A Southern sojourn in Savannah and low country.
There’s simply no denying it: Savannah is the epitome of Squaresville, U.S.A. Not that Savannah isn’t hip (the 10,000 students at the Savannah College of Art and Design keep the place crackling with on-trend creativity). It’s because the defining feature of Savannah is squares, 22 of them, that checker this genteel enclave, one of the first planned cities in the United States—and perhaps for that reason, one of the country’s very loveliest. Around these squares, first laid out in 1733, are oak-lined streets, soaring churches, august mansions and a panoply of bravura architecture of every description. Our four-day, three-night, soak-it-all-up itinerary allows you to experience the best of what Savannah has to offer—the food, the art, the history—and it also conducts you on a day-long excursion to explore the sights and tastes of nearby Beaufort and the storied Low Country of South Carolina.
In the afternoon, arrive via taxi at your hotel. With a commanding presence on the edge of Savannah’s largest downtown park—a verdant rectangle of live oaks, azaleas, camellias, and at its the center, a vivacious fountain. If post-airplane relaxation is not an immediate priority, consider a visit to the piping-fresh SCAD Museum of Art in its newly inaugurated building (a former railroad depot). The museum has one of the largest collections of African American art in the United States, and additionally serves as a showcase for contemporary art and design by students and professors at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Founded not all that long ago, in 1978, SCAD has already galloped to prominence as one of the leading schools of its type not just in the South or the country, but the world. (The school’s gift shop, filled with a constantly rotating inventory of student crafts and arty creations, is well worth poking around in, by the way.)
After checking out the museum, amble through Savannah to one of its most beloved landmarks, the Olde Pink House. It wouldn’t take a Mensa member to spot its location on Reynolds Square, for it is indeed pink—very pink. Built in 1789, the edifice is a fine example of Federal architecture and one of just a piddling handful of buildings that survived Savannah’s devastating fire of 1796. Step inside and head downstairs to the Planters Tavern, where a couple of fireplaces blaze and on the piano a wise-in-the-ways-of-the-world songster or songtress is probably plinking out a tune, and probably one by native son Johnny Mercer. (Although Mercer House on Monterrey Square was built for Civil War General Hugh W. Mercer, great-grandfather of Johnny, the house would never be home to any of the Mercer family, including the celebrated songwriter; everybody nowadays knows it as the house in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil). After you’ve had a drink or two (oh why not—two and a half), carefully climb the stairs up to the Olde Pink House restaurant, which is famous for its platters of complemental foods. Try the Habersham Platter, on which space is shared by shrimp and grits, seared scallops and crab cakes. The Reynolds Square Platter has mac-and-cheese poppers, pulled port and blackened oysters. Or if you and yours are feeling particularly Lucullan, take on the Shellfish Tower, which is as described: a staggering column of iced crustaceans fresh from nearby waters.
Why not enjoy breakfast in your room? Afterwards, your guide, Pat, will meet you in the lobby and provide a 15-minute-or-so exegesis on Savannah’s history—from the founding of the colony of Georgia in 1733, through the Civil War era, and on to the present day. Then it’s off to see it first-hand where all this history was made. Pat can put you eye-to-eye with more magnificent architecture in Savannah than anyone else, especially because she provides access to no less than three private homes and gardens. But that’s just the beginning of her strengths. Be it city planning, African American history, or a passion for John Berendt’s mega-bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, whatever your interests, Pat can obligingly customize your tour to reflect them. As a native Savannahian, her broad knowledge (and yummy inside gossip) extend to pretty much everything and everyone connected to Savannah (from town founder James Ogelthorpe to Paula Deen). Is the history of the Civil War a fascination? Just tell Pat and she will amply incorporate Civil War history into your walk and show you sites connected to that painful era—and there are, sadly, plenty of them. You can visit the Green Meldrim Home, where General Sherman made his headquarters during his occupation of Savannah. (The general gave the fallen City of Savannah to President Lincoln as a Christmas present December 1864.)
Starting mid-morning every weekday, a long line begins to form in front of Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, which opens at 11 o’clock for lunch. Thanks to Pat’s pull in town, you’ll sail past the queue and head (via the kitchen) straight into into this venerable Southern boarding house. It opened in 1943, and though it no longer offers lodging, it has been serving for the same good ol’ traditional Southern home-style cooking for nearly seven decades. You’ll claim a chair at a table that seats 10 and serves as the landing board for platters of Southern-fried chicken, butterbeans, cornbread dressing, sweet potato soufflé, black-eyed peas, okra gumbo, corn muffins and biscuits that are shared communally, boarding house style. And for dessert: banana pudding with vanilla wafers, a classic Southern meal-topper.
