If you have time to visit only one city in Georgia, make it Savannah. It's that special.
The movie Forrest Gump may have put the city squarely on the tourist map, but nothing changed the face of Savannah more than the 1994 publication of John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The impact has been unprecedented, bringing in countless millions in revenue as thousands flock to see the sights from the mega-bestseller. In fact, Savannah tourism has increased some 46% since publication of what's known locally as The Book. Even after all this time, some locals still earn their living off The Book's fallout, hawking postcards, walking tours, T-shirts, and, in some cases, their own careers, as in the case of the Lady Chablis, the black drag queen depicted in The Book who played herself in the Eastwood film.
We asked an old-timer what made Savannah so special. "Why, here we even have water fountains for dogs," he replied.
The free spirit, the passion, and even the decadence of Savannah resembles that of Key West or New Orleans more than it does the Bible Belt, down-home interior of Georgia. In that sense, it's as different from the rest of the state as New York City is from upstate New York.
Savannah -- pronounce it with a drawl -- conjures up all the clichéd images of the Old South: live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, stately antebellum mansions, mint juleps sipped on the veranda, magnolia trees, peaceful marshes, horse-drawn carriages, ships sailing up the river (though no longer laden with cotton), and even General Sherman, no one's favorite military hero here.
Today the economy and much of the city's day-to-day life still revolve around port activity. For the visitor, however, it's Old Savannah, a beautifully restored and maintained historic area, that's the big draw. For this we can thank seven Savannah ladies who, after watching mansion after mansion demolished in the name of progress, managed in 1954 to raise funds to buy the dilapidated Isaiah Davenport House -- just hours before it was slated for demolition to make way for a parking lot. The women banded together as the Historic Savannah Foundation, then went to work buying up architecturally valuable buildings and reselling them to private owners who'd promise to restore them. As a result, more than 800 of Old Savannah's 1,100 historic buildings have been restored, using original paint colors -- pinks and reds and blues and greens. This "living museum" is now the largest urban National Historic Landmark District in the country -- some 2 1/2 square miles, including 20 1-acre squares that still survive from Gen. James Oglethorpe's dream of a gracious city.