Savoring 72 hours in Savannah

It’s been a month since I spent the weekend in Savannah. I’m still savoring the details, picking through the pictures, and reveling in the escape. Remembering is just as good as anticipation.

To begin, I’m a big fan of a long weekend getaway. It’s cheaper than a long vacation, but still a great way to visit a new city or place. Three or four days is enough to recharge, rekindle, and re-energize. I flew in to Savannah from Denver while my good friend Cathy drove up from from Tampa, Florida. We arrived mid-day on a Friday and left Monday afternoon. In the months before the trip, we talked and planned and dreamed for a girls’ getaway and a friend reunion. We’re both outdoorsy girls on a budget, so we opted for camping at Skidaway Island State Park. Fifteen miles from Savannah, we found this wonderful dream of a state park and thanks to Cathy’s reservations back in July, we were guaranteed a spot in the busy park. Big trees, a tent platform, running water, an electric outlet, bathrooms, and shower stalls made this a cushy car camping experience. Compared to some of our RVing neighbors, though, we were roughing it. Cathy brought all the essentials (allowing this flying girl the option to pack lightly with no checked luggage), including: a huge tent, a large air mattress to share, two sleeping bags, an extension cord we could run laps with, a hot-pot (with lots of choices for tea and coffee, she knows me well), her iron skillet, two camp chairs, firewood, and a backseat full of snacks!

Spanish moss isn’t really moss at all.

After a drive around downtown on Friday afternoon, we found a parking spot so we could meander by foot. I fell in love with live oaks and Spanish moss. We discovered Two Southern Gents, an antique store where a window full of beautiful colored glassware caught the light. We went in to browse the antiques, but came out with several jars of salsa and delicacies. One of the Southern Gents was busy on the phone, while the other, with all his gentlemanly charm, shared with us taste tests of jams, jellies, salsas, and rubs. Of course, we had to buy something. When we left, I felt like I’d been visiting a new friend in his living room.

Look at the way the glass bottles and jars sitting in the window catch the light.

After the hints of food at the antique shop, we were in the mood for real refreshment so we walked to Moon River Brewing Company. The cute sign had caught our eyes and we weren’t disappointed. Drinks and dinner were on our minds. We tucked into a table and spent our time catching up, comparing travel notes, and making plans for the weekend, eating and drinking without missing a beat. All around us, the pub got more and more crowded. It’s located in one of the oldest buildings in Savannah, which is saying something. We happened to be there the same weekend as the Savannah Marathon and Half Marathon, so lots of runners and locals filled the place. We were also lucky to be present during the lovely tradition of the 6 o’clock toast. Someone stands up and gives a toast and all the drinkers and revelers in the entire pub listen and rowdily share in the cheer. During the toast, the “toaster” highlighted some of the history of the building: it’s been a hotel, a bank, the first branch of the U.S. post office in Savannah, a bar, and even served as a storage space and warehouse, before opening up as the brew pub in the mid-nineties. What a wonderful tradition! We were happy to take part, raising our glasses in communion with strangers. Cathy, an avid birder, will be happy to know that James Audubon stayed at the hotel once located there, while he was in town trying to sell his bird paintings.

A look at pretty green shutters and ruddy red brick.

We headed to Skidaway Island to make camp and stopped off at a grocery store for essential camping provisions: eggs, a chunk of bacon, and a jar of hot salsa. Camping in Georgia in early November was divine. There was just enough of a chill in the air to wear sleeves at dusk and feel cozy nestled in sleeping bags in the tent. The night was long with conversation in the dark and it reminded me how much I have missed the ease and intimacy of a nearby close friend. Most of my friendships are nestled in the faraway miles and long-ago memories that need rejuvenation and time for in-person accounts. I met Cathy in my first few days of college and she is one of a tribe of women from that first year of dorm living whom I still count among my best and closest friends.

The next morning we slept late, a rare treat while camping, because I’m usually up early due to sunrise and my light sleeping on unfamiliar ground. The live oaks and Spanish moss blanketed us from the sun and our RV neighbors were quiet in their rise and shine routines. We slowly woke up, making coffee and enjoying the crispness of a fall morning. Cathy, the master of all things breakfast, took to her chef duties seriously, scrambling eggs and cooking bacon to a precision that she said didn’t meet her high standards. I, however, blanketed myself in the marvels of bacon and eggs and coffee and pronounced it good!

A public square would be a great place to spend an afternoon while watching people.

After a leisurely cleanup and more coffee, we headed back into town to look around before our walking history tour at 2 pm. There’s something about Savannah that reminds me of Santa Fe, New Mexico and Venice, Italy, two cities I love. It’s the history and unique architecture of the locale and the efforts of local preservationists that have made all three areas big tourist attractions. Despite the many and obvious tourists, Savannah felt genuine and bustling. It’s one of the few times I’ve been on vacation where I was ready to move on the spot. I wonder if they need any help with recycling or education? There are lots of parks and public squares and benches and I was charmed by that warm, Georgia drawl of the locals. Those folks could convince me to do almost anything with their charm and friendliness.

