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Savannah, a City With Charms Both Historical and Culinary

By Lucas Peterson

My guide, Karen Wortham, led me on a path from Johnson Square, one of the many quadrangular parks that give Savannah, Ga., its distinct character, down to River Street, which runs along the Savannah River. We stopped in front of a relatively modest statue that depicted a black family with an inscription from Maya Angelou below. The statue, Ms. Wortham explained, was a compromise after a year long battle with the city. Originally, she said, the monument was to depict a more real, raw picture of slavery in Georgia. The city balked, and the monument’s designer settled on a family of four in church clothes, with chains lying at the family’s feet. The quotation, too, was called into question for its graphic language, but it was, Ms. Wortham said, simply the reality of what happened.

PHOTO: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Savannah is a gorgeous place — Spanish moss drips gloomily from gnarled oak trees and old colonial-style houses line its dignified streets — but it is also a city of great complexity. Old Southern money coexists with a majority African-American population, who in turn share Savannah with a steady flow of tourists — some headed to nearby Tybee Island and others hoping to enjoy the city’s relaxed open container laws. Mix in a slew of young business owners and students from the Savannah College of Art and Design and you’ve got a fascinating demographic in a city with no shortage of history, sultry beauty and architectural delights. It’s a place well worth getting to know, and, as I found over a recent weekend visit, it needn’t cost an arm and a leg.

It is also, apparently, one of the most haunted cities in America. That, according to my friendly Uber driver, Charlene, originally from Tennessee but a 40-year resident of the city. “In my own house I’ve experienced some stuff,” she said. “I was talking to my girlfriend on Skype and she said, ‘Do you have a cat?’ I looked and there was like a cloud, dancing beside me. It freaked her out and me, too.”

She dropped me off at the beautifully restored Galloway House Inn, a Neoclassical plantation-style house built near the turn of the 20th century. One of the owners, Jim Klotz, met me on the wide, welcoming porch, behind a series of huge white columns, and took me around back to my apartment. It had everything I needed, including a complimentary bottle of wine. The price was right, too — $139 per night booked through Hotels.com. For seasonal specials and promotions, check the inn’s website — which, by the way, has a section dedicated to its possibly being haunted. I was beginning to sense a theme.

So I ran with it, booking a tour with Got Ghosts!, led by Patrick Burns, a paranormal investigator. I paid roughly half what I would have paid booking through the website by taking advantage of a Groupon deal I found and combining it with an additional coupon code that was being advertised on the site (final cost: $15). Clad in a kilt and carrying an iPad, Mr. Burns declared Savannah to be a “city built on its dead.” Members of our group, some of whom were drinking from plastic cups (drinking in public is allowed within the Historic District, and some restaurants will offer to-go cups at the end of a meal), tittered under their umbrellas.

It was fun to take a nighttime walking tour around Savannah — we saw, among other things, the Sorrel Weed House (a period mansion that offers its own ghost tours), the old Savannah Theater (established in 1818) and Chippewa Square, where the famous bench scene from “Forrest Gump” was filmed. Maybe it was the steady rain pelting our group during this outdoor tour, but beyond a few nice personal anecdotes, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the ghost stories and peeled off after about 90 minutes.

I had better luck with the weather the next day, when I took a quick tour through the beautiful Bonaventure Cemetery, a former plantation site that became public land in 1907. The cemetery, which was depicted in John Berendt’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” imparts a sense of sad, haunted stillness with its many decaying monuments and trees weeping with moss. After making a small donation at the visitor center and taking a map, I visited the graves of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Conrad Aiken and the songwriter Johnny Mercer.

The next morning, I found myself crossing the inspiration for Mercer’s most famous song — I drove over Moon River (in a car booked through Priceline for $28 a day) on my way to a half-day kayaking tour I purchased through Savannah Canoe and Kayak. For $65, we would tour marshlands around Skidaway Island, one of the major barrier islands off the Georgia coast. Our guide, Aaron, had an affable, mountain man sensibility, and did a nice job leading our group on a three-hour tour through the patches of spartina, or cordgrass, that grew in the brackish marsh water. The tide was high, Aaron noted, as we paddled. “In a couple of hours, we might not be able to make it back to the dock,” he said, only somewhat ominously. We saw a variety of wildlife, including cormorants, egrets, a couple of bald eagles and plenty of deer sloshing around in the marsh. We made a stop on Skidaway Island itself, hiking a quick loop in the state park before paddling back. Shoulders slightly sore, I tipped Aaron $10 and took my leave.

