I managed to finish a second reading of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” just in time for our visit to Savannah – but what set the wider stage for me are the writings of Pat Conroy (I’m re-reading “Beach Music” now), with his lyrical and loving descriptions of the low country of Georgia and South Carolina. So, in my innocent “mind’s eye”, I pictured Savannah as a city of graceful, restored historic homes, squares full of live oaks draped in Spanish moss, and refurbished civil-war era warehouses and business establishments, surrounded by low-country wetlands and forests.
|Above: A stroll through Colonial Park Cemetery |
Below: Savannah Cotton Exchange building
|Above: A beautifully restored Savannah home |
Below: A square filled with graceful Live Oaks.
When we exited Interstate 95 to travel the ten or so miles to Skidaway Island State Park (click here to read our review and see more photos), we came face to face with reality: miles and miles of urban/suburban commercial landscape – chain restaurants, gas stations, strip malls, upscale shopping, thrift shopping, medical centers, auto repair, pawn shops, home improvement centers. Most of the route to the state park campground was stop-and-go traffic, with cars turning in and out parking lots, darting around Scoopy, running red lights – typical urban behavior.
Picture the Savannah that everyone WANTS to see as the compact center of a bull’s eye target. Picture Skidaway State Park on the farthest outer ring of the bull’s eye. Everything in between looks just like the urban/suburban fringe of any medium or large sized city in the U.S. – and why I didn’t expect that, I will never know. :) Romantic fool!
Check-in at Skidaway Island State Park is efficient: pay your fees, then drive into the campground and pick out any unoccupied site. The ranger described the sites as “all pull-throughs”.
Say what? Once we had navigated the narrow, twisting roads, we ended up backing in to our site, to avoid scraping our (closed) awning off on a tree. Finally settled into our huge, level site, we took a long, lovely hike to counteract the psychic stress of the hectic traffic.
Back home, I flipped open the computer to research our next day: lunch and touring. Though many friends and blog readers had recommended things to do in Savannah (in particular, take a trolley tour), we had very few suggestions for “must-eat” dining venues, even from confirmed foodies.
For us, one of the highlights of travel is the exploration of local food specialties. Although I imagined that Savannah would have some special dish or cuisine that was particularly Savannah, it isn’t the case. Savannah is all about southern cooking, the down home classics, served cafeteria style, buffet style, or home style.
Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room was recommended by a few folks, but I’m not a fan of standing in a long line to eat (waits of up to 2 hours reported), so hoped to turn up something different. Paula Deen’s restaurant is a Mecca for her Food Network fans, but neither Odel nor I watch her, and have heard the place described as “good, but overpriced”. Thanks to a tip from our reader Pamela, we Googled the “Masada Cafe” at the United House of Prayer for All People – and that was all we needed. Our “Savannah Tour” agenda set, we fell into bed.
Saturday’s breakfast was… NOTHING! Our plan for the day began with an early lunch, as soon as the Masada Cafe opened, and we wanted to save room. At 10:15 we took off, aiming for a point west of Historic Savannah, described as “off the beaten tourist track”. Oh, so true. When we arrived at our destination, a few minutes after 11 am, Odel stepped out of the car, looked at me, and said aloud, “What have you gotten me into this time”?
Odel has his doubts.
Warming up to the experience with a rib
Stepping into the church annex, home to the cafeteria-style cafe, my first impression was: CLEAN. Unlike many of the “local favorites” we try, this was no dive. Small, spring-time centerpieces graced the tables, there was no smoky residue to be seen, and the cafeteria line was spotless. Iretha Durham, the wife of the pastor (35 years) of The United House of Prayer for All People, greeted us from behind the counter, apologizing that they were a little late in opening.
That gave us plenty of time to point, question and sample (NO waiting). The offerings were pure southern, with one difference: in deference to the desire/need for healthier food choices, the kitchen seasons their “sides” without pork, using smoked turkey instead. Lunch was “meat and three” – Yankees, that means a meat selection plus three sides. I can’t even recall all the meat offerings, but I do recall our choices.
For me: Oxtails and gravy, plus Savannah red rice (cooked with tomato juice instead of water), cabbage, and macaroni and cheese. Odel: Fried chicken, Savannah red rice, string beans, and dressing with gravy. Because the fried chicken wasn’t quite ready, he got a rib to chew on while he waited (refer to the smiling photo above). Sweet tea to drink, of course.
Oxtails and the array of our sides.
Southern fried chicken, straight from the fryer
The highest praise given to southern food is “just like my momma used to make”. My own momma is California born, like me, so I didn’t grow up on oxtails – but even I can tell this is fine, fine home-style southern cooking. Odel pronounced the fried chicken as the best he’s ever had (I hope his momma doesn’t read this).
When Odel visits Memphis, his home town, he always gets a special layer cake, made for him by Odel’s sister’s ex-sister-in-law, Miss Melissa. I mean, ALWAYS! When Odel attended a funeral during one visit, Miss Melissa snagged him before the funeral started, took him to her car, opened the trunk, and gave him his four-layer chocolate cake (and I don’t mean a piece, I mean the whole cake)! Well, stacked at the end of the counter were slices of cake, packaged to go. Good thing, because I don’t think many folks have the stamina for dessert following that meal – but we took a piece to go. :)
Then we were back in the Jeep and off to the historic center. We took your advice, readers -purchased our tickets, and happily settled in for a 90 minute narrated tour of the highlights of Savannah history. The temperature was still 10 degrees below the forecast (just 55 cold degrees); we were full, warm and contented listening to our guide as he navigated the narrow, crowded lanes. Of course, the Mercer-Williams house was on our tour.
The biggest surprises to me: Savannah was founded in 1733. History here isn’t just the Civil War, but the Revolutionary War (and before). I didn’t realize that Savannah is a busy port city, but we saw several freighters head up river as we walked around the city after our tour ended (and our tour guide told us that cruise ships will soon be coming to Savannah). And, I didn’t realize that South Carolina is right across the river!
Another big surprise: the historic district, including the riverfront, is very small, very walkable. Try as we might, we couldn’t walk off that lunch!