CITYBREAK: SAVANNAH:CITY OF GREEN squares and leafy trees; that’s Savannah. The squares, opening out in front of you as you walk along, are more in the nature of perfectly formed parks. Green and shady, with fountains and seats, musicians playing and plants flowering, they have monuments to presidents, soldiers and governors, and names like Madison, Washington, Lafayette and Chippewa.
There are 22 of them, all within the historic district. Forsyth Park is the biggest square of all, with a wonderfully ornate fountain, old mansions all around and acres of green space to walk.
The trees are even more ubiquitous. Mostly southern live oaks and bald cypresses, they’re dressed for dreaming, in grey-white drifts of Spanish moss. Mesmerising by day and haunting by night, these veil-like drifts are neither Spanish nor moss. They are a flowering plant, an angiosperm growing in hanging, chain-like structures, some as long as six metres, from the branches of Savannah’s large trees.
Spanish moss is hugely responsible for the perception of Savannah as a place of ghosts, secrets and strange happenings. Not that there’s any shortage of ghosts, unquiet houses and ghoulish cemeteries in Savannah, nor of night-time tours taking advantage of the town’s southern Gothic reputation.
Savannah is not large: the city proper recorded a population of 136,286 in the 2010 census. But small does not mean unimportant: located in the US state of Georgia, it is both an industrial centre and a vital Atlantic seaport, with the wide Savannah river and a thriving port to show for it. The city’s humid climate means it has long, almost tropical summers, with regular thunderstorms, the odd hurricane and a very occasional cold day in winter.
Every year Savannah has a St Patrick’s Day parade and celebration. Locals claim it is the second-biggest in the US and that Savannah is the only city in the US to declare March 17th a public holiday. They boast too about the gallons of Guinness and other drinks consumed, and say it’s their Mardi Gras. With some 40 per cent of the population claiming Irish descent, none of this is altogether surprising.
But Savannah is most famously a historic city, with a downtown area that is one of the largest national historic landmark districts in the US. Founded in 1733 by General James Edward Oglethorpe, a representative of King George II, it was named after the Savannah river. This is a city that has seen war and redemption, was famously offered as a Christmas present to then US president Abraham Lincoln in 1864 by General William Sherman, and survived to become a quintessential and lovely architectural example of the grace and ease that is part of the way of life in the southern US states.
It’s easy to slip into that lifestyle in Savannah: to walk the wide, unhurried streets taking curbside coffee breaks, to dawdle in parks, to side-step into any of the many historic show houses, museums, cemeteries and places of worship. People-watching is good in all of these places and, when hunger or an evening out demands, dining on good food is a given. Savannah has a great number of fine eateries and, with pride and justification, sees them as an extension of the town’s reputation for southern hospitality.
I was treated to dinner at Elizabeth on 37th, a restaurant that is a byword for fine dining in Savannah. Festooned with food awards, beyond my budget and known simply as Elizabeth’s by the cognoscenti, it takes its name from founder chef Elizabeth Terry. She opened the restaurant in 1981 and set about serving new regional dishes based on old southern recipes, researching Savannah cooking of the 18th and 19th centuries. Her protege, Kelly Yambor, looks after the business today, serving fresh local seafood and produce. I have no idea what my meal cost, and cannot remember when I enjoyed food so much. The 1900 mansion that houses Elizabeth on 37th, replete with pillars, polished floors, ornate plasterwork and art, equals the food as an experience.
Savannah’s African-American heritage is a vital part of its identity. Africans brought to the city’s port to work the cotton and rice fields during the transatlantic slave trade toiled for generations, raised families, formed their own Geechee and Gullah cultures and set up their own churches. The Beach Institute, 502 East Harris Street, is Georgia’s oldest school for African-Americans; you can sit at the desks occupied by Savannah’s first black students in 1867. You can also view local African-American art exhibitions there, one of them a collection by Savannah wood carver Ulysses Davis.
Worth seeing too is an African-American heritage museum in the 1890s King-Tisdell Cottage on 514 East Huntingdon Street. It has copies of the emancipation proclamation, as well as General Sherman’s order that each freed family should receive 40 acres of tillable land and a mule.
Spend a while also in the lovely Yamacraw Public Art Park, and in the Owens-Thomas House on 124 Abercorn Street, an English Regency house with decorative art from the 18th and 19th centuries – and featuring one of the earliest intact urban slave quarters in the south.
Don’t miss Savannah’s First African Baptist Church on 23 Montgomery Street. The city’s oldest standing brick church, it also has one of the oldest continuous black congregations in the US. If you look carefully at the original pews, you can see the tribal markings of the African slaves who used to worship there.
You will be spoilt for choice when it comes to art, museums and shows. The Telfair Academy on 121 Barnard Street has 19th- and 20th-century American and European art, while the dazzling Jepson Center on 207 West York Street shows off Savannah’s contemporary art scene.
If you want to get out of town for a day, there’s Tybee Island, just 20 minutes away, where you’ll find excellent eateries, alligators galore to gawp at, and Tybee Island Light Station – the first lighthouse on the southern Atlantic coast.
SAVANNAH: Where to . . .
* The Mansion on Forsyth Park, 700 Drayton Street. A mansion indeed, it is an odd mix of the sedate and Disney, with 126 exuberantly luxurious guest rooms. It is close to most things you will want to see in Savannah, and has an onsite health club and outdoor pool. Everything about the Mansion is large, lush and comfortable. Rooms cost from $230 (€175) per room per night with continental breakfast. See mansiononforsythpark.com, tel: 001-912-238-5158.
* Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, 29 Abercorn Street. Built around 1890, it was once lived in as a parsonage by John Wesley, but these days it is a stylish 60-room inn. It is nicely placed on Reynolds Square and is close to City Market and the riverfront. The $150 per night includes a Continental breakfast. See PlantersInnSavannah.com, tel: 001-912-232-5678.
* The Marshall House is at 123 East Broughton Street, the city’s main thoroughfare and a lively, arty place lined with many of Savannah’s unique shops. The Telfair Museum of Art is close by too. The Marshall House has 68 rooms. Continental breakfast is included in the online price of $90 per room per night. See marshallhouse.com, tel: 001-912--644-7896.
* Mrs Wilkes’s Dining Room, 107 West Jones Street, is a Savannah institution, serving good, traditional southern fare to tables of not less than 10 people; you don’t book, just wait outside. There is no ordering either – the food is brought to the table – lots and lots of it, in bowls that are passed around. It’s fun and reasonable; lunch is about $20 per person. See mrswilkes.com.
* Alligator Soul, 114 Barnard Street, serves American, Cajun and Creole food, as well as vegetarian. It is a good place to go if you like spicy shrimp and grits. It also does a cheddar cheese/beer soup that is quite special. Booking is advisable. Dinner (without drinks) costs about $45. See alligatorsoul.com.
* Leopold’s Ice Cream, 212 Broughton Street, is the place to binge on ice-cream, a foodstuff not taken lightly in Savannah. The ice-cream is made on the premises, one batch at a time. The choice of flavours is enormous and the top-secret recipes have been handed down from the original Leopold brothers. leopoldsicecream.com
HOW TO GET THERE
Aer Lingus has flight to Boston, from where you can connect to Savannah with any number of US airlines. Expect an hour-long stop in Atlanta, Georgia. See aerlingus.com. To get good prices on connecting flights, see travelocity.comand farecompare.com. Alternatively, you could fly from Dublin with Air France. With stops in London and Atlanta, this takes about 21 hours. Prices vary, according to season; online prices start at about €730.