Thursday, May 28, 2009

Visiting the South - Charleston Eat-A-Palooza

Charleston has great restaurants. We had heard this and it's one of the reasons we picked the city as the primary stop on our vacation to the south this spring. Suffice it to say, there's a great culinary tradition there with many eateries to choose from. Since there is plenty to talk about then, I'll dispense with any more up-front info other than to say you can read about our site seeing adventures in Charleston here and see photos of our trip here.

With that, lets dive into our "eat-a-palo0za" through Charleston on a day-by-day basis. So, you foodies out there, sit back and enjoy.

DAY 1 - Seafood, Charleston Style
After rolling in from Savannah, checking into our hotel and sipping some delightful cocktails atop our building at The Rooftop Bar, we decided it was time to dive into the eat-o-thon that we knew our stop in Charleston was going to be. So, off to our first dinner we went. And we went to...

Hyman's Seafood - We made the short walk through the French quarter up to one of the city's seafood institutions - Hyman's. We'd heard that we would probably have to wait in a line to get in, but were pleasantly surprised to be seated right away upstairs in the crowded, hustly-bustly restaurant.

After a couple quick minutes pouring over the fresh menu on the wall and the regular one at our tables, our waitress placed a basket of boiled peanuts in front of us. Delicious and only something you're gonna get down south. We also ordered a couple icy cold, locally brewed Palmetto lager beers. Good stuff to wash everything down. Eventually we settled on our selections. We started with a small cup of "she crab" soup (basically, a chowder featuring local crab). For our entrees, I had shrimp and grits and Diane had something called Carolina Delight - two lightly fried grit cakes topped with scallops, shrimp and crab and then covered with alfredo sauce and and a dash of Cajun seasoning.

We walked around the old market area after dinner and eventually found our way back to the hotel. Convinced that we were off to a great start to our stay, we called it a night.

Day 2 - Uptown Goes Down South
Awakening to sunny skies and warm temperatures inspired our vitamin-D deprived bodies to spend our first full day in Charleston out at Folly Beach. This meant a late complementary breakfast at the hotel, which I have to say tasted great. None the less, there was nothing particularly "southern" about the menu other than a side of tasty grits.

Our "lunch"out at the beach boiled down to some cold brews we picked up a local convenience store. Not a bad way to go for us given our breakfast stuck with us all afternoon. We supplemented that nutritious feast with some late afternoon quesadillas at the hotel rooftop bar.

For dinner, we walked a couple blocks up from our hotel to one of the stars of Charleston restaurants, Magnolia's. Their tag line is something like, "Uptown Down South"...which is actually a pretty good description as the menu is filled with "high end" versions of traditional "low country" staples.

After sitting down in the causually elegant - and crowded - dining room, we started our meal with some refreshing mint juleps, fried green tomatoes featuring caramelized onion grits, ham and tomato well as the Down South Egg Rolls stuffed with collard greens, chicken with red pepper puree, mustard and peach chutney. Luckily, the portions weren't too big because we HAD to try this stuff out!

Next up were our entrees. Diane had the buttermilk fried chicken and accompanying biscuit, mashed potatoes, greens and a sausage gravy. I had the shellfish (shrimp, scallops, lobster) over grits. You may have noticed that this now constituted two straight dinners of seafood and grits for me. I made my choice this night, however, based on the strong recommendation from my friend Michael who is from South Carolina. He commanded that if I was at at "white table cloth" style restaurant that I must get the shellfish over grits as the grits would be major league better than the run-of-the-mill grits you get most other places. Well, this advice did not disappoint. Creamy stone ground grits topped with luscious pieces of meaty shellfish were a bit hit.

It's a good thing the hotel was so close as all we had energy for after that big beautiful meal was beaching ourselves on our bed.

Day 3 - Southern Comfort
We awoke the next day not exactly feeling hungry for breakfast as you might imagine.

