Savannah, the “gently mannered city by the sea . . . aloof from the coast” that Margaret Mitchell described in Gone with the Wind, is a city that draws you under its spell. It has all the charisma of America’s South — those eccentric characters, that slow drawling accent, that leisurely pace, the irresistible artery-attacking food — but Savannah seems to take Southern charm a few unlikely sidesteps further.
There are some obligatory sights here in the US’s first planned city. Start with an easy day of strolling through the 24 lush, Spanish moss–draped squares for which Savannah is famed. Dotted with sculptures, fountains, obelisks and century-old shady oaks — fringed by stately Victorian and Renaissance Revival mansions — the precisely planned squares are perfect places to soak up the ambiance. The architect of this orderly scene was English-born state governor General James Oglethorpe, who established and planned Savannah in 1733. Be sure to stop in at the lavish Gryphon tea room, with its supply of ornate sweet treats and tables of even more ornate Savannah society ladies.
Of course, the best known of the squares’ grand homes is the notorious Mercer Williams House, the real-life home of Jim Williams and setting of the gay crime of passion that inspired author John Berendt’s famed literary portrait of the city, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It’s a good one to visit.
Today, Savannah is a city of 136,000 people, tucked into the northeastern corner of Georgia where it meets South Carolina, and it’s a compact, easily walkable historic quarter. Once you’ve had your fill of squares and pastries, amble along River Street’s waterfront, squeezing past hordes of tourists stocking up on pralines, plastic beakers of brightly coloured cocktails and “I Got River-Faced on Shit Street” T-shirts. There’s a flotilla of riverboats plying the Savannah River between Georgia and South Carolina, if you fancy getting off your feet for an hour, or for a less manicured take on the region’s watery wonders, go east. Just half an hour away you’ll find the Atlantic and some of the most stunning of Georgia’s coastal sea islands — tidal and barrier islands that stretch the length of the state. Tybee Island is the best known of Savannah’s seaside delights, and it’s the one locals flock to when they want to hit the beach. It’s an easy day trip from the Historic District. Tybee Rainbow Fest takes places each May.
When night falls, there’s a selection of ghost tours on offer. The 1835 Sorrel Weed House is said to be the most haunted of the city’s spooky historic spots. The Ghost Hunters Walking Tour leaves the lugubrious address, famed for its shadowy former residents and disembodied voices, and visits the locations of murders, hangings and betrayals, including one square that’s home to a ghost bagpiper who fell at this spot during the Civil War. It’s said that he returns to the site regularly.
Leave the haunted houses and graveyards behind and come back to the land of the living. Savannah has a slew of enticing restaurants, from Southern food palaces such as Olde Pink House and Elizabeth on 37th to Tybee Island’s low-key dive The Crab Shack. If you’re a fan, Paula Deen’s ventures, Lady and Sons and Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, are also adjacent.
At Club One, made famous in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as the stomping grounds of performer The Lady Chablis, the lady herself still makes regular appearances. Check the website for dates. Even on nights when The Lady C doesn’t manage to teeter onstage, the three-level venue is crammed with good times, and the basement and ground floors fill with a mixed LGBT and straight crowd. It’s fun, upbeat, flirty, and there’s a lesbian burlesque show weekly. The upper floor is the drag venue; it packs to the rafters for shows at least twice a night. A polished cast of Georgian queens rule the room.
The renovated retro Thunderbird Motel is within walking distance of the squares and bars. The lobby colour scheme of burgundy, turquoise and lime is a tad over-the-top, but the rooms are big, clean and have no shortage of character.
Savannah has a wealth of historic mansions that now offer accommodation. The 12 properties of the gay-friendly Romantic Inns of Savannah offer a choice of luxurious, hospitable options with personal, friendly service.