Savannah: Gardens, Ghosts, and Paula Deen

By: Eliot Stein

Georgia’s oldest and prettiest city, Savannah—with its antebellum mansions and towering magnolias—remains a graceful Southern belle. Veils of Spanish moss drip from mammoth oak trees, old-fashioned riverboats ply the waterway, and locals escape the summer heat by rocking on wraparound verandahs and nursing mint juleps.

It’s easy to dismiss Savannah—which boasts one of the country’s largest urban National Historic Landmark Districts, at 2½ square miles—as a sleepy city steeped in its past. But a music-and-arts scene has emerged in recent years, and ghost tours, pub crawls, and kayaking excursions have become bigger tourist attractions than horse-drawn-carriage rides.

May is an ideal time to visit. Spring blossoms paint Savannah’s squares in a kaleidoscope of colors, the city’s nearby beach repopulates with sun seekers, and the abundance of crabs, shrimp, and oysters that return to season keeps local fishermen—and appetites—happy.

Seeing Savannah
The best way to experience Savannah’s gentility is by spending a lazy day strolling through its 22 vest-pocket squares, which date to 1733. Any of the city’s green quadrants are inviting, but if you can see only two, head to Monterey Square, a palette of perennials, azaleas, and wisteria facing the Mercer House (429 Bull St.), and the wrought-iron balconies of the former home of Jim Williams (447 Bull St.), the protagonist of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A block south, 30-acre Forsyth Park, Savannah’s playground, offers a leafy respite. A maze of oaks, tennis courts, and Confederate statues shelter the park’s centerpiece: a cast-iron fountain reminiscent of Paris’s splashing monument in Place de la Concorde.

Housed in a renovated 1819 Regency mansion, Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences (121 Barnard St.; 912-790-8800; telfair.org) is the South’s oldest art museum. Go past statues of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt in the manicured garden to marvel at 4,000 American and European works dating from the 18th century. Across the square, the Jepson Center for the Arts (207 W. Yorke St.; 912-790-8800; telfair.org) is the Telfair’s ultramodern descendent, complete with contemporary works by Lichtenstein, Avedon, and Close as well as a 3,500-square-foot interactive gallery for children.

If you only step foot into one of Savannah’s historical homes, head to its greatest: the Owens-Thomas House (124 Abercorn St., 912-233-9743; telfair.org). Considered the nation’s finest example of Regency architecture, the early-19th-century mansion was made out of crushed oyster shells, lime, and sand, and it features an original carriage house and English parterre garden.

Mix 275 years of hurricanes with pirate raids, bloody wars, disease, and slave uprisings, and you get a city built on the bones of the dead. No wonder Savannah was named the country’s most haunted city by the American Institute of Parapsychology. While more than two dozen candlelit ghost tours tiptoe through the historic district each night, those who truly believe in poltergeists, orbs, and voodoo should reserve a space with Shannon Scott’s Sixth Sense Savannah Ghost Tour (sixthsensesavannah.com), which weaves bump-in-the-night tales into the city’s history. For a lighthearted approach to the local spirit world, take a tour in an open-top converted hearse on Hearse Ghost Tours (hearseghosttours.com). By day, check out Bon­aventure Cemetery. Ornate statuary and moss-draped oaks give this burial ground—the final resting place of Savannah luminaries Conrad Aiken and Johnny Mercer—a poignant, brooding quality.

With its sand dunes, three-mile-wide beach, and low person-to-pelican ratio, Tybee Island (tybeeisland.com) is a delightful place to splash around for a day. Before diving in, climb the 178 steps to the top of the zebra-striped Tybee Island Lighthouse (tybeelighthouse.org). When it was built in 1736, the 90-foot-high beacon was the tallest building of its kind in America. For the best vantage point of the barrier islands, call local guides Marsha Henson and Ronnie Kemp at Sea Kayak Georgia (888-529-2542; seakayakgeorgia.com) to paddle around sprawling cypress trees, sunning turtles, and pods of dolphins.

Great Places to Stay
You won’t get a better deal for the price than at the quaint Green Palm Inn (548 E. President St.; 912-447-8901; greenpalminn.com). Set in a 19th-century Victorian home, the four-room, family-run inn fronts Greene Square and comes with invaluable insider tips—and generous breakfasts—courtesy of innkeeper Diane McCray. Rooms start at $129.

