Coasting through historic Savannah

Stately mansions stare through oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The air feels dense, heavy with smells of the sea and something mysterious. It is July, and I am coasting through historic Savannah with less than $100 in my purse.

My boyfriend Nick and I arrive by nightfall and set up camp at Skidaway Island State Park, six miles southeast of Savannah. The park boasts two hiking trails, a swimming pool and a nature museum that showcases the local wildlife.

The space allotted to each campsite allows privacy, and the restrooms feature hot showers — all for $20 a night. We set up camp and then laze around the campfire, unwinding from a long day’s journey.

After a fireside breakfast at daybreak, we make the short trek into Savannah to check out the visitor’s center for ideas. Ever since reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, I have been entranced by the distinctive culture of Savannah. Apparently I am not the only one, as I find six Midnight in the Garden tours alongside a slew of other brochures. I discover all sorts of things to do, from an Irish pub tour to a “Ghoul Taxi” that takes you around town in a hearse, sharing the ghost stories of Savannah locales.

Carefully perusing the brochures at the visitor’s center, Nick discovers a free trolley service provided by Chatham Area Transit. This seems a godsend, considering that the dozen or so trolley services leaving from the visitors center charge upwards of $20 a person. We board the trolley, which provides good views of several of the city’s 21 park squares and Civil War-era manors such as the Mercer House, once inhabited by Jim Williams, of Midnight in the Garden fame. I can see why General Sherman refrained from destroying the city upon its capture during the Civil War — it is a work of art.

The local passengers provide the entertainment on the trolley. At our first stop, an elderly woman in a bright pink suit and colorful hat makes an entrance, addressing the rest of the passengers as if she were arriving at a party. Then a troop of Brownie Girl Scouts who have made the pilgrimage to Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low’s hometown climbs on board, loudly chatting about their latest excursion.

We depart the trolley at City Market, the artsy quarter of Savannah. Everywhere I look I see art studios, craft markets and expensive but fashionable cafés serving tapas, sushi and ice cream. With little money but wolf-like hunger, we search the streets for a real meal. We find it at Creole Red, an eclectic and cozy storefront café. We feast on shrimp jambalaya and fried chicken for $7 a plate. Our meal is served with gusto by the proprietor, who talks endlessly when we inquire about Savannah’s nightlife.

At the bar, a woman tries desperately to get my attention. After our education on the nightlife we approach the woman, who remarks, “I wasn’t trying to pick y’all up or anything. I just wanted to recommend a few places.” She and her husband are regulars at Creole Red and wanted to share their expertise. Heeding strong suggestions from our tour guides, we chart a course for River Street.

The warmth and color of the people of Savannah is the highlight of the trip. This is especially apparent on River Street, a favorite tourist destination.

We climb two flights of craggy, unevenly spaced cobblestone stairs to get to the nine blocks of shops, restaurants, bars and hotels that were once cotton warehouses. Strolling down the street, we notice a sign that says 25-cent oysters and $1 drafts and decide to check out The Warehouse Bar and Grill. The oysters are served with the shell on, and we struggle with the shelling knife until a helpful observer shows us how to open them without stabbing ourselves. He doesn’t laugh at us too much when we try. The man returns to his table and dances in place as he opens his own oysters for his family.

After visiting The Warehouse, we head on down the street to check out the shops. We are distracted when, outside a basket shop, we see two building-sized cargo ships narrowly pass each other along the river. Excitedly, we break out the camera to snap a picture as the two ships seemingly merge into one.

Upon recalling that I am broke, I decide to forgo the souvenir shops and instead imprint pennies that say, “I love you, Savannah, Ga.,” for my parents, die-hard antiques collectors who desperately want to visit the city. Savannah is a favorite destination for people who seek antiques, boasting more than 50 antique stores in the downtown area alone.

Walking takes its toll on us, and we decide to cool our heels in the back of our truck on the top level of the City of Savannah’s parking garage. The view from the roof is spectacular as the fading sun glints off the golden dome of City Hall. However, after an hour, we are politely asked to leave by a parking-garage attendant who claims that if it were up to him he would let us stay.

Come sundown, Savannah’s nightlife begins to stir. Live music pours out of every bar on River Street as men weave sweet grass into flowers and sell them to passers-by. We stop to watch a street performer attempt to break free from chains and a straitjacket. When he succeeds, moms and dads give dollars to their kids to toss at his feet, and he thanks the crowd for financing his college education. I remained unmoved, however; the feat would have been more extraordinary if performed in the river.

We buy two plastic cups full of AmberBock from The Warehouse and take a seat on a park bench. Nearby, two men are performing “Under the Boardwalk.” One man sings baritone and makes Michael Jackson-esque 360-degree turns while the other man alternates between acoustic guitar and an upside-down bucket for percussion. We stick around for the pair’s rendition of R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” and admire the white sunglasses, pants and patent leather shoes of the singer as he illustrates each song with hand motions. He takes a request and launches into a song that has me laughing so hard I nearly fall over. “Your eyes look like a roadmap/ and I’m scared to smell your breath/ Don’t roll your bloodshot eyes at me.”

The laughing makes me hungry, so we stroll over to the Cotton Exchange Tavern and Restaurant for some casual dining. We gorge ourselves on a rich crab dip served with sourdough bread.

Afterwards, a walk along the river draws our sojourn to a close. Penniless and content, we head home in a flurry of memories.