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Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia: Grace and Charm in the Lowlands

Charleston, SC, is at first glance somewhat unimpressive; the road from the airport into town is through a very depressed and mostly deserted area. Once at the Visitors Center (which was pushing very hard to get us to tour a timeshare resort), that changes, and things begin to be pretty, though to my New England eyes, not exceptionally so. The area of town around the Public Market is cutesy in a kind of forced way. If I were coming from New York City or Chicago, I'd find it totally charming.

After walking around the open-air market, we lunched at an inexpensive and very atmospheric Greek restaurant, the Olde Towne Bar and Grille, on King Street, and then headed out Route 17 toward Savannah, GA. We'd be back to really see Charleston in a couple of days.

After the first two miles or so of suburban sprawl the route turns quite pretty, going through numerous marshes.

At Garden Corners, we stopped at a large farmstand and sampled all manner of ciders, jams, and such). Then, wanting to get our water fix, we turned south on US 21 into Beaufort (pronounced B-you-ferd), and were delighted with is scenic harbor and marshes, its many art and craft galleries, and its friendliness. We particularly liked the selection of African, Asian, and Latin American objects at Four Winds Gallery, 709 Bay Street.

Some of these small art towns are real sleepers, places you would never imagine would holdmuch interest at all, but where you could actually spend several happy hours. Beaufort, and the town of Easton, Maryland that we discovered several months ago, are great examples.

From there, we took scenic 170 into Savannah, and were very pleased with the absence of sprawl even as we got quite close. Arriving just at nightfall and then walking the city for an hour or so, we were charmed by both the beautiful architecture and the amazing number of pocket parks—each with its thick old live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, statuary, historical/informational signage, and walkways, yet each with its own distinct character. On some streets, they're every two or three blocks and they make the whole city feel verdant and alive.

The blocks themselves are quite compact; distances that look daunting on a map turn out to be easy walking. The tree-lined streets feature houses and public buildings in a wild salad of styles: Faux-Federal-period row houses, mostly built around 1850... gracious Brooklyn-style townhouses with bay windows... tiny wood-frame cottages of only a storey or two... massive southern-style colonials with second-floor wrap-around porches... New Orleans French style with lattice balconies and tall windows... and, in the riverfront commercial district, unfortunately, some utterly charmless late-20th-century hotels and banks. Luckily, even in that district, there are plenty of beautiful old buildings.

And this walkability is the key to one of Savannah's top tourist industries: the walking tour. There are tours for every taste and genre. A few examples:

  • Black History tour, including the oldest African-American church in North America, slave burial grounds, and historic black communities
  • Green Feet Walkabouts, focusing on Savannah's flowers, plants, and trees
  • A food tour covering at least six restaurants and including samples of foods like fried green tomatoes and honey-pecan fried chicken
  • 300-year architectural tour
  • Several ghost/haunted tours
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tour

    The downtown district is defined by Broughton Street and the river. South of Broughton, every area we saw was almost entirely residential, save the occasional corner café or store, and other than major boulevards (Martin Luther King, President) the streets were amazingly uncrowded. From Broughton north to the river, nearly every building has one or more ground-floor retail spaces. Art and craft galleries, both local and international, fill many of these spaces, as do home-made candy shops, antique stores, and seafood restaurants. And trucks rumble constantly during the daytime.

    With one full day to explore, we headed out after breakfast to the City Market, found it a bit too cutesy, and then descended one of the outdoor stairways to River Street and the waterfront. Shops here definitely cater to tourists, and we enjoyed two in particular: River Street Sweets, which was sampling homemade pralines (the chocolate ones were quite extraordinary), and The Peanut Store, sampling a wide range of peanuts in various spices, as well as boiled and fried versions.

    Savannah is another city with a strong art presence: dozens of galleries, both downtown and in the surrounding districts, a major art and design college, and public art and extraordinary architecture. Everywhere you go, almost, there's something beautiful to catch your eye: a Moroccan vase, the lively jazz and rock portraits by Steve Schuman in a corner gallery at the City Market, a fountain whose marble figures appear to catch the water in musical instruments, a ceramic plate from the Orient...

    Then it was time to go to the beach, about 20 minutes drive. We walked back to our quiet B&B and hopped in the car. At the east end of town, we picked up broad, ugly, and crowded President Street. My guess is it used to be lined with beautiful mansions (you can still catch a glimpse of one or two of them)—but now, the dominant feature is high-tension powerlines. Still, after just a few miles, it turns gorgeous: long stretches of marshes, channels between different islands—and the road, down to two lanes, doesn't feel like an intruder. We followed it all the way to the end, at the self-styled "city" of Tybee Island. There are two residential/commercial neighborhoods, one near the lighthouse, water tower, and City Hall, and a slightly larger one all the way to the end (both fairly small). In between, mostly parking meters and beach entrances.

    A lack of quarters in our wallets forced us to be creative in parking, and we found a strip along the main road (old U.S. 80, which once stretched from here to San Diego) with free parking, near the lighthouse, a quiet beach, and two very brief nature trails. The beach was lovely, and almost deserted on a January afternoon. But even though the air temperature was a very pleasant 69 degrees (compared to the 5-degree reading we saw the previous day in Massachusetts, on our way to the airport), the water was too cold to keep our feet in for more than a few seconds.

