Georgia’s Oldest Jewel ~ Savannah

We have settled into Skidaway Island State Park, a convenient location for exploring historic Savannah.  Large pull-thru sites beneath arching canopies of live oaks greet you as you enter the campground and  seven miles of trails wind through maritime forests, a relaxing place to spend a week.  Just beyond the borders of the park, on the island, lie 40 miles of biking/walking trails, meandering through genteel southern neighborhoods, through forests of oak and pine, and past salt marshes.  While we have spent most days “spinning our wheels”, we set aside plenty of time to wander the historic streets of Savannah.

Savannah’s history began in 1733 when British General James Oglethorpe founded the colony of Georgia as a place to resettle Britain’s poor who were housed in debtors’ prisons.  His design for Savannah was patterned after a contemporary military camp, a central square surrounded by eight city blocks, which formed a ward.  This concept grew until there were 24 squares and of those, 22 still exist today, making Georgia’s oldest city a jewel unlike any other in the US.

All the squares are part of the historic district, encompassing a one-half mile radius, each serving as memorials, with statues or fountains surrounded by lush foliage.   Historic churches and 18th and 19th architectural styling of every kind can be found in the blocks lining the squares, along with azaleas and dogwood adding a breathtaking lushness to the ambiance.  These squares are the heart and soul of Savannah.   The streets surrounding the squares allow for a continual flow of traffic, at a nice pace, making this a pedestrian-friendly city. We chose to spend our days walking it but there is a trolley service available as well, allowing tourists to hop on and off at their leisure.

During one of our many strolls through historic downtown, we found ourselves in Washington Square, where the oldest homes in Savannah can be found. A smartly dressed man, walking a lovely little dog, proceeded to introduce himself as Fred and invited us to take a tour of a lovely historic home that dated back to the late 1700’s, still featuring the original hand-hewn oak walls and hardwood floors.  This historic home was where Fred, his wife Susan, talented artist and author, and adorable rescue dog Lucy live.  Susan was gracious and let us intrude on her day, and we walked away with an autographed copy of her book, Spirit Willing.  

Fred, Susan, and the lovely Lucy
Fred, Susan, and the lovely Lucy

Few cities with such a colorful past would be complete without sightings of restless spirits wandering the cemeteries late at night and Savannah is no exception.  Colonial Cemetery, the oldest in the city, is said to be one of the most haunted places in Savannah, where Voodoo ceremonies once took place in the wee dark hours.  This is the final resting place for many of Savannah’s earliest citizens and a signer of the Declaration of Independence is also buried here.

Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah’s most famous, thanks to being prominently featured in John Berendt’s best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is also alleged to have ghostly sightings.  Bonaventure stands on the grounds of what was once a plantation.  Legend has it that the main house caught fire during a party and the host calmly suggested the guests pick up their crystal glasses and take them outside to continue the party.  As they watched fire consume the house, the partiers  smashed their empty crystal against an oak tree, and it is said that on quiet nights you can still hear the laughter and the shattering of crystal.

We can’t attest to roaming spirits, but the grounds where generals, poets, governors, and Academy award-winning lyricist Johnny Mercer lie in eternal rest are hauntingly beautiful.  Many elaborate crypts overlook the Wilmington River, with live oaks, azaleas, dogwood, and roses surrounding intricate headstones and life-size statues.

Since Savannah’s history is rooted in the American Revolution and Civil War eras, we decided a visit to Fort Pulaski National Monument was in order, a fort meant to guard the river approaches to the city.  We have seen many forts during our travels and I must admit to many holding little interest for me, but this one was  different.  Strategically built on Cockspur Island and named for Count Casimir Pulaski, Polish hero of the American Revolution, Fort Pulaski was thought to be impregnable.  However, during the Civil War a Confederate garrison was forced to surrender the fort when a Union army used rifled cannons during an attack (new military technology for that age), landing mortar dangerously close to the magazine storing 40,000 pounds of gunpowder.   The scarred wall of the fort remains today.

We were so impressed with Savannah’s quaint elegance, her azalea-lined cobble stone streets beneath emerald-green canopies, and her historied architecture.  Should you decide to visit, don’t leave without a stop at Leopold’s Ice Cream, ranked one of the top 10 in the world.  I leave you with a few other images of Savannah, as we say farewell to this fascinating city and move on to a sister city, Charleston, South Carolina.

