Savannah: Ready for its close up

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If Savannah were a woman — and she definitely is — her clothing would be designer, her accessories would be designer, and her black lace panties underneath it all would be designer. I was in one of the most genteel cities in the South, but Savannah has a way of sneaking in a naughty wink.

The “Hostess City of the South” exploded into public consciousness long ago in 1994 thanks to the true crime novel Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, a steamy page-turner detailing the infamous 1981 killing of male hooker Danny Hansford by society darling Jim Williams. There were twists, turns, and four trials! Sucked in for the ride was a New South pantheon of weird and wonderful characters, from legendary transgender entertainer The Lady Chablis to a sad-sack recluse hoarding enough poison to kill off the entire city. Savannah cheerfully wove it all into local gossip, even the threat of imminent death. You gotta love that.

Hip To Be Square

No rum, no lawyers, no slaves, and because of the ever present threat of invasion from Spanish Florida, no Catholics – those were the governing principles back in 1733 when Englishman James Oglethorpe and Chief Tomochichi of the Yamacraw Tribe founded Georgia’s oldest city on a bluff overlooking the Savannah River. A neat grid of four residential blocks and four civic blocks surrounded four public squares, a monument to Enlightenment thinking that persists to today. Savannahians have since loosened up on the rum, lawyers, and Catholics, but they are inflexible when it comes to those squares.

They are practically the city’s lungs and are manicured to the inch. The original four green spaces blossomed to 24 as the city expanded. Each is shaded by ancient oak trees shimmering in silver Spanish moss and steeped in lore: Tomochichi is buried — with full honors — in Wright Square; Forrest Gump (set in Alabama but filmed in Savannah) had its innocent protagonist philosophize on life in camera ready Chippewa Square; the gazebo in Whitefield Square was donated by Burt Reynolds from the set of The Longest Yard and Monterey Square made headlines earlier this year as the resting place of Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski, whose remains revealed him to be intersex.

Look Again

These subtle doubletakes define Savannah — always elegant, imminently stately …“but hold on, there’s more!” It’s not every city that has a museum dedicated to Prohibition with a fully stocked speakeasy at the end of the tour. Nor one so liberal with its blue laws; you can literally walk out of a bar with a drink in hand. It wasn’t a milkshake I was sipping as I toured historic City Market, or as I strolled the picturesque Riverwalk watching the ships glide by or idling in the Antebellum gardens of Forsyth Park; it was a moonshine smoothie. Prost!

The biggest surprise though is Savannah itself. Unlike Atlanta, whose Civil War defiance turned it into ashes, Savannah surrendered to Union troops without a shot fired or torch thrown. Spared was a fantastic mishmash of architecture, from the Victorian Dream Houses on Abercorn and Bull Streets to the muscular cotton warehouses on Factor’s Walk to the Greek Revival gems along East York Street. But a century later, all of it was slated to be wrecked.

In the 1950s, white-flight gutted the city, and its cherished mansions and manors fell into ruin. It was only after a vigilante group of the city’s biggest cheerleaders, later the Historic Savannah Foundation, began buying properties out from under developers that the city’s heritage was safeguarded and Savannah became the architectural jewel it is today. Ever since, the city has rushed to embrace its past, and if there is infamy attached, all the better.

The Lady Is A …

The Savannah of Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil has faded to legend; Jim Williams died in 1990, the Lady Chablis in 2016. But marks were made: his former home, the Mercer-Williams House, is a must-see, and the denizens of Club One, which Chablis put on the map, do their predecessor proud. Savannah has as much of a future as she does a past. That’s the kinda girl I want to know.

The area code for Savannah 912.

Getting There

 Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport has regular service with Air Canada, Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Sun Country, and United.

