By Andrew Collins
The dignified city that General James Oglethorpe put on the map in 1733 has weathered the vagaries of time in fine fashion. Savannah has survived devastating fires and been spared destruction by General Sherman during the Civil War. It's bounced back from the neglect of its historic district during the mid-20th century, enjoyed a remarkable comeback partly spurred by John Berendt's endearingly quirky, gay-tinged account of the city, "Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil," and entered more recently into a contemporary arts-driven renaissance heralded by the rapid growth of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), which opened only 35 years ago but now owns nearly 70 downtown buildings – some of them quite prominent.
Savannah isn't a stodgy and static vestige of a long-ago era. Carefully preserved it may be, this fast-growing Southern city is home to a thriving creative class, has a growing appetite for hotels and restaurants with a contemporary bent, and has surprising knack for accommodating all sorts of disparate elements – ardent preservationists, edgy designers, rowdy tour-bus tourists, sophisticated sybaritics, drag aficionados. The heady blend makes this leafy city a fine spot for people-watching, and a richly rewarding weekend destination. Savannah lies within an afternoon's drive of Atlanta, Charleston, Charlotte, Jacksonville and Orlando, and its airport has direct flights of two hours or less from Chicago, Dallas, Houston, New York City, Washington, and several other cities.
Here's a quick, handy itinerary for planning a three-day getaway to Savannah, along with several recommendations of gay-popular hotels and inns.
Depending on when you arrive in town, rest up a bit before planning an easygoing evening of restaurant- and bar-hopping around the historic City Market district and the surrounding blocks, which are home to several sophisticated-but-friendly mixed lounges and bars. One fine food option is A.Lure (http://aluresavannah.com), which presents a contemporary take on the region's classic lowcountry cuisine – don't miss the seared sea scallops with pulled-duck confit and mango-jalapeno barbecue sauce and savory sweet-corn ice cream. The more traditional Belford's (http://belfordssavannah.com), with its high ceilings and graceful front patio, specializes in seafood and steaks but is also an inviting stop for a cocktail to kick off the evening.
Eclectic nearby bars worth checking out for post-dinner sipping and schmoozing include the hipster-favored Sparetime (http://sparetimesavannah.com), known for its creative artisan-cocktail menu; the cheerfully dive-y Rail Pub (http://therailpub.com); and, several blocks farther down MLK Bouleard, the Distillery (http://distillerysavannah.com), with its extensive craft-beer list.
Start the morning with breakfast at Clary's Cafe (http://claryscafe.com), a no-nonsense greasy spoon serving honest favorites like French toast stuffed with strawberries and cream cheese, and crab cakes Benedict. Then get to know the city's historic district better with a guided walk by Jonathan Stalcup of Architectural Savannah (architecturalsavannah.com) – his tours typically leave from Chippewa Square at 10 a.m. (reservations required, $20 per person). An author and architectural historian, Stalcup graduated from SCAD, has an amazing knowledge of the city's design history, and is also a helpful resource on the local gay scene.
Grab lunch downtown. Fire Street Food (http://firestreetfood.com), which occupies what had been Blaine's, a gone-but-not-forgotten gay bar, serves tasty international fare (sushi rolls, pad Thai, seared-fish sandwiches), while the more traditional Olde Pink House (http://plantersinnsavannah.com/the-olde-pink-house) is a legendary Savannah experience that every visitor should try at least once. Specialties include she-crab soup, fried green tomatoes with bacon-sweet corn cream and crab-stuffed grouper.
Spend the afternoon walking around downtown, checking out the diverting shops along Broughton Street, including gay-owned Chocolat by Adam Turoni, whose artisan sweets are as beautiful to behold and to devour; the local outpost of chic designer Marc Jacobs; and Sylvester & Co., a colorful "general store" of housewares and decorative arts with a modern sensibility.
Make time to visit the Telfair Museums, which comprise the original 1818 Telfair Academy, with its sculptures, 19th- and 20th-century paintings and period furnishings; the strikingly contemporary Jepson Center, which was designed by Moshe Safdie and contains a superb contemporary art collection; and nearby Owens-Thomas House, a fairly unusual U.S. example of English Regency architecture. Also don't miss the new SCAD Museum of Art, which has been constructed out of a the 1856 former headquarters of the Central of Georgia Railway and presents provocative rotating installations and well as works from a growing and impressive permanent collection.
For dinner that evening, try one of the relatively new hotspots around town, perhaps Public Kitchen & Bar (http://thepublickitchen.com), a scene-y neighborhood bistro with attractive indoor and outdoor seating and a menu focused on well-crafted comfort fare, from a burger topped with Coca-Cola-barbecue sauce to classic shrimp and grits. A bit more upscale, Local 11 Ten (http://local11ten.com) earns raves for its crisp, angular interior and artfully presented food, including charred local octopus with kale and nori aioli, and roasted half chicken with truffled sweet potatoes.
