As the roads from Florida wind their way north toward Savannah, Hilton Head Island and Charleston, the vastness of the marshes is mighty impressive. Rivers, estuaries and sounds crisscross miles and miles of grasses. What a way to approach these loveliest of southern coastal cities, with grasslands being gentle guards of the ladies and their island gent!
What impressed me the most about the three, Savannah, Charleston and Hilton Head Island? First off, it was entering Savannah and finding 21 beautiful squares dotted throughout the large historic district, the streets laid out around them in perfect geometric grids. There were 24 squares in the beginning, 21 still exist. Each square has a history behind its name…one is even Washington Square, named after George who visited Savannah once. These live-oak tree-covered squares, replete with statues, fountains, benches, azaleas and grass-lined walkways are surrounded by the most handsome homes, small and large.
In the early days, the commercial and residential buildings centered on these public squares. I loved them, these charming gathering places rooting the communities surrounding them. Built on a bluff in 1733 overlooking the Savannah River, the port was a marriage for the cotton industry. Today we stayed on River St. in a hotel surrounded by restaurants and tourist shops, where once stood the cotton warehouses. As in all of the original colonies, church spires dominate the city skyline; religion playing a big part of the residents lives then as well as now.
The Catholics in your families will love this tidbit…the Cathedral in Savannah is thought to be the most beautiful in Georgia. And it is gorgeous …
For you history buffs, the city had a garrison of soldiers in the long-ago revolt against England but were surprised by the British who then used Savannah as their colonial headquarters before leaving in 1782. During the Civil War, the force of Gen. Sherman burning his way across Georgia resulted in the defenders of the city withdrawing so Savannah would be saved from destruction. Sherman entered the city on Christmas Day, in 1864 and offered it to President Abraham Lincoln as a present.
Hilton Head Island – Northeast of Savannah lies the gentleman of this group…just off the South Carolina coast. The stands of trees buffer the coastal marsh shoreline, and protect the nature life on the island. What surprised us the most were these dense woods which covered this 12 mile long and up to 5 mile wide island. Carved into these woods are about 25 golf courses, 300 tennis courts, hotels, resorts, businesses and who knows how many homes, mostly hidden by the trees. Golf now is the other name for this island.
In earlier days the history of the Gullah, or freed slave was predominant. Before 1956 when the bridge to the island was completed, the Gullah population’s culture was hunting, fishing and farming. Today the island has become an all-year resort. As we expected to see open vistas to the sea and waterways, it took us many wrong turns to find a waterfront restaurant for our lunch, one that had an Atlantic Ocean view.
Charleston is the grand-dame of it all. What a heady combination of homes, history, and historic aristocratic attitudes. This impressed us, all of it. The city is placed between the Ashley and the Cooper Rivers, who meet to build Charleston Harbor, a bay and an exit to the world.
Where these two rivers join is called the Battery, where all who live or visit here end up to contemplate this remarkable piece of southern history. In a bygone era women promenaded arm-in arm along the Battery past the gracious homes. Many of these houses were built with piazzas (open covered walkways with columns) on the sides of the houses to let in the air and for privacy from the streets…making the house look as if they’re riding side-saddle to the lot.
The daily harbor sails on the 84-foot wooden Schooner Pride use just wind energy, the high-end antique stores on King Street are masters of re-using, and the high-ranking notable restaurants—many focusing on the region’s Low Country cuisine—celebrate local ingredients.
Charleston is known for its gardens, many hidden behind homes that hug the sidewalks. Gardens are part of the landscape, silently speaking about the talents of those who tend them. Towering over these peaceful places are the trees, all draped in that dusty looking moss called Spanish Moss. In fact it’s all over the south, and being air and dust fed, it doesn’t harm these magnificent trees.
When Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston head on in 1989, it did more damage than both the Civil War and the earlier war with England. Huge waves pounded over The Battery onto the city streets, where first floors of houses flooded up to the second story, and the city was left in shambles. What is impressive is the spirit of the Charlestonian: persistence and courage in rebuilding over and over, pride in their history, and respect for their ancestors.
Those portraits of past family members that hang in prominent places in their homes, are there out of a real caring for the past plus a respect for their contribution to the community. As integration changed the aristocratic rules, the walls of an upper class society that had ruled Charleston were broken down. In spite of all that Charleston has endured, the lovely restored homes in the south of Broad district tell of a casual elegance that has continued. Today, the city has become a tourist mecca, filled with sightseers, all eager to relive the Rhett Butler days of “charm and grace.”
Did you know Johnny Mercer (“Moon River” and “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby”), and who won 4 academy awards is from Savannah? And so is the lady who started the Girl Scouts!