There’s no shortage of ways to have fun outside and around Savannah. On a different morning, I crossed the South Carolina border on Highway 170 while Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down” played on the radio and drove to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. I was hoping to explore the refuge a bit and, if I got lucky, see an alligator — after all, the road I was driving on was nicknamed Alligator Alley.

I made a turn onto Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive and did a slow crawl over the next hour or so through the refuge, alternately driving on the unpaved road and occasionally getting out to hike around and keep an eye out for wildlife. As I was nearing the end of my loop, I saw the car in front of me stop and a bare arm emerged from the passenger window, pointing urgently to the left. I stopped my car, too, and looked out to see the outline of — a gator! It was maybe 7 or 8 feet long, flicking its tail and slithering through the marsh. I watched for 10 minutes or so until it had completely faded into the murk. I got lucky.

If there’s one thing you don’t need much luck at all to find in Savannah, it’s a good meal — the city is crawling with both newer chef-driven concepts and reliable, more modest standbys. Eating in the main dining room at The Grey, a restaurant housed in building that served as a Greyhound bus station from 1938 to 1964, was a bit outside my budget, so I went in early one evening and ordered off the bar menu. I had a respectable chicken schnitzel sandwich ($12) that went well with a happy hourglass of Portuguese sparkling rosé ($5.50, down from $11).

Another repurposed space, The Atlantic — located in an old gas station — definitely impressed. After a rather lengthy wait to get seated, I enjoyed a crunchy romaine wedge ($10) followed by a potpie ($14) that was loaded with fat oysters the size of hotel soaps. I chased with a nice full-bodied local beer, a Teufel Hunden from Savannah-based Service Brewing ($6).

Closer to my inn was Cotton & Rye (located in a former bank), another in the wave of new restaurants that have flooded Savannah the last several years. I mostly appreciated their modern take on Southern cuisine — a salad of tossed greens in a bacon-sorghum vinaigrette ($9) struck me as a little rudimentary, but a small cast-iron skillet filled with succulent shrimp and cheesy, slightly tangy grits ($13) was maybe the single most enjoyable thing I ate on the trip. A hoppy local saison from Southbound Brewing ($3 during happy hour) made a good accompaniment.

If you’re not one to take pictures of your food and want that quintessential Savannah photograph, check out Wormsloe Historic Site, a former plantation (Georgia’s oldest) established in the 1730s by Noble Jones, one of the first settlers to arrive from England. After driving through the large gated entrance and paying the $10 admission fee, I stared slack-jawed at the poignant beauty of an avenue lined on either side by hundreds of trees — stately oaks covered in Spanish moss, creating a canopied thoroughfare over a mile long. At the end of the avenue (which you can walk or drive) is a small museum and visitors center that tells the history of the site. While slavery was actually outlawed in Georgia’s original charter, that charter was revoked soon after Wormsloe was established and the use of slave labor began. In general, I found the role of slavery in the history of the site (and in much of Savannah) to be somewhat glossed over.

“This is what’s known as softening history,” said Karen Wortham, of Journey By Faith tours. We were standing on a ballast-stone road at the entrance to barracoons (from the Spanish, barracón): cavelike enclosures where slaves were held before being sent to auction. During the course of her tour ($25), which I wholeheartedly recommend, Ms. Wortham told me a good deal of information about Savannah’s history — information that I did not see on most of the visible signs and plaques around the city. “They say cotton is king,” Ms. Wortham said. “No, it is not. The money was in the breeding plantations. Two men keeping eight women pregnant at all times. In 10 years, you could become a rich man.”

We met in Franklin Square, across from the First African Baptist Church, which dates back to 1773. Franklin Square, Ms. Wortham said, was supposedly the place where slaves were brought to be punished. The legend, she said, was that Savannah’s signature Spanish moss would not grow in the trees at Franklin Square because of the shame of it all. Slightly skeptical, I looked up at the branches. I didn’t see any moss.

Over the next couple of hours, we walked and talked — about the horrors that took place during Savannah’s pivotal role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but also of her love for the city she has no plans to leave anytime soon. She told me about The Weeping Time — the largest single sale of human beings in American history, which took place on a racetrack in Savannah in 1857 to pay off a gambling debt — as well as slave manifests, and how some of the language of those manifests (words like “trifling” and “sorry,” used to describe slaves) came to be appropriated by black culture. Ms. Wortham taught me a good deal that I didn’t know, and she never hedged and never softened her language — and for that, I was grateful.

Lucas Peterson is the Frugal Traveler columnist. He has written for GQ, Lucky Peach, Eater, LA Weekly and Food Republic. His video series for Eater, "Dining on a Dime," is now in its 11th season. @FrugalTraveler

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