Overlooking the water, River Street Inn (124 E. Bay St.; 912-234-6400; riverstreetinn.com) is a short stroll from city hall and the waterfront’s bars. On the National Register of Historic Places, it has canopy beds, free chocolates, newspapers, and daily hors d’oeuvres. Rates start at $159.

The four-diamond Foley House Inn (14 W. Hull St.; 912-232-6622; foleyinn.com) is composed of two romantic red-brick mansions facing Chippewa Square, where Forrest Gump told his life story while sitting on a bench. Named one of National Geographic Traveler’s top 25 B&Bs in the country, the Foley offers gas fireplaces, private balconies, and Jacuzzis in most rooms. Rates start at $219.

Tastes of Savannah

Running the width of the historic district and hugging the quay, the cobblestone promenade along River Street offers unparalleled views of the Savannah River. Beyond the kitschy souvenir shops, you’ll find one of the city’s best restaurants: Vic’s on the River (15 E. River St., 912-721-1000; vicsontheriver.com). It attracts a well-heeled clientele who rave about the crawfish beignets, fried green tomatoes, and wild Georgia shrimp.

Call now if you want a seat at Paula Deen’s The Lady & Sons (102 W. Congress St.; 912-233-2600; ladyandsons.com). Diners flock to this landmark for its well-stocked lunch and dinner buffets of crispy fried chicken, collard greens, and mashed potatoes. Crabcakes are also a favorite, but Savannahians whisper that they were better back before Deen was a TV star, when she was doing the cooking herself.

On Tybee Island, the Breakfast Club (1500 Butler Ave.; 912-786-5984) might get all the attention, but the fact that it’s been voted Savannah’s best place to eat breakfast for 11 consecutive years by Creative Loafing causes it to swell with tourists. For something off the beaten path, head to the outdoor deck at Cafe Loco (1 E. Hwy. 80; 912-786-7810; cafelocotybeeisland.com) to savor some of the best steamed shrimp around while taking in sweeping marshland views and Tybee’s nicest sunset.

With five scruffy-looking tables and a caved-in awning, Walls’ Bar-B-Que (515 E. York La.; 912-232-9754) is a far cry from the froufrou milieu of Victorian Savannah. What it does boast is the city’s best pulled-pork sandwiches and barbecue. Non-pig-lovers can munch on deviled crabs and fried fish. Grab a bib from owner Teresa before digging in.

The Olde Pink House (23 Abercorn St.; 912-232-4286) possesses all the stiff accoutrements one might expect from a pink-stucco Georgian mansion built in the 1770s for one of the country’s richest men. Chef Vincent Burns relies on low-country classics such as pan-seared jumbo lump crab cakes, and crispy flounder to soften the formal dark-oak ceiling beams, upright chairs, and large hearths.

Lively Night Spots
Well-groomed twentysomethings head to Savannah’s hottest basement watering hole: Bar-Bar (219 W. Julian St.; 912-231-1910; thebarbar.com). Play a round of foosball, shoot some pool, and let the stiff drinks—and the high-fidelity sound system—lead you to the dance floor.

Enjoy the biggest martinis in town while sitting on leopard- or zebra-print barstools at Mercury Lounge (125 W. Congress St.; 912-447-6952). On the rare night that a live band isn’t rocking out, thumping jukebox tunes can be heard down the street. Throw in darts, shuffleboard, and a free cover, and it’s no wonder this place attracts everyone from college coeds to burly bikers.

Half of the clientele at Pinkie Masters (318 Drayton St.; 912-238-0447) might not have been alive to see it, but this is said to be the place where Jimmy Carter jumped on the bar to announce his candidacy for governor of Georgia. Despite the dive’s frayed appearance, a sea of signed photos of politicians on the walls testify to this joint’s historical importance.

For More Information
The Savannah Area Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (savannahvisit.com) offers virtual tours, a calendar of events, and a full list of lodging, attractions, and restaurants.

Visit Historic Savannah (visit-historic-savannah.com) provides a wealth of information on the architecture, history, accommodations, and restaurants in and around Savannah’s historic cobblestone core.

To keep your finger on the pulse of Savannah’s latest happenings, check out the Savannah Morning News Web site, SavannahNow.com.

Getting There
United Airlines flies nonstop to Savannah from Washington Dulles. Round-trip fare for May costs about $218. 

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