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Savannah from the Air with Old City Helicopters

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With its squares, mansions, oak trees and Spanish Moss, Savannah is a gorgeous city when you’re standing on the ground. But how does it look from the air? To find out, we got in touch with Old City Helicopters, who invited us out on a sunset tour. Soon enough, we were zooming along the Savannah River, looking down upon the city from above.

Helicopter Tour Savannah

It was a late afternoon when we showed up at the airfield, adjacent to the Savannah-Hilton Head Airport, and the sun was just beginning its slow descent. Our pilot, Matt, described the tour we’d be taking: over Forsyth Park, around River Street and City Market, and then out toward Tybee Island. We’d return west toward the airfield just as dusk was settling in.

The company’s bright yellow helicopter is a frequent sight in the skies above Savannah, zipping over the city like a giant, benevolent mecha-bee. It’s a Robinson R44 copter, which seats four people and can travel at speeds of 150 miles per hour, although Matt assured us that we’d be going a lot slower than that. After all, the point was to see the sights, and not to zip across the city as fast as possible.

Helicopter Tour Savannah

Savannah’s logical layout is really apparent from the air, where you can see all the squares and better appreciate the city center’s grid-like pattern. There aren’t many tall buildings in downtown Savannah; the Hilton and the Cathedral of St. John are probably the most prominent. From above, Savannah looks quaint and peaceful; and more like an overgrown village than a real city… which is also how it feels from the ground, I suppose.

Soaring over the city was fun, but we enjoyed the remainder of the trip even more, when we got away from the downtown and into less populated land. The coastal waterways of Savannah look entirely different from the air. When you’re in a car, it’s impossible to see the twisting paths which snake through the marshland or appreciate the ecosystem’s true complexity.

We flew past the Tybee Island Lighthouse and Fort Pulaski, and then made our way back to the home base. Along the way, we flew over the port, which is much bigger than I had realized, and saw the International Paper Factory. This is the source of the infamous “Savannah Stink,” but with its lights on at dusk, the factory itself is quite pretty.

Old City Helicopters are a relatively new outfit in Savannah, but have quickly become popular. They offer a number of packages, from the Sunset Tour we did, to one which reaches all the way to Hilton Head. If you’re insecure about flying, you can try out their quick Discovery Tour, which provides views of the western end of Savannah for just $39. Matt was an excellent guide, friendly and knowledgeable, and we had a blast flying with him in the speedy yellow bee.

Location on our Map
Old City Helicopters – Website

List of Savannah Hotels

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March 31, 2016 at 6:00 pm Comment (1)

The Beach Institute

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Opened in 1856, the Massie School may have been the city’s first public school, but many of Savannah’s aspiring students would have to wait eleven more years for the founding of the Beach Institute: Savannah’s first school specifically for black children. Today, the school has moved into a more modern facility, and the old house has evolved into a cultural center and gallery.

Savannah Beach Institute

When the Beach Institute opened in 1867, it was staffed primarily by white women who had come down from the North. It was a private institution at the time, funded primarily through the beneficence of Alfred Ely Beach, the editor of Scientific American. A few years later, it became a public school, under the control of the Savannah Board of Education.

The Institute closed in 1919, but the house remained standing in its downtown location on Price Street, where it now operates as a cultural center dedicated to promoting and preserving the city’s black heritage. With exhibits on three floors, some of which are temporary, it’s a great place to take a break from the city’s heat and see both great artwork, and the interior of a classic Savannah house.

For us, the best collection inside the Beach Institute features the work of Ulysses Davis, a Savannah barber who taught himself wood-carving, and created new pieces when he didn’t have any customers. His work displays a crazy sort of imagination, with bizarre, fantastical creatures, and ideas that might have come straight out of a dreams. The highlight is a collection of presidential busts, from George Washington to George Bush III, re-imagined with black facial characteristics. Unknown throughout his life, Ulysses achieved a certain measure of fame after death, and his work has been featured in major venues, including Washington DC’s Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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Savannah Tour Discounts

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March 28, 2016 at 9:39 am Comments (0)

The Rowdy Fun of River Street

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Say you’ve got a lady companion on your arm. She’s a fine lady, dainty and demure, and you wish to take a romantic stroll along the river, and perhaps even muster the courage to steal a furtive kiss on the cheek. Good sir, stay away from River Street! Now, on the other hand, if your lady is a party animal, partial to the occasional belch, and already a drunken mess at 3pm, then head on down. You guys are going to have a blast. And I bet you get more than a kiss on the cheek.

Savannah River Street

River Street is Savannah’s party central. When the sun goes down and the lights go on, this is where the action is, drawing locals and tourists alike to its riverside bars and restaurants. But it’s also a party during the day, especially on weekends, as people encouraged by Savannah’s liberal open container laws, stumble up and down the cobblestone street.

But you don’t have to be intoxicated to enjoy River Street’s charms. When the sun is out, this is a fun place for anyone to spend the afternoon. There are some decent shops, historic sights, and the restaurants aren’t all tourist traps: Vic’s on the River is legitimately good, and we had a great time shucking oysters at Bernie’s, where the price per bucket was a bargain.

