As I write the title to this post, I can hear Jim Williams (the character played by Kevin Spacey in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) working the room with swagger and a cordial at his decadent Christmas party. He says “Savannah” with a softness and a sexiness that invite you to come, stay a while and unravel the mystery and history of his beautiful hometown. “Midnight” is just one of the dozens of movies filmed in Savannah. Others include “Forrest Gump,” “Glory” and “Magic Mike XXL” (to name a few). Walking around its charming 21 squares, historic mansions and live oaks, it’s no wonder Hollywood has such a cinematic crush on Savannah.
From the moment you get off Rt. 25 and descend into town, you will quickly discover Bay Street, with its brick buildings and crooked cobblestone streets that abut the Savannah River. As you zigzag left and right through town, losing your way on the many one-way streets and squares, you’ll want to drop your bags, get out and walk the hostess city of the South.
We arrived at noon on Christmas Eve and checked into our pet-friendly hotel the Olde Harbour Inn. My parents had arrived the night before and they were eager for us to join them for some holiday cheer. After receiving a photo of two whopping Bloody Marys from my parents who were stationed at the Olde Pink House, we realized the cheer had already commenced. It would be the four of us celebrating Christmas together, along with our dog Agnes and our cat Bode. MainMan and I had been to Savannah previously for a one-night visit last winter to watch a basketball game with the UVA Club of Savannah. We stayed in the Staybridge Suites on Bay Street, which is almost katty corner to the Olde Harbour Inn. We ended up paying a pretty penny (nearly $300 for one night, which included a pet fee) for a very blase experience, and I vowed to avoid staying there again. I offered Staybridge as a suggestion to my dad, but I harped heavily on its lack of character and ambiance, which I found would be very unsuitable for a holiday weekend. We wanted atmosphere and decorations, warmth and coziness (despite the strange, warm mid-winter temps). I remember taking photos of the Olde Harbour Inn on our first visit to Savannah, while secretly willing us to return and stay there instead. Lucky for me, I got my wish.
Our hotel room was like a 1-bedroom apartment. It was absolutely fantastic with exposed brick, high ceilings, hardwood floors, a huge sitting room with a TV and couches, a large bedroom with windows overlooking River Street and a galley kitchen. We were floored and so happy. It’s always a little nerve-wracking checking into pet-friendly places. You never know what you’re going to get. Sometimes you get the worst rooms in the hotel because staff know they’re going to get used and abused by unruly pets. Not the case at the Olde Harbour Inn. And the price was really reasonable for what you got: $220/night. That room very easily could go for $350+.
Day 1, Thursday:
Once we made sure Agnes had her bladder thoroughly emptied and Bode was comfortable in his new digs, we parted ways with the fur babies and ventured into Savannah. My dad was ready for his mid-day nap so we left him and decided to find a good spot for a bite to eat. I picked out a few places on Yelp, but unfortunately they were a bit of a walk from our hotel so we decided to just wander around the immediate vicinity. Town was busy. It was strange seeing a sea of shorts and T-shirts, sandals and flip flops on Christmas Eve. It was probably about 75 degrees out. Our tummies started rumbling and my mom really wanted to check out Paula Deen’s restaurant The Lady and Sons. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but I didn’t strongly object either. Luckily there was no wait. We were seated downstairs by the elevator and every three minutes it would empty out like we were in line waiting to go to the roof of the Empire State Building. MainMan opted for the buffet, which included an array of heavy Southern sides: creamed potatoes, mac and cheese, cream corn, collard greens and yams. The buffet’s main event was the fried chicken. MainMan really enjoyed it. He said the batter was just right. My mom ordered a chicken pot pie and I ordered a salad and grilled shrimp. The pot pie was a little bit too much pie crust and not enough chicken. It comes out with a jaw-dropping, cross-weaved crust on top of a bowl, but once you take the crust off, there’s very little substance or chicken in the small bowl.
Following lunch we moseyed around City Market, which is a couple of blocks of stores and restaurants on a pedestrian-only street. There’s a really cute pet store on the corner called Woof Gang Bakery if you want to bring a gift home for your pet.
