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A Haunted, Crawfish-Filled Weekend in Savannah's Historic District

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Pack your bags! In honor of life’s most delicious highways, we give you Hit the Road, Snack, our travel guide of things to eat, see, and do this summer from coast to coast. This week our Senior Editor Eric Kim heads south to his hometown, the Peach State.


Photo by Alex Citrin

For those born and raised in Atlanta’s public school system, there's a government-sponsored rite of passage for 13-year-olds: the eighth grade South Georgia trip. Probably just a momentary reward, a false sense of security, for graduating middle schoolers on their way to high school, the South Georgia trip is the culmination of a year-long required course in Georgia history. At the end of eighth grade, you pack your bags, kiss your mom goodbye, and get on a sweaty bus with fifty other hormonal teens to Savannah, Georgia.

That trip was formative, to say the least: the first sleepaway for most of us (no parents), all-you-can-eat pecan pralines at River Street Sweets (no parents!), the four-to-a-motel-room situation most American humans don’t have to deal with until freshman year of college, when you realize your mother is the best roommate you'll ever have (no parents...).

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But it wasn't until I got my driver's license, years later, and drove to Savannah myself as an adult that I was able to appreciate all of Georgia's most delicious landmarks. You'll find some of the best country-fried Southern food here: hushpuppies, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken—the works. If you're a history buff like me, you may find yourself on ghosts tours, beer crawls, drunken ghost tour beer crawls. I don't know that there's any city as crawling with the past as Savannah. I'm obsessed with its architecture; each house in the Historic District has a story. In this coastal, antebellum nook of the South, William Faulkner's adage from Requiem for a Nun is alive and well: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Though I’m inordinately proud that I hail from Julia Roberts’ hometown of metropolitan Atlanta, I’ve always said that if one were to truly see Georgia—the real Georgia—with its rich, dark history, its moody Spanish moss, and its praline-sweet charm, then it’d be imperative to drive a little further south to Savannah.

WHAT TO EAT, ESPECIALLY ON RIVER STREET

River Street Sweets

When it comes to Savannah, Georgia, everything starts and ends on River Street, the cobblestoned stretch of bars, shops, and eateries along the Savannah River.

River Street Sweets is the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory of the South. My favorite thing to get here is the saltwater taffy. You can watch them pull it, which is very fun and well, but if you’re lucky, you’ll walk in right as they’re making their famous pecan pralines. They smell not unlike those Nuts 4 Nuts carts on the streets of New York (but way better). When one of my best friends from Atlanta—former American Idol contestant and LA-based singer-songwriter, Isabelle—saw that I was in Savannah, she begged me to pick up a box of these pralines for her. Of course, I obliged and mailed them to her, because I know what it’s like to miss home.

Bernie’s Oyster House (River Street Location)

When I’m traveling somewhere, anywhere, I always find myself going to one place twice. That’s how I know that it’s the best bite of the trip. Maybe it’s because I’m a sentimental person and want to have that single taste memory to anchor a visit to a new city.

When it comes to Savannah, for me, it’s nothing fancy: It’s the bar food at Bernie’s. I think you can (and probably should) get oysters here, but I always order the crawfish (aka crawdads, crawldads, freshwater lobsters, mountain lobsters, mudbugs, or yabbies). They come steamed and seasoned in an Old Bay–ish situation. Now here’s how to eat them: Rip off their heads, suck out the juices (just try it, trust me), then peel the tail ends as if you’re peeling shrimp, eat, and lick seasoning off of fingers. If this work-and-reward situation is too involved for you, then you could opt for the shrimp boil instead. But you won't get the lip-smacking nuttiness characteristic of crawdad heads.

The hushpuppies are the best in the city: rich, corny, and flavorsome, yet clean and not saturated in frying oil like the others tend to be. Living in New York, I find that hushpuppies are hard to come by, so whenever I drive home, I always go to Bernie’s at least twice for my fill. It helps as well to order a side of coleslaw, a sort of palate cleanser (and roughage for what may be a very deep-fried weekend for you).

