Georgia has answered that occasionally voiced question ‘Why can’t we just go round the States by car?’.
After we left Jekyll Island and passed the Sidney Lanier Bridge to St Simon’s Island, we saw no houses, no roads, no cars, no bridges, and no railways for almost two days, and almost no other boats, except for a few shrimping boats.
Under heavy grey clouds we travelled through a maze of winding rivers and creeks, separated only by low grassy marshes, sometimes with a few trees, and other boats occasionally visible above the vegetation. The sun made but a single, brief appearance as we anchored for the night at Crescent River.
The next day we went on to Kilkenny.
Kilkenny is only a small place, and we went with some trepidation to the only restaurant, Marker 107, a reference to the nearby Intracoastal Waterway marker. But the food was very good, and the restaurant just busy enough to make you feel that you had gone to a popular place, without the staff being too rushed to give the sort of great service that you quickly get used to in the States.
We finally made it to Savannah on Saturday afternoon. It’s possible to dock in the city centre, but the received wisdom is that it can be noisy at night, and sleep can be disturbed by large wakes from the big boats and ships passing up the Savannah River – Savannah is the second largest container port on the east coast. So we stayed at Thunderbolt Marina, about four miles out of town, for 3 nights.
On Sunday we decided to take the bus into Savannah, but got lost trying to find the stop. We saw a man in his driveway, doing the sort of things that men do in their driveways on Sunday mornings, and asked him the way. He spotted Ian’s BoatUS cap, and insisted on taking us in his car, not, it soon became apparent, to the bus stop, but right into the city centre. We found we had in common not only boating, but travelling, daughters and grandchildren too, and we gave him our address in the hope that if he and his family are ever in England they will look us up.
There are lots of tours you can do in Savannah, but we do things the less easy way, looking things up on the internet and consulting the Lonely Planet Guide, and immediately marking ourselves out as tourists by our constant reference to our maps and our smartphones. ‘Hey, where y’all from?’, though kindly meant, and asked with obvious interest, was repeated so often that I began to wonder whether we seemed not just foreign, but odd too. The answer to the initial query has sparked discussions ranging from Hadrian’s Wall and What the Romans Did for You (the nightwatchman at Thunderbolt Marina) to Why would the Scots ever want to leave the UK (William, who gave us the lift to Savannah).
William had dropped us on the waterfront, facing the Savannah River, where the old warehouses line the street. They’re gift shops and restaurants now, but haven’t been over-gentrified and still look like warehouses. The streets are paved with cobbles, made from the ballast from the ships that used to come to Savannah.
We walked up from the river to the historic district. Savannah was founded in 1733 by James Oglethorpe, a British General, and his design for the city was based on the 21 squares which remain today. Shaded by old trees, the beautiful houses and elegant streets and squares are a joy to wander through.
Modern life is never far away though, and we stopped for a coffee just off Ellis Square, where there is a bronze statue of Johnny Mercer (‘Moon River’) at an establishment called Wild Wings. As we sat on the verandah, a small crowd gathered, and a long table set up. We gathered from our server that we were about to witness a Wing-Eating competition, run by a local broadcasting company. Excitement (amongst the onlookers) mounted as a cameraman, a front man and a young woman assistant arrived. The contestants, who strangely looked quite normal, were two young men and a young woman, and they had to eat as many fried chicken wings as they could, in two minutes. This raised the question, in our minds anyway, of how to define a completely eaten chicken wing, and perhaps more importantly, why anyone would want the prize (a year’s supply of fried chicken wings).
We continued our exploration.
From the many historic houses in Savannah that I would have liked to visit, I chose the Mercer-Williams House in Monterey Square, but on the way there we had a diversion to the Admissions Office of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). William had told us how it had developed since being founded in 1978, and now has campuses in Atlanta, Hongkong and France, and how it has contributed to Savannah’s renaissance. There was a small display on the ground floor, and the lady on the desk took us upstairs for a special view of the spectacular conference room.
The Mercer-Williams house was the scene of the killing in the 1980s of a young man, Danny Hansford, by Jim Williams, a well-known antique dealer who had restored many houses in Savannah and used the house both as his home and a base for his business of antique restoration. He was tried four times for murder, before being acquitted, then died in 1990. The story was documented in John Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ and I wish I had read the book before visiting the house, which is now the home of Jim Williams’ sister. It is beautifully decorated and furnished, but photography isn’t allowed. Our young guide brimmed with enthusiasm not only for the house and its contents, but also for his employer, Jim Williams’ sister,and her devotion to maintaining the property as he would have wished. But there are suggestions on the internet that this is possibly a distortion of the truth, and that the relationship between Williams and his sister was far from harmonious. So the house retains its mystery.
Ian had noticed that the Georgia State Railroad Museum was only a few blocks away from the Mercer-Williams house, so it was hard to counter his suggestion that we visit it. The engines were really quite impressive, and I did learn what the tank (as in Thomas the Tank Engine) was actually for. And because our guide was a few minutes late, he let us ride on the turntable for a quarter turn, as a privilege.
Afterwards we took the excellent, fare-free DOT shuttle express back to the waterfront area, reconnoitreing somewhere to eat in the evening. Outside Tondee’s Tavern, the doorman’s follow-up question to ‘So, where y’all from?’ was ‘So, why do you have the double helix on your t-shirt?’ Impressed with his powers of observation, I explained all about jeansforgenes.org, and another wide-ranging conversation ensued, after which we really needed a beer and went in for a swift one.
Seated at the bar, we were entertained by another competition, this time televised log-sawing. Truly.
We’d hoped to find some live music, but Sunday wasn’t a good night for it. But as we walked through City Market after our meal, there was a group playing to a small audience outside Wild Wings, where we had started our morning. A young street dancer began moving to the music, and a 70-something lady joined him. Ian’s anxiety that the temptation to join in might prove too much for me was palpable, but they were playing reggae, which isn’t really my style.