NEAR AND AWAY

Southern charmer

Romantic and mysterious, historic Savannah keeps visitors coming back.


The entrance to Frosty Park in Savannah's historic district. The park is the city's largest and famous for its Victorian design.

THE BOSTON GLOBE
Published: Wednesday, June 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, June 5, 2005 at 5:16 p.m.

After our sixth weekend trip to Savannah, my cousin asked me what my husband and I liked so much about the city. I immediately started gushing about the antiques stores, fine dining and unique shops along the river. Her unimpressed summation: "So, you go there to shop and eat? Well, yes, but there's so much more to Savannah than that.

AMBIENCE

Once you make your way through the sprawl of greater Savannah and its outskirts into the beautiful historic district, your pulse rate will slow to a rhythm compatible with a south Georgia drawl. All the red brick, wrought iron, climbing ivy, gated gardens, cobblestone roads, hand-lettered signs, blossoming azaleas, and grand oaks dripping with Spanish moss resonate with romance, easy living and fascinating stories.

HISTORY

General James Oglethorpe founded both the state of Georgia and its first city, Savannah, in 1733. Laid out in a grid system with wide streets, parks and public squares (21 of which still exist today), Savannah is credited as being America's first planned city. Portions of the city were destroyed in devastating fires in 1796 and 1820. Residents restored the city to its former beauty only to see it face its biggest threat during the Civil War, when Union General William Tecumseh Sherman began his infamous march to the sea, torching everything along the way. Savannah, on the path, was evacuated. Legend has it that Sherman was so moved by the city's beauty that he sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln on December 22, 1864, presenting him with the town as a Christmas gift, sparing Savannah.

GETTING OUT THERE

We like to save the tours and shopping for Saturday and Sunday and use Friday evening to shed the tensions of work. You might like to go out for an iced tea or a mint julep. There are plenty of happy hour opportunities, and there's a cool tavern downstairs in the Olde Pink House (23 Abercorn St., 912-232-4286). We like to kick off the weekend at the Hyatt Regency lounge, where we watch globe-traveling ships come up from the channel. Looking tiny in comparison are the tugboats, barges, and personal yachts. You can even get out there yourself on a sunset cruise (Savannah Riverboat Cruises, 9 E. River St., www.savannahriverboat. com, 912-232-6404).

Early evening is also the perfect time for a horse-drawn carriage ride (Savannah Carriage Tours, www.savannahcarriage.com, 888-837-1011) or a stroll along the river. That said, here are two tips: 1) Leave the stilettos at home - no one looks cute with a heel wedged between cobblestones; 2) watch where you're walking - you are sharing those cobblestone streets with horses, some of which leave reminders of their visits behind.

BY DAY

Take at least one tour while in Savannah. We've done a haunted tour on foot with a lantern-carrying guide, a historic trolley tour (www.graylineofsavannah.com, 912-234-TOUR), and the "Midnight" tour (for "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" fans) by bus (219 W. Bryan St., 912-233-0119). All were fascinating, and the truth is they intermingle a bit; you'll get some ghost stories in the historic tour and some history in the ghost tours.

Savannah is a great place for riding bikes (Savannah Pedicab Bike Rental, 220 W. Gwinnett St., 912-447-0800) or for just exploring on foot. You never know what you might come across. On a spring weekend we lucked into an arts and crafts festival, and one July day we entered into the surreal experience of a square completely decked out for Christmas and saw Clint Eastwood, John Cusack, and Kevin Spacey shooting a movie scene. A friend who was there for the first time happened upon - get this -dachshund races. We've not yet been to the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum (41 M. L. King Blvd., www.shipsofthesea.org, 912-232-1511) or the birthplace of Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low (10 E. Oglethorpe Ave., 912-233-4501). There's so much to do here, you'll undoubtedly return again and again, as we have. And I haven't even talked about shopping yet.

AH, THE FOOD

You almost can't go wrong, there are so many great places to eat here, from casual shuck-'emyourself oyster joints to upscale fine cuisine restaurants. We try to get in a few old favorites while reserving a meal or two to try someplace new. For a gourmet meal in a beautifully restored historic house, make reservations at Elizabeth on 37th (105 E. 37th St., www.elizabethon37th. com, 912-236-5547), or the Olde Pink House (23 Abercorn St., 212-232-4286). For dining along the river, we always have lunch at the River House Seafood & Bakery (125 W. River St., www.riverhouseseafood.com, 912-234-1900), which we are convinced serves the best caesar salad on the planet. If you're in the mood for a wonderful country-style meal, go to The Lady & Sons (102 W. Congress St., www.ladyandsons.com, 912-233-2600). Another popular eating stop for visitors is The Pirate's House (20 E. Broad St., 912-233-5757), an old 1754 seaman's inn mentioned in Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Still on my wish list for breakfast or brunch is Huey's (115 E. River St., 912-234-7385), which several friends have raved about.

