Boating in Savannah, Georgia
Old world charm and history on the Georgia Coast
In 1864 Major General William Tecumseh Sherman gave President Abraham Lincoln a unique Christmas gift-the city of Savannah. After burning everything between Atlanta and the coast during his famous Civil War "March to the Sea," Sherman and the Union Army spared Savannah. Some historians suggest it was because the city was so pretty; others say he left it intact because its people were so gracious; while others point out that since Union forces had already won control of the port and Confederate troops had withdrawn from the city before Sherman and his troops arrived, the General could claim Savannah for the Union and present it as a prize to his Commander in Chief.
Whatever the reason, the result is that Savannah has retained its old-world charm with buildings that date back to the colonial period, handsome antebellum homes and a street plan designed by its founder. James Edward Oglethorpe, a British military man and philanthropist armed with a charter from King George II, arrived on the Savannah River aboard the ship Anne in February 1733, with the idea of establishing a colony that would provide debtors freedom and a new start. He named the colony Georgia-the last of the original 13-in honor of the king. He quickly made friends with the native Yamacraw Indians and their chief, Tomochichi, and went to work creating Georgia's first city, on a bluff overlooking the river.
Oglethorpe designed Savannah in a grid style, with homes, businesses and churches built around 24 squares, 21 of which survive today as charming vest-pocket parks filled with moss-draped oaks, refreshing fountains, and inviting benches. And if you think you recognize one of those squares from the movie "Forrest Gump," you're right. The bus stop scenes were filmed on the north end of Chippewa Square at McDonough and Bull Streets.
Savannah's National Historic Landmark District, which stretches from the river south to Forsyth Park, is said to be the largest in the nation with 1,200 historic buildings in a 21/2-square-mile area. Its existence is the product of benign neglect during the economically challenged years following the Civil War, coupled with an impassioned preservation effort begun in the 1950s that restored many buildings to their original grandeur. Thus, locals like to say, Savannah's image changed from "the pretty lady with the dirty face" to "the architectural gem of the Georgia coast."
Savannah is a city of stories, and perhaps no one has told them better than author John Berendt in his 1994 bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a mostly true portrait of Savannah society that involves ghosts, voodoo, drag queens and a flamboyant antiques dealer who is both a respected preservationist and an alleged murderer. The book and Clint Eastwood's 1997 movie of the same name put Savannah on the map as a top tourist destination.
Things to See and Do
The Westin Savannah Harbor Golf Resort & Spa and the Hyatt Regency Savannah are the two dominant waterfront resorts and offer luxurious in-town marinas attached to hotels. There is also public dockage along the riverfront.
Some 50 tour companies vie for attention in Savannah, offering everything from bus and trolley excursions to riverboat rides, horse-drawn carriage trips and specialized walking
tours that will take you to graveyards, ghost haunts and Civil War sites. The Savannah Visitors Center on Martin Luther King Blvd. (912-944-0455) shares space with the
Savannah History Museum (912-238-1779) in a restored 1860 railroad shed at the edge of the historic district. There you can visit exhibits highlighting Savannah's past in the museum and browse through the scores of brochures hawking tours and attractions in the visitor center. Then, if you'd like a 90-minute introduction to the city, you can hop aboard any one of the tours departing from there.
If you'd prefer to explore on your own, Savannah is a great city to see on foot (be sure to pick up a free map at the visitors center) or you can catch a free CAT (Chatham Area Transit) shuttle, (912-233-5767, www.catchacat.org) for transport throughout the historic district. Look for the red cat signs that mark each of the stops. Bicycle Link (912-233-9401) has rentals for the day or week.
Savannah has scores of historic attractions, some of which we'll describe below, but before you head to a museum or a restored home, wonderful as they are, treat yourself to a walk and soak up the atmosphere in either or both of the city's liveliest neighborhoods-the waterfront and the City Market area.
River Street, which is paved with centuries-old cobblestones once used as ballast in ships that sailed to Savannah, still has a seafaring ambiance. The sailing ships are gone, but Savannah is the fifth-busiest container port in the nation, and tugboats, freighters, containerships, ferries, tour boats and pleasure craft constantly parade up and down the river. The street is lined with shops, restaurants, bars and nightspots of all kinds housed in rustic-looking former cotton warehouses. You can buy everything from postcards to original art and dine on anything from fried fish to the finest steaks and seafood. And don't miss the pralines. Several sweets shops offer free samples of fresh pralines and honey-dipped pecans that are, well, irresistible.
If you continue east along River Street you'll come to the statue of the Waving Girl, depicting Florence Martus, who lived with her brother at the nearby Cockspur Island Lighthouse. In 1887, the story goes, Martus fell in love with a sailor who asked her to marry him when he returned from his next trip. As he set sail, she waved good-bye with a white handkerchief. Her sailor was lost at sea, and for the next 45 years Martus waved her handkerchief at every ship that passed the lighthouse.
