We stopped at Thunderbolt Marina along the ICW, which our cruising guides indicated was a great place to stop to visit Savannah, saving cruisers a 9 mile out-of-the-way, up-current trip along the Savannah River in heavy commercial river traffic. The marina was great, with the nicest, cleanest washrooms, showers and laundry of any of the marinas we have visited so far. As an added bonus they delivered a complimentary newspaper and half-dozen Krispy Kreme donuts to our boat each morning. The evening we arrived after a long travel day we took time to do laundry and use the showers. The next day we were up at 7 am and, armed with our newspaper and donuts, were waiting at a bus stop a few blocks away, at the gate of Savannah State University. The bus cost $1:50 each, and 25 minutes later dropped us downtown in historic Savannah.
This was the start of a new love affair for me….definitely one of the loveliest cities I have ever visited – right up there with Vienna, Cape Town, Quebec City, Trogir (Croatia), and Oxford (England)! We took the first trolley tour of the day – a 90 minute overview tour with an excellent guide/driver who, in a pleasant Southern drawl and with great dry wit, told us a lot about the history, art, architecture and industry of Savannah as we meandered through the grid and park system around which the historic downtown is laid out. Twenty one of the 24 original squares laid out by General James Oglethorpe, sent out from Britain to establish the Colony of Georgia, are lovely green parks, laden with monuments, live oaks and an undeniable Southern-Gothic feel. No wonder many movies are filmed here.
We are thrilled to have arrived here on a perfect spring day, when all the azaleas are out – boulevards, parks and squares are a blaze of pink, red and white. We ogled at street after street of elegant, well-preserved mansions in different architectural styles – Gothic Revival, Regency, Federal, Georgian, Victorian and Italianate – all seeming to compete for grandeur. Our guide pointed out interesting little factoids that we would not have noticed on our own – the wrought iron boot scrapers in the railings, horse hitching posts, poet’s faces along a garden fence etc.
At 11:00 am she dropped us off in the City Market. Although the tour included all day hop on hop off benefits, we did not use that, choosing instead to spend the rest of the day exploring most of the historic district on foot. In the City Market we visited an old time sweet shop, and enjoyed free samples of their pralines – the local treat.
Savannah sits on a cliff, and the riverfront and dockside are down a level steep cobbled road or stairs past the old Cotton Exchange. The walls and cobbled streets were built with discarded ballast from the ships travelling from England to load cotton and indigo. The 40-foot bluff on which the city was built posed a problem. Numerous warehouses lined the wharves, most of them three or four stories high. The business was transacted in an upper story, entered from the top of the bluff, while the lower stores received the merchandise directly from the ships. The levels between the business offices and the warehouses is a series of buildings interconnected by walkways and bridges. These levels are where the “factors,” the men who factored how much cotton came in to be sold, worked. In the cotton era anyone who could read, write and count could get job as a factor – which sounds about as appealing as being a trader in a stock exchange pit.
We walked along the waterfront park, and then through Washington, Warren and Reynolds Squares, luckily bumping into an off-duty tour guide who took us back to the Old Pink House Restaurant which we had decided to go to for lunch when we had passed on our trolley tour. Once the first bank in the city, the Old Pink House is now a celebrated restaurant, which, in our case more than lived up to its excellent reputation.
The meal, which we ate outside on a sunny patio, was exquisite – a very memorable foodie experience – demonstrating the very best of Southern cuisine as well as famous Southern hospitality. At the waitress’s recommendation we had a fried green tomato salad with candied bacon and shrimp and grits (gourmet style) as starters, and we shared their signature dish of crispy flounder with squash pesto salad and crispy onions. All of it delicious!
After lunch we did the self-guided tour of the inside of the old Lyceum Theatre, recently restored, and then the inside of the Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which was richly ornate with beautiful stained glass windows.
We stood in a queue in order to indulge another iconic Savannah treat – Leopold’s Ice Cream Parlor – and then walked that off covering most of the rest of the historic districts on foot, including the cemetery, with its fascinating duelists graves, Cherokee Square where Forrest Gump was filmed sitting on a park bench with his box of chocolates, St. John’s Episcopal Church, Oglethorpe Square and Telfair Square. We admired the outside of many of the museums and historic houses but, in the interest of time, left the insides for our next visit to Savannah.
One of the most intriguing things about Savannah was the success story of SCAD – the Savannah College of Art and Design which started with 80 students in 1979 and now has 11,000 students and is ranked number 1 art school in the US year after year. The college campus consists of 67 buildings, many located on the 21 squares of the old town, restored to award-winning standards. There are now several international campuses in addition to this fantastic campus in Savannah, and its ecomonic impact on Savannah exceeds $100 million each year.
By late afternoon we were saturated in sights and history and took the bus back to Thunderbolt Marina. Savannah is definitely one of the highlights of our year so far.
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