Lunch, however, was a different story. After our morning boat tour out to Fort Sumter (see my post here), we made our way to another institution of Charleston food - Jestine's Kitchen. See the link for pictures of some of the dishes. Anyway, we'd heard a lot about this place, and it is popular. We had to wait about 30 min. for a table.

The establishment is named after a close friend of the family who founded the restaurant. Among other things, Jestine cooked up delicious southern dishes for the family and those are the same recipes featured in the restaurant today. Today, the owner (who was a daughters in the family Jestine cooked for) also works the front door greeting guests, clears plates and converses with guests...a very cool lady.

To start things off, every diner is presented with a small dish of pickled cucumbers. We indulged in those and sipped on our ice tea (I got the very "sweet tea" known simply as "tea" in the south), admiring the funky southern ambiance of the joint. Diane then ordered the fried catfish and I dialed up the pecan-encrusted chicken sandwich and fried ochre. Really good. Comfort food indeed! But that wasn't enough. No way. At a place like this, we needed to have the desert. You live for moment like this. Our selections were the coconut cream pie and the famous Coke-a-Cola Cake...a super chocolaty cake treat sweetened with the famous cola. Extreme decadence!

After exploring Boone Hall Plantation in the afternoon, for dinner we walked from our hotel to FIG - which stands for Food Is Good. The approach here is local and organic. The ambiance is modern cool, but the place still felt comfortable. We started with a sensational "salad of young lettuces" that combined the flavors and texture of several types of lettuce (apparently quite youthful) with radish, asparagus and a spring onion dressing.

For our entrees we both could not pass up the locally caught soft shell crab. Prepared simply, the crab held succulent, taste-bud-pleasing meat. And, unlike the crab we get at home in Seattle, there's no cracking open the shell and pulling the meat out. Nope. The soft shell on the soft shell crab is so thin that you just eat it along with the meat. Really good too. We paired all this up with a nice Washington L'ecole 41 semillion. After the thermo-nuclear desert action of our lunch, we refrained from desert here. It killed us to do it, but it was the right thing to do.

The service at FIG is worth noting too. The greeter and waitress were both very helpful and attentive, eager to give a recommendation rather than the standard, "everything is good" type response you get in many places. In fact, upon learning we were visiting Charleston, our waitress even suggested a good lunch spot just outside the city...which we tried the next day.

Day 4 - Another Shot of Southern Comfort
We took breakfast again at the hotel and headed out for a morning of sightseeing - this time the USS Yorktown at Patriot's Point. Following that we drove across the city in attempts at seeing another plantation, but it was not open for tours when we got there. Luckily, we were nearby the lunch spot recommended to us by the staff at FIG the night before. So, we went there.

The place is called The Glass Onion. Just off Highway 17 a few miles south of Charleston, The Glass Onion is a diner-style operation offering po' boy sandwiches, chicken, burgers and all matters of fried goodness. I had the fried shrimp po' boy and loved every bite. Diane had a spicy curry chicken dish that I was a bit jealous of. We washed it all down with a Dixie beer and left happy campers.

We kept the southern love going in the evening at The Hominy Grill. This place is not walking distance from were we were staying, but the evening was so lovely that we hired a bicycle taxi (aka rickshaw) to take us there. This proved to be a good call as we got a nice view of some old neighborhoods and cut through the pretty College of Charleston campus on the way. Turns out, the delights were just beginning.

Housed in an old home, the restaurant also has a pretty patio off to the side complete with tables under vine-entwined trellises and perfectly placed hanging lights. On a balmy evening...very charming. The crowd was clearly eclectic with local businessmen having a casual dinner over here, a friendly elderly couple chit-chatting over there and any number of us hip tourist types (OK, Diane definitely helps us increase our hip quotient, not me) filling things in.

We kicked things off with the restaurant's signature cocktail - a mix of ginger ale and rum over ice. Excellent. For our starter, we had the out-of-this-world okra and shrimp beignets with salsa and cilantro-lime sour cream. It's safe to say we'd never had anything quite like this and as you can imaging from the description, it proved divine indeed.