Mesmerizing Trees, a Bit of History, and Wonderful Friends ~ Golden Isles, GA

It seemed strange to leave Florida after spending the entire winter here but we have so much more of this beautiful country to see so northward we head. Crossing the state line into Georgia we felt winter’s final vestiges as a blustery, rainy day greeted us at Coastal Georgia RV Resort in Brunswick.  Given the forecast it seems our time here is destined to include wind, overcast days and cold.  We have been spoiled by southern Florida’s dreamy winter weather so we can endure a bit of cold.

We are exploring the Golden Isles of Georgia for the next few days, in the southern part of Georgia’s scenic coastline.  The four barrier islands of St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, and the mainland of historic Brunswick join together to form the Golden Isles.  Alluring marshland, sandy beaches, and maritime forests create a land of serene, natural beauty.  Historic landmarks, museums and art galleries provide the back story and legacy for the area.  And the southern charm and hospitality found around every turn cannot be beat.

Jekyll Island offers visitors a tranquil setting thanks to a strict conservation clause that limits development to only 35% of its land and with only 220 residents occupying the northern part of the island, much of Jekyll Island will always retain its natural wildness.  On a calm, chilly morning we biked the island before the winds gathered steam later in the day, passing under live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, crossing boardwalks spanning marshes, and through pine-scented forests.

One of our favorite stops on Jekyll Island was Driftwood Beach, a mesmerizing, haunting stretch of beach that looks like a tree graveyard due to slow erosion of the northern end of the beach being deposited on the south end of the island.

Jekyll Island has long been appreciated for its landmark historic district.  Built in 1886, the Victorian Inn known as the Jekyll Island Club Hotel is the focal point of the historic district and many of the surrounding “cottages”, which can be toured, add to the opulence.

Once a private club for some of America’s wealthiest, with member names such as Morgan, Rockefeller, Pulitzer, and Vanderbilt, Jekyll Island Club Hotel is now one of Georgia’s top resorts, open to the public.  On the day we visited there were three couples playing croquet on the lawn, dressed all in white.  It felt like stepping back into the 1900’s.

St. Simons Island, the largest of the barrier islands, lies across the salt marshes which were celebrated in the poem Marshes of Glynn written by renowned Georgia native and poet Sidney Lanier.  Majestic live oaks draped with Spanish moss line many of the streets on this beautiful island, framing the lovely properties beyond, some steeped in history.

We headed to the Visitor Center to get some information and I hoped to get a map of the mysterious Tree Spirits I had read so much about.  It seems that local artist Keith Jennings began carving soulful faces into St. Simons Island live oak trees in 1982 and to date has created 20 of these works of art.  Jennings says he works with the tree’s soul and as the wood speaks to him the face begins to develop and peers back at him.  They are so popular they even have their own Facebook page.

Surprisingly, there were no maps available for the location of these tree spirits, at least none that the Visitor Center employee was aware of, although she did have a vague idea of where we could find a few of these unique carvings.  So with cryptic notes in hand, I headed out with a skeptical husband in tow.  To say Terry was less than excited about this scavenger hunt was an understatement, given the traffic and cold, windy day, but he knew I was determined to find at least one.  We found four before I felt I was pushing hubby’s patience button, with directions like “go to Redfern Village and find Gnat’s Landing.  There is a tree nearby that has a tree spirit carving”.

Each we found were wonderful discoveries, the weathered faces working well with the drooping, moss-covered branches to create haunting, contemplative features.

The trees on these barrier islands never failed to enchant us and seemed to be a recurring theme during our visit.  The Avenue of the Oaks was our next stop, a must-see in our opinion.  Once the entrance to Retreat Plantation, known for its superior sea island cotton and sweeping flower gardens, this double row of 188 year-old live oaks now grace the entrance to the Sea Island Golf Club.

This short trip to the Golden Isles was made more special by a visit from our good friends Stan and Marilyn.  We enjoyed revisiting Jekyll Island with them and sharing a yummy meal at Southern Soul Barbeque on St. Simons Island. Visits with them are guaranteed to leave our sides aching from laughter and bring tearful goodbyes as we part.   We can’t thank them enough for taking the time to come our direction during their recent travels.

Good friends Stan & Marilyn on Driftwood Beach.
Good friends Stan & Marilyn on Driftwood Beach.

A few images on the grounds of Christ Church on St. Simons Island:

Our next stop is Savannah.