Savannah is known for its sultry weather, legendary squares and TV chefs with oversized personalities. But take the kids to America’s first planned city, and you’ll see this place from a completely different perspective.
It helps to visit during a cold snap in early February. The last time we’d been in town, before kids, it was summer-like in late November. This time, temperatures barely nudged above freezing.
We saw no TV chefs, even though on our last visit (again, without kids) we’d had our copy of Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse Cookbook signed by three generations of Wilkes women. It remains our favorite cookbook to this day. (Sorry, Paula.)
But the squares — ah, the squares! — they’re still there. And they’re as picture-perfect as ever, each one rich with enough historical significance to make a homeschooling parent happy. With names like Franklin, Lafayette, Madison, Oglethorpe, Telfair and Washington, they are all potential civics lessons — or they would be, in warmer weather.
We were delighted to see that a square had been “added” since our last visit. Ellis Square, which was a parking garage when we visited in the 90s, has been restored.
But the kids were drawn to other things, like the Georgia State Railroad Museum (watch the video below to get a quick preview), which has one of the most complete Antebellum railroad repair facilities still in existence. They toured several cars, including a trolley, a refrigerator car that is insulated with horse hair, and a Pullman car that once shuttled the railroad’s president between meetings.
Another attraction: ice cream (it’s never too cold to enjoy ice cream), and the place to go is Leopold’s, which has a secret recipe that was a big hit with the children. Fortunately, it was only a short walk from our Savannah apartment, so we ended up making regular trips to the restaurant, which is filled with historic Hollywood memorabilia. My daughter is partial to the chocolate, though the sundaes are pretty amazing, too.
Somehow, the kids sensed the presence of candy nearby. Sure enough, a few blocks away there’s an established candy store that makes some pretty decent pralines for the adults as well. It’s amazing we all still fit into our clothes after four days in town.
Over on Tybee Island, our next stop, there were fewer culinary diversions — although the pies at the Sundae Cafe, a favorite local hangout, are not to be missed. For us, the big attraction was halfway between Savannah and Tybee, on Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah River.
Fort Pulaski is a “cool-looking” building — to quote my nine-year-old son — with a fascinating history. The era of masonry forts came to a sudden end during the Civil War, when new technology rendered them useless. A crater shows the spot where one of the new cannons dramatically demonstrated to military commanders that the forts had become obsolete. (Even the adults had, ahem, skipped this part of their history lesson in high school.)
Apart from the raucous Mardi Gras parade we happened to be in town for, Tybee is pretty quiet at this time of year. The beaches are all but deserted, and the vacation rentals next to ours were shuttered up for the last few weeks of the season. Come March, this place will be hopping again.
I liked being here in February. Sure, it was chilly, but you also had the place all to yourself.
Just up the coast, in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, the first Spring Breakers were already beginning to arrive. We aren’t golfers, but we found plenty to do while we were in town. The Coastal Discovery Center was a standout, as far as the kids were concerned. They loved walking along the salt marshes, learning about these fragile coastal wetlands, and finding out about Hilton Head’s place in history, pre-golf.
I’m beginning to learn that when you’re outvoted 3-2 by your offspring, you skip a lot of museums and historic attractions while you’re on the road and head straight to the nearest candy store, ice cream parlor or bakery instead — and that those become the things travel-memories are made of.
Not a bad way to go, really.
Christopher Elliott writes the Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience at Away Is Home. Follow him on Twitter.