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Photo by Tyler Potterfield
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She's our sister in a rarefied sorority, as far as I'm concerned, including Richmond, Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans. Savannah, Ga., of picturesque Spanish moss and less poetic mosquitoes, has influence greater than its size with a population of 139,491, about half of ours. Much like in Richmond, seven women organized the Historic Savannah Foundation in 1955 to save the city's historical legacy, beginning with the 1820 Isaiah Davenport House. In the 1950s, the late Leopold Adler II realized the value of heritage tourism to Savannah and became its most effective advocate. These days, the annual impact of tourism in Savannah/Chatham County is around $1 billion.
Savannah isn't as close as you might think — 469 miles, or six and a half hours by highway. Delta, United and US Airways fly there from Richmond, but often with layovers in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., or Washington, making the flight time almost equal to the drive. The River Street Inn (912-234-6400 or riverstreetinn.com ) is situated on the bluff along East Bay Street, offering proximity to the historic district and plenty of dining, shopping and entertainment. The intimate five-story hotel, a former cotton warehouse with the earliest sections built in 1817, is wrapped around a dramatic central atrium. Hospitable flourishes include an afternoon wine and hors d'oeuvres reception and house-made chocolates in the evening. Floor-length windows facing the Savannah River offer views of ferries and the Hutchinson Island resort.
City Market ( savannahcitymarket.com ) is a bustling four-block revitalized section of shops, restaurants, art and entertainment along Ellis Square centered on the 18th-century marketplace. Draws include chic apparel at Arc ( shop-arc.com ) and décor at One Fish Two Fish ( onefishstore.com ). I also stopped into the downtown branch of the Savannah Bee Co. ( savannahbee.com ) for a honey tasting and bought 12 ounces of Tupelo Honey — for the song, for my Mississippi wife and for the way the shop clerk pronounced "Apalachicola."
The Savannah College of Art and Design, founded in 1978, has restored more than 50 downtown buildings. The SCAD Museum of Art ( scadmoa.org ), partly within an 1856 Greek Revival train station, is dedicated to presenting up-to-the-moment art and design and African-American work. Since 1997, the Telfair Museum of Art ( telfair.org ) has been home to the iconic Bird Girl sculpture, depicted in Bonaventure Cemetery on the cover of John Berendt's bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994). Bonaventure ( bonaventurehistorical.org ) — Savannah's Hollywood Cemetery, if you will — remains a must-see, anyway.
Savannah is the home of Paula Deen, the outlandishly popular chef, whose Lady & Sons Restaurant ( ladyandsons.com ) is, well, always crowded. Another tasty place known to natives is the Crystal Beer Parlor ( crystalbeerparlor.com ), one of the first restaurants to serve booze after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 — maybe because it was already a speakeasy. Their chicken-and-sausage gumbo hits the spot, while news photos, clippings and artifacts constitute a hodgepodge education of mid-20th-century Savannah history. If the day is not too hot, try the outdoor seating at the boisterous Congress Street Social Club ( congressstreetsocialclub.com ) and get yourself a Failure Bowl loaded with mac-and-cheese and topped with fried chicken fingers, bacon, barbecue and scallions. For the gourmand, there's Cha Bella ( cha-bella.com) in a renovated townhouse, with a farm-to-table philosophy and delicious food.
Massie Heritage Center ( massieschool.com ) provides a solid overview of the almost 300-year-old city's development, including perhaps the best architectural guide exhibition that I've ever seen. James E. Oglethorpe designed the city on a plan of park squares around which public and private structures were built. Savannah's wealth of seafaring history is displayed at the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum ( shipsofthesea.org ) in the grand 1819 Scarbrough House, where the gardens are among the most beautiful in the city. Savannah got knocked out of the Civil War in 1862, hence the lack of monuments, but the Fort Pulaski National Monument shows why, with masonry fortifications that a young Lt. Robert E. Lee first helped design and then saw become obsolete by the pounding of U.S. rifled cannons
The nearby barrier islands are among some of the most unspoiled by overcommercialism. Tybee Island ( visittybee.com ), 18 miles from downtown, is known for romantic bungalows, lighthouses and a pier. At MacElwee's ( macelweesontybee.com ), I opted for the Low Island Stir Fry of shrimp and sausage, mighty good eating after a day at the beach. Savannah is also a city of festivals and events, so look at the calendar before you go ( visitsavannah.com ).