After the chicken, grits, seafood extravaganza I'd been on over the previous few days I decided to change things up and go for something different this time. I'm glad I did. I settled on a cashew-encrusted pork chop. A taste sensation. Diane had her first shrimp and grits dish here and loved it. It featured sauteed shrimp with mushrooms, scallions and bacon over creamy cheesy grits. Mmmmm.

Each of our entrees came with a choice of side dishes. We were thrilled to see the mac & cheese was listed as a "vegetable" and ordered accordingly. After the nice cocktails, we shifted to Palmetto lager for a cleaner beverage to accompany our feast. But were we done after the entrees? No. No way. The desert menu beckoned and we heeded the call. No splitting a single desert here. Nope. We ordered up the buttermilk pie and the deeply rich chocolate pudding. My arteries are hardening just writing about this...but we were over the moon pleased. Giddy.

Our stomachs expanded but happy, we caught a taxi home and called it a night.

Day 5 - Sweatman's!!!!
It's amazing that as I re-live our eat-o-rama in Charleston that we ever were hungry enough for breakfast, but we always felt we needed something to get us going in the morning. On this day we opted out of the hotel offering and walked up the street to a coffee shop/bakery called Baked for over sized lattes and some nice scones.

Our big adventure on this day was a trip out into the countryside to seek out some authentic and delicious South Carolina-style bar-b-que. We'd heard about just such a place from a friend and seen such a place on Antony Bourdain's TV show, No Reservations. The restaurant is called Sweatman's. Hidden out in rural Holly Hill, Sweatman's offers up the quintessential mustard-style South Carolina bar-b-que. Some say it's the best in all of the U.S. of A. I'm sure there are some people in Dallas, Memphis, Kansas City, Charlotte and other places who would debate that. But not us. Not when we were in striking distance of Sweatman's.

And so it was that we set out on the one hour drive to Holly Hill. After exiting the freeway we wound through some country roads, through Holly Hill itself, onto some more country roads until in the distance we spied the unmistakable vision of the white Sweatman's pig shaped sign. With our goal suddenly upon us, we let out a cheerful scream of "Sweatman's!!!!"

Pulling into the gravel driveway, we knew this was going to be good. The place is only open to the public for lunch and diner on Fridays and Saturdays. The parking lot was full and with mouths watering we walked up the steps and into the old ranch style building that is the restaurant today. Inside, it's wood lined walls hung with pictures of the Sweatman's family, writings about good bar-b-que and other odds and ends. The light linoleum floor shines up at you as you make your way to the inner chamber where the buffet and cashier reside.

This is a cash-only place, but a bargain. You have a choice of the full buffet for about $9 or just the pulled pork sandwich for a little less. We both went "the whole hog" and selected the buffet. For a whopping extra 71 cents each, we both also ordered the banana pudding (featuring broken up bits of Nilla wafers). After loading up our plates with succulent on-the-bone ribs covered in just the right amount of mustard sauce, some pulled pork and cole slaw and soda pop, we hunkered down to wallow in the pleasure.

But, before I get to that, Sweatman's also proved to be an interesting people watching experience too - going both ways. We saw some pretty interesting locals (most the people inside were men with big bellies in flannel shirts sporting mustaches and ball caps) and I'm sure they'd say we were of interest too as we observed some shifty eyes flitting our way to see just who these urban interlopers were. Having said that, we didn't feel uncomfortable. It's just the way it is.

OK, so...the bar-b-que at Sweatman's is out-of-sight. The ribs are cooked exquisitely so that the meat slides off the bone but retains its moist-but-firm texture. The smokey goodness of the meat is complimented by the slightly sweet/slightly spicy mustard sauce. Wow. Just wow. The pulled pork was in the same ballpark of spectacular with the cool cole slaw added a nice change up. Diane had her fill with one helping, but I had to go back for just one more (OK tw0) ribs. We finished the meal up with that 71 cent banana pudding. That knocked our socks off too.

