You’ve heard that Savannah, Georgia, is haunted. You’ve also heard that its idyllic downtown district, one of the biggest National Historic Landmark Districts in the US, is defined by its Southern Gothic mansions, compact squares of green park, and lilting Spanish moss that canvases downtown with feathery, cobweb-like wisps of grey.
(The moss, by the way, is best seen and not touched, unless you don’t mind dealing with the chiggers that live in it.)
My first visit to Savannah revealed a city that felt every bit the gracious “Hostess of the South” it’s sometimes billed as. Its reputation as one of America’s most haunted cities felt warranted, too, when after a late lunch at the opulent Olde Pink House I hopped aboard an old, retired funeral hearse, popped open a bottle of beer, and went hunting for ghosts.
John McNulty was our tour guide and driver. He’s been wheeling around Savannah by open-top hearse for the past 5 years for Hearse Ghost Tours, regaling visitors with tales of public beheadings, wrongful executions, graphic murders, and Civil War apparitions restlessly wandering local cemeteries in search of their headstones, which over time have been defaced and defiled.
As much an entertaining lesson in Savannah folklore as it was macabre, what some might write off as a campy tourist activity ended up a real highlight of the weekend. McNulty’s affable personality and quick-witted sense of humor kept the 45-minute spin around the city light, and in addition to passing on ghost stories that have made the rounds for decades—some of them more believable than others—he swears by one of his own supernatural encounters.
“The spookiest thing I ever saw in Savannah was a disappearing man in the Colonial Cemetery,” he later told me over email. “He was dressed in clothing I would guess dates back to sometime in the 19th century. He was inside the cemetery, and I was on the other side of the fence. After I saw him I happened to glance over and notice that the gates were locked, and when I looked back, he was gone. There was absolutely no way he could’ve moved without me seeing it.”
Believe it… or not?
Later that weekend I found myself face to face with two horrifying sights more ghastly than any Civil War-era spookster: spring breakers, and generic Thai food!
A little over a month ago our own Alison Stein Wellner aptly summed up my shared thoughts about Spring Break: “I try to avoid any occasion in which there is an expectation that I may at any moment wave my hands wildly in the air and emit ‘woohoohooo!’”
Me too, Alison, which is why I would have skipped a colleague’s well-meaning recommendation for frozen daiquiris at Wet Willie’s, located on Savannah’s revitalized waterfront, had I known that hundreds of college-aged partiers had descended upon the area and set up camp, plastic cups of beer and mixed drinks in hand and MTV beach party atmosphere well underway.
With many of them dressed in St. Patrick’s Day green—Savannah hosts one of the country’s largest, and longest, celebrations—I carefully picked my way around the crowd, every step of the way feeling like an old, humorless curmudgeon who just wants to get home and watch Love Boat reruns. After securing a 20-ounce cup of Wet Willies’ “Call a Cab” (read: it’s pretty damn strong), I retraced my steps and beelined my way back towards the city that up until that point had so successfully seduced. Quaint, laid-back Savannah, yes, party-hardy Savannah, not so much.
The next morning, fearing the worst on the riverfront and with a taste for something spicy, I ventured down Broughton Street and took a chance on Saigon, a Thai/Vietnamese joint rated an acceptable 3 ½ stars by Yelp users in Savannah. Note to self: when in Japan, you eat Japanese food; in Italy, you eat Italian food. In Savannah, you eat seafood.
Empty at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon, Saigon would do well to receive a visit from Gordon Ramsey and his Kitchen Nightmares crew. The six-page long menu aims to be everything for everyone; there’s not a trace of local ingredients anywhere on it. The atmosphere is, well, as anonymous as a rest-area snack shop, and though the eerie quiet of the place had me wondering if I’d actually stumbled into a ghost restaurant and would later have my own tall tale to tell, I actually preferred the silence to the vaguely alternative rock the hostess optimistically switched on after I ordered.
The starter, Vietnamese spring rolls topped with healthy slices of fresh tuna and served with a side of thick peanut sauce, was strangely bland, while the Bai Ka Pao Tofu, marked as one of the menu’s spiciest dishes, barely registered a hint of heat. Doused in that secret, brownish-colored sauce favored by hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeouts in New York (sauce that’s delicious in its own way, don’t get me wrong), this salty mess of onions and mushrooms left me second-guessing my decision to forego homemade pralines at famous River Street Sweets in favor of a real meal.
After just three short days in Savannah, I left with so much to still experience. Someday, I’ll be back, and though I’m anything but an expert on the city, next time I’ll at least know to stick to the leafy-green squares, the fresh seafood, the sugary sweets, and the open-top hearses.
Photos © Brian Spencer