Looking out over the railing of the Georgia Queen riverboat, I watched the skyline of Savannah, Georgia, float by under sunlit skies. It was great to be back in the South, a favorite travel destination, visiting this charming and historic city.
Savannah is a city of contrasts. Once a strategic port in the American Revolution, the city prides itself on its monuments; an historic district with Georgian mansions and vintage public buildings; and 22 lush, shaded squares unique to its original design. Yet, Savannah also has its modern side with an annual food and wine festival; a philharmonic orchestra; plus the restaurants, shops and entertainment of City Market and River Walk. There’s even an annual film festival, recalling the city’s fame as a filming site for productions ranging from “Forrest Gump” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” to the more recent “Baywatch” and “The SpongeBob Movie.”
Transcending the generations, Savannah also has the reputation as one of the most haunted cities in the nation, with a variety of “ghost tours” designed to leave a lasting impression!
To get an overview of this city, still a major seaport and industrial center with a population of more than 146,000 people, I signed up for both a boat tour around Savannah Harbor and port and a trolley tour designed to hit the highlights of the city. The combined tour cost $50 and worked well, to help sketch in some history and to catch a glimpse of a few spots to which I’d later return.
The one-and-a-half hour boat tour left first, with the Georgia Queen, an ornate replica paddle wheeler, sailing from a dock next to the River Walk area. With a beachfront atmosphere, River Walk has several dozen cafes, small shops and bars, created from renovated warehouses. The area was crowded this summer day with tourists, walking along and savoring the good weather just prior to hurricane season.
“Tourism has been steadily increasing over the years in Savannah,” observed Jeff Hewitt, senior vice president with the Visit Savannah organization. “We keep on hearing people say we’re a destination that’s always been on their bucket list.” And, studies show that once someone has visited this unique city, that person is likely to come back multiple times, he added.
On this day, the narrated paddleboat trip had more of a commercial focus, passing container ships, warehouses and piles of wood chips, crushed coal and other materials waiting to be shipped. However, there were also interesting historical notes. The narrator pointed out a statue of Florence Martus, “the waving girl” who is said to have waved a handkerchief during daylight hours and a lantern after dark, to greet some 50,000 ships entering and leaving Savannah harbor, for a period of more than 40 years beginning in 1887. We passed the site where “liberty ships” were built in World War II to help replace vessels being sunk by German U-boats. And, before returning to dock, we sailed by Fort Pulaski, a national monument marking a Union Army stronghold during the Civil War.
Next, it was on to an enjoyable trolley ride with Old Savannah Tours. This 100-minute tour passed by several of Savannah’s 22 public squares, including Chippewa Square with the bench on which Tom Hanks sat for much of his “Forrest Gump” commentary. Among many other attractions were the Savannah Theatre, dating to 1818, and hosting such notables as Sarah Bernhardt and W.C. Fields; and the Pirates’ House restaurant and tavern, the oldest standing building in Georgia, dating to 1734. To add local color to the tour, an actor in period costume would periodically hop aboard the trolley and relate an anecdote from Savannah history. Now and then, a horse-drawn carriage, also filled with tourists, would clip clop past.
With a better sense of the layout of Savannah, I was able to spend my remaining time in the city just wandering around to sites of interest. I walked through the busy City Market, shopping for small gifts to bring home and sampling a savory pasty at the Pie Society, a traditional British bakery. I joined other tourists to watch salt water taffy being made in the Savannah’s Candy Kitchen store. Colorful umbrellas shaded outdoor tables, with diners enjoying live country music played by a band in the plaza.
There was also time to stroll through several of the lovely public squares, with Spanish moss hanging from oak trees and historic markers placed here and there. These are peaceful oases in the midst of this busy city and ideal spots for quiet reflection, people watching and soaking in the local atmosphere. Children play and old timers catch up on each other’s lives, in a timeless pattern that is no doubt centuries old.
The 22 public squares which remain are part of the city’s original layout of 24 squares, Jeff Hewitt observed. Founded in 1733, Savannah was the “first planned city in the New World, carved out of the wilderness,” he added. A nine-foot monument in Chippewa Square honors James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia Colony and the city of Savannah, who designed the first public squares.
As my visit was coming to an end, I didn’t have time for any of the legendary cemetery tours or “grave encounters,” as described by a brochure from the Old Savannah Tours company. The most popular tours include a visit to the Pirates’ House, where rumors abound about murders, brawls and shanghaied sailors carried through an underground tunnel. Other ghost stories focus on Alice Riley, a murderess who is said to haunt Wright Square where she was hanged, and Matilda Sorrel, a wronged wife who jumped to her death and allegedly still haunts the historic Sorrel-Weed House. Then, of course, there is something called the “hearse ghost ride.” Maybe I’ll make time for these ghostly “tales of demise” on a future visit (or maybe not!)
I left Savannah with a sense of satisfaction (and a few jars of peach jam that airport security decided I couldn’t have in my carry-on bag). I enjoyed both the old and the new of this gracious city and would be happy to return again. Known as the “hostess city of the South,” Savannah had lived up to its reputation!