Savannah – a city we have wanted to explore for years, but it seemed we were always on our way to some other destination and just passing thru the area, leaving little time to play tourist. Having been to Charleston, SC several times, a city whose old time charm totally captivated us, we have been intrigued when fellow RV’ers we have met along the way would say that they liked Savannah better than Charleston. After experiencing Charleston’s rich history, beautiful old buildings and food offerings, how could Savannah possibly compare?
As we began our journey north, when we checked Reserve America and saw an available site at the nearby (about 30 minutes from downtown) Skidaway Island State Park for 4 nights, we jumped on it. Finally, we would have the opportunity to explore this very historic city that we’ve heard so much about.
Surrounded by live oaks draped with Spanish Moss and bordering Skidaway narrows, a part of Georgia’s Intracoastal Waterway, Skidaway Island State Park not only has a lovely campground but an interpretive center and six miles of trails. It is one of the growng number of Georgia state parks (as of January, 2018) that accept site specific reservations. Not only were we able to reserve a specific site but we were able to snag one of the premium sites (site #50) which had water, 30/50 amp electric and sewer hookups. Standard sites just have water and electric.
Once settled in, we contemplated our plans for the next day as there are a number of ways to soak in the sights of Savannah. There are the usual walking or biking tours, either guided or self guided, a horse and carriage tour or a Segway tour. None of those appealed so we quickly crossed those off our list.
Or perhaps we should consider a ghost tour which delves into Savannah’s paranormal paradise with creepy visits to historic homes, hidden cemeteries and many of Savannah’s secret, haunted locations. Savannah is considered to be one of the most haunted cities in America as outlined in various articles like here and here. Well, maybe on the next visit.
In the end our choice was to take an Old Town Trolley Tour. Having taken these tours before in other cities, we knew it would not only provide us with an overview of the important attractions of the city but also would provide us with a valuable narration about the history and culture. And even better we could hop on and off the trolley at any of the 15 stops along the route all day long.
Trolley tickets were $29.70 (including tax) for adults (no senior discount) and $14.40 for children 4 -12, under 4 were free. Tours begin at 9 a.m., departing every 20 minutes with final boarding time at 6 pm ( April – July) or 5 pm (August – March).
Because it would save time and be a little cheaper, we bought our tickets at the Skidaway registration office (we did not have to pay the sales tax, plus the park gets a kickback from the sale). It was around 9:30ish when we headed towards one of the two Old Town Trolley locations with free parking at 234 Martin Luther King Blvd. We had to queue up behind some other cars for a few minutes, then after entering the lot and the attendant discovering we already had tickets, redirected us to their second lot at the Welcome Center located at 214 W. Boundary Street and Oglethorpe Avenue (not to be confused with the Savannah Public Visitor Center across the street). After turning around in the lot and a few wrong turns, we finally found the right place. Although not much bigger than the first lot, we were able to nab the last available space. We didn’t realize it at the time but there was another lot across the street which actually had plenty of available parking.
What are all these people doing here we exclaimed looking at the long line of people snaking their way out the door of the Welcome Center. We didn’t expect it to be this crowded on a Monday, but I guess that’s the way it is at every tourist destination these days! Apparently this line was for people wanting to buy tickets to various tours as well as those of us who already had tickets.
Pretty annoying that they didn’t have a separate express line for people with tickets who just needed the sticker badge which would allow us to hop on and off the trolley all day long. With only two people working the desk, the line moved slowly – we must have waited at least 20 minutes before making it to the head of the line.
Old Town Trolley if you are listening, you need to do some work to clear up the confusion as where to park and also streamline the process for advance ticket holders.
Once we had our stickers we made our way to the spot in the parking lot where a trolley was just being loaded but alas no room for us. We would have to wait for the next one. By this time, I was getting impatient with all the waiting, aggravated enough to suggest to Rob that we leave and come back the next day, thinking it might be less crowded. Nope, can’t do that – now that we had checked in and our tickets had been stamped with that day’s date, leaving was not an option.
Fortunately it wasn’t long before a trolley pulled up and we were herded into it. Finally! Our plan was to stay on the trolley for the entire route which takes about 90 minutes, figuring that we would later return to the landmarks that were of particular interest.
From the minute the tour started, my aggravation was quickly swept away by our tour guide, Cindy, who was able to take the somewhat dry historical facts, mix them with her natural southern wit to create a fascinating non-stop narrative as we passed by the notable landmarks.
Savannah was discovered in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe who landed with 120 passengers of the good ship Anne along the Savannah River. Oglethorpe named the 13th and final American colony “Georgia” after England’s King George II. Oglethorpe laid the city out in a series of grids that allowed for wide open streets intertwined with shady public squares and parks that served as town meeting places and centers of business, earning it the title of “Georgia’s first planned city”. Savannah originally had 24 squares, 22 are still in existence today.
It would take forever to outline everything we saw and the information we learned, but here are a few of the most notable highlights from the tour:
- The birthplace of Juliet Gordon Low who in 1912 at the age of 51 founded the Girl Scouts of America
- Chippewa Square where Forrest Gump uttered those famous words “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates”. Alas there was no bench – it was located there only for the filming of the movie! However the actual bench can be found at the Savannah History Museum.
- First African Baptist Church is recognized as one of the nation’s oldest African American Baptist Churches. The church was used as an Underground Railroad station. We wanted to take a tour of the church but unfortunately the timing didn’t work out for us.
- The Cathedral of St. John – the church was dedicated on its current site on April 30, 1876 but a fire in 1898 destroyed much of the structure. It was rebuilt quickly and re-opened in 1900. More about the church later.