Where to Stay:

Hotel Indigo – If there is a power address, this is it. The boutique “Grand Lady of the Bay” is perfectly located on Bay Street and within easy walking distance of the  City Market, Leopold’s Ice Cream, and the Riverwalk. Pony up to the bar and ask for a Maker’s Jewel; it’s the signature cocktail of the property. 201 West Bay Street, Savannah, 912-236-4440;  www.ihg.com/hotelindigo

Thunderbird Inn – Not as ideally placed as the Indigo, the Thunderbird is nevertheless a marvel: with its bright, bold colors, massive neon marquee, and vintage decor, this cinder block hotel is a Midcentury Modern extravaganza, down to the little Moon Pies on the pillows. 611 West Oglethorpe Avenue, Savannah, 912-232-2661; thethunderbirdinn.com

Where to Eat:

Collin’s Quarter – A light and airy space, Collin’s is an Australia-inspired café-and-dining experience that has nothing to do with the Outback. That being said, the food is robust and hearty, but not heavy. 151 Bull St., Savannah, 912-777-4147;  thecollinsquarter.com

Emporium Kitchen & Wine Market – Located in the swanky Perry Lane Hotel, this is where you go to impress a date. The oysters were so fresh I could taste the sea; the wild mushrooms so savory I could taste the forest. With a decidedly French lean to the menu, this brasserie won the Diner’s Choice Award in 2018 from OpenTable. As a side note, check out the Peregrin, the rooftop bar with some unmatched views and cocktails. 254 E Perry St., Savannah, 912-559-8400; emporiumsavannah.com

Leopold’s Ice Cream – Birthplace of tutti fruitti, Leopold’s has been satisfying Savannah’s sweet tooth since 1919. Part ice cream parlor, part soda fountain, a long line of sugar addicts winds around the block starting at noon. 212 E. Broughton St., Savannah, 912-234-4442; leopoldsicecream.com

Mrs. Wilke’s Dining Room – Get there early; there will be a line. And when you taste the fried chicken and cornbread dressing, okra gumbo and sweet potato souffle, you’ll understand why. Southern home cooking at its best, the family-run Mrs. Wilke’s is a Savannah staple. 107 W Jones St., Savannah, 912-232-5997; mrswilkes.com

What to See & Do:

City Market – The old economic spine of Savannah, this stretch of West Julian Street is now home to galleries, restaurants, and the Georgia Tasting Room, famous for their moonshine smoothies.

Old Town Trolley – Cheap and extensive, these hop-on/hop-off trolley tours are easily the best way to see the city, covering not only the Historic District, but some of the interesting outliers like the Pirates House, which played an integral part in Treasure Islandtrolleytours.com/savannah

American Prohibition Museum – Did you know NASCAR got its start with their Model T rum-runners souped-up to outrun police in their patrol cars? Or that there were more bars during Prohibition than before it? The American Prohibition Museum, the only one of its kind in America, chronicles not only the notions, personalities, and outright delusions that led to the 18th Amendment, but the vicious mafia wars and freewheeling underground culture that resulted. 209 W. St. Julian St., Savannah, 912-551-4054; americanprohibitionmuseum.com

Mercer-Williams House – Do NOT ask about rich Jim Williams shooting poor Danny Hansford when you visit; it’s a sore subject. Rather, rejoice in the artwork Williams stuffed into this pre-Civil War manor, from Chinese porcelain to European portraiture. FYI, the murder was in the front left room and, amazingly, Hansford was actually the third person to die mysteriously in that house. 429 Bull St., Monterey Square, Savannah, 877-430-6352; mercerhouse.com/home.htm

Tybee Island – It might be the fifth largest port in the USA, but Savannah is actually 18 miles inland up the Savannah River. Summers roll in on wave after wave of soaring mercury and stifling humidity (and don’t let up till October), and when city dwellers finally hit their limit, they head to Tybee Island. Just a 20-minute drive away from downtown, the world-class beaches and clean ocean air, plus its iconic pier and lighthouse, are a breezy reprieve from the heat. And while you will need GPS to find it, A-J’s Dockside has the best Lowcountry seafood around. visittybee.com

Telfair Museums – Actually three different museums scattered across Savannah (the Telfair Academy, the Jepson Center, and the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters), visitors have a choice: the Telfair Academy is the traditional one, the Jepson is the modern one, and the Owen-Thomas is the historical one. In the Academy is the Bird Girl, the statue made famous in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Eviltelfair.org

Bonaventure Cemetery – Voted one of the top 10 most beautiful cemeteries in the United States, Bonaventure is a classic ‘Southern Gothic” graveyard. Interred are songwriter Johnny Mercer and poet Conrad Aiken. Suggest booking a tour. 330 Bonaventure Rd., Savannah, 912-651-6843

This article originally appeared on TravelSquire.