Two blocks up from the waterfront, City Market (www.savannahcitymarket.com), billed as the "Art and Soul" of Savannah, is abuzz with life, just as it has been since 1755 when farmers and fishermen began selling their products in an open market there. The merchandise has changed through the years, but nineteenth-century structures, horse-drawn carriages, a pedestrian promenade and sidewalk merchants keep its heritage
alive, while boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and clubs make it one of the city's "in" places. There's live music in the courtyard on most nights and a party-like ambiance thanks to an open-container law that allows walk-around drinks.
The Savannah College of Art and Design (912-525-5100, www.scad.edu), has added its own color and culture to the city and has helped Savannah become an exciting center for the arts, with 40 galleries and a venerable historic museum that opened a major new addition in 2005. The Telfair Museum of Art (912-232-1177, www.telfair.org), which opened in 1886 and is the oldest art museum in the South, houses a superb collection of American and European paintings and sculptures in an early nineteenth-century mansion. Its newest
addition, the Jepson Center for the Arts, which debuted in 2005, is a stunning contemporary building with galleries filled with Southern and African-American art, photographs and sculpture, plus hands-on, kid-friendly exhibits.
You may want to check out at least a few of Savannah's "don't miss" historic homes, starting, of course, with "the" house. That would be the Mercer-Williams House (912-236-6352, www.mercerhouse.com) off Monterey Square, which played a major role in "the" book-Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Built in the 1860s for singer-songwriter Johnny Mercer's great-grandfather, it was wonderfully restored by the book's central character, Jim Williams, who lived and died there. Williams's sister occupies the second floor, but the ground floor and garden are open for tours, and the nearby Carriage House Shop sells all sorts of book memorabilia.
Dozens of other restored homes, some of which are open for tours, dot the streets of Savannah. The Davenport House (912-236-8097, www.davenportsavga.com), a brick federal-style mansion on Columbia Square, was close to destruction in 1954 when a group of dedicated women saved it. This marked the beginnings of the Historic Savannah Foundation, which launched the preservation effort. Another house-tour favorite is Girl Scout founder's Juliette Gordon Low's birthplace (912-233-4501, www.girlscouts.org/birthplace) on Oglethorpe Avenue. Now owned by the Girl Scouts, the house has been furnished to depict the 1870s, when Low was a girl. The Andrew Low House (912-233-6854, www.andrewlowhouse.com) where Low lived with her husband, is also open to visitors.
The Ships of the Sea Museum (912-232-1511, www.shipsofthesea.org) in the restored William Scarbrough House, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., has exhibits that include an exquisite replica of the sinking of the Titanic as well as an extensive collection of scrimshaw.
Be warned: Folks in Savannah take their ghosts seriously, and many people we talked to described personal encounters with the supernatural. Consider for example the city tourism official, a heretofore skeptic, who took some Japanese visitors out to dinner. One woman, who spoke no English, started shaking and pointing at a window, then she bolted from the restaurant, telling her host through a translator that she'd been frightened by a wailing woman in a ball gown begging for help. Later, the Savannah host discovered that several women in ball gowns had died in that same space during a nineteenth-century
fire. "It was very spooky," the official told us. "Before that I thought ghosts were just a fantasy, but now..."
If you'd like to see for yourself, several companies offer ghost tours, including Savannah Haunted History (912-604-3007), the Ghost Talk and Ghost Walk (912-233-3896), Savannah Walks Ghost Tour (912-238-9255) and Old Savannah Tours (912-234-8128), which will take you into a supposedly haunted tunnel that links the eighteenth century Pirates' House (now a restaurant) with the riverfront. Many an unscrupulous captain, it is said, "recruited" crew by plying men with drink at the inn and then dragging their passed-out bodies through the tunnel to ships which would set sail before the unsuspecting landlubbers awakened.
Restaurants and Provisions
Savannah has hundreds of good restaurants offering fine Lowcountry food, elegant gourmet dinners, no-frills pub fare and more. We'll highlight just a few of them here. Another good source of up-to-date information is the website www.savannahmenu.net.
For local color you can't beat the Pirates' House, (912-233-5757, wwwthepirateshouse.com), on East Broad Street just a block from the waterfront. Opened in 1753 as a seafarers' inn, the restaurant makes the most if its heritage with many small dining rooms, each with a story (and possibly a ghost). One oft-told tale is that Robert Louis Stevenson, who visited Savannah many times, based the character of Captain Flint, the pirate who buried the treasure in Treasure Island, on a seafarer who died in an upstairs room at the inn. There are some who say that Flint still haunts the Pirates' House. The food, a combination of Lowcountry and American fare, is said to be good as well.