NIGHTLIFE

The whole mood of the town changes on a weekend night. Down on the river, the sound of heavy rockin' blues might blend in the air with the strains of Celtic bagpipes as music seeps from the bars as well as along the promenade. You can go dancing, drinking, people-watching, or even catch a comedy act (we came upon the tail end of one who was scheduled to appear on "Late Night with David Letterman" soon) or magic show.

This is when you might want to go on one of the town's ghost walks as well (135 Bull St., www.hauntingstour.com, 800-574-9255). And if you're a serious partier, be here for St. Patrick's Day, when the beer (and the water in the many fountains) is colored green, or for the 4th of July, when a huge fireworks display is shot from a river barge.

SO LET'S TALK ABOUT SHOPPING

I don't like shopping as a rule, but poking around in Savannah is more like exploring an attic or museum. Along the river and in the nearby City Market (www.savannahcitymarket.com) you'll find many shops that sell specialty items, from candy to candles, from kites to ornaments. Because of the Savannah College of Art and Design, there's no shortage of galleries, either. But the real draw is the plethora of antiques and oddities. How often do you see a kewpie doll sandwiched between a carved wooden Chinese dragon and a suit of armor? Or a stained glass and mahogany bar (for sale!) that makes you feel as if you've just stepped onto the set of Cheers? A few places we find continuously fascinating are City Market Art Center (204 W. St. Julian St., 912-232-2327, Memory Lane Antiques & Mall (220 W. Bay St., 912-232-0975), Jere's Antiques (9 N. Jefferson St., 912-236-2815), and Universe Trading Co. (27 Montgomery St., 912-233-1585). The next time we go, we'll visit the new River Street Market Place (riverstreetmarketplace.com) with its open-air vendors. Make sure to pick up a map of antique malls and stores to find some that match your own interests.

CHECKING IN

While Savannah hosts sleeping venues to fit any budget, we generally prefer to stay near the river within easy walking distance of much of the old city's charm. We've given the Best Western (412 W. Bay St., 912-233-1011) plenty of repeat business, as it's clean and affordable. Days Inn Historic Riverfront (201 W. Bay St., www.daysinnsavannah.com, 877- 542-7666, ext. 146) is also very respectable and just across the street. If you're looking for a more upscale experience, the Hyatt Regency (2 W. Bay St., www.savannah.hyatt.com, 912-238-1234) is your destination. B&Bs also abound. One delightful place we stayed, though not in the river district, is The Senator's Gate (226 E. Hall St., www.thesenatorsgate-.com, 912-233-6398). Each room has its own theme, and the price includes a gourmet breakfast and an afternoon drink in the parlor. Also highly recommended are The Gastonian (220 E. Gaston St., www.gastonian.com, 800-322- 6603) and Planters Inn (29 Abercorn St., www.plantersinnsavannah. com, 800-554-1187). You can find many more through www.romanticinnsofsavannah.com.

SAVANNAH IN BOOKS AND MOVIES

Before you visit, you can soak up some of Savannah's character. I highly recommend John Berendt's "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (far superior to the movie adaptation), a journalist's account of a scandalous murder and the following courtroom drama. You can listen to the unabridged recorded book on your drive up.

Eugenia Price wrote several novels set in the city, and "Savannah Blues" by Mary Kay Andrews is a fun romantic mystery. For a movie peppered with Savannah landmarks, catch Robert Altman's "The Gingerbread Man," starring Kenneth Branagh, Robert Downey Jr., Daryl Hannah, Tom Berenger and Robert Duvall. Remember those famous bus stop scenes in "Forrest Gump"? They were shot at one of the historic squares (the bench is now in a museum).

IF YOU GO

Plan on 3 hours and 45 minutes driving time. Head north on Waldo Road. In Waldo, turn left (north) onto 301. In about an hour, turn left to get onto I-10 East. At Exit 356, merge onto I-295 North. At exit 35B, take I- 95 North. Now drive for several hours until you get to Exit 99A in Georgia. Take I-16 East to Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (Exit 167A.) Proceed to the Savannah Visitor Information Center at 301 Martin Luther King Blvd. (912-944-0455), where you can get maps and brochures, make reservations for tours, and visit their museum. Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call the Savannah Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-877-Savannah or visit their Web site at www.savannahvisit.com.

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