Photos of Savannah provoke instant recognition. Eighteenth century house framed by Southern Live Oak trees smothered in Spanish Moss? Savannah, Georgia – no question about it. In the marketing world, we’d say Savannah has excellent “brand recognition.”
I’d never been to Savannah before last week. I needed to plot a route from New Jersey to Austin, TX, and I had the opportunity to schedule in one non-driving day along the way. I decided to take it in Savannah, having heard glowing reports of this southern city’s charm and hospitality.
I had only taken a few steps out of my hotel’s front door before I felt completely engulfed by what I’ll have to call “Savannah-ness.” I walked right into one of the twenty-two squares that punctuate the city’s very orderly colonial-era grid and took a deep breath, sighed, and sat on a park bench, taken hostage by the personality of the place. Surrounding the square were a variety of stately three-story buildings with shuttered windows and wrought iron staircases. The square itself was filled with towering Southern Live Oak trees, each one having been trained over the years to reach its substantial branches over the walkways and gathering spaces to create shade. And, from every branch hung chains of Spanish Moss, that signature plant of the American Southeast.
Spanish Moss isn’t actually a moss. It’s a bromeliad – a flowering plant common to tropical climates. It’s considered an “epiphyte,” a type of rootless plant that takes in water and nutrients from the air rather than from the soil. Some types of bromeliads have become popular in home decorating stores lately, where they are often called “air plants” and are sold in cute handblown glass orbs. Spanish Moss is particularly fond of the Southern Live Oak trees that dominate not only the Savannah historic district but also the plantations and subdivisions that surround the city.
For me, trees enshrouded in Spanish Moss evoke mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the quizzical way this organism survives without access to soil and water, or the way it drapes from its host like silk from an elegant mannequin. Or maybe the mystery is rooted in its association with Southern Gothic novels, ghost stories, and movies like “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Regardless of its source, the feeling is undeniable, and it followed me throughout my Savannah wanderings.
Determined to see every one of Savannah’s 22 historical squares, I walked and biked every block of the historic district like a detective stalking a suspect, wondering what the next corner might reveal. I watched hipsters bike through the plazas on single speeds, old African-American men sing to themselves on neighboring park benches, and gaggles of well-dressed Southern ladies strolling over to a restaurant, sharing stories in their distinctive drawls. In this very diverse city, part of the mystery lay in seeing who would be around the next corner, and whether the next block would have million dollar mansions or run down, low-rent Victorians. Spanish moss lends its magic equally to both, it seems, as I found the dilapidated houses as endearing as the impeccably restored ones. The shade and mystery it provides softens the light in such a way as to take the edge off of rotting wooden siding.
And then there’s Wormsloe State Historic Park. You may not know this name, but you have seen this place before – in movies, photos, or maybe just your imagination. George Frederick Tilghman Jones, grandson of the original owner of this plantation on the Isle of Hope just outside of the city, must have known he was creating a shrine to southern mystery when he planted live oaks along a 1.5 mile stretch of road entering his formidable property holding. These trees are over 150 years old now, and dripping with Spanish Moss. Driving this corridor is like entering a cave of intrigue, surrounded by trees and bromeliads that have silently witnessed generations of family drama. It’s quiet, peaceful, and more than a little mysterious.
Even after seeing all twenty-two historic Savannah squares, I felt like I barely scratched the surface of the city. I wanted to revisited certain ones at night, to see their different nocturnal faces, and spend more time watching the way the trees filtered light differently as the sun rose. The best part about mystery novels is how they keep you reading; likewise the best part about mysterious cities is how they keep you coming back. I’ll be back to Savannah for certain – not just for catfish, collards, and pralines (which were delicious, needless to say…), but to sit and watch the paint peel through the veil of mysterious Spanish Moss.
EXPLORASPECTIVE’S SAVANNAH TRAVEL TIPS
I loved Green Truck, a gastropub south of the Historic District in a neighborhood that seems to have a great mixture of folks keeping it vibrant. Awesome salad, fries with the best homemade ketchup I’ve ever had (they said something about cinnamon and nutmeg?!), and an extensive microbrew list. Oh yeah, and a jukebox. That always goes over big with me!
I thought I wasn’t really the “southern comfort food” type, but Sweet Potatoes, a popular local eatery in a random strip mall on the edge of Savannah convinced me otherwise. I guess I love catfish – at least when it’s cooked the way they do it! Collards, sweet potatoes, and a homemade biscuit to round it out – yum!
You have to at least TRY a praline. They’re over the top, so non-hard core sugar fiends might not need a whole one Luckily all the candy stores down by the river give free samples – that might just be enough.
Wander the Historic District as much as you can. No brainer.
Wormsloe Historic Park, mentioned and shown above, is totally worth the $10 in admission and the trip out of town, if just to drive down that amazing oak-lined road.
Tybee Island is Savannah’s coastal access. No tall buildings, no resorts – just houses and funny little beach shops. Lovely sand, great views of the surrounding swampy island topography. You can bike a nice long path out there for miles.
My soundtrack for my time there was 98.3 Hank FM – the local “old school country” station. Savannah and country legends seemed right to me….