LOVELY, luscious Savannah -- the very name suggests a soft Southern breeze -- was one of America's first planned cities, laid out to charm the eye. The architect of this remarkable city was Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, who, as Georgia's first governor, planned the original settlement of six public squares with residential lots bordering central parks or squares. Other squares were added until they numbered 24. It is now considered a masterpiece of early urban planning.
Humanitarian Oglethorpe had arranged in February of 1733 for the release of more than 100 debtors from English prisons to establish the 13th British colony in the New World. Each family that came received a house lot on one of the squares, along with garden and farming plots outside the city. The original 2-square-mile city is now a National Historic Landmark District. Here more than 1,000 buildings have been carefully restored and are in use. Although no two are alike, each square is a peaceful park with a central monument, flower beds, sheltering trees, and inviting benches with historic housing lining the perimeters.
Savannah is a great place for walking along tree-shaded streets, but it's also a place to ride in a horse-drawn carriage, an old-fashioned trolley car, a harbor boat, or a paddlewheeler.
There is so much to see and do that it's wise to begin at the Savannah Visitors Center at 301 West Broad Street - situated in a former railroad station dating back to 1860. Free information, brochures, maps, exhibits, and a multimedia presentation provide a wealth of suggestions for newcomers. Especially helpful are the maps of four walking tours. Taped narratives can be rented for individual use, or visitors can sign up for professionally guided tours to various points of interest.
Savannah abounds with historic house museums with names like Davenport, Owens-Thomas, and Scarbrough. These architectural gems are furnished with superb antiques, and rear doors and windows give views of beautiful gardens. Exquisitely crafted furniture of rich mahogany and carved oak, along with accessories of polished brass, gleaming silver, porcelain, and crystal, are sure to draw sighs of admiration from visitors. There is an admission charge for most houses.
The birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts of America, may be seen at 142 Bull Street. Also of special interest to children is the Museum of Antique Dolls at 505 East President Street. Telfair Academy of Art and Science, 121 Barnard Street, designed by noted architect William Jay, contains examples of fine American paintings and sculpture. King-Tisdell Cottage, 514 East Huntingdon Street, restored by the Georgia Trust for Historical Preservation, is devoted to Afro-American history and culture in Savannah.
America's first public experimental garden, Trustees Garden, begun by Oglethorpe in 1734, is on East Broad Street near Bay Street. Plants propagated here contributed to the development of the famous cotton and peach crops in Georgia. The building that is now an herb shop in this section is believed to be the oldest building in Georgia. Here, too, is the Pirates' House tavern, where pirate Blackbeard is said to have died.
Outside the National Historic District of original squares is the Victorian Landmark District, covering about one square mile. Here one finds the most photographed house in Savannah, a Victorian Gingerbread House, built in 1899 for a local grocer who doted on fancy ornamentation. The riverfront
Savannah continues to be a major port, with more than 1,600 ships a year moving through the harbor. Freighters from all over the world unload crude oil, fuel oil, gypsum, plaster, limestone, natural and artificial gas, and raw sugar in return for cargoes of paper, wood pulp, grain, and vegetable oil.
Savannah's eminence as a world cotton trade center ended with the collapse of cotton prices in 1895. Today, restored cotton warehouses along the riverfront are occupied by colorful boutiques, taverns, restaurants, studios, and museums. Factors Walk, constructed high on the river bluff for the use of cotton traders, is still connected to the old cotton warehouses by bridgeways.
The former Cotton Exchange on Factors Walk is said to be the first building erected to span a public street in the United States, using the principle of ``air rights.'' Cobblestones that served as ballast in early ships arriving from England pave the ramps leading down to the waterfront. Walls of oyster shells, ballast, and brick remain throughout the area.
Savannah's riverfront bustles with shoppers and sightseers. A three-masted schooner is moored at the dock. The River Street Rambler, a freight locomotive, makes a daily run down River Street, roaring out Dixieland jazz from its cab, where brightly dressed engineers wave to onlookers.
Visitors are drawn to the Waving Girl Statue waiting for her sailor who never returned. Between 1887 and 1931, Florence Martus waved a white scarf to every ship that passed her lighthouse home, and vessels answered her greeting with a blast from the ship's horn.
Other things to look for along the riverfront include a bench outside city hall commemorating the landing of James Ogelthorpe in 1733, the US Customs House dating from 1853, the old Harbor Light in Emmett Park, Ships of the Sea Museum, and Evans Antique Cars museum in an old cotton warehouse. Boat tours of the harbor are offered daily. Historic forts
From its earliest days Savannah was fortified to protect the inhabitants as well as the strategic port. In the beginning, the entire city was walled against the Spanish who attacked from Florida. The oldest remaining brickwork fort, three miles from downtown on the south bank of the Savannah River, is Fort Jackson, constructed in 1809, which saw service against the British in 1812. Fort McAllister, south of the city on the Ogeechee River, is a restored earthwork fort that withstood two years of the Civil War before General Sherman took it on his March to the Sea.
Fort Pulaski, a historic monument operated by the National Park Service, is 15 miles east of Savannah on the way to Tybee Island. Begun in 1829 and designed by Napoleon's military engineer, it was considered an impregnable blockade of the Savannah River. The fort was occupied by Confederate troops during the Civil War and bombarded by Union forces on Tybee Island, more than a mile away. The attackers' new, experimental rifled cannons proved to have greater accuracy and longer range than conventional smoothbore guns. They opened wide gaps in walls more than seven feet thick, forcing the surrender of Fort Pulaski and altering designs for all future military fortification. The fort is open daily. Beach area
A few minutes away, Tybee Island, Savannah's beach area, offers a wealth of diversion: Fort Screven museum (gun and doll collections), charter deep-sea fishing, crabbing and shrimping, surfing and sailing, swimming and seashelling, water skiing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, and golfing.
Saltwater fishing in Georgia is best during fall and winter months, but anglers are active year-round. Trout and bass are plentiful; sheepshead, shad, and tarpon are also caught. Charter boats for deep-sea fishing, equipped for six people, may be hired for trips lasting from 4 to 11 hours. Eating out
Eating in Savannah can be a glorious adventure. Try the local seafood, including she-crab soup. Benn'es, tiny sesame seed wafers served with drinks, are also representative delicacies. Some places to sample local cuisine are Mrs. Wilkes Boarding House, 107 West Jones Street; Olde Pink House on Abercorn Street at Reynolds Square; the Pirates' House, 20 East Broad Street; Sebastian's, 321 Jefferson Street; Shrimp Factory, 313 East River Street, and W.G. Shuckers, 225 West River Street.
Savannahians boast about their year-long shirt-sleeve weather, claiming there are seldom two consecutive days without sunshine. (Prudent travelers will carry rain gear anyway.) Spring flowers bloom in late February, and summer gardens last well into fall. Sea breezes tend to moderate summer temperatures, which sometimes reach 90 degrees F., while sunshine takes the chill out of winter days that range from the 40s into the low 60s.
Savannah's casual, friendly ambiance is delightful at any time of year.