Not For Tourists: Beat the Heat Road Trip -- Atlanta to Savannah
I took a fantastic weekend trip to Savannah in June and wrote it up for Not For Tourists. I feel like fanning myself already. Where's my fainting couch?
Or just read more after the jump.
Beat-the-Heat Road Trip: Atlanta to Savannah
By Melissa Diskin
At a certain point, Atlanta’s summer identity loses its charm. For some, the glitter fades in the glare of too many windshields crawling far too slowly along far too many crowded freeways. For others, the unrelenting heat of June, July and August can’t be kept at bay, even by a constant stream of the town drink, Coca-cola. Summer is the sly destroyer – unraveling hairdos, wrinkling linen, and alternately wilting animal and vegetable alike. Revival comes in the form of a road trip that follows the watersheds as they meander south, and east, until they slide gently into the swamps and the sea at the state’s edge. A trip to Savannah.
Possessed of the good fortune to attend a weekend wedding in Georgia’s first city, we made haste getting there. City-dwellers, we took a what-good-from-Nazareth position about the rest of the state once we got outside the Atlanta city limits, stopping for no roadside attraction or beckoning neon sign – not even the hand-painted ones that said “Boild P-nuts.” So: 4 hours driving time, first heading south on I-75 to Macon, looping around the home of the Macon Whoopees and the Nu-Way hotdog, and finally catching 165 into Savannah proper. If you follow our lead, you’ll take MLK Drive along the west side of town and pull into the Doubletree Hotel on Bay Street, at the northwest edge of the historic district, to rest from your driving labors. Once unpacked and refreshed by a blast of hotel air-conditioning, you’ll stand at the hotel counter fretting at the super-abundance of maps and brochures to city attractions. If you’re smart, you’ll grab a map and start walking -- Savannah is still at the mercy of a bellicose southern sun, but it’s also a city punctuated by shady squares and oak trees that invite pedestrian scrutiny. The secret to staying cool as you traverse the streets between the squares is to find the nearest café, such as the Express Café and Bakery at 39 Barnard St. Fortified by their Summer Sandwich -- Vermont cheddar, Vidalia onion, tomato and basil on baguette -- with a large cup of pellet ice, lemon slices, and sweet tea for sipping as you stroll, you set out.
Savannah’s squares are legendary, part of the largest National Historic Landmark District in America. The city was laid out by General James Edward Oglethorpe in 1733, divided into 28 park-like squares (each about an acre) fronted by residences, churches, and businesses. Directionally-challenged visitors can thank Oglethorpe’s ghost, since nearly all streets run east-west and north-south. Franklin Square, at the northwest corner of the historic district, is one of the 21 remaining squares that step sedately through the city. Bounded on one side by the City Market, a strip of candy shops, cafés and trinket marts reborn from past lives as feed-and-seed warehouses, Franklin Square has a less manicured air than some of the tonier residential squares to the south, but the relaxed atmosphere invites people-watchers who are worth watching themselves. A few horse-drawn and trolley tours pass by the drifters and tourists mingling in the shade near the cash-only Vinnie Van-Go-Go’s, Savannah’s signature New York-style pizza joint, favored by students as well as well-heeled locals. Franklin Square is also home to the First African Baptist Church, a large edifice of brown and cream stucco, the home of the first African-American Baptist church in North America. Built by torchlight, by slaves who were members of the congregation, the present edifice dates from 1859 and was a key stop on the Underground Railroad. The church offers guided tours (10:00 A.M. - 4:00 P.M., Monday through Friday) that reveal artifacts and architecture significant to escaping slaves, including tribal marks carved into the pews and disguised air-holes carved into the floor to provide air to slaves hiding beneath the sanctuary.