We had reservations for dinner at 7 p.m. at Sapphire Grill. Among the many websites I consulted in planning our weekend, this restaurant repeatedly received kudos for being one of the best restaurants in town, if not the best. It lived up to the hype. Our server was amazing and the food, from the warm, oven-fresh bread to the last spoon of the dessert medley was outstanding. They had a long bar that ran parallel to the main dining room, which was narrow and 2-tables deep with exposed brick. They blended modern with classic in both the design and the food. You can order one of the several entrees off the main menu, but you can also “create your own” by picking a meat, the preparation and preferred sauce/sides. All of us were extremely impressed by the freshness of our respective swordfish and steaks. The swordfish was one of the best fishes I’ve ever had. We argued over whether we had room for dessert, then when the plate landed on the table, we argued over who got each bite of the chocolate mousse, chocolate cake and homemade ice cream.
Day 2, Friday:
We celebrated Christmas in the morning by feasting on some homemade cinnamon rolls (a tradition in my family) and going to mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Even if you’re not Catholic, I strongly recommend walking through this church if you have time. It’s one of the most spectacular churches I’ve ever seen (and we lived in France for three years). Their nativity scene was so elaborate and magnificent it merits its own reality show on how they built it. The only thing it was missing was a choir. Their female soloist had a beautiful voice, but I missed the moving sounds of a full choir.
After church we changed into comfier clothes and took a drive to Tybee Island. We learned of Tybee on another visit when a local said most Savannahians rent houses there for the summer. It was about a 30-minute drive from the center of town. Unfortunately, it was extremely foggy so once we got to the beach there really wasn’t much to see. We brought Agnes with us for the car ride, but the main Tybee beach is not dog-friendly. The town looks like it would be a fun place to hang out in the summertime. It had a bit of a Jersey Shore vibe with its casual restaurants, beach motels and surf shops with giant sharks hanging off the sides. The main attraction of Tybee, besides the coast, is the lighthouse, which we hit up on the way out. It wasn’t as photogenic as the lighthouse on Hunting Island. There’s an enormous cement battery between it and the coastline and we all scratched our heads thinking maybe it was time to get rid of that eyesore. The park itself was closed for the holidays so we weren’t climbing the lighthouse, but at least we all got to get out of the car, stretch our legs, Agnes included, and take a few photos.
We tried getting pizza at Lighthouse Pizza on Rt. 80 heading west. Big mistake. The place was mobbed. There was one server working. We sat down, waited for about 10 minutes and with no menus and nobody acknowledging our existence we left.
My mom’s friend mentioned Skidaway Island so we took a detour there on our way back to Savannah. We encountered a security gate and quickly realized you don’t just hop onto Skidaway and explore. Like Fripp Island and most of Hilton Head, you best be a resident or have a rental property booked. Bummer. Skidaway National Park (with camping grounds) was accessible to us, and if we had more time we would have gotten out and hiked it a bit, but we had an early dinner that night and we felt it best to get back.
When we got back to Bay Street we decided to grab beers and a snack since the pizza plan failed. Moon River Brewing Company was bustling and my dad liked the looks of the beer garden outside. We snagged four stools at the end of a community table and we were in business. We ordered a couple rounds of beers — Yoga Pantz being the family favorite — and nachos before calling it a day.
Second on our high-priority restaurant list was The Olde Pink House. The house dates back to 1771 and the ghost of the original owner — James Habersham — supposedly still mills about the many rooms and hallways of this house-turned-bank-turned-restaurant. I’d eaten there once before in the large dining room upstairs so when I made reservations on Open Table for Christmas dinner, I requested a downstairs table in one of the smaller rooms. This was a wise choice. The rooms were tastefully decorated for Christmas and you couldn’t help but be swept off your feet by the enchanting nooks and dimly lit corners.
