Savannah and Charleston have long been South Carolina rivals –– two beautiful cities known for their well-preserved historic districts, abundance of Southern charm and booming tourism. This ongoing game of one-upmanship has been in place since 1733. That’s when British Gen. James Oglethorpe landed on the banks of Georgia’s Savannah River to stake his claim –– a feat that occurred about 100 years after South Carolina’s Charles Towne was founded. For years, I’d heard about both cities’ charms. So much so that when it came down to choosing one to visit, a friend and I opted for both. This proved not too complicated a trip, since these two garden cities are only two hours apart by car. The major differences between Savannah and Charleston have more to do with the look of each place: Savannah is more of a walking city, with its 20-some lushly green and tidy squares, still considered marvels of urban design. Its moss-draped look is unique, bordering on Gothic. Charleston, despite having a smaller population, actually feels and looks bigger. Its downtown is less compact, and its architecture veers toward the Caribbean, with pastel-painted houses galore.
Our accommodations in Savannah could not have been better for exploring the city. Located on Reynolds Square, the 60-room, 200-year-old Planters Inn was conveniently located next door to the famed Olde Pink House Restaurant (which provides its room service meals) and less than a five-minute walk to the waterfront. The latter offers plenty of boutiques, outdoor craftspeople and live music. In Savannah, we got our initial lay of the land by way of a memorable architectural tour. Jonathan Stalcup –– a master’s level architecture graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design –– explained the history behind the city’s layout, as well as key points of its most famous structures. One of those buildings, the Mercer Williams House, later provided us with the highlight of our Savannah visit. Any fan of the best-seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, will recall, this as the home of antiques dealer Jim Williams. One of Savannah’s most outlandish characters, he was acquitted (after four trials) of murdering his young (male) lover in the house’s study, only to die himself less than a year after his final trial.
Our tour of the stately Mercer House (circa 1868) included a visit to the actual site of the murder –– Williams’ study –– which our guide coyly described as “the room where Jim had to defend his life” (Williams had confessed to the killing, but claimed self-defense). In terms of Southern cuisine, we couldn’t go wrong in Savannah. Along with the elegant Pink House, we savored our meals at B & D Burgers and Leopold’s step-back-in-time ice cream parlor, a local spot since 1919. Our drive to Charleston proved easy, and we soon were checked into a dazzling hotel. Built in 1924 as the largest and grandest hotel in the Carolinas, the Francis Marion remains the only high-rise property in the city’s historical district. The hotel, even with some updates, retains its glamour, complete with a grand piano and chandeliers in the lobby. A ferry ride to Fort Sumter provided us with an up-close look at the place where the Civil War began (and yes, those Rebels successfully defended the fort for years), while the Heyward-Washington House gave us a chance to see where our first President visited during his term in office. But the top attraction for me proved to be a temporary one, the “Sound and Vision” rock ‘n roll photography exhibit at the Gibbes Museum of Art. There we saw and learned about some of rock music’s most famous –– and most obscure –– photos. This exhibition runs through Dec. 30, 2012. Our meals in Charleston proved just as delightful as in Savannah. From the all-vegetarian farmer’s plate at Virginia’s on King to the luscious lasagna at Osteria la Bottiglia, Charleston’s varied interpretations of low-country cuisine were top-notch. Discussing which Southern city would take the “overall prize” as a travel destination, we ended up where we started: Why choose when they’re both deserving?