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Georgia on My Mind: Visiting The Charming Savannah

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By Brian Waddle
Photos by Brian Waddle

Do you have a cousin you love to visit, but then you sort of get into trouble when you hang out together? Like you have a ton of fun until the wee hours of the morning, but then your clothes reek the next day because you just had to have that one cigarette? And there’s crusty food clinging to the front of your shirt. And you stepped in something that really stinks. You’re Miley Cyrus.

Now imagine another cousin who you have the same amount of fun with, but without all the fuss, smells, and hangover remedies. You could proudly invite this cousin to a family dinner or a night out with your best friends. You’re Nicole Kidman.

Now you understand the difference between New Orleans and Savannah.

While New Orleans visitors can experience true Southern hospitality, Savannah has the same charming atmosphere but without the vomitis maximus (or nipples, or penises) of Bourbon Street. However, Savannah does offer the same open-container law that party animals enjoy in the Crescent City. “Roadies” and “travelers” (or whatever you want to call them) just ask for a “to-go” at the bar and take their drinks right out the door with them. Keep it classy, Savannah.

There’s a joke that in Atlanta, the first thing locals ask is what business you’re in, and in Charleston they ask your mother’s maiden name. But in Savannah, they ask what you want to drink.  And when people enjoy their cocktails, a good time is had by all. Perhaps more importantly, crafting those cocktails and beers is a flourishing industry in Savannah.

Not that you need drinks to have fun there. If you are an architecture aficionado or history buff, a foodie or connoisseur of sophisticated style, you’ll find plenty to do in Savannah. And as a bonus, a 20-minute drive from the historic district gets you to the white sandy beaches of Tybee Island, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike our fair Texas city that was born less than 200 years ago, Savannah was established in 1733 and served as the capital of the province of Georgia under the British Empire. Yes, the city is 40 years older than our nation.

So as you can imagine, history is around every corner and each building has a unique story. With a feel similar to the French Quarter or the Strand in Galveston, Savannah’s historic district is laid out in 22 squares stretching over half a mile, each with a park at the center. You can Google to find photos and get a sense of the place, but the important thing to remember is that the city retains its original 1733 plan laid out by General James Oglethorpe. Quite the contrast to Space City, U.S.A.!

Around Savannah’s squares are exquisite residences, elegant houses of worship (Savannah is home to one of the oldest Jewish temples in the nation), the courthouse, and other buildings—all beautifully preserved. Architectural walking tours are readily available if you want to learn all about Gen. Oglethorpe’s plan for the city or the differences between Federal and Georgian architecture. Around the edges of the squares are remnants of former industries: cotton warehouses turned antique stores, a resplendent stained-glass Victorian pharmacy that is now home to the Gryphon Tea Room, and exquisite buildings that are used by the Savannah College of Architecture and Design, whose campus is peppered throughout the district with buildings from all eras and styles. Our hotel, “The Brice,” a Kimpton Hotel, was once a cotton warehouse, then converted and expanded during the Civil War into a military hospital. It now has spectacular rooms, a resort pool, a secret garden courtyard, and Pacci, a beautiful, bright Italian restaurant featuring locally sourced produce and seafood.

Every building has an interesting story that involves more than just its design and style. Hauntings and ghost stories are prevalent across the city. A place with as much history as Savannah has a lot of stories to tell, and the cemeteries after dark are the places to listen for them. Midnight tours are abundant, so you too can have your own paranormal adventure.

But that is not the only thing there is to do in Savannah after dark. What would a fabulous city be without its gay bar? (Fort Worth?) “Club One” is the one-and-only gay bar in Savannah, and it is also the only place to see The Lady Chablis, the drag diva made famous by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. During our night there we caught Violet Chachki, the eventual winner of last season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race—check their website for the schedule of performers.

But you don’t go to Savannah for the drag shows, so choose one night for Club One and spend other evenings soaking up the city’s scene.

Deco Dining: This is the former waiting room of the Art Deco Greyhound bus station-turned high-end retro refurbished restaurant The Grey.
Deco Dining: This is the former waiting room of the Art Deco Greyhound bus station-turned high-end retro refurbished restaurant The Grey.

While you may know one of the most famous restaurants in Savannah—Paula Deen’s The Lady and Sons—remember that fried chicken and butter do not define the cuisine in this Southern city. Quite the contrary, Savannah offers an ever-increasing range of options to entice almost any foodie. The Public Kitchen and Bar is a fantastic American bistro with craft cocktails and a small but refined menu. My husband was enamored with their dill-pickle martini—complete with cornichons on a skewer rather than olives. The Art Deco Greyhound bus station from the 1930s has been restored and renovated into The Grey, with a beautiful mixologist bar maintained in the station’s original diner. The large waiting area is now filled with tables and booths offering upscale, downhome fare like Sizzling Smokey Pig and Catfish Tangine. And for brunch, don’t miss the Fried Green Tomato Benedict at B. Matthews. Perhaps it’s for the tourists, but the locals also enjoy this restaurant. If you are craving mouthwatering food, it is easy to find in Savannah.

For a more laid-back neighborhood vibe, head to Abe’s on Lincoln (located on Lincoln Lane—clever, aren’t they?). Lots of beers on tap, including an amazing summer grapefruit farmhouse ale from South Carolina. Abe’s is great for late-night bites in a cozy and relaxed 19th-century American ambiance. Or, if you prefer to ride the really-way-back machine to Colonial times, there are also several very nice British pubs for fish and chips, or bangers and mash with a Guinness.

So as you are making your list of all the destinations you can fly to in just two hours, be sure to include Savannah, Georgia. The East Coast seems like it should be a lot farther, but it’s actually a quick trip. You can breakfast in Houston and arrive in Savannah in time for lunch—which also means that even on your final morning there, you’ll have time for a little shopping on Broughton Street or a Savannah River cruise on the Georgia Queen. That’s another thing Savannah and New Orleans, two of our Southern cousins, have in common: old-fashioned riverboats—although the Savannah River is much less treacherous than the Mississippi River in New Orleans. It’s just more genteel. Refined. Proper. No swinging from hotel balconies here. In Savannah, the only thing hanging from the oaks is Spanish moss, whispering in the breeze.

Brian Waddle holds a U.S. passport and uses it as often as possible to travel near and far, working to make every day a photo op.

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