Back in the Day Bakery

If you’re in the mood for a real Georgia biscuit, then you should probably make your way to Back in the Day for breakfast or brunch. Down-home and authentically Southern, this bakery has the best build-your-own biscuit sandwiches. Biscuit flavors come in: buttermilk, jalapeño, kale Biscuit, and “everything.” The apple-smoked bacon, egg frittata, and pimento cheese taste very nice sandwiched between any of these.

Oh, right! It’s a bakery, so you can't miss their chocolate chip cookies or any of their scratch-made desserts for the road. Fill up on coffee here, too.

The Olde Pink House

It’d be remiss of me to write about Savannah without mentioning The Olde Pink House, tavern and restaurant, the first stop on our tour of 18th-century Georgia architecture. In 1771, a wealthy cotton planter named James Habersham, Jr. built his dream home out of red bricks covered with white stucco. Legend has it that the walls are pink due to the bricks bleeding through the stucco—the ghost of Mr. Habersham forever haunting the house.

Photo by The Olde Pink House

Sanguine walls aside, the restaurant is the only white-tablecloth option on this road trip, which you may want after all that bar food. It’s worth it anyway for the solid Southern menu that, should you or your party care, leans heavily on the seafood (you are by the water, after all). Here you’ll find: shrimp and grits, lump crab cakes, fried green tomatoes, mac and cheese jalapeño poppers, and your usual Lowcountry main-course fare, like fried chicken, gravy-smothered pork chops, and whole crispy, scored flounder. There's even an old cookbook you can order, should you want to make these dishes at home. As for cocktails: Get the “Pink Lady” and never apologize for it.

Across the Pond

If you make it to Tybee Island, you have to try Sundae Cafe (a hole-in-the-wall next to a convenience store) and Stingrays ("the home of blue crabs, beach music, and beer"). Both restaurants are classically Tybee, but Sundae Cafe is nicer and sit-down. Stingrays was "Tybee's Best Kept Secret"—until Miley Cyrus ate there when she was in town 10 years ago. The other Bernie’s location is also here (get the hushpuppies again!).

WHERE TO SLEEP, EVEN THOUGH IT'S PROBABLY HAUNTED

The Kehoe House

When I was in eighth grade, Charmed was a very popular series on cable television (remember Charmed? remember cable?). Three empowered sisters—who just happened to be witches—lived in a gorgeous Victorian mansion called the Halliwell Manor, not unlike the Kehoe House. I took a picture of it with my disposable camera (remember those?) and wrote down the address for a few years later, when I would drive down to Savannah in search of this old red house again.

It’s a special “boutique” stay, for sure. The chef there makes you breakfast every morning and watches you eat it. If you don’t finish your eggs, she’ll scold you. You have to wake up extra early for it, too, so all in all it’s a lot more work than just staying at a Motel 6. Plus, because it’s an inn, there are social events like "afternoon coffee" and "hors d'oeuvres in the parlor" (yup, there’s a parlor, even a foyer and a conservatory, whatever those are). But, if I’m to be frank with you, I skipped all of those because human interaction makes me nervous. As for the inn itself? I loved every creepy second of it because it felt like I was living in 1892 for the weekend.

Oh yeah, the house is haunted. Legend has it that the two Kehoe children died in the fireplace while playing. And if you’re up late enough, you can hear them laughing, running up and down the halls—even though the one rule at the Kehoe House is that kids are not allowed in this adults-only bed and breakfast (!!).

P.S. Charmed fans: Yes, there is a walk-up attic.

The Marshall House

For the intrepid, this hotel is another good (haunted) option in the Savannah Historic District. Mary L. Marshall's house, built in 1851, was eventually used as a hospital for wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War. Since then, the hotel has reopened and closed many times due to various maintenance and leasing issues. Legend has it that when the hotel reopened in 1999, after having been closed since 1957, workers found bones under some damaged floorboards (later believed to have been the remains of soldiers who had stayed at the house over a century ago).

Even today, The Marshall House is one of the oldest hotels in Savannah. A portrait of Mary hangs in the hotel's lobby, and guests have reported that she can be heard roaming the halls, watching over the house she built from scratch.