We rolled out of the house and took a quick look around the grounds in the heat of the afternoon, snapping some pictures for the record. Hopping back in the car, we completed our pork odyssey driving back to Charleston where we took a nice horse carriage ride around the old French quarter.

For our last diner in Charleston, we selected Anson. Just off the old market, this place served as a high-end contrast to our low budget lunch. Mint juleps topped the bill and we order a couple starters to get things going - she crab soup and cornmeal dusted okra with goat cheese and chili vinaigrette. Guided by our very helpful waiter, our main courses were the same...a simply prepared wreckfish (a locally caught meaty white fish) with vegetables. Our desert this time was a warm bread pudding with ice cream. Yet again, Charleston did not disappoint. This meal really delivered the goods in terms of flavor, local style, ambiance and services. We left very pleased.

Day 6 - Cru Fest
On our last day in Charleston, we only had time for a lunch. After morning bike adventure through the old city neighborhoods and stopping to buy some nice art at a gallery we visited the next day, we knew that we had one last chance to eat well before heading north. With this in mind, we asked around about several places we've heard about, but were unanimously directed to go to the Cru Cafe. So who were we to disobey. Walking distance from our hotel, we meandered over there sans a reservation. Luckily, we were able to get in, but just barely. The place was packed at 12 p.m. and it just so happened that a couple stools at the stainless steel counter opened up. The chef - who doubled as the greeter - quickly ushered us there. This proved to be a great vantage point to observe all the action in the kitchen as we could see staff at each station in full operation.

I ordered the coconut fried oyster wrap with chipotle mayo, and Diane indulged in the scumptious fried shrimp BLT with a side of coleslaw.

With this last feat accomplished we sadly had to leave Charleston and move on up the coast. Jumping in our rental car, we pulled out of town with great memories of some of the best, most unique American food we'd every had. Not one of the places we dined disappointed and each offered a slightly different take on what we came to know as "low country" cuisine. We really went 10 for 10. No misses, all goodness.

With that in mind, I've thought about this over the last couple weeks since we've come back from this vacation, and I'm ready to declare that our diner at The Hominy Grill was the best meal of all of them. The combination of how the food tasted, how it met our fantasies about how good low country dishes can be, ambiance, service, drinks, deserts and price can't be beat. Sure, it's a close call among the 10 places we ate, but I'll go ahead and chose this as the winner by a nose.

Finally, if the above doesn't entice you enough, I'll say it straight out: If any of you considering a trip to the south, I'd recommend seriously considering Charleston...for the food alone.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Visiting the South - Site Seeing in Charleston

Picking up from my last post about our recent trip to the south, Diane and I next traveled north from Savannah, GA to Charleston, SC.

With it's long and interesting history, beautiful old town and stellar restaurants - not to mention it's location directly on the coast - we lingered in Charleston longest of any destination on our vacation.

I'm going to dedicate a separate post to our culinary adventures in Charleston, so for now here are some of the sites and adventures we had in the city illustrated with some pictures I took while there:

French Quarter - No, this isn't New Orleans. But, Charleston has a "French quarter" too and it's very charming for all it's colorful old buildings, gas lamps, cobbled streets, restaurants and art galleries. 

Our hotel, the Vendue Inn, was located in this district, so we called the French quarter home for five six days and five nights. (Left: French quarter buildings)

Within easy walking distance of some of the city's best eateries and sites...not to mention the waterfront and a great pathway for an early morning run...we knew we picked the right spot to stay the moment we arrived. And really, that's why you should base yourself here too. It's so charming and walking distance to everything that you owe it to yourselves to stay here. Every morning simply walking to the coffee shop or going out for that run was to immerse yourself in colonial ambiance. (Right: French quarter alley)

Old Charleston Neighborhoods - we knew Charleston would have some beautiful old neighborhoods to explore, and we ended up seeing them in a couple really fun ways.
First, our hotel offered free bicycles for guest to check out. So, we obliged and tooled around the cobbled streets, alleyways and crooked byways of old Charleston taking in the homes that have occupied the city for decades and centuries. Some highlights as we peddled leisurely in the warm sun and breeze were a wedding in progress in the front yard of a particularly decadent home, spotting a dashing red cardinal bird on the roof line of a house, rolling down the waterfront of the Battery and the general grander of the whole scene. 
(Right: Typical old Charleston home)

The second way we saw old Charleston was on a horse drawn carriage ride. Yes, this is touristy. Yes, it's expected. We did it anyway and did not regret it. Why? Well, we got stories...stories of various homes and the families who owned them dating back to the the 1700s and 1800s as well as a little architectural history lesson on how many of these magnificent homes were built.