After lunching, you choose how to spend the afternoon. You can continue with Pat as your guide, or strike out on your own. If so, the Telfair Museum of Art on Telfair Square is an option. Opened in 1886 as the South’s first public art museum, the Georgian-style Telfair houses American and European art and sculpture, the latter displayed in a grand, classically designed gallery that exhibits the works just as they were installed more than a century ago. There are so many historic homes on tour in the Historic District, and our favorite is the Owens-Thomas House on Ogelthorpe Square. Considered by many as the country’s finest example of English Regency architecture (the style that takes its name from King George IV, who ruled as Prince Regent from 1811 to 1820), the mansion has bragging rights to a unique arched “drawbridge” stairway linking front and rear halls. There are outstanding Regency and Federal furnishings throughout, and a walled, symmetrical parterre garden in the rear containing plants typical of Southern gardens in the 1800s.
Now that you’ve tasted some real down-home Southern cooking, you might consider taking a cooking class to learn how to whip up some yourself. If so, we can arrange for a three-hour afternoon class. Some of the ethnic and regional recipes you might like to try your hand at are shrimp and grits, black-eyed pea salad, praline cake, and of course, Southern buttermilk biscuits. Chef will knowledgeably discuss the history and patiently explain the techniques behind every dish, and of course, you get to taste the fruits of your labour.
At afternoon’s end, relax at your hotel. Before dinner, we recommend a drink on the Bohemian Hotel’s rooftop veranda, which affords a 360-degree view of the Savannah River and South Carolina on one side, and on the other, the historic buildings and oak-lined squares of downtown. A good choice for dinner nearby is Vics on the River, where fried green tomatoes with goat cheese and tomato chutney, and crawfish beignets with Tabasco syrup are among the appetizers. One of the entrées is pecan-crusted local flounder flash-fried and served with citrus honey butter sauce and house-made andouille sausage-potato hash. Another choice is fried wild Georgia shrimp or oysters (or a combo of the two). Yet another option: Take a taxi to Blowin’ Smoke, whose grill and rotisserie overlords are considered the town’s top smokers of pork and beef. (If there’s a vegetarian in the party, there are delicious black-eyed-pea cakes topped with pepper-jack cheese.) Blowin’ Smoke also has the liveliest jazz scene in town, and if you care to, you can eat outside, the weather nearly always permitting.
After breakfast at the hotel, Pat will pick you up at 9 o’clock for an day trip to Beaufort, an hour’s drive from Savannah. On the way out of town, Pat will show you another of the city’s neighborhoods, the Victorian District, filled with the homes built in the 1920s by the wealthy of Savannah.
Founded as a British settlement in 1710 and the second oldest city in South Carolina (the oldest is Charleston), Beaufort (pronounced bewfort) enjoyed a golden age as an agricultural center between 1820 and 1860, when many of the finest homes were built, ranging in styles from Georgian to Colonial to Greek Revival. Before the War Between the States, the tiny town was extolled as the most aristocratic of its size in America, and because it came to be occupied by Union troops during the conflict, its antebellum mansions were blessedly spared the devastation of Sherman’s March to the Sea. You’ll take a horse-drawn carriage to view these homes, all of them surrounded by long-enduring live oaks drenched with Spanish moss, while Pat entertains you with stories of this old seaside town’s colorful history and traditions. You’ll also see where many movies have used Beaufort as a filming location—The Prince of Tides, Forrest Gump and The Big Chill, to name but three.
After the horse-drawn carriage tour there will be a little time for browsing in the shops along the river before lunching at one of our recommended spots on Beaufort Bay shrimp wrap, stuffed with local shrimp, crab meat and sausage, and bound in a spring roll with cucumber slaw, a light, local favorite.
After lunch, you choose what you’ll next tour: St. Helena’s Episcopal Church and its timeworn cemetery. Or Penn Center, the site of one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves and one of the most significant African American historical and cultural institutions in existence today.
St. Helena’s, with Doric pilasters and a fanlight framing its entrance, dates to 1724 and still employs the Communion silver given to the church in 1734, nearly 300 years ago. In the churchyard, surrounded by a high brick wall, are the graves of many prominent citizens, including two generals of the Confederate Army.
Located on nearby St. Helena Island, about 20 minutes outside Beaufort, Penn Center comprises 19 buildings related to and used by Penn School, founded in 1862, six months before the Emancipation Proclamation, for the education of Gullah, African American people of the Low Country who have to this day preserved much of their linguistic and cultural heritage. A museum at Penn Center explores the rich and heroic history of the Gullah, and recordings allow you to hear spoken Gullah, which combines Elizabethan English, Jamaican patois and several West African dialects.
Around 3 o’clock Pat will drive you back to Savannah, depositing you around 4 or 4:30 at the Mansion. Relax from the day’s travel till you feel like dinner. We recommend Elizabeth’s on 37th, one of the city’s best restaurants and a short taxi ride from the hotel.
Savannah on a Sunday morning is as quiet as a broken clock. So, before breakfast, consider an early-morning farewell perambulation, when you can claim the nearly empty streets and (possibly mist-filled) squares as your own. A good place for brunch is 17hundred90 Restaurant. Afterward, it’s time to collect your luggage, hail a taxi for the airport—and prepare for your next adventure!