A less somber reminder of Savannah’s history can be found on River Street, a couple of blocks north. Originally a row of warehouses, merchant offices, and custom houses associated with the bustling international cotton trade, the below-street level area now houses a multitude of seafood restaurants, ice cream parlors, and souvenir shops. The row is bounded by the Savannah River, and the broad river walk provides entry to riverboat tours as well as a view of modern shipping traffic. Look past any tacky signage to focus on the warehouse architecture, but watch your step – the cobbled ground and the ramps leading up to Bay street are made of rough ballast stones, left behind in the last century or two by ships who would replace the stones with cotton bales on their way back to England. The steep stone stairways leading back up to the street are easy replacements for the hotel gym’s Stairmaster.
For breakfast or lunch, avoid the hotel coffeepot and follow the crowds to Belford’s Savannah, located in City Market at the corner of Congress and Montgomery streets, next to Franklin Square. Belford’s champagne brunch offers the usual eggs and omelets but adds up-market coastal touches, such as jumbo lump crab cakes and a shrimp and grits plate blessed with collard greens. Those with a more casual repast in mind should walk or drive several blocks southeast on Abercorn Street to Clary’s, a former drugstore-turned diner populated with world-weary (but friendly) waitresses. On Sundays the line runs out the door for hours as churchgoers find balm for the soul in plates of grits, eggs, bacon and biscuits. Traditional platters, such as the “Oglethorpe,” are made for sharing; the “Hoppel Poppel” (scrambled eggs, kosher salami, potatoes, onion, and green peppers, with the ever-present grits and bread) nods to Savannah’s centuries-old Jewish population as it pays homage to all carbohydrate-friendly southern diners.
Earnest types – or just java junkies -- can head to The Sentient Bean on Park Avenue for a dose of eco-friendly community spirit along with their fair-trade coffee. Come for the activist social commentary, acoustic singer-songwriter sets, or local poetry slams, but stay to sample the stellar baked goods. Grab a mango scone, a slice of blueberry lemon poppy seed bread, or a piece of espresso coffeecake, and either park on a comfy sofa for an event or step across the street into 30-acre Lafayette Park to stroll down an allee’ of century-old live oaks for a look at the park’s famous white cast-iron fountain, tiered and frothy as a wedding cake.
Walking off meals is a serious pastime followed by locals and visitors alike, and a dose of retail therapy can help erase any lingering guilt over your caloric intake. Just above River Street’s taffy shops and Savannah t-shirt shops, Bay Street offers a view of the front of the factors’ warehouses, including several antiques showrooms, such as Jere’s Antiques, with 33,000 square feet of antique European imports. Savannah’s main shopping thoroughfare, Broughton Street, is home to a multitude of boutiques. Paris Market & Brocante channels an airy, gothic spirit with a kooky flea-market vibe – offbeat chandeliers swing over French bistro furniture, loopy jewelry sets, dainty china, and tiny vintage ledgers, while passersby order cold drinks and sweets at the corner soda counter. At James Gunn, luxury prepster clothing mingles with hippie-girl jewelry and loopy, retro-print home goods. Further north, Skylark gives life to the saying “business in the front, party in the back” – Scandinavian silver pieces near the store’s entrance discreetly point to racks of sexy lingerie and loungewear at the rear. A few blocks toward the center of the historic district, on the corner of Bull Street and Charlton, ShopSCAD offers artists and students from Savannah College of Art and Design a place to sell their wares, including handmade jewelry, paintings, housewares, and even unique screenprinted onesies for kids. Often art mingles with the artsy, as in Pamela Wiley’s playful buckwheat-hull-stuffed pillows of vintage wool, embroidered with sweet-creepy animals.
Visitors who would rather read than shop can walk further up Bull Street to E.Shaver, Bookseller, where twelve low-ceilinged rooms create a bright warren of books. Proprietor Esther Shaver focuses on architecture, the decorative arts, regional and Savannah history, children’s books, and maps from the last few centuries. The Book Lady, on Liberty Street, is a below street-level bookseller specializing in Southern books – a paradigm of a bookstore, with low ceilings, bright but unobtrusive lighting, well-tended bookshelves snugged up against rough brick walls, and plenty of nooks for reading.
