Living Luxe / Fall 2020
By Kelly Merritt
Oh, Savannah. Your vast porches beckon us to hit pause, to fellowship and simply sit still. Your parties of festive punch and deviled eggs, fried chicken and sweet tea — all prepared by loving hands — reawaken the meaning of supper. Savannah, you are alive with Southern spirit, adorned with hospitality and architectural grandeur. In this loud and harsh world, how we need your genteel presence.
One of the truly great cities of the South — and only a short two-hour drive north of the Golden Crescent — Savannah, Georgia, is a memory maker. A visit to this culinary destination nourishes the belly and the soul. Throughout the centuries, Savannah has maintained its unique identity from the rest of Georgia and the entire southern region of the United States. Its charm is the kind of beautiful that requires no explanation. She is the belle of the South and, as such, remains both graceful and powerful.
Autumn in Savannah means porches spilling over with pumpkins, planters of yellow mums and lots of cool evening strolls. Porch decor is a thing, y’all, and Historic District residents put every design and decor show to shame. People really do live like this in Savannah, in 18th century houses, all dressed up in the colors of fall with the season’s blessings spilling onto grand staircases and oversized balconies.
The pomp and porches of Savannah’s mansions, its legendary squares (more than 20 in total), and lush city parks are all part of the fun of visiting this old town. The Historic District — considered our country’s largest National Historic Landmark District — is overflowing with monuments and museums and at least 100 restaurants, while the Victorian District is a nod to some of Georgia’s most glorious architecture. Lowcountry Savannah can be found in the Moon River District, home to marine life, maritime museums and scenic trails.
This Georgia gem is made up of various squares named for founders, important historical figures to the city, and a few battlegrounds, each full of character in its own right. The largest of them all, Johnson Square at Bull and St. Julian Streets, dates back to 1733 and was the first of Savannah’s such squares. It was once the hub of commerce and is home to Christ Episcopal Church, where America’s first president, George Washington, attended services on his first night in the coastal city. Nearby Reynolds Square, named for Georgia’s first royal governor, John Reynolds, is the closest to the historic Olde Pink House restaurant and Lucas Theatre. Two major arts centers are located at Barnard and York Streets in Telfair Square — Telfair Museum of Art and Jepson Center for the Arts. Though originally known as St. James Square, it’s only fitting that the tree-shaded park now be named in honor of patron of the arts Edward Telfair. At Lafayette Square, travelers will find the famed Colonial Dames of America dedicated fountain, the Hamilton-Turner House, the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and author Flannery O’ Conner’s childhood home.
One of the city’s most iconic parks is nestled on an astounding 30 acres in the Historic District. Forsyth Park, circa 1840s, is familiar to anyone who has seen films featuring Savannah, its famed fountain often the centerpiece of such imagery. The Garden of Fragrance is located within Forsyth Park, which also includes the Confederate Monument, the Marine Monument dedicated to World War II Marines, and a Spanish-American War statue known as “The Hiker.”
For most Americans, the mere mention of Savannah conjures memorable personas from movies like Forrest Gump, where Tom Hanks’ famous character narrated his life story while sitting on a bench in Chippewa Square, or the Mercer Williams House, where the murderous story of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil transpired. Film buffs won’t want to miss a stop at either of these living on-location sets.
Speaking of, Savannah loves its dearly departed. Ironically, one of the places to feel most alive here is where one might come to honor the dead. To wander among the city’s iconic cemeteries is to imagine the people of bygone eras. Bonaventure Cemetery of John Berendt’s famous novel is a testament to what can blossom from a small private graveyard. Originally the Evergreen Cemetery, it is now more than 100 acres with 14 of them located in the Historic District itself. Even when closed to guided tours, the Bonaventure Historical Society offers a tour app that highlights special spots and allows visitors to learn more about the souls resting within these hallowed grounds. This includes the Baldwin Angel statue located at plot H-44, one of the most famous and photographed gravesites in this memorial park.
The last body was interred at Colonial Park Cemetery in 1853. Dating back to 1750, it is said to be the oldest intact municipal cemetery in Savannah and remains one of the city’s most revered sites to visit, located in the heart of the Historic District. A memorial to Declaration of Independence signer and Georgia resident Button Gwinnett is frequently visited, among the more than 9,000 graves here.
The Savannah tourism planner paints a perfect picture of the Starland District: a “fun and funky” home to “vintage clothing, vinyl records and original art.” Quite apropos, seeing as two designers from the Savannah College of Art and Design dreamed up the now-regentrified district nearly 30 years ago. Today it remains like any good bohemian mothership, boasting the requisite coffee shops like Foxy Loxy and Starland Cafe, along with the man bun-rocking, skinny jeans-wearing patrons that frequent them. Though don’t limit a stroll through Starland to just the quirky boutiques — Two Tides Brewing Company and Nom Nom Poké Shop restaurant are on many a list of favorite places.