Fort Sumter - This is the island fort out in the bay where the American Civil War started in 1861. The short story is: the state of South Carolina left the United States (seceded) over issues around states rights and slavery and was soon followed by other southern states. Meanwhile, the US Army occupied Fort Sumter

Upon seceding from the Union, South Carolina's military went a step further and began firing cannon at the Army in Fort Sumter. And thus the Civil War started. Some from the south will say that President Lincoln or the Union Army "baited" or "manipulated" the southerners into firing on the fort, but don't you believe it. That's hogwash from the losing side. The truth is - the south left the nation and started the war. Period. More on Fort Sumter here. (Left: Fort Sumter)

As a major site in U.S. history, we had to go out to see it. And we did one gloriously sunny morning. Getting out there requires a boat ride and we really enjoyed the cruise because it gave us a new, waterborne perspective on the city. So, you not only get to see a significant place in American history, you get a boat tour of Charleston harbor. We loved it. For that alone I think this is worth doing if you visit Charleston.

Slave Museum - From the very beginning of Charleston until the end of the Civil War, slave labor served as the major engine of the South Carolina and, truly, the entire southern economy. With its position on the coast, Charleston was a significant hub of slave buying and selling. Slaves would come into port aboard ships from Africa and the people inside were put up for sale to plantation owners and the wealthy (it was the wealthy who owned slaves...everyday southerners could never afford them) in open markets near the waterfront. Today, this area is still a market, but it's your garden variety t-shirts, flags and bric-a-brac on offer instead of human beings.

At some point, the city decided that selling slaves out in the open was a bit unseemly so they moved the operation indoors into "slave mart" buildings.
 Only one of those slave mart buildings still stands today, and it is now fittingly a museum documenting the institution of slavery and the impact it had on the slaves and American culture. 

Diane and I toured this museum. I was particularly impressed with two things: 1) the way the museum displays and interactive features made it easy to understand how the slave trade worked and the inhumane situations slaves had to face, and 2) that without coming across as hysterical or casting blame on today's citizens, the museum made the clear and repeated point that slavery was perpetrated by people in Charleston and across the south. This was real. It did not happen "somewhere else" or by "someone else." The whites and wealthy of Charleston did this. (Right: Original slave mart in old Charleston, now a museum)

Plantations - Plantations enjoy an almost mythical status as an idealized representation of the "old south." You know, large beautiful properties with big oak-lined pathways where southern belles in their fine dresses and hats engage in social matters and flirtations with southern gentlemen decked out in suit and tie and sporting any manner of plush facial hair. Think Gone With The Wind.

Well, I'm sure some of this happened, but the reality is that southern plantations were agricultural factories owned by the wealthy. They were places where large quantities of rice, cotton and other valuable crops were grown, harvested, packed up and sent to market. And who do you think did the work out in the fields? Those same slaves who were bought and sold in the Charleston markets.

We visited Boone Hall Plantation outside Charleston to see one of these places for ourselves. Boone Hall met expectations for beauty with a large colonnaded home, gardens and a small lake. (Left: Boone Hall Plantation house and garden)

Some of you may have seen the entry drive in and out of the property from the mid-1980s TV mini-series (remember mini-series?!) The North & The South. We enjoyed the short tour of the home and we took in the colorful gardens. However, the most impressive element of the visit proved to be the original, still standing slave quarters. 

