It’s easy to fall in love with Savannah, Georgia. She woos you with her beguiling charms while seducing you with promises of rich and varied experiences. She’s the consummate Southern belle – a real ‘the hostess with the mostest’ – whose popularity has consistently put her on lists of the top ten places to visit by numerous, world-renowned travel publications and websites. Everyone adores and flocks to this vibrant coastal haven at all times of the year. It’s definitely love at first sight for most newcomers, who are drawn like a magnet to the city’s beauty and its historic-but-hip, and classic-yet-cool vibes.
Savannah is known for the 22 squares that dot the Historic District of town. These lush, green, park-like areas date from 1733 to the mid-1800s, and were designed by the city’s founder, General James Edward Oglethorpe, who is attributed to creating America’s first pre-planned city. The squares were established to serve the populace as communal gathering places and working centers. Most are named in honor or in memory of a person or historical event, and many have monuments, markers, memorials, statues and plaques or other tributes located within them. Some sit like oases amid busy commercial sectors and others are situated in quiet, residential neighborhoods.
Columbia Square is particularly lovely, as it is shaded by four giant live oaks and centered by an impressive cast iron fountain imported from the historic Wormsloe Plantation. Another, Chippewa Square, with its imposing statue of General Oglethorpe, was made famous in modern days by the bench upon which Forest Gump sat on in the movie of the same name. One of the most photographed statues, that of Reverend John Wesley, founder of the Methodist denomination, is located in oft-visited Reynolds Square. Named for John Reynolds, the first colonial governor of Georgia, this square was once the center of colonial government and held the House of Assembly, where the first reading of the Declaration of Independence took place in Georgia.
In addition to Savannah’s squares, the city is recognized for its gardens and array of flora that are known to elicit audible oohs and ahhs from ardent admirers. It’s a floral wonderland with colorful azaleas and an assortment of rainbow-hued Cape Myrtles, gardenias and camellias. Then there are the stately magnolias whose white blossoms infuse the air with the intoxicating lemon-sugar scent that has become synonymous with Savanna and other parts of the south. And let’s not forget the Spanish moss that hangs like tinsel from the tall live oaks, lending a moody, Gothic ambiance to the city’s urban cover.
Savannah’s beauty also extends to its architectural treasures. Wonderful examples of most of America’s 18th and 19th century prevailing architectural styles can be found in the Historic District. They range from simple Colonial structures to Medieval-influenced cathedrals and gingerbread-accented Victorians. Many are adorned with handsome ironwork that appears on balconies, gates, stair railings and window guards, as well as on monuments and fountains within the squares. Some of the homes display various unique designs such as iron storks that serve as newels, iron dolphins as waterspouts and iron griffins as foot scrapers.
The architecture helps to reveal the city’s fascinating history, which is another significant aspect of Savannah that people are keen to learn more about when they visit. Touring the numerous historical homes, houses of worship, cemeteries, forts, museums and other such sites that are open to the public is an excellent way to form a picture of the events and people that shaped Savannah over the years.
One of my favorite historical homes is Juliette Gordon Low’s Birthplace, the home of the founder of the Girl Scouts and the city’s first designated National Historic Landmark. Another, the Owens-Thomas House, boasts an impressive collection of American and European objects dating from 1750-1830, as well as an original carriage house containing one of the earliest intact urban slave quarters in the South. The pre-Civil War designed Mercer-Williams House Museum is also of special note, as it was the home of General Hugh Weedon Mercer, great-grandfather of the Academy Award-winning lyricist Johnny Mercer (of ‘Moon River’ fame). It was also the scene of the shooting death of Danny Hansford, assistant to local restorationist Jim Williams; a story that is retold in John Berendt’s popular 1994 novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
For a glimpse of African American roots in Savannah, take a tour of the First African Baptist Church, reportedly the ‘Oldest Black Church in North America’. Constituted in 1777, the building contains original pews made by slaves that are nailed into the floors and inscribed with markings written in the African dialect known as Cursive Hebrew. The ceiling is in the design of a nine patch quilt, which signaled that the church was a safe house for slaves. Such quilts also served as maps and helped to guide people on where to go next or what to look out for during their journey. Beneath the lower auditorium is another finished subfloor that was actually used in the Underground Railroad as a tunnel for slaves who were on their way north.