- The Mercer-Williams House – completed in 1869, it was built for Civil War General Hugh W. Mercer, great grandfather of songwriter and lyricist Johnny Mercer, but was never home to any of the Mercer family. It was sold to Jim Williams in 1969 who was tried four times for the shooting death of Danny Hansford. The house is best known for its connection to the book and movie “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil“. It is supposedly haunted.
- The Lady and Sons Restaurant – although we’ve never been big fans of Paula Deen, this restaurant has an interesting history and seems to be quite a popular tourist dining spot.
- The Waving Girl Statue – located along the Savannah River. The 20 foot tall statue is a tribute to Florence Martus, a Savannahian who from 1887 to 1931 greeted ships entering Savannah by waving a cloth at approaching ships from the lighthouse on Cockspur Island, in search of her long lost lover.
- The Pirates House – built in 1734, and established as a tavern in 1753 frequented by pirates and sailors but now a restaurant with 15 dining rooms! Supposedly, the book,Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson was inspired by events that happened at the Pirate’s House. According to our guide, rare early edition pages can be seen hanging on the walls of the Captain’s room and the Treasure room in the Pirates’ House. Based on its past history, it is considered to be haunted.
By the time we completed the full circuit, arriving back at the Welcome Center, our brains were totally overloaded with information, perhaps because it was well past lunch time and we were hungry. Because all of the streets are laid out in a grid, we knew that finding our way around the city would be really easy, totally different than the hodge podge layout of the streets in the historic cities of the Northeast, so we decided to walk the few blocks to the Soho South Cafe, a restaurant that had a decent menu and good reviews.
Originally built as an automotive service station in 1945, after years of being vacant, the original owners transformed the building into a quirky, eclectic and popular eating establishment. Despite what must have been major renovations to turn the vast interior space into a dining room, the cafe still maintains some of it’s former identity with such original exposed elements as the steel windows, iron trusses, and solid wooden garage doors.
At the recommendation of our waiter, I ordered the Chicken Fried Chicken ($13), a buttermilk marinated and cajun dredged organic chicken, served with Readee’s Bees Honey and a choice of two sides. My choices were tomato/cucumber salad and macaroni and cheese. Rob ordered the Chicken Pot Pie ($14) with French fries and tomato/cucumber salad. Both meals were very good although my chicken was a tad overdone.
After lunch we made our way to the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
With its 207 foot high steeples plus the 7 foot crosses, the exterior of the church is majestic, but as we entered I couldn’t help but let out a little gasp – the interior was absolutely breathtaking! We’ve seen a number of churches during our travels to Europe and across the U.S. and this rivaled many of them!
The Cathedral was originally constructed in 1799 by the first French colonists to arrive in the area. At the end of the 19th century, the old building was torn down to make room for the larger, stone cathedral that you see today. A devastating fire on February 6, 1898, destroyed all of the Cathedral but the outside walls and the two spires but it was rebuilt quickly and opened in 1900. It is the seat of the Diocese that includes 90 counties in southern Georgia.
Over the years, the parish has undergone major renovation projects: in 1959-1965, which the heating, cooling and lighting systems and decoration were addressed; in 1984-1985, structural foundations were reinforced and changes mandated by the Second Vatican Council were implemented. Between 1998-2000 over 50 stained glass windows were removed, cleaned and re-leaded, the slate roof (45,000 slates and 90,000 copper nails) was replaced and the interior was restored in keeping with the architectural integrity of the building.
The pipe organ was originally built in Georgetown, Massachusetts by the Noack Organ Company and installed in 1987. The instrument is a tracker organ with 34 ranks and 2,308 pipes.
When the docent finished and our phones (and us) were exhausted from taking so many photos, we left the cathedral heading to another spot recommended by our tour guide earlier that day for a refreshing treat – Leopold’s Ice Cream which was founded by three brothers from Greece in 1919.
If long lines were any indication of the popularity of a place, then this place must be an absolute favorite of both the locals and visiting tourists. Best known for their “Tutti Frutti” ice cream, an original since 1919. Yummy ice cream!
But there’s more to Leopold’s than just ice cream! It is still owned by the son of one of the original owners, Stratton Leopold, but many years ago he left Savannah to pursue his career in Hollywood as a producer, making such films as Mission Impossible 3, the Sum of All Fears, The General’s Daughter, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Paycheck, Parker and The Wolfman. He also served as Vice President of Production at Paramount Pictures. Props and posters from his films can be found throughout the parlor.
As we made it from one destination to another by foot, we strolled through several of the jewels of the city, the 22 squares which were the brainstorm of James Oglethorpe. Smart planning on his part! Old oaks hanging over the cobblestone pathways, statues and fountains centered in the middle of the square, and fragrant borders of flowering bushes, dotted with iron benches create a paw friendly and family friendly shady oasis in the middle of a bustling city. Great place for weary visitors (like us) to take a rest!
Finally, it was time to return to Skidaway so we walked a few blocks towards the waterfront to the nearest trolley stop on East Bay Street. It was pretty cool using their online tracking tool for smart phones – we could actually see where the next trolley was on the route and how long it would be before it arrived at our stop. While we waited, we were able to take some photos of another landmark along the Old Town Trolley route – the historic Savannah Cotton Exchange but more about that in our next post.
Although it was the beginning of rush hour, it wasn’t a long wait for the trolley. Within an hour we were back at Skidaway. Did we have more sightseeing to do? That we did, we would be returning to the city the next day to explore the riverfront.
So now that we had spent the day in Savannah, what was our overall impression? And how did it compare with Charleston? With the extraordinary architecture of the historic old mansions, elaborate churches, the lush greenery of the 22 squares and the waterfront along River Street, it didn’t take long for us to fall in love with this charming city. How could anyone not? Now we understood the comments that other people had made comparing Savannah to Charleston. It’s really not that one is better than the other – they are just different, each with its own fascinating history, unique charm and aura.