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Moss-draped, molasses-sweet Savannah, like Charleston and New Orleans and other Southern port towns, is forever linked to its past. As such, it's often seen as a city of lost gentility, although one whose wealth and prestige are inescapably bound to, and built on, oppression. And while that stultifying aspect is beyond regrettable, it doesn't negate Savannah as a stunningly beautiful place that's managed to hold on to its best features and that works to resolve its most trying.
Chatham County's seat and largest city was established in 1733, built on agriculture and exports. English demand for indigo, cotton and other crops poured wealth into America's first planned city, and its elaborate mansions, squares and cemeteries still provide evidence of that abundant money. Today, tourismis huge, fed by the allure of history, architecture, beauty and storied violence. Where pirates trod and slaves were punished, where murders were committed and fortunes made and lost, visitors now walk, distanced from the long-ago pain but eager to insinuate themselves into the stream.
Meeting a portion of that need while recalling the past are dozens of walking tours, carriage rides, and river cruises. Costumed guides lead groups over cobblestone and oyster shell streets, pointing out a statue dedicated to John Wesley (founder of the Methodist church), to cafes whose parking lots hide graveyards, to places that gained prominence after the release of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Its gothic ambience gives the city, in the eyes of some, an almost studio-manufactured quality, as if it's a literary or cinematic place where visitors go to check the reality of an imagined fiction. But the actual and the dream merge here amid magnolias and dogwoods.
With so many curious perceptions at work, it can be surprising to see Savannah as a living and liveable city. Yet gorgeous B&Bs in historic homes come equipped with wireless technology, the beach and shopping malls are conveniently close to centuries-old enclaves, and restaurantsthat cultivate romance with rack of lamb and foie gras sit not far from sushi joints and barbecue places. And the revelry of the annual St. Patrick's Day celebration gives ample proof that nothing can be granted too much reverence, be made too precious. In the end, there's a practicality at work, one that fashions restaurants from warehouses, crafts inns from private homes, creates a new City Market to replace a demolished original.
In the end, Savannah is a city to enjoy. Take delight in its marvelous churches and homes. See where Julia Roberts made movies and Forrest Gump was filmed. Putter around quaint shops. Eat well on shrimp and grits from a venerable establishment or on perfectly-greasy fried chicken from a local hole-in-the-wall. Try to spot Paula Deen, or at least visit her restaurants and indulge without calorie-counting. Keep an eye out for the Lady Chablis. Steel your nerves for a nighttime excursionto root out specters, or to hear about who they've stricken with terror. Stroll along the river and observe the ships' maritime ballet while you relax in the midst of a sunlit Savannah vacation. It's all part of life here.
Age-old folk wisdom claims that things are better in the South, that hospitality runs rampant and that welcomes are as easy to find as a drawl. Happily enough, that's all true, at least as Savannah goes. It's not for nothing, after all, that this easygoing town was given the sobriquet Hostess City of the South.