    In the evening, we walked back into town to have dinner at the Casbah, 118 E. Broughton, across from the elegant Marshall House hotel. This was an extraordinary experience from the moment we entered. The ceiling was about three stories up, done in billowing fabrics to resemble a large tent in Morroco. Craft items for sale along the front, some quite exquisite. Very unusual curved paper lamps. Low tables and even lower cushioned chairs. Silverware on request; you're expected to eat with your right hand, Moroccan style. And the food! This was one of the two best North African restaurants I've ever been to (the other is a venerable Tunisian place in Quebec City). My favorite was the vegetable bastilla, both sweet and savory with a wonderful dance of competing and complementary flavors: cinnamon, walnut, pepper, sugar, and some kind of savory green herb. We also enjoyed the tagine, a tangy stew, as well as several small salads, each exquisitely and delicately flavored. Unfortunately, the vegetable couscous was cooked in lamb broth so as vegetarians, we couldn't try it—but I'm betting it too was extraordinary. We finished the meal with baklava (two styles, wonderful), and our only disappointment, a large phillo pastry filled with coconut, dark chocolate, and exotic fruit that sounded better than it tasted.

    Adding to the romance of our meal were two performances by a skilled belly dancer (though her flaming red hair and very pale skin seemed more Irish than Moroccan).

    Savannah has numerous museums, including a Civil Rights Movement museum, a railway repair museum housed in an old roundhouse, a local history museum, and one of the oldest synagogues in the country, open to the public with tours several times a day, and just three blocks from our B&B.

    We toured the synagogue, on Bull and Gordon Streets. In the assimilationist culture of the 1870s, it was built to resemble a church, and located on an Oglethorpe "trust lot"—corner buildings on the garden squares, reserved at the city's founding for public buildings or places of worship. The congregation itself was founded by Sephardic (Mediterranean) Jews (and two Ashkenazi, or Eastern European, families) from London, in 1733, included several doctors, and is widely credited with saving James Oglethorpe's Georgia colony, which was plagued by illness.

    A few blocks west, the civil rights museum offered an up-close and personal look at the men and women who desegregated Savannah over a period of 20+ years—including Rev. Hosea Williams, a close associate of Martin Luther King. There's even a video interview with many of the actual participants. Other exhibits convey just how dehumanizing and discriminatory the Jim Crow experience was.

    Crossing the beautiful Talmadge Bridge and heading northeast again, we made a detour to the Charleston Tea Plantation. While the drive, and the plantation, were very scenic, it was a bit far for what we found: an interesting but very brief walk-through tour of the small tea plant (visible through a glass wall), with video narration, and only one type of tea—or an optional open-air trolley ride through the plantations, for which this paticular day felt a bit too blustery. The actual processing occurs May through September, and is very fast. A few hours on the oxidizing beds turns green tea to black.

    Coming into Charleston, we headed directly to East Battery: the very tip of the peninsula. You can walk along a waterfront slate boardwalk, with the water on one side and mansions on the other. Then the walk turns a block inland, though very elegant pastel-colored row houses and a lovely retail district. We sipped drinks at a wine bar/café, admired the selections at a French cheese and wine specialist, and admired the harbor views before going off to Summerville, where our hosts lived.

    The next morning, we took the local road, Highway 61, through the plantation district. As the main non-Interstate road between Summerville and Charleston, I expected an ugly commercial strip—and was surprised and enchanted by the graceful, tree-lined, nearly unpopulated boulevard we found (at least through the edge of the mansions—and even beyond, the sprawl is low-key).

    Of the three former rice plantations open to the pubic, we chose Drayton Hall, because it's unrestored, left just the way it was until the seven generations of Draytons moved out, and because it included an African-American cemetery on the grounds. It was also the cheapest.

    The building has no heat, no electricity, no plumbing—but lots of original paint and plaster, extremely knowledgeable guides, and two short nature walks. It also turns out to be the only one of the three operated by a national nonprofit (Trust for Historic Preservation) rather than a private for-profit enterprise. We felt our time and money were well-spent, and stayed about three hours.

    In the 1730s and 40s when this mansion was built, the trip to Charleston took three hours by boat or all day by horse; in a car, it's less than half an hour, passing by Charles Towne Landing (sight of the first settlers' landing).

    Our first stop in town was the Avery Research Institute, located in the former Avery Normal School, an upper-middle-class black private elementary/high school and teacher training academy, operating from Reconstruction until 1954. The building has been restored and now contains research archives on black life in Charleston, sweetgrass basket-making, Gullah/Geechee culture that flourished on the barrier islands of Georgia and Florida, and of course, the school's proud history. It also contains rotating art exhibits. During our visit, the main exhibit profiled the people featured over the years on U.S. postage stamps honoring African-Americans, as well as the work of two very talented local artists.

    Walking through one of Charleston's many art gallery districts, along Broad Street, our last find in the city was Gaulart & Maliclet, an unassuming French café with amazingly reasonable prices. Wishing we'd found it before we'd eaten dinner, we stopped for dessert. I got a chocolate-filled croissant that was about twice the usual size, and very tasty. My wife got a class of Merlot. The total bill was only jut over $6. We sat at the counter, but there's also a more formal dining area—still with bright lights and not overly atmospheric, but probably worth a try. I'd have loved to try the mushroom-based "vegetarian escargot."

    Shel Horowitz is editor of Global Travel Review and author of The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, available exclusively at www.frugalfun.com


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