A visit to Bonaventure Cemetery is a must for history buffs. Though it is not Savannah’s oldest graveyard, it is certainly the city’s most famous. Quintessentially Southern Gothic, it is part natural cathedral and part sculptural garden, with a hauntingly beautiful setting that reflects the Victorian era’s romanticized view of death. The place has captured the imaginations of authors, poets, photographers and filmmakers for over 150 years. Among those buried at Bonaventure are several military generals, poet Conrad Aiken, Johnny Mercer and Georgia’s first governor, Edward Telfair.
Fans of historic lighthouses will particularly enjoy nearby Tybee Island Light Station and Museum. The lighthouse has been a guiding force for mariners to gain safe entrance into the Savannah River for over 270 years and it is one of the most intact light stations in the country, with all of its historic support buildings site. The 178-stair climb is definitely worth the effort, as at the top, you are treated to a picturesque panoramic view of the area.
Another reason to love this winsome city is the food. Savannah is a mecca of classic southern heritage delights such as shrimp and stone ground grits, fried chicken, collards with ham, hush puppies, creamed corn, fried green tomatoes and biscuits and gravy. There’s plenty of pit barbecue and fresh seafood, too; the latter of which is predominantly featured in low country dishes like She Crab Soup. This oh-so-rich, cream-based concoction is made with fresh Atlantic blue crab and is often served with a dose of sherry on the side.
Desserts reign supreme in Savannah, which is a problem because by the time you’ve finished with your ample-portioned delicious main, you won’t have much room for the sweets. But, you will be tempted and then compelled to try just a bite or three of one of the amazing pies, like pecan, lemon chess or sweet potato. Or perhaps you’ll go for the coconut layer cake or maybe the peach cobbler. Before you know, you’re scraping the dish to get every last crumb. And of course, you’re going to wash everything down with sweet tea, the ever-popular elixir that was once referred to as “hummingbird water” by the field hands. They dubbed it so as the drink helped energize and revive them as they worked. Don’t worry if you’re seeking something besides classic southern fare, as the city offers a variety of cuisines to satisfy all tastes from Mediterranean and Moroccan to Italian and pan-Asian.
Walk off your dinner with an evening stroll or a ghost tour…if you dare! According to The American Institute of Parapsychology, Savannah has been coined “American’s Most Haunted City”. Many residents take pride in this recognition and as a result, there are a number of ghost tours to introduce visitors to the spirits that have helped the town earn its reputation. On a ghost talk/ghost walk tour, for example, you’ll hear of the many apparitions, ghosts and paranormal experiences that have been reported at various locales around Savannah. You’ll learn that two wars, four major fires, an earthquake and outbreaks of disease caused much death and destruction in the city and left thousands of bodies behind. These catastrophes, both natural and not, gave the place its creepy, unsettling underpinnings.
Your guide will tell you about B. Matthews, the country’s oldest bar, where the spirits of slaves still roam at night, causing playful and malicious happenings to occur. You’ll visit 17Hundred 90 Inn & Restaurant, where the apparition of an African American woman who once worked in the kitchen haunts the place. Employees tell of hearing the jingles from the bracelets she wore on her feet and of being pushed and shoved when they are working in the kitchen. At Kehoe House, now an upscale B&B, Mr. Kehoe’s benevolent spirit is said to manifests itself via a glowing globe in the office, while Mrs. Kehoe’s lavender and rosewater perfumes permeate the air. The couple had ten children and guests occasionally report hearing children’s voices in the house when there aren’t any kids in the vicinity. These and other tales have intrigued visitors and the media for years, and they’ve been featured on The History Channel, The Learning Channel, The Travel Channel and the popular SciFi Channel show, “Ghost Hunters”.
If the arts are your thing, you won’t be disappointed in Savannah’s cultural offerings. There’s plenty to experience in this eclectic, cultural town. From live concerts to art exhibits, theatrical productions and festivals galore, the place brims with activities to stimulate the mind, body and senses. It’s a culturally rich centre with more art galleries per capita than New York City and is home to the flagship campus of the illustrious Savannah College of Art and Design.
With all of this and endless options for accommodations, restaurants and tours, there are many reasons to love Savannah, but perhaps it’s the city’s hospitality that visitors find most endearing. You’ll find Savannahians to be some of the most polite, gracious and genteel folks. They aim to please and they strive to ensure you have a good time during your stay so that y’all come back soon.
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Deborah Stone is a features and travel writer, whose column has covered everything from Washington’s San Juan Islands to exotic Egypt. She enjoys writing about soft adventure experiences, cultural forays, wildlife encounters, romantic getaways and spa retreats. A long-time resident of the Seattle area, she is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association.