When hunger pangs strike, if you want to escape the heat but avoid the tourist crowds on River Street, make your way back up to Bay Street to Moon River Brewing Company to try the beer sampler (five small glasses of the house brews). A seat at the bar offers a clear view of the inner workings of the brewery, and the sampler includes Wild Wacky Wit, a white beer spiced with Curacao, bitter orange peel and coriander, as well as Savannah Fest Bier, coppery and sweet. Moon River’s menu is a step above the usual pub sandwich list, with seafood vying for top place among burgers, quesadillas and grilled chops; most plates are big enough for two. Paula Deen’s Congress Street juggernaut The Lady & Sons offers lunch and dinner to the crowds clamoring for early tickets to the dining room seatings, but we felt ourselves lucky to find the New South Café, open for lunch and a very early dinner on weekdays (it closes at 6pm). The reinterpreted southern faves are all here, but it’s the corn pudding that hits the spot -- silky and light as a flan, with a hint of natural corny sweetness, it’s the perfect counterpoint to the pecan-crusted fried chicken and sweet-potato chips made famous by chef Matt Cohen. The café lies on Skidaway Road, outside the historic district, but if you drive southeast and follow Victory Drive to Skidaway, you can goggle at the miles-long line of palm trees planted in the median as a memorial to the servicemen killed in World War One.
Savannah’s old reputation as a lady gone to seed (or as a poor-man’s Charleston) has evaporated in recent years. The city’s Miss-Havisham-esque gentility has been refurbished and kindly set to rights, helped by a steady stream of moviemakers, local boosterism in the wake of the 1996 Olympic games, and the long tail of tourists following the publication of John Berendt’s gossipy novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The Spanish moss still sways, but the historic preservation committees are balanced by the youthful design energies and modernist sensibilities of SCAD students and faculty. A weekend trip might find you drinking shade-grown coffee in the shade of oaks hundreds of years old. Just don’t forget to pick up a creepy animal pillow from shopSCAD to haunt your dreams.
315 W. St. Julian Street, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Breakfast Mon - Sat 8:00 a.m. - 11:00 a.m.
Luncheon Daily 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Dinner Daily 5:30 p.m. - 10:00 p.m.
Sunday Brunch 11:30 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
The Book Lady
6 East Liberty St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Clary’s 404 Abercorn St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Fri, 7:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.; Sat-Sun 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.
Doubletree Hotel Historic Savannah
411 West Bay St, Savannah, GA 31401
E. Shaver, bookseller
326 Bull St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Sat, 9:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Express Café and Bakery
39 Barnard St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Fri, 7:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.
Sat and Sun, 8:00 a.m. - 3 p.m.
112 Broughton St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m
Sun 12 noon – 5:00 p.m.
9 N Jefferson St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Sat, 9:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Lady and Sons
102 W Congress St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Sat: Lunch: 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; Dinner: Begins at 5:00 p.m.
Sunday: Lunch Buffet only 11:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Moon River Brewing Company
21 W. Bay St Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Thu: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Fri-Sat: 11:00 a.m. - midnight
Sunday: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
New South Cafe
2601 Skidaway Rd
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:00 – 6:00pm
Paris Market and Brocante
36 W. Broughton St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Fri-Sat 10:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.
Sun 11:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
13 E. Park Ave, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Daily, 7:30 a.m. -10:00 p.m.
340 Bull St, Savannah, GA 31401
Mon-Wed, 9:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Thurs-Fri 9:00 – 8:00 p.m.
Sat 10:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Sun 12:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Skylark fine euro designs
319 W. Broughton St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon-Sat, 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.
Sunday noon-5:00 p.m.
Vinnie Van Go-Go’s Pizzeria
317 W Bryan St, Savannah, GA 31401
Hours: Mon- Thurs, 4:00 p.m. - 11:30p.m.
Friday, 4:00 p.m.- 1:00 a.m.
Saturday, 12:00 p.m. - 1:00 a.m.
Sunday, 12:00 p.m. - 11:30 p.m.