These are small brick or stone structures are where the slaves who worked the plantation lived. Today, there are nine still standing. Originally, there were 27 at Boone Hall. That tells you something about the wealth of the landowners here. Each of the dwellings is now outfitted with exhibits that tell the story of the slave experience on plantations, and by visiting each of the nine we left knowing much more than when we arrived. (Right: Original slave quarters at Boone Hall Plantation)

Another thing we learned on our visit is that plantation houses weren't really all that big or spectacular. Wealth was measured in how many slaves you had and what types of clothing, goods or foods you could get your hands on. Houses were not viewed as monuments to wealth as they are today. In fact, the stately home sitting at Boone Hall today was built in 1936. The house that occupied its spot during slavery days was far, far more modest - to the degree that by today's standards you'd wonder if the owners were wealthy at all. But remember, people measured wealth in terms of number of slaves rather than homes.

There are other former plantations to visit in the area if you like, but this one had the best diversity of home, history and check it out when you're there.

The Beach - Ah yes, the beach. Warm sun, smooth sand, slow rolling waves, temperate water and a nice gentle breeze. These are all things we here in the Seattle area don't get much of so any opportunity to enjoy a sunny day at the beach is most welcome. (Below: A stretch of Folly Beach)

Luckily, there are really great beaches right near Charleston. We spent a day out at Folly Beach - about a 20-30 min. drive from our hotel. We split our time between a remote area and then later in the afternoon a more popular spot. Both were wonderful. I mean, come on...sitting on the beach, sipping cold beer and then snoozing in the sun. What's better than that? My advice? Do this if you're in Charleston and the weather's good.

Patriots Point - You can't help but see this area from anywhere near the water in Charleston because the huge aircraft carrier USS Yorktown is moored here along with a few other Navy vessels as part of a major US Nave museum.

Now, if you're not a history buff or maybe you're not too keen on the military, you might say to yourself that you'll skip a visit here and a tour the Yorktown. However, I'd suggest it anyway. Two reasons: 1) The ship is a standing monument to the sacrifices made by sailors in World War II and other conflicts. 
(Right: Aircraft carrier USS Yorktown at Patriot's Point)

So, not matter how you feel about those wars, you can literally walk around and see the place where these people gave all so you can enjoy your freedom today. 2) You can learn something. The Yorktown is packed with info about where the ship saw action, why and dozens of airplanes from different eras. We toured the ship and ran through the adjacent submarine in about 1.5 hours tops.

King Street - This is the main shopping street in old Charleston. Lined with both national chain stores and local boutiques of all types, most all the shops and restaurants here are housed in old buildings that give this very commercial drag a charming touch. (Below: King Street in Charleston)
Since it's also near the College of Charleston campus, it also has a touch of the bohemian. My experience on this street was mostly waiting outside boutiques as Diane shopped, but even that was pretty interesting as I was able to watch the Charleston world go by. Diane scored a few items for herself and our nieces, and on our last day, even I picked up a nifty shirt that ought to come in handy for our trip to Hawaii later this year.

Art Walk - On the last Friday of every month, art galleries in the old French quarter host an art walk where they open up their spaces to the masses and offer food and wine to encourage people to come in and check out art. And they do. Each gallery brimmed with people. Were they they there for the art or the free wine? Not sure. But, most people were dressed up in attire boarding on formal and many were younger than you'd think an art-going crowd would be.

Earlier in the week, Diane spied a gallery and a few paintings she was interested in, so after strolling through a number of galleries we ended up at the one featuring the artist she had interest in. We looked at a number of pieces and even met the artist. Ultimately, we came back the next day and purchased an original painting for our home.

These are the primary sites we visited in Charleston. Certainly there are more that we could have it. And, even little everyday things like walking down an alley, checking out shop that just so happens to be in a build that's been around since the 1600s or having a pre-dinner cocktail on a rooftop bar overlooking the bay added immensely to our enjoyment of this city.

In the end, based on the sites and ambiance of Charleston I would recommend a visit...and I haven't even talked yet about the restaurants! But, that's my next post so you'll just have to come back and read that.

