Friday, May 14, 2010

The deep South

The small airport displays the sign “Welcome to the Southern Belle of the Georgia Coast”. Porters and airport staff greet you with a broad smile and the drawl,” Hi Ya’al”, made famous by the city’s famous celebrity chef Paula Deen. This is Savannah, Georgia, America’s first planned city and founded by British General James Oglethorpe in 1733. He organized the city into 24 beautiful squares and was so enchanted by its climate and beauty that he requested King George of England to gift him Savannah as a Christmas present.
That was then and I was returning to Savannah to visit my son who is a student of its famous SCAD university,(Savannah College of Art and Design) one of America’s newest and hottest colleges for new media and cinema. Warm and friendly, Savannahians are proud of their city and the small but beautiful city has many places to visit, shop and dine. In fact, it is a treat to walk around downtown Savannah, by the river where local chocolate and home made fudge factories churn out many varieties of the gooey stuff round the clock. Savannahians are hospitable and eat breakfast, talk lunch and think dinner.

I am considered thin in Savannah, so you can imagine what the average sized woman looks like. The smallest sizes used to be US 10 until migrants from New York and Boston started moving South and buying up property in this scenic city. Once famous for its cotton and slave trade, Savannah is considered America’s most haunted city, a large part of its built over graves. The best shopping and dining areas in Savannah are centred around the Historic District with West Broughton Street as its shimmering spine.
Breakfast in Savannah means a stop at Clary’s Café where the pancakes, Southern fluffy biscuits and warm gravy see a long queue from 7 am. Stroll along West Broughton to the Honey Bee which stocks over 30 varieties of American honey and sip a cup of tea while tasting honey from an actual honey comb. A few stores away is the iconic Savannah clothing store Gaucho, run by Ross and his cheerful aide Dee. Together they have made the store a one stop elegant destination for silk jackets, resort wear and exquisitely original pants and tunics. Nearby is Inge’s Casual Elegance, run by German born Inge, who is a paragon of chic herself, advising my daughter Arya and me on the perfect summer dress. Continuing on Broughton you come across BluBells, an original Savannah store which stocks vintage clothes like Gucci and Armani coats and jackets from the 1970’s. Flanking Blue Bells is the quirky cosmetic shop called See Jane which hosts some excellent but lesser known brands like Julie Hewitt ( she did the make up for Pirates of the Caribbean). On the other side of BluBells is the gorgeous boutique called American Craft. Here you can pick up one of a kind wearable art. This is my one stop to collect hand painted jackets, tops and long scarves. Very pricey but every piece is a head turner.

A new French bistro has opened on West Broughton but those who prefer the active lifestyle gravitate to Kayak Café also located on West Broughton, which serves up a variety of healthy vegetarian and vegan sandwiches. Evenings finds the party goers filling up the popular Jazzed, a tapas bar that is all out fun with great food, music and ambience. A short walk away to the City Market area and you can find a store called Taste of Georgia where you can taste and purchase light Georgian wine for all palates.
Sidestepping all the carriage tours and trolleys that trundle along the main roads of downtown Savannah, you can sit on the bench that Forrest Gump made famous in the movie of the same name or be told where Robert Redford has just wrapped up filming his new movie The Inquisitor on John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated President Lincoln.

Fine dining abounds in Savannah, with several top rated Michelin starred restaurants. The most pricey and well known is 700 Drayton, attached to the plush Forsyth on the Mansion Hotel. The entire atmosphere and menu are so elegant and the ambience so exquisite that the very air reeks of class. Other well known and excellent dining venues are Sapphire Grill and Lady and Sons, the last being owned by restaurant diva Paula Deen. However, if you are looking for good old Southern cooking then it is only at Mrs Wilkes, a simple place where diners sit shoulder to shoulder and order from a fixed menu of friend chicken, potatoes, spinach, collard greens, biscuits, deep fried catfish and barbecued ribs saturated in butter and cholesterol laden fats.

Even as the high priced brands like Marc Jacobs, Prada and Gucci open stores in Savannah, the managers all know each other by their first name and customer service is superb in this friendly town. Do not be surprised if anyone stops to have a conversation, offer a piece of advice or tell you where to get the best haircut. Everybody knows everybody in Savannah and they are proud of it. Remember that this is the city of the famous book and movie ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and the mercurial cabaret performer Chablis actually exists.

Today Savannah is a delight to visit, especially for me, having lived in busy and bustling New York for so long. I have always found something unusual to buy in this city including the original SCAD Design Store, affiliated to the university where the fashion design students exhibit and sell their creations. The nearby Gryphon Tea Room reminds me of Southern style from the days of Scarlett O Hara in Gone with the Wind. I have spent so many hours strolling by the river licking a fresh home made sorbet from one of the local ice cream vendors. Over the past four years, I have made many friends there and will be sad to see my son graduate and pack up from this quaint and unusual city that is one of the top 10 tourist destinations in the USA.

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