Savannah has a couple of fun gay nightspots that pack in the crowds on Saturdays. Club One (http://clubone-online.com) has long been famous as the home bar of the Lady Chablis, who was memorably portrayed in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (and also played herself in the very movie of the same name). The shows in the upstairs cabaret are good fun, if touristy, and Lady Chablis does perform here about once a month. Downstairs, there's a big dance floor, and in the basement a cozier bar and lounge. The other option is Chuck's, a festive neighborhood bar situated among the converted warehouses on the riverfront; there's a good jukebox and a pool table in back, and the drinks are cheap and potent.
You may not think of Savannah as a typical beach destination, but it's just a 15-mile drive to Tybee Island, a laid-back resort community with a long stretch of sugary sand fronting the Atlantic, a long fishing pier, and several lively bars and restaurants. Given that Savannah's moderate climate (highs averaging in the 60s in January and the upper 70s by April), it's nearly always a good bet for beachcombing. Along the drive out, you might also stop at one of the interesting historic sites along the way, Fort Pulaski National Monument or Tybee Island Lighthouse and Museum.
Break up your day with lunch at LGBT-owned Marlin Monroe's (http://marlinmonroessurfsidegrill.com), a festive venue for lunch – it fringes the beach and serves big portions of tasty seafood. If you're still hungry on your way back to Savannah in the evening, detour slightly to Savannah's South Side for dinner at one of the better soul-food eateries in the region, Sweet Potatoes Kitchen, where you can fuel up on mouthwatering peach-glazed barbecue chicken, lemon collard greens and banana pudding.
Where to stay in Savannah
With a fantastic location amid the converted warehouse buildings along the Savannah River, the redbrick Bohemian Hotel Savannah Riverfront (http://bohemianhotelsavannah.com) ranks among the most stylish properties in the city. The beautiful rooms have soaring windows, dark-wood and leather headboards, plush bedding, contemporary artwork, stunning work desks and posh marble-clad bathrooms with distinctive sea-shell sconces. Drinks on the snazzy Rocks on the Roof bar are a favorite way to enjoy the sunset, and the laid-back ground-floor restaurant serves eclectic, reasonably priced contemporary Southern fare.
The Bohemian's sister property, the Mansion on Forsyth Park (mansiononforsythpark.com) is one of the most memorable hotels in the city – this stylish boutique resort built in the Romanesque style overlooks the famous park for which it's named, contains 125 supremely plush rooms with plenty of luxury contemporary touches, and has plenty of appealing amenities, including the swanky Poseidon Spa, a first-rate cooking school (led by talented and personable chef Darin Sehnert), two great bars, an art gallery and the excellent 700 Drayton Restaurant. Even if you're not staying overnight, it's worth stopping in for a meal, massage or cooking class.
Another property that reflects Savannah's increasing embrace of both contemporary and historic aesthetics is the sleek Andaz Savannah (http://savannah.andaz.hyatt.com), a light-filled, six-story hotel overlooking the downtown's "new" Ellis Square (this open, grassy square with stepped seating and fountains as well a small glass-walled visitor information kiosk was constructed in 2009 on the site of an old parking garage, which had replaced the original, historic Ellis square). The Andaz, which contains 297 modern, eco-friendly rooms, is also just steps away from City Market and Club One. There's a rooftop pool and terrace warmed by a fire pit, a nice fitness center and an acclaimed restaurant, 22 Square, serving sustainable regional Southern fare. One property that stands out for its sheer grandeur is the Hamilton-Turner Inn (http://hamilton-turnerinn.com), an ornate Second Empire mansion on leafy Lafayette Square with 17 over-the-top romantic rooms with tall windows, plush but happily unfussy furnishings, and – in several suites – fireplaces.
Another inviting, gay-friendly B&B is the Catherine Ward House Inn (http://catherinewardhouseinn.com), a handsomely restored Italianate house near Forsyth Park containing six rooms, one of them named for the late Savannah historian and gay gadfly Jim Williams (a key figure in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil"), who once owned the home; there's also a carriage house with three additional rooms. A few blocks south, Roussel's Garden (http://roussellsgarden.com) is another inviting, moderately priced inn – this Queen Anne has just four guest rooms, each antique beds, and the fragrant garden out back is a relaxing spot for a morning stroll.
If on a tighter budget, centrally located chain properties like Four Points Sheraton (http://fourpointshistoricsavannah.com) and Comfort Suites Historic District (http://savannahcomfortsuites.com) are clean, modern options within walking distance of key attractions. Also keep an eye out for one important upcoming hotel development, the much-anticipated Brice Hotel (http://bricehotel.com), a makeover of the former Mulberry Inn, which is slated to debut in summer 2014; it'll be part of the stylish, gay-popular Kimpton Hotels portfolio and decorated in that brand's typically hip and sophisticated style.