Sunday, September 7, 2008


Georgia's First City

When you ask people to identify their favorite North American cities they always identify a few big cities. Places like San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Boston, Toronto, Chicago, New York, Montreal, and New York.

When I list my personal favorites most of the above certainly end up on the list. But, I tend to also gravitate to the wonderful smallish to mid-sized cities in North America; places like Santa Fe New Mexico, Revelstoke BC, Sandpoint Idaho, Colorado Springs, Banff Alberta, Napa California, Reno Nevada, Missoula Montana, Park City Utah, and a personal favorite, Savannah Georgia.

Savannah's Largest Square Forsyth Park

Part of the reason I am so fond of Savannah is because, besides being beautiful, it is so completely steeped in history and lore. There is a story about every square, every statue, and every structure. Even its cemetaries are good for an afternoon of sightseeing. In the downtown cemetary the Union troops were actually billeted during the Civil War (permanently vandalizing many of its graves). Across town the magnificent Bonaventure Cemetary is the final resting place of Johnny Mercer. In fact, the Mercer grave is complete with a bench that lists his seemingly endless string of academy award winning music from the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe right up to Moon River. Don't go to Bonaventure looking for the famous Bird Girl sculpture, it had to be moved to Telfair.

Spanish Moss and Typical Historic District Housing

Savannah is where Forrest Gump sat on a bench (it also had to be moved) and offered up wisdom and chocolates. It was birthplace to the founder of the American Girl Scouts, Juliette Gordan Low. It is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (the Bird Girl). It is "kickin chicken" and The Lady Chablis performing at Club One. It is were tutti frutti ice cream was invented at Leopold's and where the sweet buttery smell of hot pralines being poured lazily drifts through the City Market nearly every night of the week. It is home base to everyone's favorite celebrity mom/cook Paula Deen (buy her cook books, skip her tacky greasy spoon restaurant). It is the elegance of Garibaldi's dining room.  It is a Hopple Popple breakfast at Clary's, wonderful sandwiches at the Soho South, and terrific take-out at Zunzi's. It is where I will happily line up, chat with other tourists, and wait an hour or more to eat at our national treasure of southern cooking, The Wilkes House (Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House).

On a more personal note it is where my daughter attended the wonderful Savannah College of Art and Design (lovingly referred to by all as just SCAD).

Savannah is in Georgia's low country. It is essentially part of that broad swath of America's Mid-Atlantic resting halfway between swamp and dry land. It waits in the sweltering, sticky heat, for hurricanes, and is best completely avoided in summer. In the winter it is lovely, and even on hot days relief may be found a short drive away at either Tybee or Hilton Head Islands.

Savannah is home to lovely bed and breakfasts and a few historic hotels such as the Mansion on Forsyth. Sadly, it is also home to some of the most disappointing examples of chain hotels in America. The Savannah Marriott is almost near things and was built during their "icky bricky" phase (which I personally consider the dark ages of American hotel design, just after Gugi, and just before the return of chic). Anyone merely driving by the Hyatt will readily agree it is blight and would join in tearing it down. Ah, but the Desoto Hilton, that one is the most truly hideous of them all. It is out of scale (lets just call it what it is - butt ugly!), and it features surly service and poor maintenance. Why Hilton has not pulled its name off this one is a complete mystery to me. The more modern, feels-like-it-should-be-a-casino, Westin is actually on the other side of the river from Savannah next to the gargantuan conference center. Therefore, it has a great view but requires a water taxi or a drive over the beautiful Talmadge Memorial bridge to do anything.  

Mid-size hotels in the historic district run from very well run (the Marriott Courtyard and new Hampton Inn and Suites) to perfectly located, but marginally managed, hotels like the Doubletree and Hilton Garden Inn (both chains would normally rest on my list of favorite mid-priced hotels!)

With its numerous, elegant, spanish moss clad tree lined squares, cars in the historic district have to slow down to a crawl. This results in the historic district of Savannah being a perfect place to stroll or ride a cruiser bike. This allows for window shopping along River Street, the City Market, the French Market, Shop SCAD, or even the stylish Marc Jacobs Boutique. 

From an urban planning and architectural perspective Savannah is an embarassment of riches. Distinctive rowhouses surround beautiful private courtyards. Amazing cathedrals grace many of its squares and many of Savannah's buildings feature little touches of whimsy. Everything from cast iron fish rain leaders to the ornamental bass relief of the architect on the old Post Office. Most of the structures that house SCAD are glowing examples of how successful adaptive reuse of historic buildings can be. Check out the SCAD operated Gryphon Tea Room or its Ex Libris bookstore.

Sadly, as good as Savannah's old buildings are, the new / modern ones are pretty tragic. Examples include the awful Civic Center / Mercer Theater, the latrine tile clad Army Corps building, and, of course Safdie's completely freezer burned addition to the otherwise incredible Telfair Academy of Art. That is always the problem when a place reaches the point of being so special; history intimidates the future.

So grab those golf clubs, reserve a spot on a Haunted Savannah walking tour, toss in binoculars (wonderful bird watching at Wormsloe Plantation), and come hungry!

Roadboys Travels © 2008

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