When my friend Bernie got back from his trip to Savannah, he was quite proud of the wad of Spanish moss he had smuggled through airport security in a two-quart Ziploc baggie. He was going to plant it in his garden because he thought it would look “rustic” around his perennials.
I had to tell him that Spanish moss is airborne and lives in trees and no amount of mulch was going to secure it in the dirt. What I didn’t tell him was that in its natural habitat it serves as shelter to rat snakes, bats and jumping spiders.
Happily, that ethereal moss was not the only thing he loved about Savannah, although no visitor could imagine that city without it. It gives the streets an unearthly charm, its cemeteries their spooky beauty. When spring arrives, the gray of the moss is a perfect backdrop for the blaze of azaleas and camellias, draping the branches of dogwood blossoms and magnolia trees.
But Savannah isn’t just a walk in the park. The oldest city in the state of Georgia, Savannah has been home to some of the most engaging characters in American politics, music, art and commerce, so a real visit should include some serious guided tours.
First, you need a place to stay. There are plenty of generic hotels available, but you’ll get a better feel for Savannah if you search out an historic hotel or a B&B. They’re everywhere—from the busy stretch along the river to the lazy drawl of the more residential neighborhoods where most of the historic homes are situated.
There’s a long list, but it would be a mistake to miss the Mercer House, home of famed “Moon River” songwriter Johnny Mercer, or The Olde Pink House, built for cotton merchant James Habersham Jr. It’s not hard to find the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, because there is usually a gaggle of uniformed little girls politely waiting outside to visit the carriage house museum. It would be a disappointment if you didn’t have breakfast at Clary’s Café nearby.
The stretch along the river has lodging, restaurants, shopping, cocktails and proud historic buildings like the Savannah Cotton Exchange. Down by the water, where you can board a big riverboat with cocktails and snacks or a little “free” riverboat operated by the transit authority, you can also read the marker which tells of Savannah’s part in the South’s slave trade.
Even though slavery was illegal in Georgia, officials looked the other way so that Georgia could compete economically with South Carolina where it was legal. Slaves were bought and sold openly. In 1859 Pierce Butler auctioned off 436 men, women and children, separating men from their wives, mothers from their children, and the sale was so public and so heartbreaking that it has since been referred to as “The Weeping Time.” Today, African Americans, including descendants of those slaves, make up more than half of Savannah’s population.
City Market has been the commercial and social center of historic Savannah for a couple hundred years, although now the music is louder and there are probably more taverns. It’s a farmers’ market of arts and crafts, outdoor dining, and the occasional pedal-driven trolley full of blissed-out, happily tipsy bachelorette partygoers. If you’re an avid moviegoer, there’s a whole walking tour devoted to the Garden of Good and Evil, and everyone looks for the bench Forrest Gump sat on when he mused, “My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates…’” Sorry. The bench was a prop, but the bus stop is still there. The bench is in the Savannah History Museum.
From your choice of accommodations you should be able to walk everywhere except, of course, to the place author John Berendt made famous in his best-selling novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
The Bonaventure Cemetery is 160 acres of Gothic gravestones and gnarled trees on the banks of the Wilmington River. Conrad Aiken is buried there, as well as Flannery O’Connor and Johnny Mercer. And so is Billy Hanson, the popular male escort whose death was the subject of Berendt’s novel. Unfortunately, the delicate “Bird Girl” statue that is on the cover of Berendt’s book isn’t there anymore. It’s been removed for safekeeping and installed in the Savannah Telfair Museum of Art. Since the late 1800s, Savannah residents have beaten the heat by going to Tybee Island, an island city with a population of about 3000. You can’t walk there either. It’s about 20 miles from Savannah proper, but there are shuttle buses available.
Tybee Island had been argued over by the Spanish and French, and generations of pirates since 1605. In 1733 the British solved the argument by taking it over as part of General James Oglethorpe’s colonization of Georgia. Today it’s a popular vacation spot and tourist destination. Civil War buffs come here to visit Fort Screven which was built originally as defense during the War of 1812 but came in handy during the Civil War. Anyone can enjoy the view from the top of the Tybee Island.
It’s an easy city to visit just minutes from Savannah/ Hilton Head Airport. Besides hospitable natives and stunning architecture, there is that famous moss. Bernie liked the moss.
By Sherri Daley