My recent visit to the United States took me to two historic cities in the South, namely Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Both cities are defined by their rich histories, quaint cobblestone streets, elegant antebellum architecture and incomparable southern hospitality.
It’s not difficult to see why Charleston is also known as the ‘Holy City’. It’s punctuated with striking churches whose steeples extend into the sky like exclamation points. Some of the more renowned places of worship include the French Protestant (Huguenot) Church, established in 1687 by French Huguenots who fled France in search of religious freedom, St Michael’s Church, the oldest church in Charleston and St Philip’s Church, which is known as the lighthouse because of its impressive steeple that can be seen for miles. Besides churches, Charleston boasts several historical buildings that date back to the city’s seventeenth-century origins. The Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon offer visitors a glimpse into the significant events of Charles Town (the city’s original name). It was in this building that the Constitution of the United States was ratified and where George Washington spent time during his tour of the South. Guides dressed in Colonial attire take visitors on a journey through time and share interesting stories about some of the dungeon’s most famous prisoners, including the infamous pirate, Black Beard.
Charleston is a city that is best explored at a leisurely meander through its enchanting streets, including the Antiques and Fashion Districts of King Street, while South Market and North Market Streets are where City Market is located across several blocks. Here visitors can purchase an array of local arts and crafts and sweet treats as well as the traditional sweetgrass baskets for which the city is famous. Waterfront Park is a short walk from any of the main streets. This is a beautiful green zone that extends along the majestic Cooper River and leads to Rainbow Row, the longest row of Georgian houses in the United States.
Several plantations are located beyond the city limits and are easily accessible by car or by one of the many available tours. We chose to visit Boone Hall Plantation, one of the most visited and photographed plantations in the Charleston area. An avenue of oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss, have grown together to form a kind of canopy that escorts visitors to the main home.
Besides a tour of the first floor of the mansion, visitors can view the slave cabins, each of which offer insight into the history and liberation of slaves in the South, and learn more about the Gullah culture through an interactive and engaging theatre presentation. The plantation has also formed the backdrop for several television shows and movies, including North and South, The Notebook, Queen and Army Wives.
From Charleston, it’s a short train ride to Savannah, appropriately known as the ‘Hostess City’ – she certainly makes visitors feel welcome and guarantees that they will leave with fond memories of their stay.
While Charleston is defined by its understated charm, Savannah has a palpable energy and an electric nightlife that spills out onto its historic streets (an aside: apparently Savannah is home to one of the biggest St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the US, outside of Boston). The revived River Street, a former warehouse district on the banks of the Savannah River, is an eclectic collection of dive bars, Irish pubs, contemporary restaurants, shops and art galleries. The extensive urban renewal project was undertaken in the 1970s, and today this part of Savannah is one of its most popular attractions. River Street is accessible via historic – and very steep – stairs that connect the upper parts of the city to the riverfront below.
The River Street area is also where Waving Girl is located, a famous statue that pays tribute to Florence Martus who waved a cloth to welcome ships that entered Savannah’s port.
Another statue that became famous after it appeared on the cover of John Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is Bird Girl. The statue is now on display at the Jepson Center for the Arts, a cultural centre that opened in 2006 and one of three sites that form part of the Telfair Museums Group. The second, the Telfair Academy, is a historic art museum that was originally home to one of the most prominent families in Georgia, while the third is the Owens-Thomas House, where visitors can take guided tours of this impressive estate boasting a two-storey slave quarters and manicured gardens.
Savannah has an array of fine restaurants and cafés for those wishing to enjoy some authentic southern cuisine. One such place is The Olde Pink House and Tavern, located in an 18th-century mansion. The restaurant is tremendously popular, requiring reservations well in advance. However, if there are no tables available upstairs, the Tavern in the cellar offers the same menu and live entertainment. My meal here warrants a mention: pecan-encrusted chicken breast with a blackberry bourbon glaze, sweet potato with pecan vanilla butter and a side of cheddar grits.
For those with a sweet tooth there are two places that are guaranteed to provide sugary satisfaction. Savannah’s Candy Kitchen, the largest candy store in Savannah, is located in the City Market area. Here pecan pralines are lovingly formed in front of your eyes, while tasty treats, including pecan divinity, enormous caramel apples and salt water taffy, will tempt your taste buds. Also located in the City Market is Byrd Cookie Company, which has been producing its legendary cookies since 1924. Some of its famous flavours include Benne Wafer, Scotch Oatmeal, Georgia Peach, Chocolate Mint and Ginger Snap. The staff at the store are extremely friendly and samples of each flavour are available to sample. Be warned, however, deciding which bag(s) to buy will be tough.
The streets of downtown Savannah meet at various squares and parks. These mini oases are shaded by tall trees, draped with the signature Spanish moss of the South, and framed by breathtakingly beautiful azaleas. Forsyth Park is the largest green space in the city and the location of the iconic Forsyth Fountain, which has become synonymous with images of the city. It’s the ideal space for pedestrians, cyclists and joggers to enjoy the mild to warm weather that Savannah enjoys throughout most of the year.