Another ideal place to shop is the City Market, which bills itself as the “art and soul” of Savannah. This open-air market is also a working studio featuring some two dozen artists and several galleries — be sure to hit up the upstairs arts center for a can’t-miss interactive experience. Not to mention, it’s the most wonderful time of the year during Christmas at City Market, the shops and studios aglow with lights and laughter of the holiday season.
And along Savannah’s famed Broughton Street, a meander can yield a bushel of one-of-kind items for hearth and home, as galleries and shops abound. This is also where to find the charming Paris Market and all its treasures sourced from exotic lands like Cairo and India, and of course, Paris.
The Savannah way is to take something commonplace and make it amazing. It’s that way in dining — a same-old burger and fries anywhere else would become a culinary masterpiece here. And it’s that way with the arts. Savannah’s own College of Art and Design, affectionately called SCAD to all who know it, is one of the best schools in the world for creatives to attend.
Checking into attendance at SCAD is a big reason proud Golden Crescent moms and dads make the trek north. Even the campus itself is a cool cat. Poetter Hall, for example, was reclaimed from a Savannah Volunteer Guard Armory that dates back to 1892 and served as the college’s inaugural classroom.
No trip to Savannah would come close to being complete without many, many meals — from fine dining to award-winning ice cream.
If the world were coming to an end and diners could only pick one Savannah restaurant to patronize, they’d have to choose between The Grey and The Olde Pink House, and for very different reasons. One was a bus station and the other an instrumental gathering place during the formation of the 13 colonies.
Named for the 1938 art deco Greyhound Bus Terminal, The Grey is the brainchild of partners John O. Morisano and chef Mashama Bailey and has so much to offer, especially in architectural appreciation. The owners’ meticulous restoration shows in every minute detail of this Historic District establishment. Chef Bailey’s menu is wildly subject to change, thanks to an intoxicating comprehension of flavors due in part to summers spent in her grandmother’s Georgia kitchen and also drawing from her Bronx upbringing. Save up for The Grey’s seven-course tasting menu or partake of diner bar items like crispy shrimp with biquinho pepper and cornmeal, okra purloo with pork neck gravy, and swordfish with brown butter, olives and basil — just examples, as her menu varies with the seasons.
Another historic gem, the Georgian mansion now called The Olde Pink House dates way back to 1771 when it was known as the Habersham House. Observing Reynolds Square, this upscale dining establishment looks on like a stately guardian of Savannah’s grandeur. It played a role in securing independence for the original 13 colonies, with owner James Habersham, Jr. holding secret meetings at his place of residence. Later it became Planter’s Bank, the first bank in Georgia where colonists placed their earnings for safekeeping. Today, the cast-iron vaults have new life as keepers of fine wine in one-of-a-kind cellars. Notable dishes include blackened or cornbread-fried oysters or local shrimp with country ham gravy and cheddar grits cake to start, and deep-dish chicken pot pie or crispy half duck with black vinegar barbecue glaze for entrees. A sharable side of bacon buttermilk potato mash is essential.
The “eat dessert first” mantra certainly applies at Leopold’s Ice Cream, a Savannah institution dating back 100 years. Leopold’s self-described super-premium ice cream is homemade and remains just as it was, unchanged since 1919.
This is a town that loves its coffee with a hearty helping of heart. Visitors who make a stop at Bitty & Beau’s will be supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Bitty & Beau’s employs these exceptional folks, providing them with a paycheck, as well as a sense of accomplishment and contribution to society.
Coffee and a biscuit are the order of the day at Back in the Day Bakery, where diners can build their own biscuit from choices like classic dough, buttermilk or flavored and add a variety of toppings.
And down on Liberty Street, Savannah Coffee Roasters, circa 1909, is the perfect place to grab a sweet treat and a bag of flavored coffee beans. Plan to treat yourself to a late afternoon latte as well, and stick around to see the Odd Lot Improv show, which calls this gorgeous spot its home base.
As for drinks of the happy hour variety, breweries abound with character and flavor. A well-rounded Savannah beer tour might include Moon River Brewing Company, Service Brewing Co., Southbound Brewing Company and Coastal Empire Beer Co. Go thirsty to Ghost Coast Distillery and peek behind the curtain of the first operational distillery since before Prohibition in the city. Put the “Last Words” cocktail on the list of things to drink here — mixed with Ghost Coast Chalmers, Burl Gin, Carthusian and a squeeze of lime.
