Even before you leave the airport in Savannah, Ga., it’s obvious you’ve landed in a more genteel place than the one you left — “that gently mannered city by the sea,” as Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone With the Wind,” once described it. A bow-tied gentleman is playing Gershwin on a baby grand in the terminal’s skylit atrium, a space lined with shops meant to evoke a small town’s main street in a bygone era: faux gas lamps and wooden park benches, and rocking chairs set in motion by travelers who seem in no rush to travel.
On my way from the airport to the Alida, a recently opened hotel, my driver, Anthony, dished the local dirt. Savannah’s historic district, he informed me, is “walk and carry,” there are lots of bachelorette parties, and it gets crazy on weekends, although not as wild as New Orleans. He recommended I try a Wet Willie, a large slushy boozy drink made from vodka, amaretto and triple sec, for maximum bang for the buck, or a Call-Me-A-Cab — I had to look up that too: it’s vodka, peach schnapps, coconut rum, melon liqueur, Southern Comfort and creme de banana. It sounded more like call-me-an-ambulance. “Thirteen, fifteen bucks,” he advised, “one drink and done. Walk around with it all night and that will get you right. It’s nothing to play with though.”
Apparently they like to have a good time here. Savannah, where “What would you like to drink?” substitutes for “Hello how are you?” is a “bucket list” kind of place, one of those must-see destinations to check off, if you have the time and money. It has earned a page in “1000 Places to Visit Before You Die” where it’s described as “America’s best walking city,” with the country’s largest historic district at over 2 square miles, with more than 1,000 antebellum homes and commercial buildings, and with 21 leafy squares, each one an acre in size. It was America’s first planned city, laid out in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, an officer in the English army. And for millions of readers, Savannah is the setting for John Berendt’s gazillion-copy best-seller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” or “The Book” as it’s dismissed locally, with a touch of ennui, a fictionalized true story full of oddball characters — fitting since Oglethorpe envisioned the new colony as a place for societal misfits — and a sensational murder.
Some people come here just to see the places mentioned in the book, especially the Mercer House, where Jim Williams shot Danny Hansford, and to admire the architecture and beauty spots, or to let their hair down, as Anthony implied, or to attend SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design, more about which in a bit. I don’t have enough hair to let down so I came for the historic homes — block after block of well-preserved Greek Revival, Federal, Regency and Georgian manses.
Bucket list travelers often visit Savannah in combination with Charleston, S.C., which is 100 miles distant, and I encourage you to do the same, but “the hostess city of the South” hates being compared with its northern neighbor. Locals sniff that it’s overrun by tourists. When the founder of the Spoleto USA festival courted Savannah as a home, the city rejected his overtures, so he went to Charleston instead. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, bless your heart.
They like things just the way they are here. So it was no surprise that locals were suspicious when, 40 years ago, SCAD’s founders began buying up derelict and deserted buildings in the historic district to house their new institution. “SCAD transformed Savannah overnight, just like that,” Anthony said with a snap of his long fingers (years ago he won an athletic scholarship to SCAD, which fielded a basketball team until they realized that artists can’t shoot). The institution’s backstory is amply chronicled by “This is SCAD,” a multimedia extravaganza, free to the public and evocative of the anteroom to a Disneyland ride. Many SCAD grads go on to work for the Mouse.
Savannah didn’t immediately cotton to SCAD, now one of the city’s largest employers. Students looked out of place roaming the streets clad in black avant-garde fashions, coiffed in asymmetrical hairstyles, their lips painted in gloomy, Goth blood-red shades. These were art students, after all. “Now they fit in just fine,” Anthony said, and most citizens knew a good thing when they saw it: private homes were being rescued, but who would save commercial buildings, disused warehouses, schools, and the old railroad depot, now a SCAD museum? The building that is now the new 152-room Alida, where I stayed, evolved from a former warehouse and is named after Alida Harper Fowlkes, a Savannah socialite and preservationist credited with saving many landmark buildings in town, including the Harper Fowlkes House, which gives tours five days a week.
SCAD’s scholars were eventually accepted, but acceptance comes slowly here even for longtime residents. According to Brenda, the driver of my Savannah historic district tour “trolley,” you can’t say you’re from Savannah unless you’re at least third generation. Was this true or just some trolley tour twaddle? Apparently true. I stopped at one of the many house museums in this city whose historic district is a museum of houses, and asked a docent if she was from Savannah. “We’ve lived here 50 years,” she told me with obvious chagrin, “but you’re not from here unless you’re at least third generation. You can only reach so high socially” (and here she raised an arm just above her head) “and no further.” So no invites to join the Oglethorpe Club (the height of social acceptance in Savannah), I asked? “Exactly,” she said. As a club member explains in “The Book,” exclusion from the Oglethorpe Club means “You shall come this far and no further, you are not really one of us.”
I was ready to ramble so I took an aimless walk. The thing to do here is walk around, with or without a guide. This past May on my explorations, I often saw no one sitting on a stoop or playing in a yard or even an open window. I found it odd: although Savannah is a tourist magnet I seldom encountered tourists. True, it was midweek, and in May, so maybe it wasn’t peak season or maybe I had just missed the crowds. I sat in one of the 21 leafy squares on a wooden bench underneath the magnolia trees, with the sun filtering through the leaves, some of which floated down, striking the square’s brick pavements with a light tap. It was the only sound and I was the only one occupying the benches; the square was empty other than an occasional pedestrian taking a shortcut.
The historic district sometimes presents as a movie set, ready to stand in for any serene Southern location. So it’s no surprise that so many movies have been filmed here. Savannah was the setting for “The Garden of Good and Evil,” book and movie, and much else besides: “Magic Mike XXL,” “The Conspirator,” “The Last Song,” “The General’s Daughter,” “Birth of a Nation,” “Now and Then,” “The Longest Yard,” and most recently 2019’s “The Poison Rose” with John Travolta and Morgan Freeman, to name only some, plus television shows and commercials, giving work to hundreds of local extras. Brenda pointed out the very bench that once supported Tom Hanks’ posterior in “Forest Gump.”
Another thing Brenda told her charges: in the old days a Savannah hostess would display a pineapple on the mantle or the dining table. When she removed it, that meant it was time for guests to scram. Pineapples were rare and expensive, and only the fastest schooners could deliver them before they rotted between harvest and table. Civic-minded Brenda did not mention that a few days before my visit a sharp-eyed customs officer at the Port of Savannah had spotted, in a shipment of pineapples, $19 million worth of cocaine. I read that tidbit in the Savannah Morning News, the local paper.
Like all good guests, pineapples or no pineapples, my time to depart had arrived. Anthony picked me up at the Alida. “Good visit?” he asked. “Too short,” I said.
The same man was playing the airport’s baby grand, but he had switched from Gershwin to Chopin. As I waited for my flight, a colorful parade of women, all of a certain age, all bedecked in coordinated outfits of floral feathered hats, dressed in coordinated magenta and shocking pink, rolled their bags through the atrium toward the exit, on their way to a bachelorette bash I imagined, fueled by Call-Me-A-Cabs or Wet Willies. Their laughter and chatter filled the terminal. It was a Friday afternoon, and they were in Savannah, and you could see that the party had already begun.
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