You can see more pictures of our trip to the southeast by clicking here.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Pictures for Memorial Day & D-Day Anniversary

With Memorial Day coming on May 25 and the 65th Anniversary of the D-Day landings in France coming up on June 6, I've posted a set of appropriate pictures to my Flickr Photostream. 

Click here to see the set.

Included are pictures I took while visiting the Normandy coast in the fall of 1994. On that trip I visited Omaha Beach and Utah Beach where Americans landed, as well as Point du Hoc where U.S. Rangers scaled the cliffs, killed Germans and took out a series of cannons. 

Also included are some pictures of other American battlefields I've visited - including the bridge at Nijmegen in Holland, as well as Belleau Wood (World War I) and Yorktown (Revolutionary War). (Left: Point du Hoc - Normandy, France)

I've also thrown in some pictures of Pegasus Bridge where British paratroopers landed in gliders and took the span on D-Day. And, I've put in an image of Arnhem bridge in Holland where those same British paratroopers fought it out with Germans a few months later.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Visiting the South - Sights and Tastes of Savannah, Georgia

My wife Diane and I just returned from a wonderful trip the southeast coast of the United States. With the economy still not doing well, the dollar weak around the world and the specter of layoff present, we decided 2009 was not the year to take an overseas vacation such as we do most years.

Rather, we decided to visit someplace in the U.S.A. that neither of us had ever been and that could offer us some warm sunny weather. After pondering it a while, we settled on a visit to the southeastern coastline - namely taking in Savannah, GA; Charleston, SC; and Williamsburg, VA - with stop overs in Wilmington, NC and Nags Head, NC. We figured the food would be great, the weather good, beaches nearby, history prevalent and opportunities for adventure abundant.

Over the next week or so, I'll post some reviews and observations about the places we visited, food we ate, sites we saw and some general observations about the south.

To kick things off, I'll start where we started - Savannah, GA. Some of you may recall that Savannah was the setting for the book and movie Midnight In the Garden of Good & Evil.

Kicking It All Off With A Haunted Pub Crawl
After a long day of coast-to-coast air travel, we alighted in Savannah in the early evening. After checking into our wonderful accommodations of The Bed & Breakfast Inn near Forsyth Park, we walked though the warm breezes and lamp lit streets of the old quarter on down to where the action was to kick our trip off with, well, a haunted pub crawl of course. And why not.

This actually works really well in Savannah. Here's why:

First, Savannah is one of the only cities in the U.S. where you can walk the streets with open containers of alcohol, drinking as you go. Needless to say, this adds a nice dimension to any pedestrian activity - most especially a pub crawl!
(Left: Our pub crawl kicks off)

Second, Savannah is one of the most haunted cities in America - or so "they" say. It's an old town with lots of Revolutionary War, Civil War and slavery history and, according to our tour guide Jeremy, the city's people do not have a historical track record of treating the dead very well.

Jeremy pointed out that there are several mass graves from the 1800s that today are paved over parts of the central city, not to mention the deaths and graves related to the Civil War and other conflicts fought in or nearby Savannah. (Right: Tour guide extraordinaire Jeremy tells the group about a particularly disturbing haunting)

At any rate, off we went - walking the balmy streets of Savannah on a Saturday night with a group of other revelers. We stopped at a number of pubs, each with its own haunted story. Some of these places apparently still are haunted with proprietors reporting unusual activities regularly.