The Other Options

The haunted bed-and-breakfast weekend is something I only treat myself to when I'm alone or plan to really milk the great indoors. To read and write in peace, for instance. For the other kind of trip, there are plenty of hotel and motel chains in the area you could stay at, including the waterfront ones on River Street, like the Savannah Marriott Riverfront or the Hyatt Regency Savannah, all very close to the food and things.

But most of the time, when I'm not Airbnbing it, you can find me at the clean and affordable Motel 6. There are two locations in Savannah just a few minutes from River Street.

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HOW TO CRAWL WITH GHOSTS & OTHER FUN THINGS TO DO

Commune With the Past

The one thing you have to do when you’re in the oldest city in Georgia is go on a ghost tour. It’s not just a kitschy way to spend the evening with your friends; it’s an opportunity to learn more about the city’s rich history and architecture, as well. As long as you’re a pied, I highly recommend the haunted pub crawl version of this tour. It's much scarier walking in a mob through Savannah's darkest, most haunted corners when no one's sober. But there are plenty of other themes: Pick one that fits your group and be sure to buy tickets in advance.

Take a Ferry

I love the Belles Ferry fleet because they're named after four of the most important women in Savannah history: Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts; Susie King Taylor, a Civil War nurse who later opened one of Georgia's first schools for former slaves; Mary Musgrove, a Native American interpreter for General Oglethorpe; and Florence Martus, the "Waving Girl" (see below). You can take any one of these ferries across the Savannah River from these locations: River Street at City Hall; Waving Girl Landing at the Savannah Marriott Riverfront; Hutchinson Island at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center.

Wave at her!
Wave at her! Photo by Ron Cogswell

Wave at the Waving Girl

Why? Because Florence Martus, aka the Waving Girl, waved a handkerchief every day (and a lantern every night) at arriving and departing sailors from 1887 to 1931. According to the quiet legend, she never once missed a ship in those 44 years. One sad, romantic version of the story says that she was waving for her long-lost love, a soldier who never came home. Her dedication can be seen in Morrell Park at the end of River Street, memorialized in a moving statue by sculptor Felix de Weldon.

Visit the Bonaventure Cemetery

Paris has Père Lachaise; New York has Green-Wood and Woodlawn. When a city's as old as Savannah, it's worth visiting its many cemeteries. Built in 1846, Bonaventure is devastatingly gorgeous, Southern Gothic in style, and abound with Spanish moss. Most people know it from John Berendt's novel, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. You can find it on 330 Bonaventure Road, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day.

Sit on the Forrest Gump Bench

If there's anything to say about Savannah other than its crawdads and ghosts, it's that it has many, many squares. When General Oglethorpe founded Savannah in 1733, he centered his city around 24 of them. One of the most popular is Chippewa Square, most famously known for the bench scenes in Forrest Gump. The actual prop bench is in the Savannah History Museum now, but there are plenty just like it in the square, so go take a squat and snap a photo holding a box of chocolates from River Street Sweets.

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THE LONG AND NOT-TOO-WINDING ROAD SOUTH

If you’re driving from Hotlanta Atlanta, then you’ll be heading southeast along I-16 E the whole way. It’s a four-hour drive. But if you’re impatient like me, then I recommend that you try I-75 S, then merge onto I-16 E in Macon, Georgia to curb the four hours to a mere three hours plus 40 minutes. The other road trip itineraries in Hit the Road, Snack have recommended restaurants and sea lions and other cute things to do along the way. But I recommend that you just bolt it. Things are sweeter in Savannah, trust me.

Be sure to stock up on some good music (my road trip soundtrack is whatever's in my high school car, which is most likely a compact disc of Stand Still, Look Pretty by Grammy-nominated country-pop duo The Wreckers) and a couple appropriately themed podcasts like Serial, Season 1 (not Season 2), and S-Town.

Did I miss your favorite Savannah restaurant, thing, or ghost? Please share in the comments below to help us fill out this itinerary. And for more travel guides, Hit the Road, Snack!

Tags: Hit the Road, Snack