Birthday Getaway

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

July 12-17:  Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA

After coming up dry on ideas for a birthday gift for my mother's 83rd birthday, I finally just called her and asked where she wanted to go to celebrate the special day.  Since she loves to travel, I figured this was a gift she would like.  Without hesitation, she suggested Charleston or maybe Savannah, so we did both.  Ken wasn't able to join us due to some commitments in Atlanta, but while we were on the road he did have time to slip away for an overnight visit with his mom and sister in Charlotte.

U.S. Custom House, Charleston   (photo from Wikipedia)
When we arrived in Charleston on Friday afternoon, we checked in at our historic district hotel, parked the car, and caught a free trolley at the visitor center across the street.  We didn't really have a destination in mind when we boarded, but when we arrived at the City Market, it seemed the right time to disembark and do a bit of shopping, something the birthday girl enjoys almost as much as travel.

Shopping at Charleston's City Market
After a lot of browsing and very little buying, we hopped another trolley to return to the hotel for a tiny rest before a birthday dinner at Virginia's on King, billed as 'Southern cooking, Lowcountry style.'  When we had asked about a good spot for this special meal, a host at the Charleston Visitor Center recommended this local restaurant in a historic building just around the corner from our hotel. 

Birthday dinner
Virginia did not disappoint.  The birthday lady's she crab soup and blackened sea scallops were rated just as highly as my asiago cheese grit cakes and mesculun salad.  Our server was attentive and we had just a short walk back to our room after the meal.

One of many ways to tour Charleston
With a special interest in keeping its many tourists happy, Charleston offers a plethora of ways to tour the city, from limo to buggy, from pedal-powered rickshaw to all sizes of buses.  We had done the carriage tour when we visited the city together a number of years ago, so this time we opted for an air-conditioned minibus.  Following a visitor center suggestion again, we went with Alan's Talk of the Towne city tour company.  It turned out to be an unfortunate choice.

After meeting and listening to Alan for a while, we surmised that either he is friends with the VC host or is providing kickbacks for every tour ticket the agent sells.  Although he seemed a decent enough guy, Alan demonstrated absolutely no enthusiasm for his city and its history.  We're talking about Charleston, one of the most fascinating cities in the U.S., where history is around every corner.  Yet with his monotonous delivery of memorized facts, Alan managed to leave everyone yawning.  We marveled that he chose this profession.

Nathan Russell House
Nonetheless, we managed to make our way around the city, see some sights, and arrive on time for our tour of the Nathan Russell House, a grand townhouse in the Federal style built in the early 1800s by a successful Charleston merchant.  Laden with elaborately carved moldings and other ornamentation, the home features a rectangular room, an oval room and a square room on each of its three floors.  In addition to the geometric rooms, another unique element of the house is the elliptical free-flying spiral staircase that connects the three stories with no visible means of support.  Ruth, our delightful Historic Charleston tour guide at the house, was a breath of fresh air with her enthusiasm and animated style.

Nathan Russell staircase (photo by Rick Rhodes from Wikipedia)
After our tour, the soporific Alan picked us up and returned us to the visitor center, just across the street from the Charleston Museum, which we learned was America's first museum.  Founded in 1773, the museum seeks to interpret and preserve the history of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry.  We decided to take a look.

Replica of Civil War submarine Hunley
On the sidewalk near the museum's entrance is a replica of the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley.  Shipped by rail from Mobile in 1863 to help break up the Union blockade of Charleston harbor, the Hunley became the first combat submarine to sink an enemy ship.  Officers on board sent a message that their mission was successful, and that was the last anyone heard from the Hunley until divers stumbled upon it in the harbor in 1995.  The vessel was excavated and is now housed in a facility at the Charleston Navy Yard.

Historic Charleston street signs carry the name of the neighborhood
Before we left his bus, we did learn from Alan that Charleston's first suburbs—representing the initial movement outside the original city walls—were privately owned and named for their owners.  The area now known as Harleston Village, for example, was first granted by the British king to the ancestors of John Harleston in 1671.  This particular area was owned by Harleston when it was developed and streets were opened in 1770. The Harleston family was active in the colonial government and known as successful breeders of racehorses.  Streets in this area were named for prominent persons of the time.

Charleston Single House
In the time we spent in Charleston, we saw many examples of the architectural style most associated with the citythe Charleston Single House.  One room wide, the single house is built with the end of the house facing the street.  Two-story porches, called piazzas, stretch down the long side, and the street-side door enters onto the piazza.  It has been said that this style not only offered cross-ventilation during the days before air-conditioning, it also enabled homeowners to construct a larger home with a smaller amount of costly street frontage.