Regardless of what you think of ghosts or hauntings, we really enjoyed this two hour tour as a fun way to see the city and get our bearings the first night - not to mention meet some cool

Sight Seeing
Savannah is a beautiful city with lots of parks, plazas, squares, neighborhoods filled with elegant old homes, a river waterfront and an "old quarter" with tons of restaurants, bars, antique shops, boutiques and more. We took most all of this in our two days there. Here are some highlights:

Mercer-Williams House
Built more than 140 years ago and restored completely by Jim Williams in the 1960s
and 1970s, this is the house in which the true-life events told in the book and movie Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil took place. Because it's open for tours, going in is a neat way to see the famed place where Williams defended his life, killing another man in the process. The house is also a fine example of grand southern home architecture, so touring the house is also a great way to see how many upper-crust families lived in the old south. There are loads of other similar homes you can tour through in the city, but one was enough for us to get the idea.
(Right: The Mercer-Williams House)

Forsyth Park and City Squares
Savannah residents are rightly proud of their grand parks and beautiful city squares. Featuring 32 squares throughout the city, Savannah boasts perhaps one of the most picturesque city centers in the U.S. Each of these squares is unique, but there are some similarities.

All of them have large oak trees with hanging Spanish moss for loads of shade, park benches, grassy lawns and usually some sort of monument or fountain.

It was a delight to visit some of these squares...sitting to relax and watch the world go by. Since Savannah is flat, we walked most places. However, it was quite hot and sunny. Therefore, these squares came in handy as shady rest stops on our routes to and from various places.

Forsyth Park is the big city park about 2 miles inland from the riverfront. You may have seen the park fountain before in pictures or movies.

As a central gathering place for Savannah residents, the park hosts any
number of events and activities. We walked the park the day after a street art festival and saw some interesting and very colorful drawings on the sidewalks and walkways. (Left: Fountain at Forsyth Park. Below: Street art at Forsyth Park)

Like most riverfront cities, Savanna has a nice promenade along the water with shops, restaurants, bars, art galleries, etc. (Below left: waterfront walkway. Below right: shops along the waterfront.)

We indulged in a pleasant stroll
along this strip one afternoon and ran into an art fair where we promptly bought some great prints from a local artist. The same waterfront serves as a nice running track in the morning hours.
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Last but not least, we ate well in Savannah - launching our "eat-a-palooza" through the southern destinations on our itinerary. Breakfast at the B&B proved superb with blueberry pancakes or luscious eggs benedict. Since we basically had beer for dinner our first night on the pub crawl, we sat down to dinner with some friends from the area on our second night at...

Situated in Savannah's City Market district, we had dinner at this restaurant with some of Diane's work colleagues who live in the area. Sitting outside to watch the world go by as we ate, we indulged in mint juleps and some calamari to start. I had spicy crab-stuffed ravioli and Diane had a pecan-encrusted piece of white fish that looked delicious. The meal was very enjoyable and I'd recommend eating there if your in Savannah.

Lady & Sons
Lunch on our second day in Savannah was at the well known Lady & Sons downtown. Specializing in southern comfort food like fried chicken, pulled pork sandwiches, greens, mac & Cheese and much, much more, Lady & Son's has risen in popularity as its founder and original chef Paula Deen has become a mainstay on food TV programs. The place is so popular that you have to go down there at about 9:30 a.m. to stand in a line just to make a reservation for lunch or dinner the same day. We did this and ended up standing in a 30 min. line. So, the question then is, is this really going to be worth all that?

Well, the answer is a bit mixed for me. The food we had for lunch was good. Diane had a delightful crab cake, and my pulled pork sandwich exceeded my expectations - tasty. However, the restaurant is quite Disney-fied if you know what I mean. To get seated you have to go through their store and the service - while certainly polite and nice - was very much "conveyor-belt" mentality designed to get you in, feed you and get you out efficiently. Also, the place is so crowded with tourists that you definitely do not feel like you eating at a hip place or some place you just ran across. So, I felt that the quality of the food was offset by the ambiance. So, while we enjoyed ourselves, I'd recommend skipping this place and using your time to find a smaller, less well-known joint to get some soul food.

With our trip off to a smashing start, later that second day after some shopping and looking into antique stores, we picked up our rental car and drove north for about 2 hours to reach our second destination on our trip - Charleston, South Carolina for a five night stay in the historic center of that city. I'll share some thoughts and experiences we had there in my next post.

Meantime, to see more pictures that I took in Savannah, go here. The first couple dozen images are from Savannah.