Savannah River Street

If all that’s not enough, you also have the view of the Savannah River, upon which you’ll probably see some big container ships making their way upstream to the port. Should you feel like getting out on the water yourself, you can take a river cruise on a steamship. Big tourist boats leave frequently from the street-side dock.

But the best thing to do on River Street, is to grab a couple to-go cups, sit down on a wall somewhere, preferably with a view of the Talmadge Bridge, and watch the people come and go. You’ll see all sorts of characters on River Street, getting into all sorts of drunken situations. It’s great fun and maybe, if the sun is going down and the mood is right, you’ll be able to steal that kiss, after all.

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List Of Savannah Hotels

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March 26, 2016 at 12:57 pm Comments (0)

The Gullah-Geechee Legacy of Pin Point

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Found along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia are communities known as the Gullah-Geechee, who are descended from freedmen and former slaves. Historically isolated due to the ultra-rural environment and their own choice, these are people who developed their own culture and language. We went to the Pin Point Heritage Center to learn more about them, their work and their lives.

Pin Point Heritage Center

The origins of Pin Point date back to the earliest days of our country, when black men and women who had secured their freedom were looking to get away from the society which had enslaved them. And so they went as far as possible into the marshlands, and built a community in the coastal backwaters. Gullah-Geechee culture developed on a sort of side-branch of American culture, with strong African influences and a creole language. For most of history, Pin Point was a dead-end road which outsiders had little reason to visit. And the residents liked it that way.

Almost all of the other former Gullah communities along the coast have disappeared… this is prime coastal real estate, after all, and has become valuable land. So far, Pin Point has resisted, but the danger of dying out is real, as its well-educated sons and daughters move away from the low country into larger society.

Historically, the people of Pin Point worked in the oyster and crab business, and the largest employer by far was the Pin Point Oyster company. The Gullah people knew the coastal waterways better than anyone, so the men were hired as fishermen, the women as oyster shuckers. Today, the small factory has closed its doors, but continues serving the community as the Pin Point Heritage Center, which opened in 2011.

Pin Point Heritage Center

After being greeted at the doors of the Heritage Center, we sat down to watch an excellent 35-minute documentary about the people of the community. We then moved on into the factory’s main building, where men would shovel oysters from their boats into chutes, delivering them to the women inside, who would shuck, clean and ice them. As we followed the oyster’s journey from boat to can, we learned more about the individuals who once worked here.

In other rooms, we learned more about the Gullah language, as well as their games and traditions. All of Pin Point’s residents grew up with nicknames which were far more important than their birth names. This is a practice thought to come directly from Africa, where people would keep their true identities secret, as protection from dark magic. If a witch doctor didn’t know your real name, he couldn’t hurt you.

The nickname of Pin Point’s most famous resident is “Boy.” But if someday you have the honor of meeting Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, you probably shouldn’t call him that. Clarence Thomas grew up in Pin Point, and his ascension through the ranks of law to one of the highest offices in the land epitomizes the work ethic and ambition of this small neighborhood. In the documentary, we learned that even though the community struggled financially, every penny went into the education of their children. And it’s paid off in spades. Their parents might have been fishermen and oyster-shuckers, but the children of Pin Point are lawyers, engineers and educators.

Gullah is thought to derive from “Angola,” the country from which many slaves were taken, while Geechee probably refers to Savannah’s Ogeechee River. And this combined term is a great reflection of the people themselves: with its roots in Africa, but definitely American. The truth is, it’s hard to imagine a group of people who embody American values more than the hard-working, faith-driven, and community-based Gullah-Geechee.

Location on our Map
Pin Point Heritage Center – Website

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March 25, 2016 at 10:06 am Comments (0)

The Massie Heritage Center

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Located on Calhoun Square, the Massie School opened its doors in 1856, and was the first public school in Georgia. Today, it’s been converted into the Massie Heritage Center, featuring an overview of Savannah’s unique urban planning, and exhibits dedicated to the most important aspects of the city’s culture, from architecture to the Native American influence.

Massie Heritage Center

The Massie Heritage Center provides a great introduction to Savannah. In the first room, you’ll find a large-scale model of the historic district, complete with a laser show that highlights important events in the city’s history. Just as interesting is a walk through the various architectural styles which can be found in Savannah. From Colonial to Contemporary, seventeen styles are detailed, with their periods of prominence and photographic examples from around in the city.

The Heritage Center is spread across two floors in three buildings. The central building was the former schoolhouse, while the buildings to the left and right were the boys’ and girls’ dormitories. Exhibits in these side buildings include an introduction to the work of the Historic Preservation Society, which rescued many of Savannah’s most lovely buildings from the wrecking ball of progress, and a tribute to the Creek and Yamacraw people who lived in the region long before the arrival of the Europeans.