After a walk, we found Christ Church and the monument to John Wesley, who is credited, along with his brother Charles, with founding the United Methodist Church. Wesley spent a short time in Savannah, and the city still holds significance in the establishment of Methodism and in the spiritual lives of many. I grew up as a Methodist, so of course I had to take some snaps of the church. A lovely man who was polishing the church railings must have seen my wistful face, because he invited us inside to take a look around. He even said it was okay to take pictures (I’m never sure of the decorum of this inside a church). If I could, I’d go back and ask that sweet man to have some tea with me.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church.

A walking history tour was the perfect way to orient ourselves and bring our scraps of remembered history into context. We arrived a little before our scheduled walking tour, so we imbibed and enjoyed some quiet and cool at the Pirate’s House. It was fun to learn that it had been a tavern since the 1750s and it’s adjacent to the oldest building in Savannah, the Herb House, built in 1734. We met the tour guide and appreciated a long, rambling, fun, and informative tour of Savannah. The guide and her teenage daughter walked us all around historic Savannah and shared all sorts of juicy tidbits like a controversy involving John Wesley and a little bit about local heroine Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts. It is the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts this year of 2012. As our guide kept saying, “History is just really old gossip.” How many bored students would love to have this woman for a history teacher? I wondered. She brought insight to Savannah’s colonial and confederate history. She also shared tales of General Sherman’s restless soldiers. She showed us cool landmarks and made recommendations for the best local ice cream. I’m a Luddite without a smart phone, but she brought technology into the tour in a way that I admired. She had a small iPad with a sturdy silicone case and used it to share historic photos. She showed us old pictures, upon which we could mentally superimpose the modern scenes. On my next trip anywhere, I’m going to schedule a walking tour or I’ll grab a guidebook and a map and find my way through history and culture and architecture. What a wonderful way to get to know an area!

The shells in the sidewalk in Savannah were not to be missed.
This pink house gets its color from the red Georgia clay. They used to whitewash it and the pink would bleed through.

For dinner, we drove out to the Crab Shack on Tybee Island, which was a recommendation from the park ranger at Skidaway. It was a bit of a hole-in-the-wall and a quaint tourist trap, rustic and gigantic. We opted for outdoor dining. To give you a taste of the place, each table has its own trash can for all the shells and dinner discards (Sins of styrofoam can be touched upon in another post later, or not at all.). We ate a lovely shrimp boil dinner. We eavesdropped and people watched and listened to Jimmy Buffett tunes. We observed the resting baby alligators, but decided not to partake in the option to feed them (with purchased alligator food, not restaurant leftovers). At last we drove back to the campsite for an evening in front of the fire with hot tea. Is there anything better than the smell of campfire? I don’t think so.

The next morning we got up for another yummy egg breakfast cooked by the ever-gracious Cathy, this time sans bacon, since we’d eaten all our bacon rations the day before! We drove out to Fort Pulaski National Monument. As always, the National Park Service does an amazing job and we were lucky to watch a park ranger dressed as a Civil War (or for another take, according to local history and monuments in Savannah, the War of Northern Aggression) soldier, who led us and a group of 40 or 50 through the routines of loading, firing, and reloading his musket. The National Park Service tells us that Fort Pulaski was named for Casimir Pulaski, a Russian soldier who helped fight the British in the Revolutionary War. He was wounded in battle and died in nearby Savannah. Fort Pulaski was built as part of a national series of brick forts for the United States to use to defend itself against enemies overseas in the 1800s. The fort hosted a significant battle in the Civil War in April and May of 1862. The Confederates’ surrender of the fort was seen as impossible, as the fort was thought to be indestructible. Parts of the fort were repaired by federal troops immediately following the battle. After years of decay and abandon, the fort became a national monument in 1924. It wasn’t until the property was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933 that more restoration and management began. Additional restoration of Fort Pulaski was undertaken by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. The sources of information for my condensed history of the fort came from the very useful website and brochures provided by the National Park Service.

Check out the damage to Fort Pulaski. It’s neat to see the historical battle scars.
There are American alligators living here, but we didn’t see any.
I love the arches and the contrast between the whitewash and red bricks.
The wall of Fort Pulaski looks as though it leads to the sea.