Our server was extremely friendly, if not to the detriment of his serving responsibilities. He gabbed and joked with us and seemed to enjoy the work, despite it being a holiday. The meal was good, though not as amazing as Sapphire Grill the night before. We were all a bit surprised by the $60 prix-fixe menu and as I wasn’t super hungry, I ordered a vegetarian appetizer as my main meal. I’d had the beet salad before on the last trip and it was a generous portion. That night it reminded me of the meal Bob Cratchit/Mickey Mouse eats in “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” I pictured him pitifully slicing a lone pea with a steak knife, and this is how I felt eating the meager portion of beets and lettuce that was set in front of me.
On our way out we split up: my parents wanted to see the dining rooms upstairs and I wanted to see the famous tavern in the basement. It was jam-packed and oozing with old warm charm. It felt like the kind of place you might have bumped into a young Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin. I can see why people would want to eat down here, but not on a busy holiday evening. You’re fairly well cramped into tables and people who aren’t are waiting for your table and hanging over your chairs like sheets on a clothesline.
Day 3, Saturday:
One activity we all wanted to do was ride the trolley around town. We debated doing the hop-on, hop-off option, but then decided to stay put for the 2-hour tour, then do our own thing the rest of the afternoon. There are a few companies who operate trolley tours. I wanted to go with the original/oldest called Old Savannah Tours (look for the all-white trolleys). You simply call them up, tell them where you’re staying and a shuttle picks you up and brings you right to the depot where the tours start. I think we magically timed it to get on the 10 o’clock tour, though the website says they run tours every 15-20 minutes, 7 days a week between 9:30 and 4 o’clock.
Our tour guide was great. He was the perfect blend of history geek and comic. What sets OST apart from the other trolleys is the historic guests who crash the trolley tour every third or fourth stop. We had a plantation owner, an actress and Forrest Gump say hello during our tour. If you’re heading to Savannah for a couple of days, I highly recommend doing this right off the bat. We were taking notes the entire time of squares, stores, landmarks and even bars we wanted to return to before leaving Sunday afternoon.
After we scared Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates away, we returned to Moon River Brewery for a tour recap and rest-of-the-day planning. My mom, MainMan and I decided to go to the Owens-Thomas House for a tour and my dad wanted to roam around and hit up a few antique stores and galleries.
The Owens-Thomas House sits on Oglethorp Square and was designed by William Jay (1792-1837), one of our nation’s first professionally-trained architects. Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette was a guest of Savannah in 1825 and stayed at the home. In 1830, George Welshman Owens bought the house and it stayed in the Owens family until 1951, when Owens’ granddaughter Margaret Thomas left it to the Telfair Museum of Art. The gardens are lovely and when you first meet up with your tour guide, you’ll be sitting on benches in one of the earliest urban slave quarters in the South. Besides being starstruck by Lafayette’s stay at this beautiful home, the odd stain glass and the second story bridge that connects bedrooms were the highlights for me. The gift shop was nice, as well. If you wish to see the Owens-Thomas House, you have to go on one of their guided tours for $15.
After our house tour, we decided to grab some pizza for lunch before we all did our own thing. We found this adorable pizza place called Bella Napoli on State Street and it was some of the best, most authentic Italian pizza I’ve had on this side of the Atlantic. Wow. Put this on your list.
My mom wanted to do some shopping and MainMan and I devised a bar crawl around my plan to visit Alex Raskin Antiques (hat tip NYT’s most recent 36 hours in Savannah). Ingrid Williams had me at “rambling mansion in advanced state of deterioration.”
On my way to Raskin’s, I dropped MainMan off at the Six Pence Pub on Bull Street. It’s a great British-style bar we discovered on the trolley tour. Our guide mentioned it was in “Something to Talk About” starring Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid and we knew we had to get back. I would live in an English pub if I could — every town needs one.
When I came upon the mansion that was Alex Raskin Antiques my jaw dropped to the pavement. I stood frozen in awe and wonder at this house of houses, this 4-story treasure chest of historic delights I was about to explore. It had an aura about it and the writer in me started to come up with storylines starring this address. It reminded me of Aunt Polly’s mansion in “Pollyana” and I half expected Pollyana to come flying out from one of the windows and onto the tree branches that hugged the sidewalk in front of me.
