Southern sojourn: Far from Charleston’s younger sister, Savannah, Ga., has a charm all its own.
by Caroline Portillo
It’s normal for us North Carolinians to talk about Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., in the same breath. Just two hours apart, both are visually stunning with stately architecture, wrought-iron handiwork, and Spanish moss dripping from live oaks and cypress trees. And while there’s certainly a subtle difference in accent, the signature Southern lilt is there — that penchant for drawing out words like “idea” and “particularly,” every word enunciated just so, every “r” as soft and sticky as a piece of molasses.
So really, though, how’s the average tourist supposed to differentiate between the two, beyond the obvious “where Charleston has streets, Savannah has squares”?
To settle the debate, I asked Savannah native and hospitality magnate Richard Kessler. I was in town to check out some of the city’s boutique properties owned by Kessler, including the Mansion on Forsyth Park and the Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront. Kessler is also the owner and operator of the Plant Riverside District, a $330-million-plus development transforming the decommissioned 104-year-old Georgia Power Plant into a 4.5-acre waterfront entertainment district. It’s the largest redevelopment in the history of Savannah’s National Historic Landmark District, and the first phase is set to open in 2020.
Kessler, who has hotel properties in both cities, laughed at my Savannah-versus-Charleston quandary.
“Charleston is like the lady going to the ball,” he said. “And Savannah is like the lady going down to the bar.”
I held on to that comparison throughout the trip — it’s a fair one. It’s like Savannah took what Charleston (more than 60 years older) taught us about Southern hospitality and served it up, on the rocks, with a twist of sugar-encrusted lime. Speaking of drinks, in Savannah’s downtown historic district, you can consume up to 16 ounces of alcohol in an open plastic container. But before you start picking out craft cocktails, first you’ll need to book your accommodations.
Savannah is no doubt full of bed-and-breakfasts and a growing number of hotels, but the Kessler Collection properties are city landmarks that offer truly distinctive experiences. One of the city’s most recognized, iconic hotels is the luxurious Mansion on Forsyth Park, overlooking Savannah’s largest historic square. (It’s also just down the street from Kessler’s own historic homestead, the famed Armstrong Kessler Mansion). The 125-room Victorian Romanesque mansion, built in 1888, has worn many hats over the decades, from terra-cotta brick family home to funeral parlor to synagogue. When Kessler renovated and reopened the hotel in 2005, he did so with a flair for captivation: Guests who enter are greeted with decadent Versace furniture and 200-year-old pink Verona marble columns.
But perhaps the most notable thing about Kessler’s Savannah properties is the art — fitting for a city that’s home to the acclaimed Savannah College of Art and Design. An avid art collector himself, Kessler fills each of his properties with pieces from his vast (and colorful) personal collection — you’ll see lots by bohemian artist Peter Robert Keil. Other works of art that fit the hotel’s glamorous aesthetic can be found in the gallery shop located on the ground floor of the hotel. Depending on when you browse, you might enjoy the soft notes of the classical pianist playing nearby.
The Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront offers a more contemporary-chic aesthetic along the famed River Street. There’s a complimentary shuttle between the two properties, so guests can enjoy the amenities at both. If you’re itching for nightlife and waterfront views, the Bohemian is where you’ll want to stay. The color palette at the 75-room boutique hotel is more muted than what you’ll find at other Bohemian hotels: think sophisticated black leather and river-inspired design elements like driftwood and brick.
One of the best aspects of Savannah is its walkability. Not only is most of the city completely flat, each of its 22 squares is shady with lots of benches, and you’ll want to take a seat to admire the stunning architecture. There are plenty of home tours, including one of the Mercer Williams House on Bull Street, made famous in John Berendt’s 1994 bestselling book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
If antiquing is more your speed, there are dozens of shops worth a browse, many nestled in the bottom floor of a historic home. The historic district is small and digestible, and worth a stroll, drinks optional. If you’re down on River Street, don’t miss one of the city’s signature treats: fresh pralines. Trust me, and get them by the pound, as they make great gifts — that is, if they last long enough to be gifted.
And when Plant Riverside District is finished, the transformation will add more than 650,000 square feet of attractions to the historic district. The area will be anchored by a new 419-room JW Marriott, with 12 new restaurants, local and national high-end retailers, a new green space known as MLK Park, a rooftop pool, a new quarter-mile of Riverwalk, and a Live Nation concert venue.
If you want to escape the bustle, head just 20 minutes outside the city to Tybee Island, home to large white-sand beaches and Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse. Finish your night back at the Mansion at Forsyth Park and head to Casimir’s Lounge, where some of the region’s top jazz and blues musicians take up residence for the night.
No matter where you stay, the Mansion on Forsyth Park’s 700 Kitchen Cooking School — named after the hotel’s signature restaurant, 700 Drayton — is a don’t-miss. It’s consistently ranked among TripAdvisor’s top attractions for the city, and for good reason. Groups as large as 15 can join the hands-on classes that’ll make you feel like a regular Rachael Ray, whether you’re peeling shrimp for shrimp and grits or making praline sauce and homemade biscuits. As the wine flows, Executive Chef Jason Winn, a Texas native, leads the lessons with his signature blend of storytelling and Southern culinary traditions.
When you’re ready to leave the property, there’s a rich culinary landscape to explore as well. Even if you’ve been to the original Husk in Charleston, Chef Sean Brock’s Husk Savannah in the heart of the city’s Historic Landmark District is equally deserving of the hype. As is The Grey, a modern, Southern eatery located in a refurbished Greyhound bus depot. (The kitchen is the former ticket booth.)
If you decide to stay in and dine at the Bohemian’s Rocks on the River, first head upstairs to Rocks on the Roof, one of the city’s favorite rooftop bars. On the evening we spent watching the sunset over the Talmadge Memorial Bridge, sipping signature cocktails and nibbling on chicken-and-waffle sliders, we felt like those Southern belles who opted for the bar, not the ball, bottling up everything a Southern sojourn should be and sipping it slowly, savoring. SP