As you can see from some of my pictures, the restoration and brickwork are amazing. What I loved, though, is that they retained some of the damage and evidence of the bombardments. Seeing those battle scars and the grassy mounds where munitions were stored made those old battles come to life. It’s a beautiful spot and I highly recommend a trip there if you’re in the Savannah area. You can wander in and out of the fort, look at restored army barracks, and experience the history and beauty of the spot. Thanks to Cathy’s food supplies, we nibbled on crackers, chips, salsa, hummus, veggies, and fruit on the picnic grounds. After lunch, we took a mile walk amidst lots of palm to a view of Cockspur Lighthouse. There are some longer trails nearby and I long to return to hike around and enjoy some time on the water. We drove the rest of the way to the beach on Tybee Island. It was cool, but warm enough to take off our shoes and relish sand on bare feet in early November. We walked through the town and imagined crowds emerging from the t-shirt shops and beach condos. We stopped in to get a drink at a local dive and watched the local color of shoulder season from the vantage point of tall, twisty bar stools.

Peering at the pier on Tybee Island.

We returned that evening to Savannah for dinner and drinks and night wanderings. I had read about Oglethorpe’s bench, but we didn’t think we’d have time to find it, much less sit on it. Almost by accident, we stumbled upon it and a very polite stranger offered to take our pictures as we sat on the landmark. There’s something to be said for that Southern charm. According to The Savannah Walking Tour & Guidebook by Paul C. Bland, a wonderfully informative booklet I picked up at the Fort Pulaski park shop, the site of the bench is where the “recorded history of Savannah started.” The bench is located at the approximate location of James Edward Oglethorpe’s tent site on a scouting visit to establish the colony of Georgia in 1733. Originally, the colony’s charter “prohibited slavery, lawyers, Catholics and hard liquor.” Eventually, all of the prohibitions were eliminated (Bland). Without getting into the depth and history of the other three, it’s hard to imagine Savannah without liquor, partly because of its famed local law that allows people to walk with open alcoholic drinks in plastic cups in the historic district of the downtown area (the beverage can’t be more than 16 ounces, no alcoholic big gulps allowed here and no open containers in the rest of Savannah). We did partake of the local tradition with one drink on the go that night. There are signs and monuments celebrating history and significance almost everywhere. We loved the night views.

Taking a seat on Oglethorpe’s bench.
The bench is near where Oglethorpe first camped.
The bench is near where Oglethorpe first camped.
We see the glow of lights into the flora of a Savannah night.

Our last night at Skidaway included a quiet, but fairly significant rainstorm (at least from my New Mexico-raised and Colorado-living viewpoint). Ironically, the rain came down during my evening shower. I guess I could have startled some campers and stood outside, but I opted to use hot water and the available shower stall instead. We fell asleep to the patter of rain drops, which is one of the best feelings, but we also found some wet spots along a couple of seams in the tent. Again, a very patient and gracious Cathy was the one to deal with precipitation leftovers when she unpacked the tent and camping gear from her car later when she returned home to Tampa.

On Monday, our last morning in Savannah, we gobbled up breakfast at a local cafe not too far from Skidaway. It was a bit jarring to hear the day-before-the-election news on TVs blaring in the background, but perhaps it was a good reminder that vacations come to an end. Our quest for the day, before our departures, was the Bonaventure Cemetery on the bluff of the Wilmington River, famous for its mention in the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the Colonial Park Cemetery, in the middle of the downtown historic district. As I learned from the informational placards, Savannah was one of the first cities (and I’m guessing one of the few) to have an established Department of Cemeteries. Cathy and I were in our element among the quiet graves and trees and soft sunlight of Bonaventure. Cathy and I had taken pleasure in discovering that John Muir (we’re both environmental studies majors and enviros by passion and profession) had camped there for six days, finding it beautiful and thrifty to stay at the cemetery and sleep on the tombs while he waited for money from home. We found the graves for Johnny Mercer and Conrad Aiken, famous and creative sons of Savannah. We pondered the beautiful and solemn Jewish section of the cemetery and looked at the large family plots all around. Time and sorrow and love and lives lived can be found in a cemetery. I love to visit them in any town, to spend time looking around and reading the gravestones. We also enjoyed the view from the bluff and then we zipped back into downtown for a look at the Colonial Park Cemetery, which was established around 1750. On our earlier walking tour, we learned that during the Civil War and the occupation of Savannah, Union soldiers camped in the cemetery. They looted graves and caused endless destruction and desecration and damage. The soldiers even changed dates on many tombstones. While the cemetery was closed to burials after the 1850s, local preservationists tried to repair and restore the damage and it became a city park. Some of the cracked headstones can be seen along one wall of the cemetery. More pictures and quiet and observation and then it was time to go.

These old monuments and elaborate headstones in Bonaventure Cemetery amaze me.
Look how these palms live among the dead.
An entry into the historic Jewish section of Bonaventure Cemetery.
The stones on the headstone signify respect and show that the grave was visited, a Jewish custom.
A view of some of the damaged and cracked headstones in Colonial Park Cemetery.

We checked the time, gassed up Cathy’s car, and drove across the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, which we had admired during our drives in and around Savannah. We drove across and turned around a few miles later, right over the state line of South Carolina. Another adventure, another time, we vowed.

A wonderful 72 hours in Savannah and then we each journeyed home.



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