This was absolutely one of the highlights of my weekend. I don’t know how or when antiques became such a passion for me, though my grandmother used to own an antique store so I suppose it’s in my DNA. There was barely two feet of passage between you and the antiques throughout the four stories. Tables, chests and chairs piled from floor to 16-foot ceilings, dilapidated stairwells that led to each level, ceilings with pipes and beams exposed and paint dripping off them with age, model ships and chandeliers, statues and paintings, wooden art-less frames and a porch on every floor that overlooked the somewhat gaudy Armstrong House (where I giddily spotted a hawk perched on its parapet). A woman screamed to her boyfriend in the next room, “HONEY THIS CHEST IS FROM THE 16TH CENTURY!” I mean… sensory and mind overload imagining all the people and history that had passed through these pieces. Raskin is a master curator, if not bordering on master hoarder.
After I had my fill of Raskin’s, I headed north towards town to pick up MainMan and continue our pub crawl. He was at McDonough’s. And when I walked in I wanted to turn around and walk right out. I rushed him to pay the check, chug and scoot. Last on our list was Molly MacPherson’s over by City Market. My mom and I had walked by it on Thursday and made a note of it to return. This had the best overall vibe of the day and if we weren’t on the clock for dinner we would have had a couple more rounds. We gabbed with the waitress about St. Patrick’s Day. My understanding is Mardi Gras: New Orleans as St. Patrick’s Day: Savannah.
“Are we too old to enjoy St. Patty’s Day here?” I asked. Our friendly bartender insisted not a chance, and if she could survive it, we could. My mom’s best friend told her after our trip that St. Patty’s Day in Savannah is on her bucket list. I think it may be on ours now, too.
We raced our butts back to the hotel in time to walk Agnes and shower before dinner. Our last night in Savannah would be spent at the French bistro Circa 1875. The place was packed. We were on time for our 7 o’clock reservations, but they weren’t quite ready for us. The lovely hostess hand-delivered us to the bar area. The space is split into two sections, each with their own front door: the bar area with high tables and stools surrounding the long bar is on your left and the dining room with a long banquette is on your right. We miraculously got three bar stools at the bar, but by the time the bartender was able to take our order, the hostess was back to escort us to our table.
Circa definitely wins for fun and liveliness. The bread was superb as was the service, and everyone liked their meals except me. I ordered a savory shrimp crepe and the thought of it now still makes me queazy. Bad call on my part. It wouldn’t stop me from going back, but if they had a suggestion box I’d say take it off the menu.
Day 4, Sunday:
Checkout was at 11 for us so we decided to squeeze in a quick walking tour before we left. One of the souvenir shops on Bay Street carried a magazine for $5 with walking tours and we followed
one of them that lead us to Forsyth Park – the beautiful 30-acre park at the south side of town. We drove around its outskirts on the trolley tour. The fountain was built in 1858 and there are two others like it in the world in Paris and Peru. Beyond the fountain you’ll find the Confederate Monument.
Before saying farewell to Savannah, we packed our things and drove to Bonaventure Cemetery. We stopped at the visitor’s center and the friendly docent gave me a map of the grounds and highlighted the “famous historic area that everyone wants to see.” I walked around for about 45 minutes, though I could have spent hours. The weathered tombstones, the crisp white statues of
women and children, the bright blue sky and the Spanish moss dangling in the wind was the stuff of daydreams and nightmares. I couldn’t get enough of it. Make sure you walk to the far end
to the Intercoastal. Johnny Mercer and Conrad Aiken are among the well-known gravesites.
‘Til next time, Savannah!
*If you’re looking for another hotel option, check out the Cotton Sail Hotel. It’s also on Bay Street, but much more modern than the Olde Harbour Inn. The rooms were a bit small, but nicely decorated and pristine. Even if you’re not staying there, check out their rooftop bar: Top Deck. Rates here are $250+.
*You’ll also probably notice the funky Thunderbird Inn driving in and around the city. USA Today included it in its top 10 best retro hotels in America. Think Rt. 66. It’s pet-friendly, and while it’s not as centrally located as the other three mentioned on Bay Street, I am definitely interested in checking this out sometime. Weekends run as low as $116/night, with some weekdays being as low as $64/night.