Our time in Charleston over, we packed up on Sunday morning and headed south toward Savannah.  Rain storms seemed determined to follow us all the way as they dumped a deluge of water upon us as we drove.  We made it into Savannah in early afternoon and headed for Bonaventure Cemetery, the city's largest public burial ground, made famous by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Bonaventure Cemetery
Despite the fact that we arrived in the rain, Bonaventure was busy with tourists.  Located at the site of a plantation along the river, this unique burial ground with its moss-draped live oak trees is breathtakingly beautiful with its variety of exquisite sculptures and memorials

From there, we headed to the Savannah historic district and the Hampton Inn, our hotel for the next couple of days.  We found the staff extremely hospitable and, after relaxing and unwinding from the trip, we set out on a trolley tour of the city.  After covering most of the route, we returned to the stop near our hotel and decided to call it a day on sightseeing.  Following the recommendation of the Hampton staff, we made reservations for dinner at The Olde Pink House restaurant and tavern on Reynolds Square, just a stone's throw from our hotel.

The Pink House
Pleased with both the food and the ambiance, we enjoyed our meal at this historic Savannah eating place and called it a day, turning in to rest up for a full day of activities on the morrow.

On Monday morning, we again hopped the trolley at the stop adjacent to our hotel, this time riding to River Street, where we checked out the tourist-centered shops and restaurants briefly before returning to the city tour which we had interrupted yesterday.  As we reached Chippewa Square, the trolley paused for a regularly scheduled stop.  Imagine our surprise when a familiar character joined us.

"Does this trolley go to Chippewa Square?"
Someone bearing a strong resemblance to Forrest Gump boarded the trolley and asked the driver if he would be stopping at Chippewa Square, which happened to be where we were located.  (It was also the site where Forrest was filmed with his box of chocolates for the movie.)  "Forrest" explained that he was to meet Lieutenant Dan at the square and left our company when he spotted his former commanding officer approaching.  The actor bore a striking resemblance to Tom Hanks and played his role quite convincingly, much to the delight of all the passengers.

After a bit more sightseeing, we left the trolley ourselves on Congress Street, home to the legendary Lady and Sons restaurant, the destination of so many thousands of tourists to Savannah.  Since Paula Deen became a Food Network star, her Savannah restaurant has been attracting legions of fans for a taste of her Southern recipes.

What so many tourists are seeking
The last time we were in the city in 2008, one had to visit the restaurant in the morning and stand in line for the opportunity to make a reservation for an evening meal with Paula.  Hey, Y'all!  Who would actually do that?  Since then, the butter queen apparently figured out that if she could feed more people, she could rake in more profits.  As numerous folks working in the hospitality industry warned us, the quality of the Lady and Sons' food took a nosedive when Paula introduced a buffet meal to accommodate more guests per day in the restaurant.

A barbecue sandwich by the Lady
We avoided the buffet and ordered from the menu.  The food was adequate, nothing special, but then the prices were reasonable, so we didn't really have any complaints.  And we could leave Savannah with the satisfaction of having dined with Paula Deen.  (For the record, this bastion of Southern cooking was very vegetarian friendly and even made adaptations to serve those who are gluten sensitive.)

To work off that tasty lunch, we decided to do a bit of shopping at Savannah's version of the City Market nearby.  This time we both found a few items we "needed" before we decided to mosey our way back toward the hotel.

Reviewing our course of action at Ellis Square
It wasn't too much of a walk back to the Hampton, especially with the beautiful Savannah squares every couple of blocks where we could rest and renew our energy for the next phase of our walk.

Washington Square
All the squares are well-equipped with both benches and shade, everything we needed for our journey.  Sometimes we even caught a light breeze.  We had seen an ad for a Gospel Dinner Cruise on Monday evenings and decided this might be just the way to wind up our travels.

Gospel Cruise singers
We even had time for a little rest at the hotel before setting off for River Street to catch our dinner cruise.  The food was fine, and the music was inspiring.  We happened to be on board with a young lady from Augusta who had taken the cruise before and was enamored with the choir.  Her parents made arrangements for her to perform with the choir this time and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.

Come morning, we packed up and headed back to Alabama, picking up Ken along the way.  We spent the night resting up before heading back to Georgia to begin carving stamps and planning for our next trip.

More Photos from the Birthday Getaway

A local helps with the birthday celebration
Oval dining room at Nathan Russell House  (photo by Rick Rhodes)
Part of extensive silver exhibit at Charleston Museum
Blonde raccoon in natural history exhibit at Charleston Museum
Civil War era torpedo from Charleston Museum exhibit
Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah
Chippewa Square, location of  Forrest Gump movie's opening scene
Savannah City Hall peeks through some of the city's live oaks
Massive cargo ship enters Savannah harbor





Savannah downspout said to bring good luck if you catch rainwater from it
Sylvia chats with Mississippi tourists at Savannah's Reynolds Square