Spirited away


A combination of historic events, movie locations and ghostly happenings means there’s not a minute to waste on a visit to Savannah, writes SEAN HILLEN

Welcome to America’s self-styled “most haunted city”, whose maze of cobblestone streets lined with oaks shrouded in webs of Spanish moss impart the perfect otherworld ambience. They’re everywhere, these never-say-die characters – they trouble diners partaking of shrimps and crab cakes at the venerable Olde Pink House and they toss beer bottles around nostalgically in the shadowy upstairs backroom of the 187-year-old Moon RiverBrewing Company on West Bay Street where operations manager Chris Lewis tells me staff whistle to make themselves feel safer.

“This is a beguiling, extremely mystical town,” says Shannon Scott, whose second home is the Sentient Bean, a laid-back, bohemian cafe next door to Brighter Day, the city’s oldest organic food store beside Forsyth Park. “I come from up north, from an anti-ghost tradition, but this is the ultimate occult playground. Since moving here poltergeists have woken me up. Vapour-like spectres have come out of walls like manatees. Sure, they’re scary, but they’re life affirming experiences.”

And there’s no shortage of touring companies to take you to the city’s dark, forbidding places – including Scott’s Sixth Sense Ghost Tours, Savannah Ghost Tours and Cobblestone Tours Inc. You may even meet Irish servant girl Alice Leak. She arrived here from Wexford and in a fit of rage killed her cruel master, a transgression for which she was duly hanged. She now walks the streets forever, wailing.

Aside from assorted ghostly happenings, Savannah’s attractive old worldliness has not been lost on image-makers. Initially shocked when John Berendt’s best-selling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil aired some of Savannah’s dirty linen with titillating tales of carnal sin and scandal, city fathers quickly overcame their reluctance when Hollywood completed the movie in 1997 and tourism boomed as never before.

Since 1915, more than 80 films have featured the city’s landmarks and attracted tens of thousands of visitors enthralled by the bright lights of screen stardom. They include Steel Magnolias, Something To Talk Aboutand Forrest Gump.

There is no better place to get a real-life glimpse into the city’s movie connections than Leopold’s Ice Cream parlour, across from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

“Will that be one scoop, or two?” The man asking the question is tall and lean with eyes that smile playfully. He’s wearing a colourful apron and a funny paper hat sits askew on his head. Thinking I’m suffering double vision, I look up at the large framed photographs and posters lining the walls behind him. No hat or apron but there’s no mistaking the eyes – and isn’t that Tom Cruise leaning on him and Uma Thurman with her arms draped around him as if she has known him forever? And indeed, it turns out, she has. Since the age of 17 at least.

Stratton Leopold, now a youngish-looking early sixty-something, has been working with Hollywood since the 1970s, mainly as a producer, with movies such as Mission Impossible 3and Sum of All Fearsand John Huston’s Wise Bloodto his credits. There’s little he doesn’t know about the movie-making industry and certainly even less about those made in Savannah. And even less than that about the making of ice cream, a family operation since 1919.

“I came into the movie world by accident and have held almost every position possible from casting director to script reader to location manager,” he says, jovially. “I’ve been lucky and so has Savannah. Movies have helped us both, but it can be a stressful way of life at times, so serving ice-cream is great therapy.”

Not to miss an opportunity, creative guides have finalised their latest “memorable movie” tour schedules. Visitors to Savannah can now sit on the bench where Tom Hanks uttered the immortal words, “My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get’”, and study the study where Danny Hansford lay dead from a gunshot wound in the Mercer Williams House.

Tired and hungry ghost-busting stargazers can also enjoy Savannah’s succulent slices of soul-food with its foremost ambassador being celebrity chef Paula Deen and her sons, Bobby and Jamie. While some may say their fare is far from gourmet, Paula’s fame from the national TV Food Network has launched the family firmly into the limelight. They’ve reaped a harvest of millions of dollars over the last seven years from what one of the ebullient brothers described to me as “simple home cooking seasoned with a generous dollop of Southern hospitality”.

But with a history dating back hundreds of years and having played pivotal roles in the slave trade and the civil war, Savannah is far from being simply a ghost-ridden movie set. My feet were well aware of this. They were feeling the pinch (to avoid such minor irritations, you can take the Old Town Trolley bus) traipsing around much of the old city’s 3.5 sq km and 22 historic squares – a legacy of colonial city planning.

My guide is Savannah native Harriett Meyerhoff, owner of Personalized Tours, a woman of dry wit who revels in revealing behind-the-scenes historical tit-bits and anecdotes. These include the ill-fated love affair of a young minister that landed him back in England, rejected and broken hearted. He was the abolitionist John Wesley and the rest is history.

Or the little-known fact that the world’s most popular Christmas melody and one of the top 25 songs in the history of recorded music – Jingle Bells– is a Savannah product. Written by James Pierpoint sometime during the late 1840s or early 1850s, it was performed first for a Thanksgiving programme at the Georgia Unitarian Universalist Church in 1857 where Pierpoint was organist.

Another very different type of music features in the tour – that of Johnny Mercer, the composer and singer who wrote the lyrics for songs such as Moon Riverand Autumn Leavesand composed That Old Black Magicand Fools Rush In.

Outside the historic squares, Savannah also offers a contrasting walking alternative – the Historic River Street option near Emmet Park, named to commemorate the centennial of the death of Ireland’s very own Robert, and the 19th-century Cotton Exchange.

Once the site of a bustling cotton industry, River Street now consists of nine blocks of renovated warehouses housing more than 90 restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, shops, galleries and boutiques. It’s also where many of the city’s annual major festivities are held, including St Patrick’s Day and July 4th celebrations.

You know you’ve come to the end of it when you meet Florence Martus, also known as “The Waving Girl”. Seemingly, Florence and her handkerchief earned her immortality in carved stone by bidding fond farewells to outgoing ships and sailors for several decades before she died – just one of the many colourful characters, dead and alive, that await you on a visit to one of America’s oldest southern cities.

Where to stay

The Gastonian Historic BB. 220 East Gaston Street, 001-912-232-2869, gastonian.com. Luxurious venue which describes itself as “Savannah’s most romantic inn”. Presidents’ Quarters. 225 President Street, 001-912-233-1600, presidentsquarters.com. Mini-boutique hotel in the heart of Savannah’s historic district.

Planters Inn. Reynolds Square, 29 Abercorn Street, 001-912-232-5678, plantersinn savannah.com. Centrally located boutique hotel dating back two centuries.

Where to eat

The Olde Pink House. 23 Abercorn Street, 001-912- 232-4286. Elegant Georgian, two-storey mansion, built in 1771 by James Habersham Jr (who is said to still frequent the bar). Try the pecan-crusted chicken.

Sapphire Grill. 110 West Congress Street, 001-912-443-9962, sapphire grill.com. Prides itself on “fresh market cuisine – fresh, local organic ingredients”. Grilled scallops with sweet soy sauce and wasabi. Mmmmm.

Lady and Sons. 102 West Congress Street, 001-912-233-2600, ladyand sons.com. Southern-style cooking with a buffet and a-la-carte menu. Book early.

Continental Airlines (continental.com/ie) flies from Dublin to Savannah via Newark. Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and United (united.com) fly to Savannah via Washington DC.