Destination: Savannah, Georgia
For a richer appreciation of the diversity of cultures that comprise the American South, I suppose you could audit a few college history classes, comb through a few dusty library tombs and maybe watch a documentary or two.
But it’s quicker, easier and a lot more fun just to visit Savannah.
Before British General James Oglethorpe and his boatload of 120 colonists aboard the HMS Anne set foot on Yamacraw Bluff in 1733, the southeast mouth of the Savannah River was home to the native Yamakraw tribe, and little else. Oglethorpe named the new British colony Georgia after King George II and christened the high river bluff its capital, Savannah.
With the cooperation of the Yamakraws, Savannah would become known as America’s first planned community, thanks to Oglethorpe’s grid of 24 shady public squares and wide streets lined with glorious Spanish-moss-laden oaks. A century later, the city’s beauty so impressed Union General William Sherman that he spared it from incineration after torching Atlanta on his “march to the sea,” instead offering it to President Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas present via telegram.
Once cotton and rice farming took root, the formerly-free colony legalized slavery, opening its port to the trans-Atlantic African slave trade. Following the Civil War, many slaves remained in the prosperous town they helped create, spreading what came to be known as the Gullah culture throughout the Southeast.
There were setbacks for sure. Reconstruction and the Depression took its toll on Savannah. But thanks to one of the earliest achievements of the women’s movement, townswomen saved the irreplaceable Historic District from the wrecking ball in the 1950s. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966.
Here are 7 Savannah sights that attendees of all ages will long remember.
Forsyth Park: Arguably one of the nation’s most gorgeous antebellum parks, this 30-acre retreat south of Gaston Street at the southern end of the Historic District features endless moss-canopied trees, the Fragrant Garden for the Blind, and the cast-iron fountain featured in the Savannah-set film, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
River Street: It’s hard to beat this nine-block brick waterfront concourse, given its combination of river vistas and ship watching, more than 75 shops, galleries and restaurants, and a vibrant nighttime pub scene.
Wormsloe Historic Site: For an up-close look at Savannah colonial life, visit the ruins and museum of the onetime colonial home of Noble Jones, who arrived aboard the Anne in 1733. Located 10 miles southeast of downtown and accessible only by car, the one-mile, oak-lined entry drive is truly photo-worthy.
Tybee Island: Before you succumb to antebellum overdose, reset your clock to island time at this cozy Atlantic beach town, just a half-hour east of the Historic District. While there, should hunger set in, make a beeline to…
Sundae Café: This family-owned former Tybee Island ice cream parlor provides a mouth-watering culinary tour of the South with such native favorites as shrimp & grits, pan-fried pecan chicken, lobster mac-n-cheese and key lime pie.
The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist: Built on Lafayette Square between 1873-76 and restored in 2000, this French Gothic landmark is a stunner, from its towering stained-glass windows to its Italian marble alter. Self-guided tours available Monday through Saturday, and yes, photos are allowed inside the cathedral.
Jepson Center for the Arts: It’s no small praise, considering the competition, to label the Jepson Center one of the loveliest buildings in Savannah. Inside, you’ll find 7,500 square feet of gallery space that celebrates such major contemporary artists as Richard Avedon, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella.
Photo credits: Shutterstock.com. Cathedral of St. John the Baptist: Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com