Kathy Arnold, The Daily Telegraph, March 25, 2014
'There’s nothing more Southern than a seersucker suit and a bow tie,” according to “Savannah Dan”, our tour guide. And he certainly looks the part, as he doffs his Panama hat and welcomes us to Savannah, Georgia. With its elegant 18th and 19th-century homes, brick sidewalks and towering live oaks draped with Spanish moss, this is a beauty queen among American cities.
“In 1733, Georgia was created as a buffer between British South Carolina and Spanish Florida,” Dan explains. The man who laid out Savannah was a British general, James Oglethorpe. “Today’s town planners could learn a thing or two from him. We still have 22 of the 24 squares, and that’s where everyone meets up.” Children play; owners walk their dogs; you can even sip a cocktail. “Just ask the barman for 'one to go’; he’ll put it in a plastic cup. This is one of the few cities in the US where enjoying a drink outdoors is legal.”
That quirkiness is part of the city’s charm. So is the leisurely pace of life in this part of the USA : locals speak oh so slowly; cars pause to let us cross the cobbled streets. We visit the 19th-century Mercer Williams House, the location of the murder that inspired the best-selling book and film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; we tour museums, then sit at the counter at Leopold’s, where tutti-frutti ice cream was invented. And we get to grips with Southern cooking. “Down here, macaroni and cheese is considered a vegetable,” we are told in Mrs Wilkes Dining Room, where the 20-dish set lunch is a test of stamina. At the communal table, we drink sweet iced tea and pass around candied yams, meat loaf, fried chicken, black-eyed peas – and grits, or “gree-yuts” in local parlance.
To learn how to prepare some of these Georgia specialities, we join Darin Sehnert’s Southern Cookery class. On the menu are shrimp and grits, red-eye gravy and collard greens. We discover that coffee is the secret ingredient for the gravy, and “collards” are cooked like Swiss chard. For grits – the Southern version of polenta – we add butter, parmesan and heavy cream to stone-ground corn meal. “Even sand would taste good with all that,” Darin says with a chuckle. They are delicious, we are converted.
Shrimp ’n’ grits pops up on many menus, with the best shrimp coming from the Atlantic. “Along this coastline, conditions are perfect for them,” Captain Larry tells us, as he pilots the Lady Jane out of Brunswick, a fishing village an hour south of Savannah. A retired shrimper, he now takes landlubbers out for cruises. Also on board is Brooke, a marine scientist. As greedy gulls look down from their perch on the rigging, she provides a “who’s who” of the critters pulled up in the net. Like kids at a touch tank, we pick up jellyfish and flounder, an Atlantic sting ray and, of course, wriggling shrimp.
Just along the coast is Jekyll Island, with its white sandy beaches and golf courses. Once a winter bolthole for millionaires, the 125-year-old Jekyll Island Club Hotel is now open to all. But nods to the past remain, such as the “jackets for dinner” request for men in the grand dining room. After the Wall Street panic of 1907, a group of politicians, economists and bankers met here in secret; their fiscal reforms, which led to the creation of the US Federal Reserve, are commemorated in what is now the Federal Reserve Room.
Savannah and the coast are popular holiday destinations; less well-known is the rural hinterland. On our way back to Atlanta, we follow Georgia’s Antebellum Trail, a reminder of what Southerners refer to as the War Between the States or even the War of Northern Aggression. During that conflict, nothing was more aggressive than General Sherman’s “March to the Sea”, an 1864 version of shock and awe. Although the Union army laid waste many communities between Atlanta and the coast, Savannah was spared, as were some of the intriguing towns along this 100-mile-long drive. First up is Macon, where we delve into Georgia’s black heritage at the Tubman African American Museum. Despite the array of scientific and artistic achievements on display, perhaps the star attraction is a simple musical instrument. It belonged to a local hero and a sign on it warns: “Do not attempt to play Little Richard’s piano. He will know.” Music is in the Georgia DNA, from Ray Charles and James Brown to REM and the Allman Brothers. Sadly, Macon’s Georgia Music Hall of Fame closed a few years ago, but the city does pay tribute to one of my favourite singers. In a small park by the river sits a bronze likeness of Otis Redding strumming a guitar, while hidden speakers belt out his hits. As we sing along to Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, two passing girls giggle. They have seen such antics before
From Macon, we leave the Antebellum Trail for the Jarrell Plantation. “Gone with the Wind has done more to educate – or rather mis-educate – than anything else,” the ranger tells us at this State Historic Site. “Tara was what we call a show plantation; only 10 per cent were like that. This is the dirt where it really happened.” Unchanged since the 19th century, the pinewood buildings include a grist mill, saw mill and cotton gin house, where machines separated fibre from the seeds. Most of what we see is original to the farm, including hundreds of tools. “With 17 children, the Jarrells raised their own farmhands. But until 1865, they also owned about 40 slaves.”
Just up the country road is Juliette, a mere blip on the map when the film Fried Green Tomatoes was shot here in 1990. It still is just a hamlet, but the humble Whistle Stop Cafe attracts fans from around the world . Alongside yellow-jacketed construction workers, we order from the chalkboard: “yes” to fried green tomatoes; “no” to the slow-cooked barbeque. “I’m not having that,” I joke with the waitress. “I’ve seen the film.”
Back on the Trail, we pass roadside stands selling squash and boiled peanuts. Split rail fences corral cattle and hogs; rows of tall trees mark out pecan plantations; cotton still grows in the red earth. Milledgeville comes as a surprise. Laid out in 1803 “just like Washington DC, but without those dad-gummed diagonal streets!”, this was Georgia’s state capital for 65 years. And it has the castellated capitol building and Old Governor’s Mansion to prove it.
Next up is Madison, a gem of a town, where some of the carefully preserved 19th-century homes are open for tours. In Heritage Hall, our guide explains that the 14ft ceilings were designed to ease the summer heat. As for the names etched on several window panes: “They may look like graffiti, but were actually tests to see if the diamond in a suitor’s engagement ring was real!”
Our time in Georgia has been a revelation. From history and architecture to gardens and food, the Deep South really is, as the cliché says, a different world. Our final stop is leafy Athens, home to the University of Georgia. Founded in 1785, this is the nation’s oldest state university, with yet more Antebellum buildings on campus. Just outside of town, in the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, we are told that “What grows in your British summer, we see in April and May.” After witheringly hot summer days here, September brings a second season, for everything from azaleas to lettuce. Outstanding are the flowering dogwoods, magnolias and redbuds that are native to this region. These provide the luxuriant backdrop to the Masters Golf Tournament, played up the road in Augusta from April 10. For years, we have seen them on television; in reality, they look as exotic as they did to the original British settlers back in 1733.