Massie Heritage Center

Perhaps our favorite section was the old classroom, found on the top floor of the schoolhouse. With old-time desks and chalk slates to write on, this room doesn’t seem to have changed much over the course of the years, and it’s not hard to imagine a group of fidgety kids learning their arithmetic here. In the teacher’s office, at the front of the room, visitors are allowed to ring the school bell, which once called the children in for class.

We really enjoyed our visit to the Massie Heritage Center, but wish we had seen it when we first arrived in the city. It provides an easily-digestible introduction to Savannah, and should be one among your first stops.

Location on our Map
Massie Heritage Center – Website

Savannah History Books

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March 16, 2016 at 9:02 am Comments (0)

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room

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Mashed potatoes, fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese, blackeyed peas, green beans, stuffing… and could I get more of that sweet tea? Uncle Chuck, could you pass the noodle salad and cabbage? Boy-oh-boy, Grandma, you really outdid yourself this Thanksgiving!

Hold on a second. You’re not my grandma, these aren’t my relatives… and this isn’t Thanksgiving! Oh well. Hey stranger, pass the rutabaga!

Mrs Wilkes

Sorry, Paula Deen, but Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room is Savannah’s most famous dining establishment, with a history that stretches back to 1943. That’s when young Sema Wilkes bought a boarding house at 107 West Jones Street and began serving family-style meals to her clients. Her reputation grew quickly, and soon enough, people were lining up outside the door to get a taste of her famous home cooking.

Throughout the decades, the lines have never died down, even after Mrs. Wilkes’ passing in 1995 (today, her granddaughter runs the show). The restaurant accepts no reservations, so be prepared to wait. The line starts forming around 11am, and the doors open a half hour later. Groups of ten are seated around the table, so you’ll almost definitely be eating with a few strangers. But that’s the idea — you get to meet some people, hear some stories and share some of your own.

Mrs Wilkes

It really is like Thanksgiving, but without the drama usually inherent in family gatherings. Maybe this woman sitting next to you is feuding with her daughter-in-law. Maybe she’s homophobic. But you wouldn’t know, because here in Mrs. Wilkes, such topics don’t come up. You can exchange niceties with her, and inquire politely about where she’s from. And then you eat, eat, and eat some more. There were at least two dozen bowls on our table and everything is delicious. Chow down as much as you want, and don’t worry about things running out: at the end of the meal, our ten-person table had barely put a dent in all the food that had been served.

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room is a quintessential Savannah experience, and even though the line may seem daunting, believe me that it’s worth the wait. This is an experience you’ll be remembering for a long time… even in November, when your real grandma serves up a decidedly inferior Thanksgiving meal. It’s unfair to compare, though, because nobody does this style of home-cooked feast better than Mrs. Wilkes.

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Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room – Website

Savannah Cookbooks

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March 13, 2016 at 6:18 pm Comments (0)

Savannah: Five Years Later

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Five years had passed, and we thought it would be a good time to return to Savannah. We wouldn’t be staying for 91 days, this time, but just a couple weeks. We figured that should be long enough to visit our favorite spots, eat at some new restaurants and check out a few things we had missed the first time around.

A lot can change in five years. The last time we were in Savannah, we were just starting out on our travels. Savannah was only our second destination, and we were still figuring out how this whole “For 91 Days” project was going to work. Five years ago, we were different people; a little younger and a lot less experienced. Oh and back then, our dog was still alive and traveling with us!

But for a city like Savannah, five years is nothing. The first thing we did upon returning was to tour the city’s squares, and I was impressed by how little they had changed. It was almost as though we had never left. There were the same haunting mansions, the same mustached SCADsters, the same Live Oaks draped in Spanish Moss, and the same atmosphere of welcoming southern gentility. Even the same big old blues singer was in his spot at Wright Square, belting out the same interminable melodies.

In 91 days, we had been able to experience a lot of what Savannah has to offer, but there was still a lot left to do. There were things we missed, because they had been closed for renovation (Massie Heritage Center), closed for the season (Mrs. Wilkes), or because we had simply run out of time (Sorrel-Weed House). There are new restaurants, and other experiences which hadn’t existed five years ago, or which we didn’t know about.

And besides all the new things, we hoped to return to all our favorite spots. The Sentient Bean, the Olde Pink House, Bonaventure Cemetery and Tybee… Is it possible to repeat 91 experiences in ten days? I doubt it, but I’m dying to try.

The three months we spent in Savannah were among the most memorable in all our travels, and we’re happy to have returned, even if just for a short visit. So let’s catch up, Savannah! Honestly, honey, y’all look the same. The years have been kind. But tell your old friends all about it. What’s new?

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March 9, 2016 at 8:22 pm Comments (0)
Savannah from the Air with Old City Helicopters With its squares, mansions, oak trees and Spanish Moss, Savannah is a gorgeous city when you're standing on the ground. But how does it look from the air? To find out, we got in touch with Old City Helicopters, who invited us out on a sunset tour. Soon enough, we were zooming along the Savannah River, looking down upon the city from above.
For 91 Days