Lesser known but equally on par with the rest of Savannah’s charming neighborhoods, the aforementioned Starland District is brimming with precious cafes and artsy stopovers. Originally envisioned as a food truck park, Starland Yard can easily be spotted for its repurposed shipping containers, making for a comfy spot to lounge around and try a host of different dishes. Nosh under covered seating and play a round of cornhole or horseshoes between courses.
Fall is the perfect time to shuck ’em and chuck ’em in Savannah, where oysters are practically a religion. Love’s Seafood & Steaks, family-owned since 1949 and a local favorite, offers fried and steamed oysters. Pearl’s Saltwater Grille does theirs on the half shell and irresistibly Florentine. River House Seafood gives their oysters the Rockefeller treatment, while Crab Shack at Chimney Creek serves raw, on the half shell and steamed oysters.
Savannah is a soulful town at night, and that includes live music. The best bet for catching a jazz show is Jazz’d Tapas Bar, which features talented musicians several nights a week. Big band, blues, swing and the old greats like Frank Sinatra add a sultry element to this already atmospheric haunt.
Savannah is one of the brunchiest cities anywhere. The Grey’s brunch is home to favorites like fried chicken and hoe cakes, smoked catfish with potato rosti, crab beignets with mascarpone and remoulade, and a host of other such dreamy dishes. Elsewhere, brunch spots fill up at places like The Collins Quarter, which serves up pork belly Benedict and Savannah’s much coveted zucchini and corn fritters with macadamia pesto. At B. Matthew’s Eatery, don’t leave without an order of black-eyed pea hushpuppies with horseradish tartar sauce, and the most flavorful zero-guilt dish ever, the chilled Buddha bowl of quinoa, beans, avocado, watermelon radish, kale and crunchy almonds tossed in a lemon shallot vinaigrette.
Savannah Riverboat Tours offers a brunch on the river option, a grand way to enjoy local shrimp and grits while seeing the shipyards that define the city’s access to world renowned seafood.
There are nearly 50 historic inns in Savannah and untold more options for every kind of traveler. One of the most fun ways to lay your weary head to rest is by staying in one of the city’s iconic carriage houses or garden apartments. The Armstrong Inn’s carriage house is idyllic. Impossibly charming, it boasts a tiny curved staircase leading to the upper level, quaint brick garden and double French doorways, fireplace at the foot of the canopied bed, and a claw-foot tub accented by beautiful toile decor.
The Eliza Thompson House was the first house constructed on Jones Street back in 1847. While the current carriage house is new by Savannah standards, it stands on the foundation of the original structure and comes equipped with its fair share of rumored ghost sightings.
Resting among a slew of gorgeous mansions adjacent to Forsyth Park, The Gastonian is actually two mansions adjoined. A constant topper of “best-of” and hotel bucket lists, this 1868 historic boutique inn comprised of the Main House and the Champion House is connected at their grand parlors via a curved wooden walkway and pergola. Here, budget accordingly for a night in the Garden Room at ground level of the Champion House, complete with a private garden entrance, king bed, clawfoot tub, garden swing and goldfish pond — plus it’s nearly 400 square feet, so plenty of room to spread out and relax.
Lace up those sneakers and get ready to walk, though you won’t have far to go to see a lot. In the storied Historic District, within just a couple of miles there are 22 park squares and more than 1,600 historically significant architectural structures.
Visitors to Savannah would do well to obtain a two-day trolley tour pass, allowing for a hop-on, hop-off way to experience the city. Also, one of the coolest trolley packages is the Ghosts & Gravestones Tour — more eerie history than ghoulish — which rambles past cemeteries and lurking antebellum mansions, also making stops at the mysterious Andrew Low House and Perkins & Sons Ship Chandlery. For battleground buffs, riders also get to drive by some of the area’s most famed (and bloodiest) battlegrounds in history. (trolleytours.com)
When General Oglethorpe landed on the riverfront and headed north, he couldn’t have imagined that one day, travelers would flock to their own river tours. Savannah Riverboat Cruises takes passengers to the Port of Savannah and back under the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, drifting past the historic riverfront. The shipyards, Hutchinson Island and Old Fort Jackson are just a few sites on the tour, along with “the Waving Girl” statue, representative of Florence Martus, who took it upon herself to welcome all who entered the Port of Savannah shipyards between 1887 and 1931. Savannah Riverboat Cruises boasts two ships, the larger Georgia Queen and the Savannah River Queen, both of which harken back to a time when Savannah’s most prestigious residents took to the river for relaxation and respite. (savannahriverboat.com)