurants with river views and stores for everything from souvenirs and candy at River Street Sweets to exquisite women’s clothing at Jezebel draw visitors every day. On Bay Street, you’ll find casual dining and bar, including The Moon River Brewery. (You know don’t you, that Savannah native, Johnny Mercer, wrote the lyrics for the famous song with this river in mind? You’ll be amazed at how many others he wrote.) City Market and side streets team with art galleries and antique shops.
Broughton Street’s hip reputation is enhanced with more appealing shops and dining options every year. Drop into Blue Belle for women’s new and vintage clothing, J. Parker for fine menswear, 24e for sleek, contemporary furniture and the Clipper Trading Company for imported furnishings and antiques. A stop at The Paris Market will make your head whirl and your wallet open with its eclectic jewelry, books, handbags, books and gifts. You’ll feel as if you’re at, well…a Paris market. And, don’t miss out on a refreshing stop at Leopold’s, where Savannah-raised Stratton Leopold, producer of such movies as Mission Impossible III and The General’s Daughter, has revived his family’s ice cream business. If you’re lucky, the very charming man may be there scooping the very creamy concoctions himself.
It’s impossible to do justice to the many downtown restaurants in this space. But some local favorites include Saigon for delectable Vietnamese and Thai dishes, Il Pasticcio for upscale cocktails and contemporary Italian fare, Bistro Savannah for fresh market cuisine in a cozy, friendly setting and Jazz’d for tapas and live entertainment. Local 11 Ten specializes in a seasonally-changing menu with ingredients grown as close to home as possible. The Soho South Café and Gallery Espresso feature food and antiques, and the Firefly Café serves up tasty food and a lovely view of old homes and modern people. Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room has to be experienced to be believed.
Whenever I hear “legend has it”, I think “big fat lie.” However, the many “legend-has-its” during Savannah’s nighttime ghost tour carriage rides are almost believable when you’re looking at the centuries-old buildings through the silhouettes of spooky Spanish moss dripping off massive Live Oak trees. Savannah might earn its reputation as one of America’s most haunted cities; it has certainly fulfilled its reputation as one of America’s most beautiful. Ghost-filled or otherwise, a nighttime horse-drawn carriage ride is a wonderful way to savor the city’s squares and glorious architecture and end your day. You’ll experience Savannah’s age-old charms—the warm air, intoxicating fragrance of flowers and the clip-clop of the horse’s hoofs on old lantern-lit streets—at just the right pace.
WHAT TO DO
River boat ride
Telfair Museum of Art’s Jepson Center
(Visit savannahnow.com or savcvb.com for more information)
WHERE TO EATt
Fine, fresh market cuisine in a cozy atmosphere
309 Congress St.
Picnic baskets delivered to Forsyth Park, complete with blanket, china, etc.
202 E. Broughton St.
Specialty teas, coffees, desserts, wines and iced beverages
234 Bull Street
115 E. River St.
Il Pasticcio Restaurant & Wine Bar
Contemporary Italian cuisine and great cocktails
2 E. Broughton St.
Jazz’d Tapas Bar
Tapas and live entertainment
52 Barnard St.
Leopold’s Ice Cream
Homemade ice cream, sandwiches
212 E. Broughton St.
Local 11 Ten
Seasonal menus with locally-grown ingredients
1110 Bull St.
Vietnamese and Thai
4 W. Broughton St.
Soho South Café
Café, antiques and art
12 W. Liberty St.
Moon River Brewing Company
Appetizers, sandwiches, steak, seafood.
21 W. Bay St.
Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room
Lunch: Home/Southern cooking boarding-house style
107 W. Jones St.
5 East River St.
Take out lunches and wine
222 Drayton Street
(912) 233-1000 ▪ parkersav.com
Vic’s on the River
Upscale southern cuisine
26 E. Bay St or 15 E. River St.
WHERE TO SHOP
24 E. Broughton St.
Blue Belle Boutique
Beautiful women’s clothing, the latest jeans
205 W. Broughton St.
Clipper Trading Co.
Imported furnishings, antiques, gifts
201 W. Broughton St.
Fun, fashionable women’s clothing and shoes
250 Bull St.
J. Parker, Ltd.
19 W. Broughton St.
Distinctive woman’s clothing
25 E. River St.
Paris Market & Brocante
Unique jewelry, perfumes, books, gifts and accessories
36 W. Broughton St.
River Street Sweets
Pralines, Southern candies & treats
3 East River St.