River Street has many dining choices. Among them are River House Seafood (912-234-1900, www.riverhouseseafood.com), a delightful eatery set in an 1850s warehouse. The Shrimp Factory (912- 236-4229, www.shrimpfactory.com) serves its namesake shellfish by the dozens as well as seafood strudel, pine bark stew (a Southern bouillabaisse) and pork filet. At Dockside Seafood Restaurant & Steakhouse
(912-236-9253, www.docksideseafood.com) the menu includes salad, pasta, steak and, of course, seafood. Tubby's Conch House (912-232-5551) prides itself on serving only the freshest fish in a restored warehouse decorated with a Caribbean flair. Another alternative is to dine on the water aboard one of Savannah's Riverboat Cruises (912-232-6404, www.savannahriverboat.com). The menu features a carving table with prime ribs as well as chicken and crab cakes. And there's also live entertainment and dancing. On Monday nights, the menu is Southern fare and the entertainment is Gospel.
The City Market offers a smorgasbord of restaurants. One of our favorites is Belford's (912-233-2626, www.belfordssavannah.com), a fine restaurant with an eclectic menu and an excellent wine list, housed in an old brick building that still bears the faded paint of the Belford Wholesale Food Company. Pictures hanging on interior brick walls show the area as it used to be. Other fine spots for lunch or dinner are the Cafe at City Market (912-236-7133), an American bistro; Tapas (912-790-7175), an indoor/outdoor cafe; Vinnie Van Go Go's (912-233-6394) for pizza; and the Wild Wing Café (912-790-9464, www.wildwingcafe.com) for hot wings, cold beer and live entertainment nightly. You'll also find several places for ice cream, candies, and other sweet-tooth satisfaction.
The Historic District has many quality restaurants separated
only by a short walk. Churchill's Pub on West Bay Street (912-232-8501) caters to pub-seekers with traditional British fare and a full bar. Il Pasticcio on Broughton Street (912-231-8888) tantalizes taste buds with authentic Italian cuisine served in an art deco setting. Sapphire Grill (912-443-9962, www.sapphiregrill.com) on Congress Street is one of Savannah's trendiest restaurants with new Southern cuisine served in a dining room with steel gray and blue sapphire walls. The atmosphere couldn't be more different at the Old Pink House (912-232-4286) on Abercorn Street, a genteel restaurant serving fine regional dishes in a 1771 Georgian mansion furnished with eighteenth-century antiques.
Elizabeth on 37th (912-236-5547, www.elizabethon37th.net) tops most of Savannah's "best restaurant" lists. Set in a twentieth-century mansion in the city's Victorian district (a cab ride from downtown), it is known for its gourmet take on Lowcountry cuisine, with a particular emphasis on seafood. A highlight, for example, is shrimp and grits with red-eye gravy. Prices are among the top, too, but you won't be surprised if you check the menu on the website before you go. Reservations are a must.
For inflatable repair call Air Sea Safety & Survival (912-238-3068), experts in safety gear.
Kit Region 6, page 33, 58, and 59; Maptech Waterproof Chart 94; or Maptech electronic and NOAA paper charts, 11512 (1:40,000) and 11514 (1:20,000).
Navigation and Anchorages
Savannah is located along the Savannah River's southern bank 15 miles from the Atlantic and seven miles from where the river crosses the ICW.
Savannah River to Savannah
At Fl R 4s 12ft 3M "50" (SM 575.6), leave Fields Cut and enter the Savannah River. The ICW crosses the river to the west-southwest and picks up St. Augustine Creek and then the Wilmington River. Visitors to Savannah can also follow the deep, well marked river channel about seven miles upriver to the city's waterfront at Wrecks and City Front Channel. Boaters should expect to encounter some strong current and commercial
traffic along the way. There is space available at the city waterfront at the hotels and the new municipal bulkhead, but docking is made difficult by tidal ranges and swift currents.
At The Westin Savannah Harbor Resort (912-201-2000) you'll have a gorgeous skyline view of the city and easy access to see its sights. Along the waterfront, the Hyatt Regency Docks (912-721-4654) is at the heart of all the Savannah has to offer.
Many cruisers choose to dock at one of the several excellent marinas to the southeast at Thunderbolt, the Isle of Hope or Skidaway Island, and travel to Savannah via bus, taxi or rental car. And Tybee Island, "Savannah's Beach," can be reached via rivers and creeks to the south. See the following chapter Thunderbolt and Wilmington River for more navigation information on approaching the region.
Shoreside and Emergency Services
- Savannah Hilton Head Intl. Airport 912-964-6689
- CAT (Chatham Area Transit) shuttle 912-233-5767
- Savannah 912-652-4646
Police, Fire, Ambulance:
- Amtrak 912-234-2611
- Savannah Yellow Cab ##5 912-220-1908
- Sea Tow 800-4SEATOW or VHF 16
- TowBoatU.S 800-391-4869 or VHF 16